QAnon — an all-encompassing right-wing conspiracy theory about everything from the JFK assassination to pedophile rings based on the vague writings of an anonymous internet poster — has now fully broken into the mainstream, thanks mostly to the alarming number of Trump supporters who showed up to the President’s most recent rallies decked out in “Q” gear.
So what’s QAnon?
The QAnon conspiracy theory revolves around an anonymous internet poster going by the name “Q.” This Q (who may be more than one person!) claims to be a high-ranking government official, supposedly with Q clearance, which would theoretically give them access to material classified as top secret. Q’s posts are usually vague on specifics, but the general narrative is that everything President Trump does is part of a secret mission to take down a global pedophile ring, expose the deep state, and who knows what else.
The QAnon conspiracy theory rolls other new conspiracy theories into it on a regular basis. For example: JFK Jr., who was killed in a plane crash in 1999, never died. In fact, he may be Q himself, according to one of the latest QAnon updates.
Internet conspiracy theories have existed long before QAnon, of course. Pizzagate, a fake news story that ended up having real-world consequences, is a well-known example. But in describing how QAnon is different, NBC’s Ben Collins probably put it best: QAnon is “Pizzagate on bath salts.”
People like to call Qanon “Pizzagate on steroids,” but it’s really both emotionally and socioeconomically Pizzagate on bath salts.
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) July 31, 2018
QAnon continues to grow legs due to a number of factors, and there’s enough blame to go around. There’s our president, Donald Trump, who himself has long dabbled in conspiracy theories. There are platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, where conspiracies get shared and whose founders “turn a blind eye to the dangers of bullshit.”
How QAnon began
But another major factor, one that especially aided in providing “QAnon” an air of legitimacy, is a lack of understanding as to how the internet works when it comes to those who believe in it.
Those who have really taken to QAnon are not your typical internet conspiracy theorists. The Daily Beast’s Will Sommers has been following the conspiracy theory since its beginnings in October 2017, when Q first started posting in reference to Trump’s seemingly random, off-the-cuff remark to the press about a “calm before the storm” while taking a photo with military leaders.
While regulars in the conspiracy theory world, like recently de-platformed Alex Jones, have come out against the QAnon conspiracy, saying they don’t believe Q is who he says he is, Sommers points out how QAnon is extremely popular among Trump-loving baby boomers. QAnon followers skew shockingly old for a conspiracy theory that began on 4chan, the infamous online forum known mostly for its shitposting teens and long history of supporting internet hoaxes.
The Pew Research Center recently found that more than 60 percent of people between the ages of 50 and 65 are now on at least one social network. And, according to some studies, baby boomers, typically defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, now spend even more time online than millennials.
Most revealing, though, is what studies have found when it comes to how baby boomers use the internet and social media. Boomers take action based on what they see and read online. They are 19 percent more likely to share content than any other generation, especially when it comes to political content. While boomers are most likely to seek out more information on something they come across on the internet, a study found that only 10 percent of them share information with the intent of educating their online audience. Boomers are opinionated and share content as long as it’s meaningful to them.
However, boomers, a majority of which voted for Donald Trump, didn’t grow up with the internet, and didn’t develop their relationship with technology in the same was as subsequent generations. They’re soaking up the latest tech but they may not necessarily be as skeptical of less mainstream platforms like 4chan and 8chan (another, even fringier platform where Q now posts his/her/their latest updates), places where trolls reign supreme and people often fabricate events out of thin air just to get a rise out of others. Boomers are looking for political content to share, and these forums have plenty to give. Whether or not it’s factual often takes a backseat to whether or not it’s provocative.
The web unravels
One of the early viral QAnon moments is a perfect showcase of how the conspiracy is fueled by boomers who may be confused by how these tech platforms work. Screenshots like this one, which spread in November of last year, reinforce the idea among the less tech-savvy that Q is connected to Trump like Q says.
A screenshot from 4Chan made to depict an incident where Q “knew” what Trump was going to tweet.
This mash-up of two messages makes up looks like QAnon posted a message with the “+++,” and Trump tweeted the same symbols a few minutes later. Interpreted by QAnon believers, this is Trump’s wink and a nod to Q and their movement.
However, if you examine the original posts, it becomes clear that this is wildly misleading. The time zones don’t sync up.
Twitter reflects the timezone of your location if you’re logged in to your account. 4Chan time is eastern standard time. On November 6, 2017 at 5:07 p.m. Eastern, Q posts on 4Chan:
Nothing is random.
Everything has meaning.
Reflected in the same timezone, Trump’s “+++” tweet from that day was actually posted at 4:15 p.m. Eastern — almost a full hour before Q’s. Q was referencing Trump after the fact, which literally anyone can do.
The Trump tweet as viewed in the same timezone as the 4Chan timestamp showing Trump’s tweet actually came first.
There are other moments like this screenshot where Q will quote a post of his from before a Trump tweet, then repost it after a Trump tweet — with the text displaying the original posts timestamp — quoting the President once again, leading some to believe Trump quoted Q in verbatim while it was actually the opposite.
Note the first line of the image showing the new post timestamp on 4Chan where the copy and pasted text from the Trump tweet was added.
Most people with even a tiny bit of tech savviness aren’t falling for this stuff. They get how these sites work. But for those who don’t, like some boomers, it can look like Q actually does have the inside scoop about what Trump, their guy, is about to do before he does it.
Prior to the QAnon conspiracy blowing up recently, there weren’t very many trusted sources where one could go to find out more about it, let alone debunking this nonsense. For those attempting due diligence, a Google search to find more about QAnon would just return unreliable blogs and conspiracy websites promoting the theory as legitimate, leading the reader deeper down the rabbit hole.
However, with the conversation around QAnon reaching the mainstream, that’s changing. But the conspiracy probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’ll approach a year of festering online this October. Like with most conspiracy theorists when they fall in this deep, you probably won’t be able to convince a QAnon believer with debunks, no matter how factual.
But you can understand why this is happening. And maybe, if your mom and dad are starting to spend more and more time online, keep them far away from the QAnon conspiracy.