The last couple of years have seen the rise of a conspiracy theory like no other. Sweeping the fringes of the American far-right, QAnon has garnered worldwide attention. Often labelled a cult, its followers believe in a secrete cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic paedophiles who are running a global child sex trafficking ring. Accused of being part of this cabal are a wide array of liberal politicians, Hollywood stars, and high-profile officials. Research data shows the theory’s popularity is growing, with two of its followers managing to win House Seats in the 2020 US election. But what is the movement and where did it come from?
The unfounded and discredited theory claims former President Donald Trump is waging a secret war against a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles. Its followers assert there will soon be a day of reckoning where high-profile members of this cabal will be arrested and executed.
QAnon members claim democratic politicians such as Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton are key members of this secret child sex ring, while high-profile celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, and Ellen DeGeneres have also been accused.
The theory first emerged online, with an anonymous user publishing a series of posts on the message board 4chan. The user, who signs off as “Q”, claims to have high level security access within the US government, known as “Q clearance”. Often written in cryptic language, such messages have become known as “Q drops” or “breadcrumbs”. Slogans such as “where we go one we go all”, abbreviated to “WWG1WGA”, have become increasingly popular within the movement.
Members of QAnon believed January 20th would be the day of reckoning, asserting Trump would be re-elected before subsequently arresting and executing every member of the cabal. Instead, the former president was defeated by his Democratic counterpart Joe Biden. As a result, followers began to claim the defeated president would somehow return to power on March 4th, posting comments online such as: “the real POTUS can’t get back into office fast enough. March 4 at the latest… PLEASE GOD!” But once again, nothing materialised and its believers began to float new potential dates for Trump’s return to power, ranging from March 20th to some time before the next election.
However, though Trump was not elected in 2020, two followers of the movement won House Seats. Victories from Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert in Georgia and Colorado respectively, means the theory is now ingrained within the halls of power.
Regarding the movement, Donald Trump has not endorsed it, but has labelled its activists “people who love our country”. In a press conference in August 2020, the former president said: “I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate”. A reporter subsequently informed him that followers believe he will save the world from a Satanic cult of paedophiles and cannibals, to which he answered: “well, I haven’t heard that. But is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there”.
In September 2020, the soon-to-be president Joe Biden was also asked about the conspiracy theory. He responded: “I’ve been a big supporter of mental health. I’d recommend people who believe it should take advantage of it while it still exists under the Affordable Care Act”. He added: “What in God’s name are we doing? Look at how it makes us look around the world. It’s mortifying. It’s embarrassing. And it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous”.
During the storming of the US Capitol building on January 6th, a number of QAnon activists were spotted inside and out. Banners and flags with theory slogans were spotted, while sections of rioters wore “Q” t-shirts. Most notably, Jacob Anthony Chansley, also known as the “Q shaman”, was arrested after he was photographed inside the Capitol building wearing face paint and a fur helmet with horns.
The US Department of Homeland Security has warned of increasing violence from domestic extremist groups, including those like QAnon. Believers have been charged with a number of violent crimes, including kidnappings, assassination plots, and the 2019 murder of a mafia boss in New York. A number of high-profile public figures have also faced violent threats, with CNN’s Anderson Cooper receiving messages from a QAnon supporter claiming he would be publicly executed earlier this year.
Social media platforms have attempted to curb the amount of QAnon related content, with Facebook banning themed groups, pages, and accounts, alongside Twitter who have most recently suspended over 150,000 members for “sharing harmful QAnon-associated content at scale”.
Despite the conspiracy being discredited and baseless, QAnon continues to spread. An enormous amount of offshoots, claims, and detours within the movement appear to be ever-growing, often at times appearing contradictory. Despite its origins lying within the United States, there has been a drastic emergence of the number of sympathy groups across Europe. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, and Portugal have all seen the establishment of related movements. In the summer of last year, street demonstrations were staged across a number of British cities, from London to Manchester. Rather than using the “Q” motif, participants waved banners imploring society to “Save Our Children”.
Research by the antifascist organisation Hope Not Hate (HNH) in October found that one in four people within the UK now believe in conspiracy theories propagated by QAnon. Speaking to the BBC, HNH researchers David Lawrence and Gregory Davis cautioned: “Whilst it is impossible to know exactly how seriously AQnon followers take their beliefs, and when they will act on them, the highly emotive narratives at the core of QAnon have the potential to inspire individuals towards disruption, harassment, and even violence”.