If you’ve spent any time around the seedier corners of the internet, you’ve probably heard of QAnon.

Followers of this conspiracy theory believe that Donald Trump is engaged in a secret war against a cabal of paedophiles, including Democrats and Hollywood stars. Fast-forward to 2022, QAnon followers are still around despite their leader(s) disappearing — and they’ve taken a sinister turn.

‘Q’ has Spoken

For years adherents followed the words of ‘Q’, an anonymous figure who posted on the message board site 8kun about ‘the Storm’ — a fast-approaching conflict in which the likes of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would be arrested and tried for crimes against humanity.

But the Storm never arrived. The Capitol riots on January 6 did not result in the 2020 election being overturned, as Q predicted. Joe Biden was inaugurated as President, and the two central figures of QAnon effectively went dark. As Trump was banned from Twitter and Facebook Q vanished entirely, their final post going up on 8kun in December 2020.

These events sent shockwaves of disbelief and bewilderment through QAnon communities and led some observers to claim that QAnon was dead and buried. And yet, despite the odds, the conspiracy theory is very much alive and flourishing.

Troubling Questions

QAnon’s survival raises troubling questions. How could a movement built on a secret knowledge of the ‘truth’ survive such a crushing miscalculation? In particular, when a conspiracy theory fails, what happens to its followers? And is killing off QAnon once and for all even possible?

For Alex Mendela, a member of the Q Origins project and disinformation analyst for the Alethea Group, reports of QAnon’s demise are greatly exaggerated. ‘There have been claims that QAnon ‘died’ as a result of Q’s absence and Trump’s electoral loss’, says Mendela. ‘But this couldn’t be further from the truth’.

‘The movement is still both salient and harmful’.

After January 6, social media companies purged QAnon accounts from their platforms. However, rather than stopping QAnon, this seems to have driven it underground, with followers turning to alternative social media platforms that have looser rules around misinformation and extreme content.

‘The movement lives on in spaces like Telegram, as well as Twitter and YouTube clones like Gab and Rumble’, says Alex.

‘Without Q, the burden of sustaining the super-conspiracy narratives which drive the movement fell to those individuals on social media who contextualise Q’s posts, who are referred to as “influencers” ‘.

These so-called ‘influencers’ include figures like Mike Flynn, Sidney Powell, and Lin Wood who extensively promoted the Big Lie that Trump had won the election. Increasingly, they have been joined by others who have grown in prominence since January 6 and who have taken the movement in more unusual and extreme directions.

One of those is Romana Didulo, a QAnon influencer who claims to be the rightful Queen of Canada. Last year, she called on her 70,000 Telegram followers to attack healthcare workers administering Covid-19 vaccines to children.

Another prominent new QAnon influencer is Robert Smart, who posts on Telegram under the name of GhostEzra. Since January 2021 his following has grown from 26,000 to 300,000, and his channel blends typical QAnon content with outright Neo-Nazism, including claims that Jews created Communism and were secretly responsible for the two World Wars.

‘Many of these influencers have maintained much of what we might consider a more ‘traditional’ QAnon mythos’, says Alex.

‘Others, however, have undergone drastic transformations by adopting more extreme narratives or directly encouraging offline violence’.

What Gives Conspiracy Theories Longevity?

So how come QAnon survived despite its founder vanishing and its central prophecy having failed? The answer lies in the nature of conspiracy theories. Specifically, the reasons that make them so enticing to such a large number of people.

‘Research suggests that people are attracted to conspiracy theories when one or more psychological needs are frustrated’, says Karen Douglas, a professor of Social Psychology at Kent University specialising in the psychology of conspiracy theories.

Her work has shown that the draw of conspiracy theories is an emotional one; related to the need for certainty and control during times of perceived crisis. As a result, logical fallacies in a conspiracy theory exposed by, say, the movement’s central prophet abruptly vanishing can have little effect on its true believers.

‘Conspiracy believers tend to be good at interpreting all kinds of information in ways that are consistent with the conspiracy theory’, argues Prof. Douglas.

‘For example, if someone has disappeared, perhaps they disappeared because of some other conspiracy. Or maybe they are being “silenced” by a powerful group.

‘Layers can be added on top of the conspiracy theory to explain things — so that people are able to deal with inconsistent information and keep the conspiracy theory intact’.

The Attic of Conspiracy Theories

Yet another answer might be found in the fate of past conspiracy theories that lost their grip on popular consciousness. In the 1980s and ’90s, America was engulfed by the ‘Satanic Panic’, with stories of ritualistic child murders by satanic groups spreading like wildfire.

The mass hysteria surrounding anything ‘satanic’ led to several high-profile arrests and court cases — the most famous of which, the McMartin trial, collapsed in 1990 after claims of child sacrifice, devil worship and witchcraft against seven daycare staff were found to be unsupported.

The Justice Department debunked the idea that satanic ritual abuse cults were running rampant across the US in 1992, and the Satanic Panic gradually faded. But the fears and anxieties that underpinned it never truly went away, and many of its core ideas have been recycled into modern conspiracy theories — including QAnon.

The idea that the powerful figures who rule the world and traffic children are also Satanists is a key part of the QAnon mythos. Many of Q’s first posts encouraged readers to ‘open your eyes’ to the fact that ‘many in our government worship Satan’.

Satanic panic is not even the oldest conspiracy theory QAnon has plagiarised. Some of its more outlandish elements (such as the claim that liberal elites harvest a substance called ‘adrenochrome’ from the blood of trafficked children) have their roots in the ‘blood libel’, a conspiracy theory that dates back to the 12th Century. This antisemitic slur accused Jews of killing Christian children and using their blood in rituals, as well as poisoning wells and spreading diseases.

Ghosts of the Past

Modern-day conspiracies theories are haunted by the ghosts of these past conspiracies, which are constantly being recycled and repackaged to fit the narratives peddled by the next generation of conspiracy theorists.

During the pandemic, conspiracy theories as ancient as the blood libel myth have seen a revival, with some Covid conspiracy theorists accusing Jewish people of spreading and even creating the disease.

‘People are scared and uncertain about the pandemic and are looking for ways to cope with the uncertainty, insecurity, and loss of social contact’, explains Prof. Douglas.

‘Indeed, conspiracy theories seem to thrive in times of crisis’.

The uncertain world we live in means that conspiracy theories have never had a better environment to thrive, revive and evolve — and the way QAnon has managed to survive without its prophet whilst also becoming more extreme suggests this is unlikely to change soon. Perhaps the question we should be asking is not when QAnon will finally die, but what it might turn into next?

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