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What you need to know about QAnon

How an unhinged conspiracy leapt from a wacky corner of the internet to the seat of democracy
February 26, 2021

The first thing to say about QAnon is that you might well have heard of it. Pronounced “Q-anon,” it is a conspiracy you’d expect to be confined to the wilder fringes of the internet—claiming elite figures in politics, business and the media are Satanic paedophiles overseeing a global child trafficking ring, while pulling strings that enable them to run the world.  

This being the 2020s, however, QAnon is not purely an internet phenomenon but an idea with a toe-hold in the US Congress, and likely inspired a slogan recently used by the Texas GOP:  “We are the storm.”

In QAnon parlance, “the storm” is an imagined reckoning against “deep state” paedophiles. Trump, according to the creed, secretly waged war against the cabal while president. The theory mutates, with believers spreading disinformation about Black Lives Matter, the pandemic and the US election—fuelling the Capitol riot, where believers present included the “QAnon Shaman,” complete with face paint and Viking horns, who sat in speaker Nancy Pelosi’s chair.  

Trump himself refused to disavow the theory, and even boosted QAnon accounts on social media. But his defeat does not mean the end for this mutating idea. A number of Republicans who had previously backed QAnon were elected in November; a new Congresswoman from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, was expelled from two House committees in January over past vocal support of such beliefs. 

Many of the tropes echo centuries-old antisemitic conspiracies. The more immediate roots lie in “Pizzagate”—a 2016 theory alleging Hillary Clinton and allies ran a child sex trafficking ring from a DC pizza restaurant. QAnon itself began in 2017, when a person (or people) who called themselves Q, and claimed to have high-level security approval called “Q clearance,” began sharing information about a cabal of child-abusers. Q’s posts appeared on the website 4chan, and later 8chan and 8kun, sporadically, in cryptic messages known as “Q drops” or “breadcrumbs.” 

These gradually span out the theory, accusing not only Barack Obama and Joe Biden, but also figures such as Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, of trafficking, molesting, killing and eating children. According to Q, Trump was recruited by senior members of the military to run for president and expose them. His counter-onslaught was said to be imminent: “the storm” of Guantanamo Bay, military tribunals and execution awaited the villains. 

Q, whose identity remains unknown, has made nearly 5,000 posts, which have been avidly shared on social media. Supporters number in the millions, and one December poll found 17 per cent of Americans believe QAnon’s chief tenets. Beyond the deadly Capitol riot on 6th January, believers have been linked to attempted kidnapping and murder. Only in the last couple of months have Facebook, Twitter and YouTube finally banned QAnon pages and accounts which threatened violence. 

According to the New York Times, outside the US the theories have gained most traction in far-right groups in Germany, Japan and, yes, the UK. In January 2020, a hotel-owner flew the QAnon flag from his Cornish castle. The content often comes camouflaged as genuine anti-child trafficking campaigning. Last August, 10 “Save Our Children” rallies based on QAnon theories were held across the UK. 

Isobel, a 22-year-old, tells me about her friend: an abuse victim and vocal campaigner against child exploitation who lives in London, she has been drawn into QAnon through her activism. “She cares a lot about human trafficking and child sexual abuse, but the line between campaigning and these conspiracy theories is completely blurred,” Isobel says. “She even thinks that the Covid lockdown is a conspiracy to protect the global child trafficking ring. She’s incredibly passionate and a lovely person—but the conspiracy stuff is so entrenched in some campaigning communities now.” 

The eviction of Trump—the movement’s hero—from office does seem to have had an effect. The predicted “Great Awakening” on inauguration day, in which the former president was to commence mass arrests of the Satanic elite, failed to materialise. Some supporters are airing doubts, and Q’s own posts have become less frequent. But conspiracies develop a life of their own—especially when devout believers adapt them to take on the next enemy.