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How QAnon, the conspiracy theory spawned by a Trump quip, got so big and scary

During President Trump’s rally on July 31, several attendees held or wore signs with the letter “Q.” Here’s what the QAnon conspiracy theory is about. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

The Internet has made it easier than ever before to evangelize on behalf of a conspiracy theory. But this week, the missionaries for QAnon used their physical bodies to spread the word, with T-shirts and a paper sign, “We are Q,” aimed at the cameras covering President Trump’s campaign rally.

People noticed, including journalists. The signs became mainstream news, and the news of QAnon spread. On Reddit’s “Great Awakening” discussion board, devoted to QAnon and its supporters, a user wrote, “QAnon is finally trending on Twitter!”

QAnon is as convoluted as any other conspiracy theory out there but with one distinguishing feature: QAnon is the result of a twisted sort of optimism. It gives the people who believe in the Internet conspiracy hope that a reckoning is about to hit.

Algorithms are one reason a conspiracy theory goes viral. Another reason might be you.

The layers of the conspiracy go like this: Take your standard Democratic pedophilia ring and world-domination fantasy, but that’s only the base, like the crust of a pizza. Onto this, you layer a fantasy in which President Trump, while posing as a flailing president in public, is secretly orchestrating a crackdown on the entire cabal. Trump is working behind the scenes with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whose real federal investigation is aimed at the Clintons. Trump has loyalists spread through the U.S. intelligence agencies, which are otherwise dens of the cabal. The crackdown is imminent. It’s always imminent, and it will be glorious.

Better yet, we don’t need to simply wait in ignorance, because a high level operative in Trump’s alliance has for the last nine months been communicating with the public through cryptic posts on an anonymous Internet forum.

This is how it spread from there.

Whether he knows it or not, Trump birthed the QAnon conspiracy theory with a single sentence, uttered to reporters while he posed with senior military leaders for a photo op in October last year.

“You guys know what this represents?” Trump said, gesturing to the uniforms. “Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.

When reporters asked what storm, Trump refused to explain. This led to a brief burst of public speculation that he was hinting at a military strike. But no strike came, and soon most of the world forgot about the strange comment.

But the thinking progressed very differently on hard-right Internet forums such as 4chan’s /pol/, where thousands of anonymous commenters literally deify Trump — as a messianic revolutionary who conceals his strategic genius under layers of crass egotism and ineptitude.

On those forums, Trump’s comment was filled with meaning, and his “storm” must be imminent.

For weeks, amateur theorists batted around ideas of what Trump’s storm might be. If not a military strike, perhaps it was a crackdown on the so-called deep state — Obama loyalists the president claims infest his administration. If not that, then something else. 4chan is entirely anonymous, so no one theory or theorist stood out from any other.

Until Q came along. Their posts promised 4chan that exactly what it was hoping for was about to come true.

Q’s first string of posts on Oct. 28 did not read like typical forum speculation. They were written with authority and phrased as cryptic prophecy. Many referenced mockingbirds. Operation “Mockingbird,” Q hinted in another post (more than 70 appeared on various forums within the first week), referred the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton.

This would, Q promised, be followed by the detention of other liberals, globalists and “an evil corrupt network of players” that had controlled the world for decades — until Trump came along and outmaneuvered them.

When their early predictions did not come true, Q simply made more predictions, all the while dropping hints that suggested Q was a high-level operative embedded in Trump’s counter-conspiracy. (The “Q” in their pseudonym stands for Q-level security clearance — or basically super-duper top secret.)

Q once posted in entirety:


Nonsense? Probably, but later that same afternoon in November, Trump tweeted, “Happy #SmallBusinessSaturday” Small and small. To devotees, it’s proof that Trump really is working with Q.

As is the nature of a good conspiracy theory, believers began to do Q’s work for Q. After so many missed predictions, the dispatches tended to become even more cryptic. But cryptic worked.

Quickly and quietly, at first, QAnonism spread from 4chan and 8chan to small conspiracy news sites, personal blogs, Twitter and YouTube. Some videos devoted to QAnon theories have hundreds of thousands of views on the platform. Q’s messages were so vague that fans could easily graft their preferred fantasy villains onto its cabal of Democrat-led globalists  — the Illuminati or the Rothschilds, for example. And as it spread, its circles of supporters discussed how to spread the word. To express this feeling, some started to quote a specific line from the Bible:

QAnon spread further through an “unholy combination” of media manipulation and true belief, said Whitney Phillips, an incoming assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University.

