Qanon Goes Global: The Exportation of American Conspiracy

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On December 4, 2016, a man walked into a popular pizzeria in Washington D.C. with a loaded AK-47 assault rifle. As panicked customers fled, he pointed his gun at an employee, who also managed to escape. The gunman fired several shots before walking out of the front door of the pizzeria and surrendering himself to the swarming police, having not found what he was looking for. Luckily, no one was hurt in the incident.[1]   

On February 19, 2020, a man walked into two shisha bars in Hanau, Germany with a loaded handgun. Opening fire, he killed nine people and injured five others before fleeing back to his apartment, where he killed his mother and then shot himself to death.[2]

Conspiracy on the Rise

The pizzeria attack and the Hanau shootout have something in common, as do the March 2019 mass shootings of 55 people at two mosques in New Zealand, the August 2019 slaughter of 22 in a Texas Walmart, and many other cases. The typical image is of radicalized, isolated white men who latch onto conspiracy theories they read about online and consider themselves part of a broader movement to fight back against a group they consider evil. Their emergence is, among other things, the consequence of a decade in which the full nature of the dark side of the internet was unleashed on an unprepared world. The previously unappreciated power of cyberspace to shatter a sense of shared reality, empower fringe voices to reach an audience of millions, and undermine civil society and democratic governance in general, has created a world where truth, science, and reason seem powerless to overcome a ceaseless onslaught of so-called fake news. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, distrust of science – all of these tendencies have had new life breathed into them through the formation of internet news bubbles that each day serve up fresh conspiracies to an eager readership. The human mind craves certainty and community. In an increasingly complex and isolating world where multiple truths compete for attention, theories that cast their believers as valiant crusaders, the only ones capable of seeing through the veil and fighting back against a global conspiracy, become contagious. And nowhere has the ground been more fertile for these theories than in the United States.

Even before the election of Donald Trump, conspiracy theories were on the rise in the USA.[3] President Trump himself was among the main proponents of the theory that Barack Obama was born a Muslim in Kenya and did not have an American birth certificate.[4] Long-simmering frustrations and resentments, fueled by a perception that the system had ignored Middle America while catering to immigrants and people of color, exacerbated by the 2008 Financial Crisis and rise of the internet, created fertile soil for invasive us-vs-them narratives to take hold and spread. But the speed and extent of their propagation only became evident in the lead-up to the 2016 Presidential election, with its deluge of Russian manipulated content and homegrown fake news showing clearly how primed the American electorate already was to conspiratorial thinking. The election of Donald Trump became a lightning rod, focusing conspiratorial attention on the hopes and fears projected onto Trump. And in his presidency, Trump has proven staunchly opposed to a shared conception of truth, spouting a seemingly never-ending stream of falsehoods and warped realities, and explicitly encouraging some of the most extreme and dangerous conspiracy theories.[5]

What is Qanon?

The man who fired shots in the pizzeria in D.C. in 2016 was convinced that a cabal of political and financial elites in the United States, led by Hillary Clinton, were running a secret child sex ring out of the basement of the restaurant (the pizzeria did not even have a basement).[6] He, and others like him, took this conviction from a theory which originated on the internet message board 4chan. When Clinton’s emails were revealed publicly in the lead-up to the election, certain 4chan users analyzed the emails and ‘discovered’ a secret code indicating ritualized child abuse. The theory eventually spread from 4chan to YouTube and Twitter. Although it was originally called Pizzagate, over time the theory evolved into the amorphous, malignant worldview that is today Qanon.

Qanon derives from the postings of a 4chan user known only as “Q.” Posting anonymously since October 2017, “Q” alleges that a group of elites, mainly inside the Democratic Party but also the media, the so-called “deep state” of the federal government, and scientists generally, are secretly Satan-worshipping pedophiles. Donald Trump is the only person fighting against this cabal, and one day very soon he will defeat them in a global ‘day of reckoning.’[7] In the religion of Q, any contradictory fact or argument can be explained away; adherents are, of course, the only few who have the foresight to see what’s really going on and fight back. The deep state can only be fought by patriots and true believers, who search for and decipher signs and clues from Trump and Q. Every action Trump takes is seen as necessary for the project; on the day of reckoning, the significance will become clear. Beyond these core tenets, the belief system is extremely adaptable and compatible with multiple differing, even conflicting, theories.

