For months, a man calling himself Bill Smith obsessed over the YouTube search rankings for QAnon, where his conspiracy-fueled videos competed with those made by other believers for the top few slots on the list of results. On Wednesday, Smith was dethroned by a rush of mainstream outlets, who each produced their own videos explaining the conspiracy theory after its existence suddenly went viral.
In a livestream to 45,000 YouTube subscribers on Wednesday, Smith looked at his diminished status — and sounded ecstatic. “I haven’t been this happy in a very long time,” he said. “CNN, NBC News, MSNBC, PBS News Hour, Washington Post, MSNBC, those are our new QAnon reporters!” Smith burst into laughter. “I can’t wait until I see Shepard Smith reporting on QAnon.”
“This is the moment!” he said. Finally, QAnon was mainstream.
QAnon is a complicated conspiracy theory stemming from the cryptic 4Chan posts of a figure calling themselves “Q,” as countless articles have explained over the past week. But it is also one of the most overtly ambitious ones to emerge in recent memory, in that its adherents and amplifiers intentionally seek to bring its existence to bigger and bigger audiences. As we at The Intersect wrote earlier this week, QAnon is the conspiracy theory that gives conspiracy theorists hope: Q’s horoscope-like posts promise that a reckoning for their enemies — Democrats, liberals and especially the Clintons — is coming at any moment.
So you can understand why an entire news cycle about QAnon — sparked by believers’ visibility at a Tuesday Trump rally in Florida — is the best thing to ever happen to its believers. What was once circulated on hashtags, YouTube keywords and fringy message boards now has an audience of, potentially, the entire country.
As a search term, QAnon certainly became more prominent this week. Here’s a Google Trends chart of the past eight months of search interest from December 2017 — around when it first started to gain any traction — and now. See that big spike at the end? That’s this past week:
Paris Martineau, a writer at the Outline who was one of the first to identify and explain QAnon (also known as the Storm) in December, has been warning about the inevitable spike in interest for months. As the QAnon news cycle exploded, she warned that “Attention is attention is attention” also applies to conspiracy theories.
“The spread of QAnon is planned, with an assist from the polarization-prone algorithms of every major social media app,” Martineau also wrote in April. “QAnon followers spend hours upon hours online debating the best way to ‘redpill the normies,’ and created countless guides and cheat sheets in order to bring new members into the fold as quickly as possible. Of late, it seems to be working.”
It doesn’t take six-dimensional chess to figure out that the Internet is the perfect setting for a conspiracy theory like QAnon. A social media platform’s algorithms are designed to show its users things that they want to engage with and share, and what better for that than a single theory that seems to neatly explain the entire world, no matter how wild and unproven? And, there’s the added bonus of hate-sharing. As I wrote in February, the thing about sharing something online in outrage is that it’s still a share.
Journalists cover conspiracy theories because their job is to tell the truth about the world around them, and things like QAnon beg for a sane fact check. But in doing so, said Whitney Phillips, an incoming assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, they’re also doing work for the people who want to make QAnon visible.
“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.”
In QAnon land, this amplification is talked of in terms of war, one that they have been expecting on their march to victory. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then we win,” Smith told his live-stream audience. For him, the media blitz on Wednesday meant that the media had moved on to fighting against them. Since QAnon can explain everything, according to its believers, the media coverage just becomes part of the plan. “It’s never converged like this moment, that I’m watching right now,” Smith said.
On the Reddit board devoted to QAnon called — no joke — the Great Awakening, one post thanked the mainstream media for their coverage. “Your coordinated attack just launched Q into the mainstream and has strengthened the resolve of the believers,” it read. Other posts dissected each and every QAnon article that has been published this week, while others offered supportive messages to the flock of newcomers to their board, driven there, they assumed, by all the mainstream coverage.
When people show up at a Trump rally carrying signs and wearing T-shirts about Q, explaining why that’s happening is part of the media’s job. For those who have been watching the conspiracy Internet for a long time, the question is less whether to cover a conspiracy, but how.