Have you received cryptic messages from friends or family about an upcoming blackout, that you should stock up on food & water, that something big is happening? Are your relatives accusing politicians of running child trafficking rings?
If so, you’ve very likely come into contact with the wild and expansive world of QAnon. Yes, the same QAnon prominently featured in the raid on the U.S. Capitol: Most iconically represented by the man with the Viking hat, the self-proclaimed “Q Shaman”*.
Those spreading QAnon beliefs may not even know they are doing so. QAnon is such a strange blend of MAGA conservatism & American Evangelicalism that is hard to spot if you don’t know what to look for.
The 1/6 Capitol raid was shocking and shameful for most Americans. However, for a large number of friends & neighbors, storming the symbol of our democracy made perfect sense. How can this be?
Part of the answer is found in QAnon’s strange and diverse conspiracy theories; a worldview that’s as hard to define as it is broad; it’s anything and everything at once — a mishmash of old school conspiracy thinking mixed with dark web memes.
I’ve been studying QAnon for the last six months and watched its influence spread from my friends and family into the very seat of democracy.
Q-followers and Q-influenced aren’t all cut from the same cloth but their beliefs grow out of shared conspiratorial roots.
Before we explore the different types of Q followers, here is a brief overview of QAnon’s core beliefs:
- There is a Cabal (aka “The Deep State”) that controls the whole world and has for centuries. This belief is a pillar that QAnon shares with many conspiracy theories.
- The Cabal includes high-level democrats and celebrities and pursues dark ends, including satanic rituals, cannibalism, and child sex trafficking. This belief likely shares roots with the “Satanic Panic” that emerged in the 1980s*.
- This is new: There is a mysterious high-ranking source in the government code-named “Q” with a secret plan to permanently overthrow The Cabal. Q leaves cryptic clues for his followers (Q Drops) that are decoded to uncover details of The Plan and directives for how to move The Plan forward. “Trust the plan” is a common Q-refrain.
- The Plan culminates in a judgment day style event they call “The Storm.” During The Storm, members of the Cabal — democrats, a few prominent jews, and whoever else the Q crowd dislikes at the moment — will be prosecuted via a military tribunal. Some will even be executed.
- After The Storm, Donald Trump will retake power and lead us into a utopia-like future where conservatives rule. Trump is an almost messianic figure in the current Q-lore which is partly why they are so beside themselves to see him stay in office long enough to bring in The Storm.
If all this sounds like a movie or video game, you are thinking about it correctly. QAnon is essentially an “Alternate Reality Game” (ARG), or “Live Action Role Play” (LARP). Whether it was designed this way intentionally or if it merely happened by accident is unknown (my guess is the latter.)
However, unlike most ARGs that stay local to a specific enthusiast community, this one has spread all over the globe, become a cult, and has left real-world devastation in its wake.
When it comes to the cult of QAnon, there are three primary types of followers: LARPers, True Believers, and Grifters.
Let’s start with the LARPers who seem to make up the majority.
LARPing involves transposing a Dungeons and Dragons-style role-playing game into the real world with elaborate costumes, props, and a loose set of rules.
QAnon LARPers (QLARPers) are in it for “the game” although they aren’t always conscious of it as they grow increasingly immersed in the “research.” They costume up in colorful MAGA hats, Q apparel, and flags, hold lively rallies, and excitedly decipher “Q Drops” online together. They’re a tight-knit, high energy, loyal community with the slogan, “Where we go one, we go all.”
Central to the QLARPing ethos is a sense of personal control, insider knowledge, and participation in the fight against the evil Cabal. When confronted with counter-information, they’ll respond with phrases like “Do your own research.” or “Wake up!”
In normal circumstances, QLARPers aren’t any more dangerous than your average role-playing gamer.
The closer we look at the Capitol raid, the more we see that it exploded from an unfortunate mix of QLARPers, vanilla MAGA, MAGA-Christianity, and bad actors like The Proud Boys, Oath Keepers & other neo-fascist groups, all united under their mutual support for Donald Trump.
