The QAnon conspiracy movement is dangerously replicating the addictive allure of video gaming to recruit followers, reveals a new report by the Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab (PERIL) and the Center for University Excellence at American University and the Network Contagion Research Institute. The report makes policy recommendations to respond to the movement’s misinformation and rapid spread.
The report outlines how the cult-like online movement has grown exponentially since its emergence in 2017, destroying families, dividing communities, sparking incidents of fatal violence, and attracting millions of dollars in contributions to political candidates who seem sympathetic to the amorphous, ever-shifting cause.
“QAnon is a phenomenon worthy of serious analysis, global tracking, and large-scale intervention,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, professor at the School of Public Affairs and director of PERIL, and one of the report’s lead authors. “It is vital to draw attention to QAnon’s truly frightening potential for destabilization and permanent damage to our democratic system.”
The report sheds light on QAnon’s impact on public health, American democracy, and national security. According to Miller-Idriss and other authors of the report, The QAnon Conspiracy: Destroying Families, Dividing Communities, Undermining Democracy, its threat can be divided into three key categories: creating and amplifying cultural and political divisions; introducing and spreading disinformation and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories; and mobilizing and motivating extreme violence. QAnon’s self-sustaining web of user-generated content has resisted all attempts at regulation, as adherents re-tweet any attack on the movement as proof of its legitimacy and power.
“QAnon bears many of the hallmarks of an augmented reality game (ARGs),” the report states, integrating current events, public personalities, and players’ own lives and allowing them to become “lost in the fantasy of the game.” Some key features that QAnon shares with the best ARGs include epic meaning, empowerment, recognition, social influence, and unpredictability.
The team of authors, including Miller-Idriss and Joel Finkelstein, director of NCRI, note that the public mainly thinks of QAnon as an extremely bizarre cult promulgating rumors of secret pedophile rings or allegations that Venezuelan and Cuba agents manipulated balloting systems in the U.S. But they have found that fewer people are aware of how widely the movement has infiltrated social media in the U.S. and Europe, inspiring election-related violence and street protests, and militating against acceptance of COVID-19 vaccines.
Adherents are left completely “divorced from reality” and sometimes are described by friends and family as 'lost' to QAnon, the report states. The conspiracy cult’s gamified ecosystem attracts people with psychological rewards for solving hidden ‘clues’ and has gained in followers since 2017. The report found that as disinformation became more pervasive, Facebook and Twitter responded by banning QAnon accounts, pages, groups, and hashtags. This has led Q-related networks to migrate to alternative information platforms.
“We need public awareness, including among first-line responders in law enforcement, intelligence, and public health agencies, that can rapidly connect what we are learning about disinformation networks with crises in other areas, including vaccine hesitancy and mobilization to extremist violence or terrorism,” said Joel Finkelstein, director of NCRI. “And we need strategies for political coalition-building that help draw the line in the sand that will prevent conspiracies and disinformation from taking hold among public officials and other powerful administrators and leaders.”