By Jillian Cheney | Religion Unplugged
(ANALYSIS) On the “proximity to national conspiracy group QAnon” scale, I’d like to think I’m somewhere in the middle: personally, I wear a mask because the CDC and other sources say it helps prevent the spread of COVID-19, am a church-attending Christian and have a general — if not overwhelming — trust in elected and appointed officials. But coming from the conservative, Bible-belt South, I’m also familiar with the beliefs of QAnon and the people who believe in them.
At a funeral last month, my unmasked uncle leaned within inches of my face.
“I hope it doesn’t bother you that I’m refusing to wear a mask,” he said. “I just don’t believe in COVID. And I’m telling you, no matter who wins the election, it’ll stop after November.”
In conversations with others about politics, religion and the bias of news, I’ve also been told several times to “consider Pizzagate” (the conspiracy that Comet Ping Pong in D.C. is/was the front for a child trafficking ring run by the Clintons and John Podesta).
Facebook announced on Oct. 6 that it is banning all groups associated with QAnon that exist on the platform — and Instagram, which Facebook also owns — and will continue to ban them in the future. It’s the latest move that a social media platform has made to curb the spread of QAnon ideas. In August, Facebook already deleted a group with over 200,000 members and removed about 1,500 others for violating its policies on hate speech.
Additionally, Twitter blocked 7,000 QAnon accounts from its platform in July, and has said more accounts will be removed from searches and monitored in the future.
In the fight against misinformation during an election year, many of these social platforms are targeting QAnon groups and designating them as hateful or conspiratorial. Mainstream media often portrays the group as a threatening, powerful mystic-style cult that’s infiltrated American society.
This is how The Atlantic introduces those who are part of QAnon:
“If you were an adherent, no one would be able to tell. You would look like any other American. You could be a mother, picking leftovers off your toddler’s plate. You could be the young man in headphones across the street. You could be a bookkeeper, a dentist, a grandmother icing cupcakes in her kitchen. You may well have an affiliation with an evangelical church. But you are hard to identify just from the way you look—which is good, because someday soon dark forces may try to track you down.”
The FBI recently noted that it considers the group a “domestic terrorism threat.”
Should we be looking over our shoulders for members of QAnon? How is it that so many people buy into these theories? What are the theories they actually believe?
There’s a saying in QAnon communities that you’re not supposed to trust anyone who presents information to you, even within the community. You’re supposed to do your own research.
This is mine.
First, it’s important to note that new polling data supports the idea that QAnon makes up a smaller portion of the American public than it’s often portrayed to — and what they actually believe is much milder.
A recent online survey by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue says that 7% of Americans look favorably on QAnon and believe the group to be a source of trustworthy information. Inside this 7%, 62% believe the main conspiracy that “Democratic politicians and Hollywood stars are part of a global network that tortures and sexually abuses children in Satanic rituals.”
Many respondents were hearing some “core theories” for the first time inside the survey. These results show that QAnon is neither a fully unified front nor a shadowy, overwhelming portion of the population.
That doesn’t mean their beliefs or language are any less frightening to someone who’s never been exposed to them — or whose family and friends begin introducing these beliefs into conversations as an indisputable truth.
It’s especially difficult because QAnon source material is difficult to find. The platforms that many are familiar with have taken steps to remove Q content, leaving devoted followers to use image boards and other websites that have no restrictions on speech at all — and that can’t track the location or identity of posters.
These primary places are 4chan and 8kun. Image board 4chan has no archives, and its posts delete automatically after a short period of time.
Launched in 2019, 8kun now hosts several QAnon theories. Its release came after the shutdown of 8chan, where a mass shooter who killed 22 people in Texas posted his last message (the website was also known to host child pornography and had no limits on speech).
As of last year, 8kun was only accessible via the dark web — it’s still incredibly hard to navigate, and flooded with conspiracies, research and other discussions.
More than the Q drops themselves — or even the identity of Q, which has been speculated on but never confirmed — QAnon’s importance is found in the beliefs and discussions created by its followers.
Before Facebook banned QAnon groups, it was one of the most common places on the internet to find these discussions.
I first looked at a group called “QAnon Truth Movement” that had over 7,000 members. Their purpose is: “To bring truth into our lives. To rid the world of darkness and have light into our lives.” They ask everyone to pray for world leaders and each other and reference John 3:16.
The first post I encountered was from a man asking for help with his seventh grade science teacher, who was encouraging his Facebook friends not to vote for Trump in November.
“I have a great opportunity to red pill this guy, but I need to be tactical about it,” he wrote. “Red pill” means to give or receive information that converts a person’s worldview, usually by revealing an unpleasant truth. It’s usually used to mean converting to right-wing views. “What should I start with first? I would hate to start off too heavy. Is fall of the cabal to [sic] much to start with or should I ease into it [a] bit more?”