Many QLARPers appeared to be caught up in the moment with their more radical counterparts during the Capitol raid. You can spot them in the many videos along with some of the other normie crowd wandering aimlessly throughout the Capitol looking nervous and taking selfies. A mob can make the most reasonable among us act out in ways we’d never do on our own.
A quick aside here: American Evangelicals grew up with clue-based apocalyptic thinking blended seamlessly with conservative politics. Entire ministries (businesses really) exist around the hunt for new signs of the coming tribulation.
The transition from this type of US-centric, Evangelical, apocolpytic thinking to QAnon isn’t much of a leap. In a sense, many American Evangelicals were unintentionally groomed to believe many core tenants of QAnon from childhood.
The True Believers
These are the folks who believe in Q, not just in word, but in action. While it can be hard to tell the difference between a QLARPer and a true believer by listening to them, there are some red flags to look for:
- Spending financial capital they don’t have: They spend too much money on QAnon related funds, books, events, etc.
- Spending social capital they don’t have: If they are burning bridges left and right with friends and family, are putting their job at risk, or similar behavior because of their conspiratorial beliefs, they have crossed the line.
- Destructive behavior: Whether damaging physical property or relationships, destructive action associated with conspiratorial beliefs is a giant red flag.
A True Believer needs help. Often times there are underlying economic or psychological pressures that need to be addressed that are fueling their conspiratorial worldview. If you are in a position to help them, you should try — find more on that at the end of this article.
These are the charlatans at the top and the ones who should be held most responsible for the chaos they are causing. They use QAnon beliefs to raise money and gain social fame around false hope and lies. They have books to sell, private subscriptions for exclusive information, or funds to “take back America.”
A recent example of a QAnon Grifter is Syndey Powell, who claimed to be on Trump’s legal defense team and raised large amounts of money to fund futile court cases. Of course, she didn’t deliver on any of her promises to “Release the Kracken” (that is, provide the smoking gun that finally proved that Trump won the election.)
QAnon followers have even infested Congress. Marjorie Taylor Greene*, a congresswoman from Georgia is a long-time Q-follower and often promotes Q-related misinformation.
Many other grifters prey on True Believers and QLARPers alike, including Michael Flynn, Lin Wood, and sometimes even Trump himself.
Although Trump doesn’t directly connect his misinformation to QAnon, he often parrots the same misinformation that Q is spreading and gives more fuel to Q followers to keep fighting for The Plan. Before being banned by Twitter, Trump retweeted QAnon followers on multiple occasions*.
Nobody wants grandma to be spreading memes from an apocalyptic death-cult but here we are. When a LARP gets mixed with reality, unsuspecting bystanders are caught in the crossfire and become players of a game they may not even know exists.
Memes and Viral Spread
While most who post about conspiracy theories are not directly a QAnon follower, they are often unintentionally posting QAnon or Q-influenced memes*.
*By “meme” here, I’m referring to any text, images, or ideas that are meant to spread a key belief. In biological terms, a “high R-value” meme spreads to pandemic proportions without containment (i.e., censoring).
Q-memes are often spread with all caps sentences plus emojis to make them feel urgent: “BREAKING‼”️, “ALERT 🚨🚨🚨.” It’s perplexing that some people find this style credible but it must work because it keeps spreading.
MAGA Christianity and QAnon Sitting in a Tree
An unholy cocktail of MAGA, QAnon, and American Evangelicalism breached our national fabric in 2020.
There’s no doubt that the pandemic accelerated the growth of conspiracy beliefs. Everyone was pushed online and towards a collective nervous breakdown. All of this is exacerbated by the algorithmic social media feeds that tacitly radicalize their users by surfacing the next most likely thing they’ll click. Modern social media is basically a confirmation bias* machine.
Now many of QAnon's memes are prominently displayed on the feeds of ordinary Trump supporters and Evangelicals.
Here are a few examples of MAGA/QAnon memes you may come across:
- There’s a blackout coming. Trump will declare Martial Law and start “cleaning house” (This is a version of The Storm). Multiple people I know have received messages about this from relations in the last week*.
- Antifa led the Capitol raid. There is zero evidence of this so far, and this is an extremely well-documented event.
