The past couple of months have been tough for the True Believers of the authoritarian QAnon conspiracy cult. Its primary mythology, predicated on a belief in the infallibility of Donald Trump as he does battle with nefarious globalist pedophiles, was dashed on the hard rocks of the reality of the November election results and Trump’s floundering attempts to contest them.
More recently, a study by language analysts established that the author of the message board “Q” posts that generated the cult in the first place—long believed by cultists to be an intelligence operative with high-level security clearance—has been in fact the work of two or more people, very likely the father-and-son team of Jim and Ron Watkins, the proprietors of the 8kun message board where the QAnon cult primarily dwells. But of course, that hasn’t slowed down the cult. QAnon conspiracy theories not only continue to thrive and spread, they continue to infiltrate every nook and cranny of our political and cultural discourse.
The study, conducted by text authentication specialists OrphAnalytics, examined all of the 4,592 posted to date by “Q” (who, as it happens, has posted only twice, enigmatically, since the election). Using genomics-based stylometrics, the analysts deployed artificial intelligence technology that compares frequencies of character patterns, which combine to establish individual signatures regardless of any textual meaning.
The authors concluded that there were two distinct authors of the Q posts, and that this authorship shifted when Q moved his posts from the 4chan message board—claiming the board had been “infiltrated”—to the more toxic site 8chan, which later rebranded as 8kun. Ron Watkins was the administrator of 8kun until last month. He also has become Trump’s primary QAnon whisperer, earning regular retweets from the Oval Office due to his assiduous spread of groundless conspiracy theories about the election results.
Both Watkinses adamantly deny that they are “Q,” though OrphAnalytics has promised that its next step is to compare their posts with those by “Q” to see if they indeed are the likely authors. Neither man has ever even applied for a government security clearance.
Despite all these setbacks, QAnon’s malign influence continues to grow, especially in a post-election environment in which Trump has refused to concede his defeat and his hardcore followers adamantly seek reasons to believe that “we won the Presidential Election, by a lot,” as he has been claiming.
A recent study of QAnon’s spread by the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) notes that the groundless conspiracy theories alleging that Dominion Voting Systems, an election software company, had fraudulently given Joe Biden his margin of victory first began circulating within the QAnon movement within days of the election. The theorists, posting primarily on 4chan and 8kun, claimed that Dominion software switched votes from Trump to Biden. Those claims quickly migrated to Twitter and Facebook.
“According to an analysis from Advance Democracy that was conducted for NBC News, one in seven tweets using hashtag #Dominion from November 5th to November 17th were from accounts that self-identified as QAnon supporters,” it noted.
QAnon-based conspiracism has been spreading via social media particularly to other movements prone to spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories, such as the anti-vaccination movement and other health-related conspiracy belief systems, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent Rolling Stone piece explored how it has become a dominant influence within the natural birth community, often to disastrous and tragic effect.
Analyses of the QAnon phenomenon suggest that much of the recent spike in QAnon activity is correlated with the recent COVID-19 pandemic: A Concordia University-based QAnon researcher named Marc-André Argentino found, after a data sweep in August, that QAnon has had a 71% increase in Twitter content and a 651% increase on Facebook since March. Much of that increase, he said, was related to the spread of the cult globally.
As the NCRI study reports:
The QAnon-conspiracy has grown exponentially, ensnaring ever-more individuals in a cult-like set of beliefs that destroys families, divides communities and has even sparked incidents of fatal violence. QAnon adherents are left completely divorced from reality, sometimes described by friends and family as “lost” to QAnon. The QAnon-conspiracy cult’s gamified ecosystem—which attracts people with psychological rewards for solving hidden ‘clues’—is spinning out of control.
The cult’s disruptive power is especially evident in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where followers have become militant about refusing to obey public health measures as well as being unwilling become vaccinated when the medication becomes available. What’s notably insidious about the QAnon theories is that they blend current health-related claims with long-running anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Jews are plotting to control the world through a secret cabal of elites.
The QAnon community, for example, widely promotes disinformation claiming that a secret globalist cabal—led by George Soros, the Rothschild family, and Bill Gates, among others—plans to use the vaccinations as an opportunity to implant microchips in unsuspecting citizens so they can be monitored and controlled. Others have claimed that 5G cellphone towers are the secret cause of the pandemic.
The levels of dysfunction are likely to become immense the more the QAnon cult gains followers. These dysfunctions occur on all levels: within families, between friends, within communities, and more broadly within the nation’s democratic discourse and in politics itself. And because the cult’s endgame is one in which all of its opponents are violently eliminated, those problems are likely to become immense.
As the NCRI report observes:
This raises an ominous question: if QAnon is a game, what is the reward at its conclusion? What is the player’s ultimate goal? What does QAnon want? The answer to this question is troubling, as it seems that QAnon, as guided by Q and scene influencers, ultimately seeks the humiliation, imprisonment, and even execution of its perceived cultural and political enemies, whom it dehumanizes as in league with the devil.
Rep. Denver Riggleman of Virginia, who is retiring from Congress this year, has been one of the only vocal Republican critics of the QAnon phenomenon. He told CNN that he intends to deliver an open rebuke to the group—and to his colleagues for tolerating it—on the floor of the House as one of his final acts.
"A lot of people scoff at QAnon -- think it's just a bunch of, let's face it, a bunch of idiots who believe anything on the internet," Riggleman said. "But there is something sinister. It's something much more dangerous going on here."