Supervised by: Beth Hermaszewska, BA (Hons). Beth graduated from St Catharine’s College, Cambridge in 2020 with a First Class degree in Human, Social and Political Science. Whilst at university, she was awarded the Lady Cocket (c.1635) Scholarship for academic excellence, the St Catharine’s College Mennell Prize for Politics, Psychology and Sociology, and she presented her Second Year research project at the International XI Afin Reproductive Sociology Conference 2020 in Granada, Spain. She is now undertaking graduate study in Law.
Looking for alternate answers and trivializing complex situations is ingrained into our human nature, but when these different ways of thinking become baseless conspiracy theories, a multitude of issues arise. Social movements are organized efforts designed to create social or political change, and their members have shared common goals and values. They differ from social movements as they often result in the spread of fear, corruption, and even violence. Conspiracy theories have always been popular, from ideas like blood libels in regards to antisemtisim in the middle ages, to more modern ones like the belief that COVID-19 is a hoax. The topic is significant in modern socipolitics, as new waves of conspiracy have attracted millions of followers, infiltrated government bodies, and caused terrorism. This paper examines the relation between social movements and QAnon, a new anti-establishment conspiracy theory. The thesis of this essay is that QAnon is in fact not only a conspiracy theory, but its own social movement. By analyzing the structure of the QAnon conspiracy and how its beliefs evolve and spread, and the similarities between it and typical social movements, a profound conclusion can be made. The ideas and research presented further in this paper create a profound argument for QAnon to be considered a social movement rather than just a conspiracy. This result is significant as it is the first step in trying to understand the scope and influence QAnon has on sociopolitics, and can aid in attempting to halt the movement.
Among the first documented social movements were efforts to push for the Polish Constitution and French Revolution. Although in recent history social movements have been associated with efforts like the Arab Spring or Black Lives Matter, a new wave of organized conspiracy movements have dominated American culture and politics. Ideas regarding a world order, organized political activities, and skepticism about events like 9/11 are rooted in rising anti-establishment sentiments and a general lowered confidence in the American government structure. QAnon in particular is an example of this, as a movement of anti-establishment conspiracy theorists that has reached millions of people, including many outside the US. These beliefs have always been dangerous, promoting bigotry and violence. QAnon is no exception. Its evolving, erratic beliefs have reached millions of people, dividing America socially and politically and leading to acts of terror and extraneous violence. Its certain level of secrecy helps it gain more followers, as members crave to find more and more conspiracies. Its popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, and division has formed over whether or not QAnon is just a conspiracy theory, or something more powerful. In the last couple of years, it has become something unique in the field of conspiracy: a social movement.
Unlike other conspiracy theories, QAnon is constantly evolving. Although its core belief is that a group of powerful elites, including many U.S. politicians, are Satanic pedophiles, it brings together a range of other, major conspiracies – including ones relating to Hillary Clinton, 9/11, and bigoted rhetoric – into one huge, unorganized concoction of baseless beliefs. Instead of focussing on a concrete event or person, it relies on a consistent feed of new events that it ties together, creating a never-ending hoax. QAnon started in early 2017, when an anonymous user of a site called 8chan named “Q Clearance Patriot”, declared himself to be an important government insider with information about Trump’s war on a group of global elite (Collins, Zadrozny). This announcement connected to a previous conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. In 2016, an occurrence known as Pizzagate proclaimed that Hillary Clinton and other democratic representaitves were running a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizza shop in Washington D.C, and had been used to smear Democrats as “dangerous” to the public. Once Q Clearance Patriot, who became known as Q, rose in popularity and QAnon took off, Pizzagate was used as an anchor for the entire conspiracy. As QAnon gained traction during the 2018 midterm elections and was at its height in the 2020 presidential election year, the conspiracists began tying candidates into the lies about what the Democratic Party stood for, creating smear campaigns to bring them down. Followers of the movement organize on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and 4chan, placing them into echo chambers that further radicalize their ideas (Iacobuzio). This push of misinformation and brainwashing culminated in the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The belief in QAnon led to a riot storming arguably the most important government entity of the U.S., which is quite evident as one participant proclaimed that he “intentionally positioned himself” toward the front of the mob so his T-shirt would be visible to cameras and “Q” could “get the credit” (Bruggeman, Rubin, Steakin). Compared to other conspiracy theories, QAnon is by far the most dangerous. It has resulted in dozens of deaths, acts of terrorism, the storming of the U.S. Capitol building, erratic acts of violence, and a hostile social climate for both politicians and the general public. Since 2017, QAnon has attracted millions of followers around the world, and its end seems unrealistic in the near future, as its followers live in an alternate social and political reality. In sum, QAnon is an anti-establishment campaign that aims to alter the structure of our government and values in our society. It fits every category of a social movement, beginning from organization, and ending with goals.