Although the posts about QAnon have the feeling of a religion, or a cult, there’s no way to truly know whether QAnon’s evangelists are spreading the conspiracy theory because they believe it is true — or because, as is often the case with 4chan, they just want to spread chaos. Maybe it’s a combination of both.

“When you are talking about traditional proselytizers, you can take seriously that the people doing it are actually, [for example], Mormons, who trust that they believe they are doing the right thing,” said Phillips, whose work often focuses on the amplification of misinformation and media manipulation. “In this particular case, you can have that evangelical drive without trusting that they are actually believing what they are selling.”

The only thing to know for sure about the spread of QAnon is that its evangelists want to make themselves, and the conspiracy theory, more visible. Over the next several months, that drive worked, helped along by the wild and confusing daily narrative coming from the White House.

“It provides coherence to a real-world narrative that is so lacking in coherence,” Phillips said. “The conspiracy is a way to understand it more clearly, even if you are engaging with it as a joke.”

In early January, the wildly popular Fox News host Sean Hannity gave #QAnon a major signal boost, helping the theory rocket into mainstream consciousness.

Roseanne Barr became an apparent devotee, and in March her public theorizing morphed into a string of bizarre, racist tweets that led to the cancellation of her hit TV show.

As Isaac Stanley-Becker wrote elsewhere in The Washington Post, an armed militant group became convinced that a homeless camp was a secret base for child sex-trafficking rings, which feature heavily in QAnon fantasies. This week, Q posted a picture of an office belonging to a lawyer critical of Trump, after which a man showed up prowling around outside the building — bizarre enough to concern police.

About a month ago, Q evangelists began to target members the White House press corps — reporters who regularly get to question the president’s press secretary — in their quest to spread the word.

“I started getting these emails and DMs and replies to everything I’d tweet: ‘Ask about Q,’ ” said Saagar Enjeti, who reports for the Daily Caller. He said the requests were not coming from the Caller’s regular audience, which leans conservative — but from members of an online fringe he had not known existed.

A brief dip into those anonymous forums was enough to persuade Enjeti that he would not be asking Trump if he was secretly allied with Q.

Only after he tweeted his refusal did he realize how deep Q fervor ran.

“I’m no stranger to nasty DMs, but this was insane,” Enjeti said. “I think I probably got over 60 to 70 DMs on Twitter; people went to my Facebook page; people found my Instagram and started going through old photos: “Ask about Q. You’ll be famous. What is there to lose? Ask about Q, you coward.”

“An acquaintance of mine, her mother called her and told her to tell me I’d lost my rocker,” Enjeti said. “I need to ask about Q to prove my bona fides.”

He’s seen viral conspiracy theories come and go — sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right. He usually rolls his eyes at them.

“I think this one is truly, legitimately dangerous,” Enjeti said. “The rhetoric, and the dedicated base of believers, and the patterns of propensity for violence. I think it’s only a matter of time before someone abuses the open access of the White House, in terms of getting a press pass and causing a scene.

“Nothing is outside the realm of possibility,” he said.

It took a paper sign reading “I am Q” to bring the conspiracy theory to its latest threshold of visibility. Enjeti decided not to ask the White House about QAnon. But now, as curiosity about it is spreading, the conspiracy is becoming a series of explanatory articles.

Phillips said that when journalists become involved in reporting on things like QAnon, conspiracy evangelists benefit from the core belief that drives journalism itself — to provide the public with truthful information.

“The problem is that the information is exactly what the evangelists want. It risks bringing more people into the story who can be converted,” Phillips said.

“These reports, they are serving an important function even as they are doing the worst possible thing they could do.”

More reading:

‘We are Q’: A deranged conspiracy cult leaps from the Internet to the crowd at Trump’s ‘MAGA’ tour

The conspiracy theory behind a curious Roseanne Barr tweet, explained

A short history of Alex Jones claiming that the left is about to start a second Civil War