QAnon and On, by Van Badham
Updated: Dec 30, 2022
As I sit down to write this daydream, the US House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol (also known as the January 6 Committee) has just issued its final report.
The report found that former US President Donald Trump acted “in support of a multi-part conspiracy to overturn the lawful results of the 2020 Presidential election”.
While the release of the report doesn’t bring the story of the Trump Presidency quite to an end, it is a significant milestone.
The report also sheds more light on the organisation behind the failed coup – from the evidence of people who thought they were acting on the instructions of the Commander-In-Chief, to the staffers who told of the desperate attempts to construct a false narrative about electoral fraud to justify the putsch.
But the January 6 Report does not explain the apparent willingness of so many ordinary people to fervently believe that the election was ‘stolen’, and to risk their lives for a hare-brained scheme that always going to end badly.
I mean, did they really think that they could seize control of congress, and even if they did, that the US military and justice system would just let them take over and appoint their own President?
Apparently, yes. They really did think that.
How could such a crazy delusion take hold of so many people?
The Rise of Q
Van Badham’s book QAnon and On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults helps to unpack the psychological, sociological, historical, economic and technical forces behind modern-day conspiracy movements.
As Van notes, conspiracy theories are far from new. But what has changed is the way the internet and various forms of social media can speed up the transmission of conspiracy ideas. Online discussion of these ideas doesn’t just become an echo chamber, it leads to the formation of highly tribal online communities which provide a rewards system of validation, notoriety and even revenue to people who become fully-fledged members.
One of the most extraordinary conspiracy communities to have sprung up over the past decade is QAnon, and Van follows the evolution of QAnon from its humble beginnings as a thread on the on-line imageboard 4chan to its influential role in the 2020 US Presidential election, and the failed January 6 coup.
In essence, the QAnon conspiracy posits that the world is run by an evil cabal of people (or in some streams of the theory, extra-terrestrial lizards masquerading as people) who use the power of the ‘deep state’ to maintain their privileged position while running a global paedophilia racket.
The rulers of the world are described as ‘dark hats’, while the people seeking to overturn the cabal are described as enlightened ‘white hats’. In between this battle between good and evil lie the masses of people who are just going about their lives oblivious to the operations of the cabal all around them. These people are ‘sheep’.
While the QAnon cult started in the USA, and has become closely aligned with the Trump political machine, it’s reach is global. In Australia, the extent of its reach was exposed in a bizarre sequence of events in which a QAnon adherent and personal friend of former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Tim Stewart, claimed credit for getting Mr Morrison to use known QAnon code words in a speech about child exploitation.
The QAnon conspiracy has its own prophet - the mysterious self-styled insider Q, who originally posted cryptic comments and rhetorical questions on 4chan before moving across to another imageboard called 8kun.
On the surface, Q’s lurid tales of paedophiles and the deep state sound ridiculous. But as Van shows, the specifics of the theory don’t really matter. No-one is really sure who Q is, or if Q is even a single person, and - in any case – Q’s prophecies have a spectacular track record of failing to come true.
But the power of Q is not in its ability to foresee the future, it’s in its ability to meet a fundamental psychological need for inclusion and community – especially for people who may feel unwanted or excluded.
As Van says:
"It was the power of Q’s narrative to overwhelm facts that had always been the essence of the movement’s appeal …. one could argue Q’s only real identity was an impassioned desire in a shared fantasy of personal specialness. Cult deprogrammer Diane Benscoter explained to NPR that cult participation often fills a psychological void with righteousness . The sense of purpose provided is invigorating and addictive, she said: it was like you found yourself fighting a battle for goodness, and in it, you were the hero."
Where there are villains, there is also fear, and fear is a powerful motivating factor for adherence to the tenets of the Qanon cult. That’s one reason why it can be so difficult to bring people back once people they have been indoctrinated into a cult community – whether it be online or otherwise. But Van says that where there is patience, there is hope:
"Presenting a preferable social alternative to fear is how loved ones can recover friends and family members from the ‘rabbit hole’ of conspiracy cults …. kind patient conversations, establishing rapport, discussing shared experiences, and always finding a way to pivot a conversation back to common ground".
Cult or movement – what’s the diff?
I’ve read, thought and written about this question before - and also in the context of the rise of Trumpism. I wrote about the important of narrative structure as a means of making sense of the world. And I wrote about the role of social media in creating #TheGreatConfusion – a state in which ordinary people found it difficult if not impossible to discern real information from disinformation.
There is uncomfortable truth in all of this for people like me who work in the so-called information economy, and in the field of politics.
The reason cults are so effective at drawing people is that they are good at two things: telling stories and providing people with a sense of belonging. That’s not a lot different from business model of any organised religion or political party. In fact, you could argue that cults are just better (or more ruthless) at it.
And here is the ethical conundrum. For me, my day job in the trade union movement is all about creating a sense of community for union members, and in communicating our arguments and our values. I am constantly extolling the importance of narrative, and often reducing complex arguments into simpler binaries.
So does this mean that I am essentially just another cultist?
While some the strategies and tactics may cross-over, there is a critical difference between genuine political campaigning and the world of the MAGA Trumpists, QAnon etc. That difference lies in our relationship to reality and truth. The truth matters, and we can’t forget it.
That’s why we need to be careful about falling into good versus evil tropes. These stories might be easy to tell, but the real world is usually more nuanced. And most importantly, our stories and our narratives must be built on verifiable facts. There’s a saying that you should never let the facts get in the way of a good story – but this flexible approach to the truth has opened the door to a frightening world of disinformation and fake news. It little wonder that may people now cannot tell the difference between what‘s real and what’s not. We must do everything we can to restore the primacy of truth.
If the Trump Presidency was the post-truth era, then it’s time for a post-post-truth era. Part of the challenge we have as a society now is to educate the broader community on how to judge the relative veracity of news and information they receive, particularly from the internet and social media.
That will take time, but if the outcome is to reduce the influence of conspiracy-based political movements on our body politic, then it’s time worth taking.
QAnon and On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Cults by Van Badham is available at all good bookstores, or get it on line at Fullers Bookshop .