The deranged QAnon conspiracy theory movement came close to a presidential endorsement this week when Donald Trump praised the group as “people that love our country,” while refusing to disavow their bizarre beliefs, which include a faith that he’ll eventually arrest and execute his political opponents.
Trump’s remarks were the latest, and perhaps most alarming, illustration of the gains QAnon adherents have made within the GOP even as the FBI warns that it’s a potential domestic terror movement.
But even as more people embrace QAnon—and as its believers are poised to win at least one congressional seat—much of the public remains unaware exactly what it means to believe in QAnon, why anyone should care about the movement, or what QAnon could mean for American politics.
The following is a helpful explanation of the rot taking hold in our political system.
What do QAnon supporters believe?
Nearly all QAnon believers sign on to one basic view: that the world has long been controlled by a sinister “cabal” responsible for a wide array of evils, from wars and famines to diseases, including the novel coronavirus pandemic. This cabal is believed to have tentacles in the top echelons of the Democratic Party, Hollywood, banking, and the government “deep state.”
QAnon believers baselessly think members of this cabal—including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and various Hollywood celebrities—torture and sexually abuse children in Satanic rituals. To stop this, in QAnon’s telling, the military recruited Donald Trump to win the presidency and dethrone the cabal.
Now QAnon believers are eagerly awaiting a day called the “Storm,” in which they believe Trump will order mass arrests of his political opponents and either ship them off to Guantanamo Bay or order them executed outright. QAnon believers think they themselves will play a small role in this purge by educating average citizens about QAnon ahead of the arrests as part of what they call the “Great Awakening.”
Why the hell would they believe this?
QAnon believers got all of these ideas from “Q,” an anonymous message board poster who started leaving messages on the anonymous, anarchic 4Chan message board, in October 2017 predicting Hillary Clinton’s arrest at the end of the month. That didn’t happen, of course, but QAnon grew anyway. Rather than decide that the failure of the Clinton arrest prediction meant QAnon had been discredited, supporters chose to believe that Q had to throw in disinformation into the clues to throw off the deep state—or convinced themselves that the real Hillary Clinton was in jail and the one we see in the news is a clone.
Over time, there have been more than 4,600 clues offered, on everything from imagined attempts to shoot down Air Force One to alleged CIA operations. QAnon fans call these clues “breadcrumbs” or “Q-Drops.”
QAnon believers think Q, whose name is thought to be a reference to a high-level Energy Department security clearance, is a mysterious Trump administration insider relaying encoded clues about the way the world really is. After initially posting on 4Chan, Q migrated to another message board, 8Chan. The most recent QAnon posts are made on 8Chan clone site 8kun, after 8Chan was shut down after hosting the El Paso mass shooter’s manifesto.
But degrees of QAnon belief derived from the clues can vary, ranging from people who have followed even the most twisted trails and now believe the idea that the government is run by reptilian aliens, to more moderate converts who are just convinced that the deep state is out to destroy Trump.
As a sort of mega-conspiracy theory, QAnon can encompass a wide array of other, often conflicting conspiratorial beliefs. Not every QAnon believer holds to the same tenets of QAnon, and the most committed are often engaged in furious online battles with each other over the exact meaning of a QAnon clue.
What does the term “QAnon” come from?
The “Q” in QAnon comes from “Q,” the mystery figure whose clues are closely studied by QAnon believes. Meanwhile, QAnon adherents or “researchers” call themselves “anons,” in a nod to their message-board anonymity. “QAnon” is a combination of “Q” and “Anon.”
So… Who is Q?
Almost nothing is publicly known about “Q.” It’s not even clear whether Q is one person or a group of people, or even whether control of the Q handle has changed hands since 2017. That last question has provoked plenty of schisms in the QAnon community, with various factions arguing over what constitutes a “real” QAnon clue.
QAnon believers, meanwhile, think Q could be anyone from former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to some other current or former administration official.
Just how big is QAnon?
It’s difficult to gauge how many people believe in QAnon, especially because degrees of belief vary—it’s hard to distinguish a hardcore QAnon “researcher” from someone who says they believe in QAnon because they think it just means ardently supporting Trump. Anecdotally, however, there is some evidence that QAnon has gained a significant, if still small, number of supporters.
QAnon believers with Q shirts and signs were visible at Trump rallies in 2018, until security imposed a ban on QAnon paraphernalia. QAnon videos have amassed millions of views, and a pro-QAnon book neared the top of Amazon’s bestseller chart.
Polls typically find that QAnon is unpopular nationally, but 5 percent of respondents in one 2019 poll said they believe in QAnon. While that’s far from a majority of the country, it’s a remarkably high number when you consider how bizarre QAnon believers’ ideas are.
Is QAnon actually dangerous?
The vast majority of QAnon believers will never be inspired to commit crimes or violence by the conspiracy theory. But a worrying fraction of them have, inspiring the FBI to label QAnon as a potential source of domestic terrorism.
In 2018, a QAnon believer with a gun and an improvised armored truck blocked a bridge near the Hoover Dam, demanding that Trump take steps to make a Q prediction “come true.” He ultimately pleaded guilty to one charge of making a terrorist threat, and faces a lengthy prison term. Two QAnon believers have been charged with murder, including the alleged killer of a reputed Mafia boss.
In a worrying sign of new organization among QAnon believers, The Daily Beast uncovered a network of QAnon believers preying on parents and convincing them that the deep state wanted to abduct their children. The network inspired two alleged child kidnapping plots, and appears to have harbored multiple fugitives wanted by law enforcement.
