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Security, Technology, Innovation

A Breeding Ground for Conspiracies:
How QAnon Helped Bring About the U.S. Capitol Assault

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Image of the Capitol building with a translucent image of an American flag over a trump flag and a translucent Q in the middle.
Photo Credit: Louis Velazquez (Capitol); Dalton Caraway (Flags)

Conspiracy theories have a long history in American politics. “Americans have been quick to anticipate tyranny, despotism, and a full spectrum of apocalyptic scenarios, from red coats to black helicopters,” argues a recent study.”[1] As fears and enemies have come and gone, sources of subterfuge have likewise evolved. Many specious theories linger beneath the surface of mainstream American debate, though most disappear over time. QAnon, a family of conspiracies that has spread rapidly in recent years, reflects anxieties held by certain Americans. Because of this, the technological architecture of social media has enabled QAnon to flourish despite its outlandish claims

QAnon’s core belief is that a secret, pedophilic cabal of major news figures, celebrities, authors, billionaires, elected officials, and Democratic Party officials is conspiring to take over the world. The only thing in their way is President Trump, who is fighting an underground war against them.[2][3] QAnon mainly lives on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.[4][5] It often uses hashtags and group names seemingly unrelated to QAnon.[6] Indeed, many people receive news and information that originates from QAnon without realizing where it comes from.[7]

    The lifecycle of a QAnon belief begins in a “Q Drop,” where an anonymous user claiming to be a high-level government official, known as Q, posts solely on “8kun,” a spinoff of the popular anonymous public forum 4chan.[8][9] These cryptic posts, mainly made up of questions to the audience and brief answer clues, are then collected and posted outside of 8kun, where they are treated as breadcrumbs leading to a larger truth.[10] Next, posts filter into explicitly QAnon-based social media groups and posters, and from there, watered-down versions are laundered into more standard-seeming conservative and right-wing social media spaces.[11][12]

As political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent have pointed out, conspiracy theories are often “release valves” for social groups which feel powerless.[13] Central to QAnon is the belief that the federal bureaucracy is actively preventing President Trump from carrying out his agenda.[14] Federal government inefficiencies and failed Trump campaign promises thus transform, via QAnon, into firm convictions that a nefarious Cabal is obstructing the President.[15] As Coronavirus lockdowns have intensified, QAnon’s support has likewise ballooned, both in the United States and abroad, despite the American-centric viewpoint .[16] QAnon has strangely validated those hurt by pandemic lockdowns by providing a simple, if dangerous, explanation for what is happening.

What differentiates QAnon from a typical conspiracy theory is that social media has been integral to its rise and central to how QAnon spreads and changes. The conspiracy is not transmitted by word-of-mouth, print media, or even press coverage. Rather, QAnon forms its own media environment, providing news sources, social groups, and places to gather. QAnon hijacks the architecture of social media to create an alternate information environment where its proponents can live.

    Thus QAnon is both a conspiracy theory and a self-sustaining environment of disinformation and misinformation. While many influence operations are centrally organized, QAnon is a community effort, which draws people together to form the conspiracy ad-hoc.[17] By encouraging the audience to “research” the topics online, leading users on spirals of increasingly extreme content, QAnon begins to flood them with junk data that inhibits their ability to tell truth from fiction.[18] QAnon dissuades its users from reading mainstream news sources, because prominent news anchors are supposedly active members of the cabal.[19]

By controlling acceptable forms of information, QAnon traps its members in a downward spiral of radicalization. This is only worsened by social media, where algorithms on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube often recommend content loosely affiliated with QAnon. As users become more interested in that content, algorithms are more likely to recommend posts from groups and users who are likewise deeply invested in the conspiracy theory.[20] Users may only click on one initial QAnon link, but more and more QAnon-related items appear in their feeds or in-boxes, allowing this spiral to accelerate, faster and faster.[21] As P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking describe in their recent book Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media, this phenomenon of “junk” or “fake news” is not new.[22] In 2016, a similar, but related, conspiracy known as “Pizzagate” resulted in a shooting at a DC area pizza parlor.[23] Like that conspiracy, QAnon relies heavily on the inability of people to distinguish truth from falsehood on the internet.

    Other recent work on misinformation provides clues on how to interpret the rise of QAnon. In his book This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, Peter Pomerantsov asks whether the purpose of influence operations is to shift the narrative frames through which we receive information.[24] If this is the purpose of disinformation and misinformation, QAnon falls into this role quite easily. QAnon both attacks the narrative provided by society and provides its own, separate vision of reality.[25]

    With President Trump leaving office after the 2020 election, QAnon communities have been thrown into chaos. Many quickly integrated claims of voter fraud into their central thesis.[26] Two men were even arrested near Philadelphia’s vote-counting centers with a car laden with rifles and QAnon paraphernalia.[27] Many claims about voting fraud in the election, including about Dominion voting machines, have been perpetuated by QAnon adherents.[28] To many adherents of QAnon, Trump’s loss represents not a defeat of the movement but just one more front in their war with the “Cabal,” and the shocking January 2021 events at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. were driven at least partially by that belief.