Over the last three years, the theory and the community of followers have grown, but the extent of Qanon’s diffusion only became clear with another lightning rod presidential election. Trump and those around him in the GOP have consistently (and sometimes directly) signaled their support for Qanon theories, often retweeting Qanoners’ praise of his rule and attacks on his ‘enemies’. The influence of this sect on the Republican Party has been alarming. For the 2020 elections in November, 24 candidates on the ballot for positions in Congress are Qanon supporters.[8] 22 are Republicans and 2 are independents. While many are not expected to win, at least one, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, is almost certain to win a seat in Congress.

Covid-19: the Conspiracy Super-Spreader

If the election of Donald Trump acted as a lightning rod for conspiracy theories, the coronavirus pandemic has been more like a “conspiracy singularity,” [9] merging formerly disparate communities of anti-vaccine activists (anti-vaxxers), UFO watchers, flat-earthers and more into a huge mass of suspicion and paranoia. For Qanon and others, the pandemic is a hoax, a tool of the powerful to cement their control over the population (or alternatively, an attack by Trump, or his enemies, in their ongoing battle). The anxiousness and uncertainty created by the virus accelerated a trend – melting overlapping theories and predictions into a dense and all-consuming conspiracy conviction. Underpinning all of this is a general belief that mainstream institutions are engaged in a deliberate effort to deceive the population, and that any claim to authoritative or legitimate knowledge is fundamentally fake (except, of course, for that claimed by those “in the know”).[10]

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the same ideas that infiltrated American society and politics are spreading just as easily abroad. Even though the basic components are specific to the American system, the broader worldview is adaptable to very different situations. Propelled by coronavirus disinformation, the unknown millions of American Qanon supporters are today joined by hundreds of thousands in Germany, the U.K., Australia, Indonesia, Iran, Canada, and many more.[11] Masks, symbols, and slogans of Q have been commonplace at Berlin anti-mask protests.[12] Fringe right-wing groups that have adopted elements of Qanon beliefs include the Reichsbürgers, a group that believes the modern German state is actually an illegitimate puppet of the American occupiers. President Trump, to them, is an ally and hero, fighting valiantly to destroy the Trans-Atlantic relationship that represses true German culture.[13] Boosted by celebrities and influencers across the world, the cult of Q has spread rapidly: between March and August 2020, “QAnon has had a 71 percent increase in Twitter content and a 651 percent increase on Facebook.”[14] And the majority of the new Facebook groups and pages were located not in the U.S., but in “places like Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia, and Israel.”[15]

The danger of Qanon is not limited to the spread of disinformation. It is a fundamentally violent ideology: in just the three years of its existence thus far, fanatics have crossed state lines intent on violence,[16][17] expressed their fervent wish that a citizen militia rise up and kill the “worshippers of tyranny,”[18] and committed at least one murder in the name of Q.[19] In 2019, the FBI defined the trend of conspiracy theories as a domestic terrorism threat, specifically citing Qanon.[20] White supremacy is a common thread among many strands of Qanon, with both the Hanau and New Zealand shooters explicitly citing Trump’s election and tacit support as an empowering influence in their manifestos.[21][22]

A Conclusion, and the Beginning of Something Else

The current reality of disinformation and the future promise of violent uprising are not unique to the American experience. And as conspiracy theories like Qanon leave their homeland, they are finding it an easy task to adapt to the differing circumstances of the new countries in which they are adopted. In France it was the fringe of the Yellow Vest movement, in Italy the influential anti-vaccination movement.[23] In Iran, the political opposition movement Restart has gained prominence recently by asserting themselves in far-right conspiracy fora, aligning themselves with groups like Qanon in an attempt to manipulate American politics to gain domestic influence.[24] In Canada, with a progressive leader in power, the movement has taken on the deep distrust of Justin Trudeau and the fear that he will instigate a communist dictatorship.[25]

In the uncertainty, powerlessness, and anxiety of our times, Q offers a comforting narrative, clear enemies, and a sense of community that must be protected. It is a modern religion evolving before our eyes. As Finnish Qanon organizer Jarmo Ekman told Vice News, “”There is a global spiritual awakening unfolding, of which Q and Trump are a major component.”[26] How far this awakening will spread, only time will tell.