- The Pope was secretly arrested in a “Vatican Blackout” (these folks love their blackouts.)
- COVID-19 is a hoax and masks are a tool to condition us for government control.
- Bill Gates is a villain who is trying to control the global population by microchipping them with vaccines.
- Wayfair is a front for child trafficking: This false claim originated from a Q promoter on Twitter and was spread all over social media*.
- There’s an underground pedophile ring in the basement of a pizza joint in Washington DC, also known as Pizzagate*.
One of the difficulties, as with any conspiracy theory, is that there is usually a much less dramatic reality behind them. To point out a few:
- There is a “deep state” in the sense that unelected wealthy people, businesses, and some federal agencies have an outsized influence on political legislation through lobbying and back-door dealing.
- Bill Gates is making an obscene amount of money off of his vaccine and humanitarian endeavors.
- Epstein was a sex trafficker who hung out with many high-level politicians and power figures and purportedly committed suicide under highly suspicious circumstances.
- Human and child trafficking is real, but it’s not as widespread or organized as QAnon believes. Most cases of trafficking are not managed by a cabal or ring; they more often happen within families, close relationships, foster homes, homelessness, and workplaces. The many false claims from QAnon turn the issue into a conspiracy theory that makes the jobs of the people actually fighting human trafficking more difficult.**
- There were election irregularities in the 2020 election but not at any scale that could’ve tipped even a single state.
- COVID-19 is used as a political tool for both sides to push unrelated agendas. Obviously, the virus itself does not care about the partisan ideology of who it infects or kills.
Most people are not in a position to do anything about the above except passively observe. The QAnon game makes you a player, a “digital soldier” in the battle against an uncontrollable evil. It’s an outlet to translate real frustration and anger into a mirage that hands back the reins.
How do we talk to QAnon influenced friends and family?
Trying to reason with someone who has deeply held conspiratorial beliefs is difficult, if not impossible. That said, some forms of intervention are more effective than others.
The first question to ask when considering a conversation with a Q follower is: Do I need to talk to them about this at all?
Suppose the person in question is squarely in the QLARPer category and is not causing any real harm to themselves or others. In that case, it’s likely best to avoid the topic entirely and instead try to encourage more healthy outlets for the drama and meaning they are looking for (hobbies, sports, church, etc.)
If the person is in or moving into the True Believer category it may be time for a conversation.
First off, before having that conversation consider the following:
- If there are unmet economic or social needs, try to help with those. Sometimes the conspiracy beliefs are just a coping mechanism for a lack of control in a rough situation. Addressing the underlying need should reduce the need for a conspiratorial world view.
- If there are psychological issues or trauma at play, guide the person to see a licensed therapist. Go with them if you can.
If none-of-the-above applies, and you do end up in that conversation, here are some tips:
- Do not try and refute their arguments directly; this is futile. Instead, ask open questions; for example: How do you know? How do you know that source is trustworthy?
- Keep asking follow-up questions until the answers get implausible enough that they are aware of how they are sounding. You’ll know when you hit this point if they start saying things like, “I know this sounds crazy, but…”
- As soon as you detect some self-awareness, stop the conversation. No last jabs or corrections; say something like, “I think we’ve got some things to think about” and leave it. This technique will give the other person time to think about what they said in a less defensive posture and possibly reconsider why & what they believe on their own.
Here’s the thing that can be hard to stomach: even if your friend or family member does come around and leave their conspiratorial beliefs, they will more than likely never admit they were wrong or thank you. You’ll need to be OK with that.
The important thing is that their beliefs shifted in a healthy direction, not that you were “right.”
Most of the thinking in this article came from my own personal experience with MAGA-Christian-QAnon plus some helpful resources along the way.
- How QAnon-Like Conspiracy Theories Tear Families Apart
- A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon
- The QAnon Anonymous Podcast
- How #SaveTheChildren is pulling American moms into QAnon
- The Prophecies of Q
- How to talk to conspiracy theorists and still be kind
- Why your Christian friends & family members are so easily fooled by conspiracy theories