 


About the Author: 

Nicholas Iacobuzio is a 2020-2021 CSINT Fellow and a current graduate student in American University's US Foreign Policy and National Security program, where he concentrates in cybersecurity and intelligence.  


*THE VIEWS EXPRESSED HERE ARE STRICTLY THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENT THOSE OF THE CENTER OR ANY OTHER PERSON OR ENTITY AT AMERICAN UNIVERSITY.


[1] Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent, American Conspiracy Theories (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[2] Kaylah Jackson, “QAnon: The Conspiracy Theory Embraced by Trump, Several Politicians, and Some American Moms,” Vox, October 9, 2020; at https://www.vox.com/2020/10/9/21504910/QAnon-conspiracy-theory-facebook-ban-trump.

[3] Kevin Roose, “What Is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?” The New York Times, August 18, 2020; at https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-QAnon.html.

[4] Sheera Frenkel, “Facebook Amps Up Its Crackdown on QAnon.” The New York Times, October 6, 2020; at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/06/technology/facebook-QAnon-crackdown.html.

[5] Emma Grey Ellis, “A Facebook Ban Won't Stop QAnon.” Wired, October 8, 2020; at https://www.wired.com/story/QAnon-facebook-deplatforming/.

[6] Rachel E. Greenspan, “Facebook Says It Will Limit the Use of the 'Save Our Children' Hashtag, but Not 'Save the Children,' after QAnon Co-Opted the Anti-Trafficking Movement,” Business Insider, October 30, 2020; at https://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-limits-QAnon-save-our-children-hashtag-human-trafficking-2020-10.

[7] Anna North, “How #SaveTheChildren Is Pulling American Moms into QAnon.” Vox, September 18, 2020; at https://www.vox.com/21436671/save-our-children-hashtag-QAnon-pizzagate.

[8] Roose (2020).

[9] Adrienne LaFrance, “The Prophecies of Q.” The Atlantic, September 24, 2020; at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/QAnon-nothing-can-stop-what-is-coming/610567/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Matthew Rosenberg, “Republican Voters Take a Radical Conspiracy Theory Mainstream.” The New York Times, October 19, 2020; at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/19/us/politics/QAnon-trump-republicans.html.

[12] North (2020).

[13] Uscinski and Parent (2014).

[14] Jackson (2020).

[15] LaFrance (2020). 

[16] Gianluca Mezzofiore, Katie Polglase, Tim Lister, Frederik Pleitgen, Natalie Croker, and Sergio Hernandez, “How the 'Parasite' QAnon Conspiracy Cult Went Global,” CNN, October 7, 2020; at https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/07/tech/QAnon-europe-cult-intl/index.html.

[17] North (2020), and Rosenberg (2020).

[18] Rosenberg (2020).

[19] Jackson (2020).

[20] Kevin Roose, “YouTube Cracks Down on QAnon Conspiracy Theory, Citing Offline Violence,” The New York Times, October 15, 2020; at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/15/technology/youtube-bans-qanon-violence.html; and Clive Thompson, “YouTube's Plot to Silence Conspiracy Theories” Wired, September 18, 2020; at https://www.wired.com/story/youtube-algorithm-silence-conspiracy-theories/.

[21] Julia Carrie Wong, “Down the Rabbit Hole: How QAnon Conspiracies Thrive on Facebook,” The Guardian, June 25, 2020.; at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jun/25/QAnon-facebook-conspiracy-theories-algorithm.

[22] Peter W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019).

[23] Ibid.; and Kennedy, Merrit. “'Pizzagate' Gunman Sentenced To 4 Years In Prison.” NPR, June 22, 2017; at https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/06/22/533941689/pizzagate-gunman-sentenced-to-4-years-in-prison.

[24] Peter Pomerantsev, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2020).

[25] Roose (18 August 2020

[26] Rob Kuznia, Curt Devine, and Drew Griffin, “How QAnon's Lies Are Hijacking the National Conversation.” CNN, December 16, 2020; at https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/15/us/QAnon-trump-twitter-invs/index.html.

[27] Tom Winter, Ben Collins, Daniel Arkin, and Brandy Zadrozny, “2 Men Arrested near Philadelphia Vote Center Had QAnon Paraphernalia, AR-15 in Car,” NBCNews.com, November 7, 2020; at https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/2-men-detained-after-police-learn-possible-threat-philadelphia-vote-n1246774.

[28] Ben Collins, “QAnon's Dominion Voter Fraud Conspiracy Theory Reaches the President.” NBCNews.com, November 13, 2020; at https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/q-fades-QAnon-s-dominion-voter-fraud-conspiracy-theory-reaches-n1247780.