 

“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”

 

References

[1] Faiz Siddiqui, S. (2019, March 28). N.C. man told police he went to D.C. pizzeria with gun to investigate conspiracy theory. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2016/12/04/d-c-police-respond-to-report-of-a-man-with-a-gun-at-comet-ping-pong-restaurant/

[2] Bunch, W. (2020, February 24). Can we talk about the Trump-loving, QAnon-type who slaughtered 10 people in Germany?: Will Bunch. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/germany-mass-killing-right-wing-trump-child-abuse-20200223.html

[3] Stanton, Z. (2020, September 04). You’re Living in the Golden Age of Conspiracy Theories. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/06/17/conspiracy-theories-pandemic-trump-2020-election-coronavirus-326530

[4] Serwer, S. (2020, May 21). Birtherism of a Nation. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/birtherism-and-trump/610978/

[5] Dale, D. (2020, September 02). Fact check: A guide to 9 conspiracy theories Trump is currently pushing. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/02/politics/fact-check-trump-conspiracy-theories-biden-covid-thugs-plane/index.html

[6] LaFrance, S. (2020, September 24). The Prophecies of Q. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/qanon-nothing-can-stop-what-is-coming/610567/

[7] Wendling, M. (2020, August 20). QAnon: What is it and where did it come from? Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/53498434

[8] Kaplan, W. (2020, July 1). Here are the QAnon supporters running for Congress in 2020. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.mediamatters.org/qanon-conspiracy-theory/here-are-qanon-supporters-running-congress-2020

[9] Merlan, A. (2020, July 17). The Conspiracy Singularity Has Arrived. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/v7gz53/the-conspiracy-singularity-has-arrived

[10] Rodrigo, C. (2020, September 12). QAnon spreads across globe, shadowing COVID-19. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://thehill.com/policy/technology/516102-qanon-spreads-across-globe-shadowing-covid-19

[11] Doward, J. (2020, September 20). ‘Quite frankly terrifying’: How the QAnon conspiracy theory is taking root in the UK. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/20/the-qanon-conspiracy

[12] Barker, T. (2020, September 02). Germany Is Losing the Fight Against QAnon. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/02/germany-is-losing-the-fight-against-qanon/

[13] Schaeffer, C. (2020, June 26). How did a fringe corona conspiracy theory in Germany grow to a nationwide movement? Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.thelocal.de/20200626/in-depth-how-did-germanys-largest-conspiracy-theory-group-gain-momentum

[14] Lamoureux, M. (2020, July 29). QAnon Has Gone Global. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.vice.com/en/article/pkym3k/qanon-conspiracy-has-gone-global

[15] Lamoureux, M. (2020, July 29). QAnon Has Gone Global. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.vice.com/en/article/pkym3k/qanon-conspiracy-has-gone-global

[16] Sommer, W. (2020, April 30). A QAnon Devotee Live-Streamed Her Trip to N.Y. to ‘Take Out’ Joe Biden. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.thedailybeast.com/a-qanon-devotee-live-streamed-her-trip-to-ny-to-take-out-joe-biden

[17] Winter, J. (2019, August 01). Exclusive: FBI document warns conspiracy theories are a new domestic terrorism threat. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://news.yahoo.com/fbi-documents-conspiracy-theories-terrorism-160000507.html

[18] Liberty Click (2018, July 14). A republican citizenry’s greatest, last-resort duty is to kill those seeking to impose tyranny. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from http://www.non-intervention2.com/2018/07/14/a-republican-citizenrys-greatest-last-resort-duty-is-to-kill-those-seeking-to-impose-tyranny/

[19] Watkins, A. (2019, December 06). Accused of Killing a Gambino Mob Boss, He’s Presenting a Novel Defense. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/nyregion/gambino-shooting-anthony-comello-qanon.html

[20] Winter, J. (2019, August 01). Exclusive: FBI document warns conspiracy theories are a new domestic terrorism threat. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://news.yahoo.com/fbi-documents-conspiracy-theories-terrorism-160000507.html

[21] Washington, R. (2019, March 17). White House dismisses Trump mention in Christchurch shooter manifesto. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/17/trump-christchurch-shooter-manifesto

[22] Bunch, W. (2020, February 24). Can we talk about the Trump-loving, QAnon-type who slaughtered 10 people in Germany?: Will Bunch. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/germany-mass-killing-right-wing-trump-child-abuse-20200223.html

[23] Keating, J. (2020, September 08). How QAnon Went Global. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://slate.com/technology/2020/09/qanon-europe-germany-lockdown-protests.html?via=taps_top

[24] Tabatabai, A. (2020, July 15). QAnon Goes to Iran. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/15/qanon-goes-to-iran/

[25] Ling, J. (2020, July 13). QAnon’s Madness Is Turning Canadians Into Potential Assassins. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/13/qanon-canada-trudeau-conspiracy-theory/

[26] Lamoureux, M. (2020, July 29). QAnon Has Gone Global. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.vice.com/en/article/pkym3k/qanon-conspiracy-has-gone-global

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Adam Zable is a second-year masters’ candidate at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He was born in New York, where he graduated from Binghamton University in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics, and the Law. His research interests focus on the intersection of security and emerging technologies.