In Our Own Backyard: QAnon, Cults, and Conspirituality (part 1: What is QAnon?)
[This is a five-part series based on a couple of hours of interview for community radio. The aired version will obviously be much shorter, but I thought the content was interesting enough to warrant an unabridged text version. Each part will include an Index (at the end) to the whole series.]
I live on a smallish, semi-remote island embarrassingly called Cortes, on the inner coast of British Columbia, Canada. The population of our island is about 900 year-round, though in the summer months we’re swamped with tourism. The demographics are interesting and very mixed: First Nations people, early C20 Anglo settler families, 1950’s logging and fishing families, ageing draft dodgers from the 70's, back-to-the-landers of all ages, wealthy summer rusticators, reclusive libertarians… but overall, the island vote is more progressive than the surrounding area, and its social life and culture are flavoured with a kind of laid-back, New Agey, tolerant, well-meaning hippie-lite vibe. There are plenty of yoga classes, a very nice natural food co-op, and over thirty non-profit social service organisations (which in a population of under 1000, says a lot about volunteerism and community spirit).
I offer this quick background sketch for context, to explain how very surprised — no, actually, shocked — I was when I learned that QAnon had won converts on my island. One thing I do here is local journalism (radio and website), so with my journo hat on I smelled a story. As it so happens, two of our local residents — Alex Hornby and Darshan Stevens, themselves Medium contributors — have been seriously studying the QAnon phenomenon for some time, and have first-hand experience of it. They kindly agreed to be interviewed for local radio.
What follows is an edited transcript of that interview. While I’ve tightened the text up a lot — removing verbal tics, repetitions and train-wreck sentences, smoothing syntax etc. —and resequenced large blocks of it to create some kind of thematic structure — this edited version is true to the sense, spirit, and content of the raw audio. No one is quoted out of context or deliberately misinterpreted.
PART ONE: What is QAnon?
DE: So we’re here today to talk about QAnon, but not everybody knows what the heck is a QAnon when it’s at home… So I’m wondering if maybe you guys can just give me a little background — what is QAnon?
ALEX: I think a lot of people learned a little bit about it at least, after the insurrection of January 6th. But it’s a complicated question. What is QAnon? We wrote an article about it about a year ago, trying to explain how it was kind of a cultish thing; and it was about a 15-minute read before I was able to get just through the basic description of what it was, before I could try to analyze what the heck it was doing cult-wise. But I think the simplest explanation is that it’s a an online, pro-Trump disinformation campaign that has sort of evolved, organically, to become something of a cult.
DE: So you would say it’s cult-like, but it’s a cult that sort of politically weaponised?
ALEX: Yeah, cult-like because it’s online and we haven’t really seen that before. Cults are mostly groups of people situated together in person. But here you’ve got it across the globe. So that’s why I’m calling it cult-like. Although at this point, I would say it is operating as a cult.
DE: So there are two things about cults that I immediately think of. One I don’t associate so much with QAnon, is that many cults have a particular charismatic central leader, authority figure, Guru-person. Someone who has whatever quality it takes that attracts some followers and wins their loyalty, and they form the nucleus. And the other thing is that most cults have a particular dogma, narrative, or belief system, that’s pretty codified. They have their own internal mythology and symbolism and credo, all that stuff. So how does QAnon stack up on both of those counts?
DARSHAN: So QAnon has both of those things in spades. I would say as far as the charismatic leader goes, Trump would be their figurehead, around which they coalesce all of their beliefs and all of their predictions. And the second question around the symbology and dogma and legends…
DE: …the story you have to subscribe to to become a member…
DARSHAN: …yeah, I think a big part of that with QAnon would be their ideas around the Deep State. So that seems to be what a lot of the beliefs in QAnon coalesce around, this Deep State Mythos.
ALEX: Yeah, this idea that there are powerful people behind the scenes politically, even religiously, throughout the world, that are in control of our lives — pulling the strings on the way we go about our day-to-day lives.
DE: It’s not such an unreasonable belief. There are powerful people in the world who pull a lot of strings — so what distinguishes this as a cultic type belief?
ALEX: I think the way in which fear of the Deep State is broadcast and amplified and encouraged to a level of, I would say, genuine absurdity; it gets people into that place where they are more vulnerable to control and influence, in a real fearful state.
DE: So what are the things they believe about the Deep State? What are some of the actual beliefs that cause the fear?
DARSHAN: Yeah. So what about QAnon is so sensational, that gets put out a lot, is that QAnon is based on this premise that the Democrats, Hollywood Elites, especially Jewish people, are all part of a satanic cabal where they ritually eat children and perform sex acts with them.