What do QAnon clues look like?
QAnon clues are deliberately cryptic, meaning that Q and their followers can have some plausible deniability when the events that QAnon predicts fail to come through. In one of the first clues, for example, Q wrote:
Where is HRC?
Why is the NG called up across 12 cities?
Trust in your President.
God bless, Patriots.
You might think it’s clear that “HRC” stands for Hillary Clinton, while “NG” presumably stands for “National Guard.” But these are the kinds of vagaries that QAnon followers can debate for days on their message boards or on Twitter.
Who is the typical QAnon follower?
For the first years of QAnon, the average QAnon follower at rallies looked a lot like the average Trump voter: older, white, Christian, and conservative.
More recently, though, QAnon has managed to diversify its audience, thanks in part to a growing public interest in conspiracy theories fueled by the pandemic and the Jeffrey Epstein investigation, which involves many of the same tenets: powerful people who actually are tied to child sex-trafficking.
QAnon fans also become better at hiding their more outlandish ideas. Using the popular #SaveTheChildren hashtag, for example, they can describe entry-level QAnon ideas as simply a movement against child sex-trafficking. In July, hundreds of people, many of them young and of color, turned out for a “Save The Children” march in Los Angeles carrying QAnon-related signs.
What have Trump and the GOP done about QAnon?
Rather than confront QAnon directly, Trump and many top Republicans have often winked at QAnon, or worse. Trump has frequently retweeted QAnon promoters and even invited some to the White House, while his son Eric Trump posted a QAnon meme on Instagram. Michael Flynn recorded himself in July taking the “QAnon oath,” which QAnon believers took as a powerful sign that their conspiracy theory is real.
QAnon believers have long fixated on the idea of someone asking Trump in a White House press briefing about whether QAnon is real—with the expectation that he would confirm it is. One QAnon believer even offered to infiltrate the White House press corps under a false name in 2018, alarming the Secret Service, according to government records obtained by The Daily Beast.
Trump’s remarks on Aug. 19 fell just short of a heartfelt QAnon endorsement. But Trump’s refusal to shoot down the obviously farcical conspiracy theory has strengthened QAnon believers’ convictions.
What have social networks done to stop QAnon?
While Q posts on anonymous message boards, QAnon relies on mainstream social networks to grow its message beyond the fringes of the internet. The message boards where the clues are published are difficult to use, but potential mainstream converts are used to using sites like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, or TikTok.
Reddit banned QAnon in 2018, sending QAnon followers scrambling to other platforms. Twitter announced a partial crackdown in July, banning 7,000 accounts that had already broken the site’s rules. Twitter also made it harder for QAnon followers to harass their targets or launch trending hashtags. This week, Facebook announced a crackdown of its own targeting QAnon accounts on Facebook and Instagram, including an algorithm ban meant to stop the sites from recommending QAnon content automatically—thereby accidentally sending users down the QAnon rabbit hole.
What’s up with the John F. Kennedy Jr. stuff?
A faction of QAnon believers are convinced that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his death in a plane crash in 1999, either to become Q or team up with Trump in some other way.
They’re even convinced that one particular Trump supporter, a man named Vincent Fusca Jr., is Kennedy in disguise. Fusca declined to be interviewed, and hasn’t publicly disputed the claim.
While the JFK Jr. fans are controversial even within QAnon, they’re unquestionably enthusiastic. At the Trump-centric Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, D.C., in 2019, several JFK Jr. fans bearing images of him wearing a MAGA hat circulated in Trump’s hotel lobby. When I asked one woman what her JFK Jr. sign meant, she leaned in and whispered, “He’s alive!” before running off.
What is adrenochrome?
Many QAnon adherents believe that the deep-state cabal members aren’t just abusing children for Satanic rituals. Instead, they claim that the torture and abuse produces a blood-like substance called “adrenochrome,” which they claim cabal members and celebrities drink to stay young.
The idea of world elites drinking children’s blood is rife with anti-Semitic tropes— an aspect of QAnon that often isn’t clear when people are first introduced to it.
What do I do if someone close to me starts believing in QAnon?
Reddit forums like QAnon Casualties are filled with stories of anguished people whose relationships with QAnon believers have become strained or which have ended entirely. Conversely, QAnon believers often post themselves about how they have become alienated from their families because of their belief in QAnon.
In this telling, the world of Q research becomes their new “family.”
If you are concerned that someone you know is becoming a QAnon believer, it’s important to not immediately ridicule their new worldview or point out its many factual flaws, according to writer David Neiwert. The author of Red Pill, Blue Pill, an upcoming book on how people can deal on an individual level with conspiracy theories, Neiwert warns that directly attacking QAnon beliefs will convince the QAnon supporter that their friend or relative is a part of the conspiracy themselves.
“It’s really important to maintain the friendship or the relationship that you have with that person throughout,” Neiwert said.
Instead, Neiwert advises people to draw out what personal problems may be drawing someone to QAnon, and talk about how to address those.
“What you’ll find is that everyone who is drawn into this stuff has usually unaddressed grievances or issues,” Neiwert siad.
Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any easy answers for how to convince a QAnon believer that it’s fake. And there aren’t really any prominent Q-defectors, whose stories could serve as a template for others to follow.
“It’s a long, slow, and frequently very painful process,” Neiwert said.