The “fall of the cabal” references the umbrella conspiracy of QAnon, which claims that a global “cabal” of the elite — comprised of wealthy families, powerful politicians and large corporations — is running a massive child sex trafficking operation.
Google searches about the cabal led me to a three-hour-long documentary on YouTube made by QAnon member Janet Ossebaard, a researcher that published a book on crop circles in 2007. The documentary is split into 10 parts and posted on a variety of accounts. Part one has more than 5 million views.
The documentary outlines the primary QAnon conspiracy belief and several fringe beliefs. These fringe beliefs are many: that diseases are man made, the struggles of migrants were faked by media, Disney incorporates sex as subliminal messaging in its movies, the 9/11 attacks were a hoax, celebrity suicides like Avicii and Anthony Bourdain were arranged, the Titantic sinking was arranged so wealthy men like John Jacob Astor could be killed, vaccines cause autism and paralyzation. The list goes on.
It details the rise of Q, who originally posted on 4chan’s “/pol/” thread (which stands for “politically incorrect” and is for discussion of politics and world events) in Oct. 2017. Its members have moved from 4chan to platforms like 8kun, Reddit, Facebook and Twitter and now exist on the platforms in varying capacities. Even Facebook hasn’t banned individual accounts that may share information from QAnon but only accounts that “represent” QAnon in their about page or by sharing QAnon information past a certain threshold.
The post contains a cryptic series of questions, clues and predictions — a format Q has consistently used when posting information online.
“Q crumbs” — also sometimes called “Q drops” or “Q clues” — are little more than a series of clues that often come in the form of letter or number riddles. Q’s followers are meant to research and decipher these clues on their own. This is the most important thing I could do. If I do the research and decipher the clues, I’ll be prepared for the proof.
All “proof” points back to the sex trafficking that guides the group’s goals. QAnon members believe that this cabal is made up of political and business leaders such as the Rothschilds, The Rockefellers, Bill Gates, the Clintons, George Soros and others. This group controls everything: hospitals, schools, oil, business, the economy, FDA, pharmaceuticals and politics.
There’s no identified motivation of these people apart from having power and control. Most importantly, however, all of them are using this power they have to traffic and sleep with children. (This includes Pizzagate, and is really more like that on a global scale.)
There’s not much explanation for this, either, save for the fact that all of these people are pedophiles and, as the documentary puts it, there is “a battle being fought over our heads between good and evil.”
So where does this all end?
Peace and justice are restored with “the fall of the cabal” or “the storm.”
“The storm” refers to remarks made by President Trump in Oct. of 2017, in which he held a dinner and said the night represented “the calm before the storm.”
No matter what it’s called, this event will entail the downfall of the elite and the lives of millions of children saved.
And how does this happen?
Ideally, with the rise of a new world leader who will expose this sex cult and unify all people against them.
Donald Trump, who is identified as the “master of all masters,” is constantly giving clues in the things he says and does. Many QAnon believers say that he is fully aware of the cabal and is working to bring them down. His clumsiness or typos — yes, even the infamous covfefe tweet — have a meaning followers are meant to interpret. He is a trusted leader of QAnon now.
However, the documentary claims that the ultimate world leader won’t be Trump because he’s too divided; the leader will be someone who both parties can agree on and follow.
It’s the most religious part of the theories I was presented with — if only because this ideal leader sounds like traditional descriptions of the Antichrist I heard in church growing up, and who is described in Revelation 13 as such a great figure: “The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, ‘Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?’”
A popular theory is that this leader is JFK Jr., who is believed to have faked his own death in 1999. He now lays in wait — as an avid Trump supporter, of course — and will emerge when the time is right to lead the world to peace.
Many QAnons believe this despite a message from Q that says JFK Jr. is dead.
Does it sound insane to you?
It is, a little bit.
If QAnon was a cult run by people intentionally trying to deceive new followers (which I don’t believe it is, for the most part) my critique for its leaders would be that they’re trying too hard.
The way I see it, the belief in a global sex trafficking conspiracy doesn’t necessitate a belief in the faking of school shootings.
Watching the documentary, I found myself laughing at times — most memorably at the presentation of “evidence” that Hollywood’s elite frequently engage in cannibalism. The evidence was Lady Gaga’s meat dress, worn to the 2010 MTV Music Awards, and an obviously fake website for a restaurant called Cannibal Club, which serves “L.A.’s cultural elite” and supposedly was run in part by Mark Zuckerberg’s wife.
I just have to believe that if there was a cannibal club in Los Angeles, they would be more discreet than advertising their services on a website that looks like a 2000s-esque school project.
But an hour and a half in, the pieces started clicking into place.
I noted the symbols used by pedophiles to identify each other, the suspicious emails — like the one about a pizza-related handkerchief or Obama’s $65,000 order for hot dogs and pizza — and the strange connections all of these leaders seem to have to each other.