ALEX: Yes, it’s more than just a powerful group of people behind the scenes pulling the strings financially and influencing us — it’s exaggerated to this level of extreme paranoia, extreme exaggeration of evil.
DE: So let me get this right. These are people who who believe sincerely, I mean not in some kind of ironic postmodern way, but who actually believe that Democrats and Hollywood Elites and Rich Jewish Bankers are — literally not metaphorically — part of a worldwide conspiracy that kidnaps children, makes sexual use of them, and eats them.
ALEX: Yeah. Well, when you look at any cult doctrine if you just, you know, bite off a chunk of it from the outside and read it, you’re going to just feel like “How could anybody possibly believe this? How does anybody subscribe to this cult? How did they get stuck there?” And people who get out of cults look back and think “Oh my God, how did I ever think that?” But there seems to be this incremental process… You bite off a little bit, you get excited by that. There’s some information that makes you feel a little bit special, like you’ve got some special knowledge; and you start biting off a little bit more, and pretty soon you’ve gone in this direction that to an outsider, well, it’s really unimaginable that anybody would believe it. So yeah, you got this situation where possibly millions of people right now are genuinely believing that people who are opposed to the Trump Administration have these satanic loyalties and tendencies towards pedophilia.
DE: So they’re not merely political opponents. They’re actually existential opponents — absolute enemies…
ALEX: … Yeah, enemies of the human race is what they’ve ascribed to opponents. You know, it’s very much a pro-Trump campaign; and Trump being who he is, you kind of need something more dramatically evil and and weird and out there than the man himself. So, you know pedophilia works great for that.
DARSHAN: Yeah. They say it’s no coincidence that they’ve chosen this particular issue because it pulls at people probably more than anything else. So when people start talking about child sexual exploitation, it’s almost like their thinking brain goes offline, and it becomes pure emotion. And so it hooks people in so intensely that it kind of bypasses some of the more logical parts of the brain where we might be saying: wait a second, all these things don’t add up. It’s just like “How could you not be supporting this if all of these children are being exploited? you must be a horrible human being!” But of course we care about children. “Then don’t you want to know what’s happening? What’s really happening?” And that hooks people in.
DE: I just want to say in passing. I’m hearing some very strange historical echoes here. I mean we said — we said bankers and Jewish, and then we said kidnapping children — and that’s the Blood Libel, which is this famous anti-Semitic mythology that has haunted Europe for generations and generations, that has caused pogroms and fundamentally underlaid the anti-Semitism that fuelled the rise of the Nazi party… and all that. So it’s a little bit startling to me, as a 21st century person, to see something like the Blood Libel appearing in the modern era, as content on the internet.
ALEX: Yes. QAnon draws very heavily from anti-Semitic storylines. The pro-Trump movement, it’s kind of a pro-fascist movement — a lot of this is coming out of a kind of a Neo-Nazi Ultra right-wing phenomenon, and many of the deep-rooted promoters of QAnon come from that background. So, not surprising that they’re throwing that old stuff into the mix here, to get people excited and afraid… and to work people up, just like it really worked back in the 30s. I just hope it doesn’t all come crashing down in an explosion like Nazi Germany or something like that. But most of those conspiratorial stuff has always lived along with us. At times it flares up, at times diminishes; at times causes extreme chaos, harmless at other times. So I really have no idea where this is going to go, or how bad it might get.
DARSHAN: I remember one of my friends, when I was trying to explain my problems with QAnon, said to me: “Well, I feel like a lot of the people who are really into QAnon have kind of the same issues with what’s happening in the world that you do.” And yet you can’t argue with them. One of the main things that they do first of all, is to discredit facts — discredit fact-checkers. Discredit any media sources. They call it the MSM or the lamestream media.
DE: In science, we have the concept of the falsifiable theory; if the theory is not falsifiable, then it’s not to be taken seriously. And I do see what you mean about that because for some of these far-right cultists… If something is reported in the media, that proves it didn’t happen — because the media is corrupt and is all fake. But if something is not reported in the media, and there’s no evidence of it — then that’s because there was a big cover-up, but it really happened anyway. So there’s no falsifiability. There is no evidence that is satisfactory to prove or disprove any of these assertions.
ALEX: Yeah, but that’s gets back to your earlier question about about why or how is QAnon more dangerous than certain other conspiratorial things — and I think it’s because of that very cultish thing of blocking off or closing all the windows to outside information for those who are already indoctrinated — the self-sealing system. QAnon works hard to paint this idea that any source outside, in the media, that doesn’t agree with them, is clearly corrupted — owned by George Soros or some weird part of the Deep State. I hadn’t seen that in some of the other more trivial conspiratorial beliefs. But this is this is where it gets very cold… cutting its members off from anyone who disagrees, which could mean cutting off your family, cutting off your friends and certainly limiting your new sources down to the Q groups or…
DARSHAN: … YouTube, NewsMax, it’s kind of Choose Your Own News Adventure at that point, where we’re getting our news from these individuals on YouTube and making sure that we don’t get our news from any reputable sources.