Most conspiracy theories lose interest as more time passes from the event or person they focus on. QAnon is an anomaly, as based on its structure and organization, it is continuous and seems to be never-ending. Starting with Pizzagate, as it began fusing dozens of falsehoods together, QAnon began functioning as a mutating virus. The movement has gained traction because “By controlling acceptable forms of information, QAnon traps its members in a downward spiral of radicalization” (Iacobuzio). First, a person comes across content which introduces them to the general beliefs of the movement. Next, people begin to join social media groups filled with enormous amounts of misinformation. As users come across more and more falsity, people become trapped in a spiral of radicalization out of which it is extremely hard to break. This process is the predominant cause of QAnon’s success, as the combination of social media and misinformation has created the perfect mix for radicalization. Followers of QAnon have even been described as “cult members or drug addicts, sucked in by social media companies and self-serving politicians who warped their views of reality” (Jaffe, Real).
Because it has a level of organization and constantly evolves to focus on current events, QAnon is a powerful social movement. Unlike other conspiracies which focus on issues that have long passed or figures who are dead or irrelevant, QAnon followers have a continuous motive to act upon their beliefs
The case of QAnon is one of brainwashing and an alternate reality. Two things must occur for its spread to stop and the movement to terminate. First, we need to acknowledge that QAnon is in fact a social movement, not just a meaningless conspiracy theory. This will allow us to assess how influential the movement is, as well as deconstruct its organization. Second, those who fall into the trap of QAnon need to not be made fun of, but taken seriously. It is crucial to “resist the temptation to argue against their beliefs or explain that they have been duped. This approach is more likely to further entrench someone in their beliefs. Be compassionate,” (Hassan). By showing understanding and care, someone who is brainwashed will be in the right headspace to evaluate the situation.
Time and time again, conspiracy theories have been proven to be socially destructive. They bring about the radicalization of masses of people who enter an alternate reality, resulting in division, violence, and the loss of life. We cannot let beliefs like QAnon prevail in modern society, when we have the resources to put a stop to their spread and prove just how false they are. Whether it takes regulation of social media and “infringement on personal liberty”, once conspiracy theories like QAnon rise in popularity, a catastrophic threat arises which must be stopped. Although the future of QAnon is unknown, the effects of it will last for many years. It must be acknowledged for what it is, a real social movement, not just a small group of individuals online. Helping spread this knowledge will raise awareness about the reality of QAnon and how it has become something much more powerful than just another conspiracy; it is a radical and violent social movement.
Greg Jaffe, Jose Del Real. “Life amid the Ruins of QAnon: ‘I Wanted My Family Back’.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 23 Feb. 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/interactive/2021/conspiracy-theories-QAnon-family-members/.
Hassan, Steven. “Opinion: I Was a Member of a Cult. Here’s How to Bring QAnon Believers Back to Reality.” CNN, Cable News Network, 4 Feb. 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/04/perspectives/QAnon-cult-truth/index.html.
Iacobuzio*, Nicholas. “A Breeding Ground for Conspiracies: How QAnon Helped Bring about the U.S. Capitol Assault.” American University, 7 Jan. 2021, https://www.american.edu/sis/centers/security-technology/how-QAnon-helped-bring-about-the-us-capitol-assault.cfm.
Rubin, Olivia, et al. “QAnon Emerges as Recurring Theme of Criminal Cases Tied to US Capitol Siege.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 19 Jan. 2021, https://abcnews.go.com/US/QAnon-emerges-recurring-theme-criminal-cases-tied-us/story?id=75347445.
Zadrozny, Brandy, and Ben Collins. “How Three Conspiracy Theorists Took ‘q’ and Sparked QAnon.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 20 Aug. 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/how-three-conspiracy-theorists-took-q-sparked-QAnon-n900531.