This article originally appeared on VICE US.
One of the most harmful conspiracy theory communities is grafting onto one of the oldest conspiracy theory communities, and disinformation experts are starting to get worried.
QAnon, the often unintelligible conspiracy theory that our government is being run by the "Deep State"—and that there is a whistleblower within the government pseudonymously known as ‘Q’ who is trying to protect us from it—is beginning to find an audience among UFO hunters and people who believe the government is hiding aliens.
As Q’s followers wait for more cryptic quotes from their enigmatic forum poster, it seems that many have turned to the UFO narrative for their conspiratorial fix (8chan, the image board where the anonymous handle Q posts, has been shut down). Simultaneously, opportunists on the UFO side of things have tapped into the QAnon conspiracy to grow their follower counts. What has occurred, especially in the last 12 months, is the rise of a new politically-laden conspiracy movement that bridges the gap between Trump’s election, UFOs, the Deep State, and aliens.
Earlier this month, popular conspiracy YouTuber Jordan Sather referenced two specific Q posts: “This is confirming that information about UFO's and cosmic life is known at the highest levels (by Q and Trump), and that this group is working to disclose these things. MASSIVE implications.”
QAnon’s ideological mythos does not naturally contain significant references to UFOs. It has predominantly focused on a political and anti-government paradigm. However, that has not stopped some from peddling Q to the UFO community. Out of Q’s 3,750 posts, only four reference UFOs, and they aren’t exactly direct or clear.
But people like Sather, who has nearly 200,000 YouTube subscribers, and, like Alex Jones, sells "miracle" vitamin products on his website has recently taken to promoting a complex and confusing UFO cover-up involving a secret space program and that most UFOs are advanced human technology being created to fight “the Cabal,” otherwise knowns as “the Deep State,” and that punk rocker turned UFO mogul Tom DeLonge is their puppet.
Sather told Motherboard he believes Q "is an avenue to increase public awareness about the information and connections that these ‘Powers that Be’ have been trying to hide from us, with UFOs being one of those secrets. They are working for ‘Disclosure’ of many truths, not just extraterrestrial life and secret space programs already existing.”
Disinformation experts say that the intersection of conspiracy theories is common, and can be particularly dangerous.
“I think that intersectionality is really important when discussing various online conspiracy theories whose relevance is partially handcuffed to the news cycle,” Ben Decker, lead analyst for the Global Disinformation Index said.
Anna Merlan, a senior staff writer at VICE and author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power , said that many online QAnon pundits have chosen to enter the Ufological world to tap into a much larger market.
“Both Q and the broader UFO community operate fundamentally on a premise of hidden knowledge yet to be revealed, whether it's ‘Disclosure’ or the idea that all Q's prophecies, mass arrests, dark warnings and ominous half-messages will someday be made clear,” Merlan said. “Because QAnon is a relatively new conspiracy movement, it's full of opportunists, and a lot of them are canny enough to know that they'll do well to build their followings by trying to graft Q onto an older, more established, more respected research community. UFOs make perfect sense there.”
Sather is just one voice of many individuals who all believe in similar narratives. Many self-proclaimed ‘UFO experts’ are trying to tap into the QAnon market. A well known character in UFO circles, Dr. Michael Salla, has often referenced Q on his website. Salla, a frequent face on the UFO conference circuit, has suggested Trump has sent coded messages regarding both Q and UFOs.
QAnon and UFOs clearly make good bedfellows. The seven decades of alleged government cover ups and conspiratorial narratives creates fertile ground for easy connections to other conspiracy narratives.
While there exists a perception that conspiracy theorists are harmless tin-foil hat wearing loners, sewing discord and mistrust in established institutions, such as the government or military, is a known tool of psychological warfare and social engineering. Conspiracies, conspiracy theorists and those individuals who promote them can be far from harmless.
“By reframing conspiracies as adversarial narratives, we can understand each one as a collection of connected events whose stories are distributed across several platforms in bits and pieces as a means of enraging and dividing internet users,” Decker said. “Oftentimes the various claims used to push specific narratives focus on a range of themes, many of which are covered on a daily basis in mainstream and fringe media, which in turn create frequent opportunities to weaponize both the news cycle and political rhetoric by inserting more polarising and fabricated talking points before pivoting into full-blown conspiracy theories.”
The QAnon conspiracy has been partially linked to Russian based disinformation campaigns because it tends to fit how Russia has worked in the past to generate mistrust within a populace.
“Amplifying the QAnon conspiracy in particular, while unproven, demonstrates their modus operandi of amplifying existing social tensions by increasing the perception of popularity of certain concepts or sentiments,” Decker said. “More than anything else, conspiracy networks create a stochastic threat of violence whereby supporters are encouraged to go out into the real world to ‘investigate the truth’ without consideration for rule of law, which they often consider a tool of ‘the deep state.’”
Dr. Steven Greer, a popular UFO pundit who claims he can teach people to harmoniously communicate with extraterrestrials, has appeared several times on the Russian state sponsored news channel RT to talk about alien contact and UFOs. In February, Greer told RT’s Sophie Shevardnadze that three of his colleagues were assassinated by the CIA for attempting to disclose the truth behind a government run UFO cover-up.
The danger here lies in the fact that disinformation ecosystems are self sustaining and self propagating. While QAnon and UFO celebrities like Sather and Greer share their stories, their followers engage in the act of spreading that information to new potential followers.
Decker explained that “institutional distrust, perceived cultural threats, and apocalyptic paranoia are shared characteristics across a number of different conspiracy communities,” and as UFOs continue to make the news cycle, the conspiracy narratives about them will continue.