ALEX: Cutting off your avenues of escape in a lot of ways — the way cults do.
DE: I was just making that connection — not just with cults, but with what they call High Control Behaviors, generally; I mean this reminds me of cult members who are told to hand in their cell phones and hand over all their money and you know, trust themselves to the cult leader. Plus the kind of coercive control that goes with a lot of domestic violence. The guy who won’t let his partner see her family, or he doesn’t want friends to visit, wants to keep control, keep that person in a bubble.
ALEX: Exactly, and as far as mythos, there’s this idea too that anybody who is not with us is against us — in the sense that they may well be satanic pedophiles themselves! Your friends, your neighbors, if they are hostile to this QAnon thing, are not to be trusted — potentially dangerous, potentially your enemies, potentially the enemies of God.
DARSHAN: So in cults they call this phobia indoctrination — and a lot of cult experts think of that as the number one most important thing for keeping people in the cult, is this phobia indoctrination. Fear of the other, and fear of repercussions if you leave, and making sure that there are a lot of repercussions if you leave; and that is very much the case with QAnon as well. Because honestly, people are destroying their lives for the Q beliefs. So then there’s like the sunk cost fallacy, where it’s very difficult to come back and the further and further you get in, the harder and harder it is to come back from that. I know we’re going to get to this later on but I just want to say that that’s why the most important thing — if you have people you care about who have gotten really deep into QAnon — is to try your best to stay connected with them. Because they will be cutting off all of the people in their lives that aren’t involved in the cult; or the people in their lives that are not involved in QAnon will not be able to tolerate being around them any more and just naturally fall away.
ALEX: Like unFriend you on Facebook…
DARSHAN: … and this is the way the algorithms work on Facebook, or this is the way that sort of natural attrition works on Facebook. Say you have a friend that’s posting something very right wing or very conspiratorial; right away a whole bunch of their friends are going to come in and say Hey, this isn’t true, why are you posting this and so on and so forth. And that might happen for a while, but eventually those friends fall away because they’re tired of it… or they unfriend that person or they block them… so pretty soon the only people that are commenting on that person’s posts are people who agree with them —
DE: — and then you get the illusion of majority agreement, which is reinforcing.
DARSHAN: Exactly and people get that in the QAnon community.
ALEX: Yeah, and there’s an interesting phenomenon that I think makes QAnon a little different than some cults. Is that the QAnon-believers or adherents are actually creating a great deal of the Mythos themselves.
DE: Oh, it’s collaborative?
ALEX: It’s very much an organic collaborative co-creative process. And I think that’s partly why it’s really exciting. So like the early posts from from Q were kind of an embarrassment. He — whoever Q was — was suggesting that you know, Hillary Clinton is going to be arrested on this particular day. The first several of these predictions were completely wrong; but this individual or group of individuals learned after a while that if you just post questions rather than make predictions that are going to fail, then the people who are following it will try to answer those questions by going online researching, finding all kinds of things, one suggesting this and somebody else suggesting that, and pretty soon…. you have a storyline completely manufactured that’s much broader, much more interesting and probably way more out there than anything that Q himself/herself/theirself had in mind. So I think it’s become this crazy tarantula created by the QAnon supporters themselves.
DARSHAN: Yeah, they call it baking. So the Q drop is like a bread crumb and all of the followers — all of us digital soldiers fighting the Meme War in QAnon — we take those bread crumbs and we bake. That’s the language that they use; so baking it is like coming up with theories around what this Q drop or this breadcrumb means?
DE: Well, this is interesting. This is like a democratized version of the Sibyls of ancient Greece — they made totally cryptic utterances and then there was a very elite priesthood that would interpret those utterances to the faithful. Except in this case the interpreters have become this sort of democratized mob of online believers. Like crowdsourced prophesy.
ALEX: Yeah, it’s a do-it-yourself religion, do-it-yourself distributed mob.
DE: That’s fascinating because it’s in the one sense so old-school authoritarian and hierarchical in supporting, you know, a crypto-fascist figurehead like Trump… and yet at the same time kind of distributed and self-organizing and very 21st century.
