QAnon has the outlines of a classic whistleblower tale: A bureaucrat with a high-level security clearance issued by the Department of Energy chose to reveal the secret workings of the U.S. government to the people. Unlike whistleblowers past, however, Q decided to deliver the truth on message boards, such as 4chan and 8kun, used by internet trolls. Building off the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, and speaking in short riddles, Q rallied these followers to cheer for Trump in his secret fight against a powerful cabal of devil-worshipping pedophiles who harvest the blood of children. These claims are obviously bonkers. Nevertheless, QAnon’s early disciples delivered the conspiracy theory to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, where it could reach a more mainstream audience.
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By the time Q’s first post appeared on 4chan in 2017, conspiracy theories of all sorts were multiplying and thriving on social media, as their adherents formed dedicated Facebook groups and YouTube channels. Algorithmic recommendation engines accelerated their growth and cross-pollinated their beliefs. Over time, these engines nudged anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers to join QAnon groups and pushed QAnon videos to far-right political communities. The algorithms didn’t comprehend what they were recommending; they detected the probability that an anti-vaxxer or a flat-earther would like certain postings and communities, but not whether those postings or communities were inherently harmful. The recommendations worked: People who followed other conspiracy theories often were receptive to QAnon, primarily because of a shared distrust of government and authority.
This algorithmic crossbreeding turned QAnon into a mutant omni–conspiracy theory that blended together the pet catechisms of its constituent sub–conspiracy theories. Anti-vaxxers noticed when Q included “VACCINES [NOT ALL]” in a post that began, “MONEY. POWER. CONTROL.”—and went on to list a litany of bad things, including wars, tobacco, and opioids. People who believe that shape-shifting lizards have infiltrated the political elite can find thousands of posts about the subject on QAnon-community research boards. Over a period of two years, QAnon groups evolved into a full-blown alternative reality in which John F. Kennedy Jr. lives and COVID-19 is a hoax. Individuals shared QAnon material with other communities they’d been part of for some time, including mundane, normally non-conspiracist groups devoted to wellness and parenting. Hundreds of thousands to millions of individuals gradually bought into some portion of the alternative reality as it traveled across the internet.
But QAnon Facebook groups and YouTube channels are only part of a more expansive game. Media and social media are no longer distinct; consequential narratives emerge from the bottom up, as well as the top down, and bounce back and forth among different channels. Positioned between internet message boards and mass outlets such as Fox News is a kind of demi-media—hyperpartisan outlets, such as Gateway Pundit and One America News, that have a significant following on social platforms, high engagement from audiences, and a history of boosting narratives that bubble up from internet users. These demi-media outlets, some of which have White House press credentials, routinely tell their audience that “the media” is lying, thereby positioning themselves as an entity apart. Years of repetition have seemingly rendered their audiences immune to any cognitive dissonance over this. Well-known news outlets make up stories, but a pseudonymous 8kun poster is a high-level pedophile-fighting bureaucrat who tells the truth.