QAnon conspiracy theorists could prove awkward for Republicans

The Economist
August 29, 2020

Unit recently, most people asked to identify “Q” would mention an eccentric inventor of gadgets for James Bond. Now a nastier, if equally fictitious, Q is becoming better known. Digital searches surged this month among people who hoped to unpick the meaning of “QAnon”—an anti-Semitic and incoherent conspiracy theory. It has been spun for three years in cryptic messages posted by Q, posing as a senior government official.

The alleged conspiracy is both outlandish and dismally familiar. Supposedly Donald Trump is set to smash a cabal of paedophiles and cannibals, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros. Every generation or so, some outfit alleges that a secret league of the powerful—often cast as a financial, globalist or simply Jewish elite—is out to destroy America.

QAnon’s version has echoes of Robert Welch, a sweetmaker who founded the anti-communist John Birch Society in 1958. He claimed a “furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians” wanted America to be run by a socialist United Nations. It also shares some characteristics of the “satanic panic” of the 1980s, when rumours suggested devil-worshippers ran kindergartens and abused children.

The new conspiracy spread first in half-hidden corners online, then moved to mainstream social-media platforms and beyond. (Amazon now offers piles of mumbo-jumbo-filled QAnon screeds for sale.) Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others recently removed QAnon-affiliated groups and pages from their sites. Yet the movement surges, partly because the president prods it on. Last week he cheered Q-adherents as “people that love our country”. Media Matters, a left-leaning think-tank, counted 216 times by late August when he had retweeted messages of QAnon folk. Q-fans are ubiquitous at his rallies...

Mr Trump also indulges QAnon for a simple reason: because it lauds him. “It is very reciprocal, it’s about fealty to him,” says Ethan Porter, a researcher into the spread of misinformation, at George Washington University. He notes how the movement draws hangers-on, notably older people who lose themselves in “online rabbit holes” trying to grasp the conspiracy. Others joined recent QAnon-affiliated “save the children” marches in various cities.

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