(By the way, these clues that could be true but haven’t fully been confirmed lost a little of their weight when I learned the codes to interpret them were created on forums hosted by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.)
There’s even proof that people in power do use their fortune and fame to commit acts of evil — often, even, evil that involves sex trafficking.
Consider financier Jeffrey Epstein’s “Pedophile Island” and the countless allegations of sexual assault he was on trial for. Most recently, the heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune was charged with seven years in prison as a leader of Nxivm for fraud and forced labor in a cult that was also accused of forcing its members to have sex with leaders.
It only seems to make sense that this behavior would extend beyond what’s been exposed.
And once you believe that most global leaders are active participants in a global sex trafficking ring, I assume it’s only logical for many QAnon members to believe in the cannibalism, subliminal messaging and spyware.
It helps the cause that the loudest message of QAnon believers is “save the children!” It creates sympathy for others to be drawn in by and a primary reason their cause is a just one.
But a Reddit user on the thread r/Qult_Headquarters (which is devoted to debunking QAnon theories) analyzed key words in over 4,000 Q drops. “Epstein” was only used 70 times — meaning it was in 1.5% of drops — and “children” was only used 65 times.
Alternatively, “FBI” was used 282 times — meaning it was in 6% of drops — “Clinton” was used 253 times and “Obama” was used 232 times.
So “saving the children” may be more the message of QAnon believers than Q himself.
Although the influences and messages of QAnon seem to be mostly political and not at all religious, it makes sense that evangelical Christians are the largest identifiable group of QAnon believers.
There is, of course, the connection between political conservatism and evangelical Christianity. QAnon believers are usually identified with conservative politics — their admiration of Trump is one clue.
But it goes further.
As an evangelical Christian, I often am reminded of the theology in Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” So of course people are doing bad things: they’re all greedy, lustful and immoral. The unspeakable acts they commit are only a result of their fallen nature.
It made the thought process of QAnon members abundantly clear. If I was in their shoes, I would have one primary question: if this is going to be something I’m going to believe in, what am I supposed to do about it?
I certainly won’t be the hero that brings down the cabal. I’ve never hacked into a government organization. My ability to decipher a number clue would be underwhelming at best.
The only option, I decide, is that I’m able to help my family and friends understand the truth. Because the more people who understand the truth, the more likely it is that the actions of the cabal will come to light.
It helps, of course, that this action is identical to the evangelical’s call to evangelize, when Jesus says to “go and make disciples of all nations” in Matthew 28.
QAnon believers are spreading what they believe to be the Gospel truth — it’s just an entirely different message.
And, as much as I hate to break it to everyone who’s said QAnon believers are mentally unstable and probably evil, this behavior is only human.
Christian QAnon believers are driven by the moral imperative that’s found within their faith. I’d be willing to bet that non-Christian QAnon believers are driven by a similar desire to do good. But when you mix a desire to do good with the belief that the government and the media is working to silence you, it creates an unshakeable us vs. them mentality.
Assuming that all of this is true — which I will do for this sentence only — I can understand why members of QAnon act as they do.
If you’re not going to choose to join QAnon, why is it such a big deal that you know about them and what they believe? A group with such a vendetta against the media and government does pose a threat — remember that the Pizzagate scandal culminated when a man fired a rifle in Comet Ping Pong. More commonly, though, the offense QAnon believers commit is sharing misinformation online.
That has, and will continue to have, effects on life in public spaces.
In America, this information contributes to how people vote. And worldwide, conspiracies about the COVID-19 pandemic have often tied in with QAnon groups; a BBC article said that protesters in September combined “save the children” and “Plandemic” sentiments, refusing to wear masks now and refusing a potential vaccine in the future.
There’s not a surefire way to counter this kind of misinformation — I’ve seen more stories now about those who have joined QAnon groups as opposed to the other way around. The Atlantic gave advice specifically in regards to “Plandemic” videos, which were created with QAnon ideals in regards to COVID-19. What they recommend is mostly just empathy.
Three years after its founding, online platforms are continuing to ban QAnon from its spaces: in addition to Facebook, online retailer Etsy is removing all QAnon merchandise from its website. It seems likely more places will continue to try to censor Q ideas.
Regardless, it’s unlikely that QAnon will fade fully anytime soon because it’s difficult for platforms to recognize who’s a follower.
“I am convinced we will receive new information soon,” Ossebaard says in the documentary. This optimism runs through the group’s members. Even if proven wrong, many members hold onto the core beliefs and decipher evidence as needed to justify their position.
Like Christians awaiting the Armageddon described in Matthew — which the “day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” — QAnon believers will wait with their Q crumbs and message of truth until the future they hope for arrives.
Jillian Cheney is a Poynter-Koch fellow for Religion Unplugged who loves consuming good culture and writing about it. She also reports on American Protestantism and Evangelical Christianity. You can find her on Twitter @_jilliancheney.