ALEX: Yeah, you can you can literally watch online. You can watch an idea become a truth become part of the mythos. Somebody will ask “Is it possible that such and such, because his name starts with an H, and H is the 8th letter in the alphabet, and this this this this this…” and eventually a week later you’re going to see somebody expounding on it, because this has become true. Then this is the new true. And there it is, all of a sudden it’s it’s part of the truth of QAnon and as we saw, some people are willing to die for it.
DE: Wow, it’s like doctrinal divergence and development of a credo, all moving in fast-forward and decentralised, no Council of Nicaea…
DARSHAN: Yeah, and one more thing I want to add to that is a lot of the experts that are studying QAnon from the outside refer to it as a LARP. [Live Action Role Playing game.] So like a live-action right? I think that there’s so much truth to that, people are LARPing so much with this QAnon movement. We’ve listened to a lot of podcasts from these fellows that we follow called QAnon Anonymous; and they go undercover to all the QAnon rallies and there’s this sense, when we listen to these podcasts, that it doesn’t really translate well to real life. Like it really works when you’re LARPing and when you’re online, but in person it just sort of comes across as, like, trying too hard? And I kind of got that feeling on the sixth of January. It’s like people went there, they were all “We’re going to storm the Capitol, all this is going to happen!” It’s like a video game to them. But then once they’re actually in the capital…. there’s this sort of —
ALEX: — this interfacing with reality in a way that doesn’t quite work.
DARSHAN: Yeah, it doesn’t compute — like what do we do now? Of course there was a tremendous amount of violence, and terrifying things that were going on there, and scary stuff people were chanting and saying. But I do think that a lot of them were just kind of standing around, like “What do we do now, this is weird, like we’re in a video game and we’re in the Capitol, isn’t something supposed to happen? Like where’s the boss fight? Where are the people that we hang? Where are the people that we handcuff?”
DE: That’s really interesting, because that suggests connections for example to video gaming culture, and massive multiplayer online RPG; and there’s a whole subculture there that we could explore! But let’s stay focussed on cults… Do we know how many QAnon members there actually are in the world? if there is such a thing as membership?
DARSHAN: There are millions. We know that, and I think maybe in the tens of millions —
ALEX: — it’s quite possible. But it’s really impossible to know. There’s no membership. There’s no organization — like Antifa. There’s nothing there, other than just people who adhere to some degree or another, to various elements of the myth —
DARSHAN: I think that also a lot of people who might be — like us — on the outside, would consider “this person is a part of QAnon” …but that person might not necessarily identify that way, probably won’t…
DE: Because they’re just transmitting part of the viral meme basket —
DARSHAN: — that’s right —
DE: — they’re more like a carrier than like a conscious agent. Another question that has haunted me many times is…Do we have any sense of how many of the people posting QAnon memes on social media are actually people?
DARSHAN: That’s a really good question. And I think that there is a huge movement of —
DE: — bots —
DARSHAN: — that are promoting these messages because, then it seems more verifiable; because hundreds of thousands of tweets have already come out about this, so yeah, of course, I’m going to retweet it. Of course. It must be real because all of these other people have tweeted it.
DE: And we’ve seen in a number of cases how very influential these bot farms could be —
DARSHAN: — extremely influential.
ALEX: So Facebook actually did some research on what percentage of the memes that were being put out there about the Covid-is-a-hoax or just Covid in general as a topic… and almost 90% of it was coming from Russian and Chinese Bot Farms, originating there and then getting shared.
DE: Okay, that sounds like a conspiracy theory to me! [laughter] But that’s verifiable data, from Facebook, of the origin IPAs of these messages —
ALEX: — and the exact percentage I don’t remember, but yes I was astonished by seeing what the preponderance of it was — that they figured was coming from say Russia through Macedonia, or wherever it was.
DE: To what extent do you think your average friend — social media user, internet user — is aware of the potential of artificial intelligence, aware of how much of what they see online is not posted by a human being?
DARSHAN: I think people are not very aware of it, or they’re aware of it but not really understanding the implications. Not really aware about how it’s being used to manipulate and further an agenda.
ALEX: Yeah, I’ve no idea. It’s definitely grounds for paranoia. I’ve certainly read a lot of paranoid things about it! But yeah, I don’t know.
Part Two: The Narrative, and Susceptibility — what draws people in, and are some people more likely candidates than others?
Part Three: Among Our Friends — when it gets up close and personal; the grief of losing friends to madness; conspirituality; right-wing hippies? Once down the rabbit hole, how hard is it to get out again?
Part Four: Theatre, Grift, or Passionate Belief? how seriously does QAnon take itself? how is it like or unlike other grifts, scams, and cults? Is it a new religion?
Part Five: Why Worry? — why should we care any more about QAnon than any other eccentric contrarian belief cluster? (includes Resources for further reading)