The origins of bizarre conspiracy theory spreading online

If QAnon’s claims were true, they would shake the very foundations of global government and explain the confusion of politics in recent years. As it is, they are not true – but their importance could nonetheless be hugely significant.

It might have been destined to stay as an underground conspiracy theory. But it has quickly taken root both online and off – becoming a feature of Trump rallies and being shared by some of the most important people in the media.

It is undeniably dark: it accuses some of the most powerful people in the world of some of the most heinous crimes. And it remains mostly mysterious.

Who is Q?

Q is, well, anon. Nobody knows who they are, or why they are posting what they do.

They are, among other things, a user on 4chan. They use that forum to post a whole load of cryptic messages, which make reference to the vast conspiracy theory that has become known as QAnon.

Sometimes, the posts are like puzzles, offerings hints and encouraging the people reading them to get involved. Others are more explicit, making allegations about specific people and in detail.

And they do appear to be a “they”. Q refers to themselves as “we”, apparently at least trying to suggest that it is a group rather than just one person.

The name appears to be a reference to the fact that the person claims to have “Q” clearance, a designation in the US Department of Energy that would allow the holder access to classified material.

For now, the identity or identities behind the conspiracy theory remains secret, and it’s possible it will always remain that way. While there is sometimes a specific focus on certain issues – such as the bureaucracy of the US government, and how it is trying to foil Donald Trump – it’s impossible to know whether the real people behind Q actually have any experience of it.

Where did all of this come from?

The theory began in October 2017, with an ominous post on 4chan titled “Calm Before the Storm” and written by someone using the name “Q Clearance Patriot”.

And where is it now?

The theory has grown and flourished, breaking out into the mainstream. It has been supported by celebrities and its followers have made appearances in real life at Trump rallies.

It also seems to be taking hold on more traditional platforms. This week, for instance, it emerged that for a brief time searching on YouTube for Tom Hanks would bring up false claims that he is a paedophile, which was linked to the QAnon theory.

Tens of thousands of people actively follow along on devoted subreddits and Twitter accounts. Many more have no doubt come into contact with the theory.

Do people believe this?

In short, yes. Probably not very many of them – but those people who do believe it seem to believe in it very fiercely.

A number of congressional candidates have embraced the theory ahead of the election later this year. And though Donald Trump has not explicitly backed the theory, he has given his tacit endorsement, saying that its followers “love our country”.

Some of its public followers are very famous indeed. The actress Roseanne Barr might even have been fired because of ideas that began with QAnon.

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She has tweeted about Q and retweeted posts from the “QAnon” account. In November 2017, she tweeted “Who is Q?” and reportedly asked Q to direct message her. In May, Barr posted a racist tweet about former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, who figures in some QAnon conspiracy theories. In response, ABC cancelled her hit TV show.

Why does it matter?

The allegations are damaging and dangerous, there’s no doubt. But there are plenty of damaging and dangerous accusations floating around the internet, many of which go unremarked upon.

QAnon is more dangerous for a couple of important reasons: the very damaging allegations that it makes are being broadcast to many people, many of whom might not realise they are fake; and because it bears many similarities to Pizzagate, which ended in real violence when a person entered a pizza restaurant carrying a gun.

Last year, an FBI intelligence bulletin suggested that followers could represent a domestic terrorism threat. For the time being, while there have been some acts of violence apparently inspired by QAnon, they have been mostly minor and undertaken by what seems to be a small minority of the theory’s adherents.

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