By Sam Jackson, Brandon Gorman and Mayuko Nakatsuka; University at Albany
Since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, a new conspiracy theory has emerged in the United States. According to this theory, a high-ranking federal official known only as “Q” provides coded hints about covert action taken by Donald Trump against sinister elites who engage in malevolent behaviors ranging from planning a coup to running an international child sex trafficking ring. QAnon adherents have been active on social media platforms including fringe sites like 4chan, where the first “Q drops” appeared, as well as mainstream sites like Twitter and Reddit, where users post thousands of QAnon-related messages each day.
Broadly speaking, conspiracy theories are “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role” (Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009, p. 205). These powerful people are often depicted as outsiders (ranging from the financial elite to the Illuminati to those who would orchestrate a one-world-government under the New World Order) who ruthlessly pursue their own benefit at the expense of everyday people (Barkun, 1996, p. 51). Though conspiracy theories are often highly complex in their detail, they provide an explanation for things that are difficult to understand by describing them as the result of evil actions by a group of secret actors.
Conspiracy theories pose numerous social and political problems. For example, contrary evidence cannot change followers’ minds easily, and they are resistant to anything that invalidates their beliefs. Conspiracy theorists tend to interpret new evidence in favor of confirming their beliefs (Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009). Additionally, conspiracy theories can have detrimental effects on political discourse (DiGrazia, 2017; Introne et al., 2017; Pitcavage, 2001) and even motivate violence and criminal acts (Pitcavage, 2001; Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009), as has been the case with QAnon.