It’s the conspiracy theory that roiled the 2020 U.S. presidential election, inspiring claims of stolen ballots, anti-mask rallies and the infamous Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Yesterday, QAnon exploded back on the scene: Minutes after reports emerged that cybersecurity magnate John McAfee had been found dead in a Spanish prison, an image of the letter “Q” was posted to his (now offline) Instagram account. Once again, the QAnon world is alight with intrigue.
In today’s Daily Dose, we delve into the spate of events that speak to its lasting power, before exploring how QAnon could affect everything from vaccine adoption and mass shootings to the California recall campaign and the cultural legitimacy of Christianity. Stay tuned to find out why, among other things, some believe Melinda Gates has, in theory, been replaced by a male clone.
Nick Fouriezos, OZY Correspondent
1. Stormy Horizon
QAnon adherents could be primed to commit more violence in coming months and years, warned a new FBI and Department of Homeland Security report released last week by New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich. QAnon conspiracies have inspired kidnapping and even murders in the past, and national security experts believe followers could become even more aggressive as Q prophecies fail to materialize. “Something we’ve been hearing more and more from QAnon supporters is this idea that ‘there is no QAnon, only Q and anons,’” Nick Backovic, a lead investigator for the misinformation-fighting tech company Logically, told OZY.
2. Digital Soldiers
Account bans and increased fact-checking efforts by major social media companies have prompted conspiracy theorists to scurry further into the dark web. This means they are proliferating on lesser-known platforms that give them less reach, but more opportunities to proselytize with abandon. In the aforementioned FBI report, the agency expressed worry that these “digital soldiers” could decide to act alone as they become convinced they can “no longer ‘trust the plan.’” That concern could be merited, given the way other fringe actors, particularly citizen militias, have organized online before committing violence in real life.
3. Influencers Unmasked
Logically recently revealed the identities of three major QAnon proliferators, one of whom is Jeremy “JJ” Sicotte, a Berklee College of Music grad and pop-punk vocalist who eventually turned to filmmaking. Promoting Q theories to 200,000-plus followers on Instagram and Twitter using the @qthewakeup handle, the Kentucky-based Sicotte pushed the theory that furniture firm Wayfair was selling children and was mentioned in two posts last year by the anonymous “Q” on far-right site 8kun (previously known as 8chan). The continued existence of such influencers points to QAnon’s staying power. “Some QAnon influencers were able to rebuild their audiences very rapidly on other social media platforms such as Telegram and Gab after being banned from Twitter,” Backovic says. “In some ways, QAnon as a movement has lost momentum, but . . . it is still influential and currently morphing into different things.”
4. Global Reach
A German activist cell pushing anti-vax beliefs in Kassel was but one of a number of international Q-related incidents that have rapidly spread across the world — a disinformation strain one might call “the American virus.” In India, Logically found similar misinformation campaigns around the black fungus epidemic and a “Stop the Steal”-type effort in West Bengal state elections. In Australia, the family of Tim Stewart, a noted longtime friend of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, reported him to a national security hotline out of concern over his QAnon-related obsessions. “Tim believes that the world has really been taken over by satanic pedophiles, or Luciferian pedophiles,” Karen Stewart, his sister, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
5. Opening the Flood “Gates”
The Bill and Melinda Gates divorce has given QAnon believers new enthusiasm, seemingly “confirming” their most outrageous beliefs. Ongoing reports that Bill Gates may have been a frequent philanderer and his proven ties to child sex offender Jeffrey Epstein feed the elite cabal sex ring theories that first spawned QAnon — and allow adherents to even more vociferously attack Gates, already one of their favorite targets in part because of his vocal support for vaccines (which some Q believers think are being used by Gates to implant microchips in unwitting citizens).
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Because QAnon is a decentralized set of conspiracy theories — the actual 8chan poster “Q” hasn’t written in six months and counting — adherents often race to the most bizarre conclusions in order to help their wild claims gain steam. As news of the Gates divorce broke, some Q posters suggested Melinda had been replaced by a “male clone.” Others have suggested Melinda is trying to spread the news about Bill’s alleged wrongdoings, and that she will be killed as a result. “If I have to guess, the globalists will probably try to pull off a Epstein ‘suicide’ or just make her ‘disappear,’” one user posted on the social networking site Gab, as reported by the U.K.-based newspaper the Independent. Infowars founder Alex Jones fanned the fire by claiming Melinda feared Bill would kill more “people than Hitler,” in a video cited in numerous Q forums.
2. Bloody Hell
An old skit from the comedian Whitney Cummings in which she jokes that celebrities use children’s blood to prevent aging recently resurfaced as “proof” to QAnon followers. It began on TikTok, where a clearly satirical exchange between podcaster Joe Rogan and Cummings shows her joking about using a baby blood “sprinkler” as a facial skin treatment. Although the original video identified the two comedians, it soon spread to Instagram without mention of that broader context. Thousands saw the video, with one commenter reportedly opining that Rogan “wears children’s skin on his face,” according to USA Today. While that imagery is grotesque, such skin-related fretting is commonplace among QAnon followers. One of their most outrageous theories was that Trump would be inaugurated in January after undergoing “an experimental surgery” to swap faces with Biden, who they purport was arrested before becoming president.
3. Love Jihad
After Trump won the 2016 presidential election, many elections overseas saw candidates copy the decrying of criticism as “fake news.” A similar process of political facsimile, this time mimicking QAnon’s tendency to baselessly allege sexual predation, is also occurring worldwide. In India, the “love jihad” narrative — in which Hindutva conspiracy theorists and political actors demonize Muslim men as tactically preying on Hindu women to convert them to Islam — was being used to push Islamophobic propaganda ahead of the elections in West Bengal, a Hindu-majority state that shares a border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh. Such claims have gained influence with the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, with several states already having implemented anti-love jihad legislation that will, among other things, threaten interfaith marriages. In December, a Muslim man was arrested for allegedly trying to convert a Hindu woman, becoming the first person to be tried under the law in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
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You’re not wrong if you feel like Q followers and their beliefs are increasingly popping up in your life. An estimated 30 million Americans believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory that the federal government, media and financial sector are controlled by Satan-worshipping pedophiles, according to a May report by the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington. That number accounts for 15% of the country’s population, meaning there are more believers in QAnon than in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism combined in the United States. A fifth of those polled agree with the popular QAnon belief that “there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.”
2. Believe What You See?
Gauging support for QAnon has been notoriously difficult, though. A YouGov poll from October found that only 7% of respondents say they think the conspiracy theory is true. Support could have grown, particularly after the election saw poll conspiracies multiply. But then how does one explain a rolling Civiqs survey that had the true number of believers at only 4% as of June 15? Well, as with all polling, part of the discrepancy may lie in the questioning: That latter poll asked directly, “Are you a supporter of QAnon?” — alienating respondents who may have expressed support in QAnon beliefs but still balk at calling themselves a “supporter.” Of course, as poll analysis website FiveThirtyEight noted earlier this month, asking about beliefs, as PRRI did, could accidentally pull in conspiracy theorists who aren’t actually tied to QAnon.
3. Leaps of ‘Faith’
Still, Natalie Jackson, PRRI’s director of research, argues that QAnon followers who identify as such matters less than whether they actually support the conspiracies. “The bigger picture here is less about QAnon itself and more about people believing a conspiracy theory that is so wild. I never thought I would write a survey question like this in my career,” Jackson told FiveThirtyEight. And according to the PRRI polling, belief in Q has startling religious ties. It’s not just white evangelicals who are on board; Hispanic Protestants are just as susceptible, with 25% of those polled expressing agreement with QAnon beliefs. Black Protestants were less likely, with just 15% showing support for those conspiracies, while only 8% of Jews did, the lowest among any American religious group.
the QAnon aftershocks
1. Losing Their Religion
Those religious ties underscore the challenges some Christian pastors face as they try to keep their flock from adopting QAnon conspiracy beliefs antithetical to their faith. “I get an hour with people every week, versus the 167 hours that they have out on their own to do other things,” California pastor James Kendall told CNN. While some like Kendall fight QAnon, other religious leaders from Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, to Reno, Nevada, and Huntington Beach, California, are embracing it. Evangelical Christians have dominated American politics in the last half-century, yet are themselves seeing their power wane, as PRRI founder and CEO Robert Jones writes in his 2016 book, The End of White Christian America. Those Christians may grasp at conspiratorial straws to excuse their diminishing political influence — an alleged group of anonymous child molesters would make the easiest of scapegoats. Yet such extreme beliefs may also hasten their exit from political dominance by damaging their credibility with more moderate Americans.
2. Vaccination Obstruction
Following Biden’s inauguration, many QAnon theorists quickly pivoted from claims of election rigging to claims of vaccine mind control. They have been encouraged by the Gates divorce, with Bill Gates second perhaps only to Anthony Fauci in prominent voices speaking out about the efficacy of vaccines. Even as states are broadly opening up, only about 45% of the U.S. population has been vaccinated. That lags behind nations like Israel (59.5%) and Chile (50%) although it is higher than other developed countries, including Germany (32.2%) and France (25.5%). With about a fifth of the world’s population already having received doses, experts have estimated 70% to 85% of the world will need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.
3. Election Insurrection
This month, USA Today broke the news about QAnon followers rallying around the Arizona election audit as “The Great Awakening” — a theoretically cataclysmic Q event that has been predicted in various forms, yet at each proposed event passes without any real effect. Still, the audit shows how Q-related theories will continue to discredit and disrupt elections. It’s an especially timely reminder given that Democrats have tried, and this week failed, to pass election reform.
4. From Online to Reality
The effort to unseat California Gov. Gavin Newsom was first pushed by social media accounts linked to right-wing militias and QAnon supporters; what’s more, numerous American conspiracy experts believe it will continue to shape local governance in particular, though the potential effect would likely vary from region to region. That is especially concerning for those who believe regional politics inevitably shape national affairs in a country that comprises many shifting parts. As Lindsay Schubiner of the democracy advocacy nonprofit Western States Center recently told The Conversation: “Democratic governance is hard to achieve if we don’t live in a shared reality.”