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The QAnon Conspiracy Theory: Mistrust and Mass Appeal

When mistrust of government transforms into paranoia about the "Deep State."

Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Vice President Pence meets a sheriff wearing a patch bearing the QAnon insignia
Source: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

"QAnon" is an increasingly familiar term that refers to both a political conspiracy theory and the group of people who believe it. Here's the full transcript of an interview I gave for an article about this phenomenon in SkyNews called, "QAnon: The far-right conspiracy movement gaining prominence in Donald Trump's America."

How would you describe QAnon and its impact?

Briefly summarized, QAnon is a conspiracy theory that claims that the Trump administration is engaged in a kind of behind-the-scenes battle against the so-called “Deep State,” with the fate of the U.S. and the world at large hanging in its balance. The theory started a few years ago based on the online postings of an individual going by the name of “Q” who claimed to have access to top-secret information supporting a wide variety of conspiratorial claims including those implicating the Democrats, the Clintons, and the likes of the FBI in orchestrating a coup against President Trump as well as running an international child sex trafficking ring.

The scope of QAnon’s impact is unclear, but the conspiracy theory has breached broad awareness, with coverage in the mainstream news media and supporters holding up “Q” signs at President Trump’s rallies. More concerningly, QAnon conspiracy theories have inspired a few individuals to commit acts of violence. As a result, the FBI has recently identified QAnon and other related conspiracy theories as a domestic terrorist threat.

How does it differ from “conspiracy theories” we have seen in the past? Is there anything comparable in history?

In many ways, the QAnon phenomenon isn’t new at all. Conspiracy theories and groups of people believing in them are longstanding cultural phenomena that have been around for centuries. For example, conspiracy theories involving the premise that “The Illuminati” are conspiring to create a “New World Order” arose in Europe in the 1700s. Such theories made their way to the U.S. by the 1800s and became entwined with the Anti-Masonic Movement and antisemitism. So in a sense, QAnon can be thought of as a modern interpretation of this longstanding conspiracy theory.

What seems novel about QAnon is that at least parts of its sprawling theories have been endorsed not only by the likes of anti-government extremists, but also media celebrities and politicians such as Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, or President Trump. Therefore, there's a sense that QAnon, as a growing movement, has become a kind of non-trivial minority of right-wing politics in the U.S. today.

What drives a willingness to follow or believe in the ideas of something like QAnon?

Psychology research over the past decade or so has attempted to determine why some people are drawn to conspiracy theories. This research has revealed that a number of “cognitive quirks” tend to be over-represented among those who believe in conspiracy theories such as the greater need for control, certainty, and “cognitive closure” (the desire to have an explanation for events when explanations are lacking) or the desire to be unique. Some studies have found that those who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to have a cognitive bias called “hypersensitive agency detection” or “teleological thinking” whereby events are over-attributed to hidden forces, purposes, and motives.

Other studies have found that lack of analytic thinking and something called “bullshit receptivity,” the tendency to be duped by superficially profound statements that are in reality meaningless, may underlie the willingness to believe in conspiracy theories. It has also been argued that “conspiracist ideation” may represent a general tendency to be attracted to narratives that attribute events to hidden forces embroiled in moral struggles between good and evil.

I like to think of conspiracy theories as arising from a two-part process of mistrust and exposure to misinformation. Once we mistrust official or authoritative accounts of events, we become vulnerable to filling the resulting informational void with other opposing claims that we encounter when falling down the misinformation rabbit hole that is the Internet. With QAnon, the conspiracy theories are fundamentally rooted in mistrust of the U.S. government; from that starting point, it’s easy to find counter-narratives that appeal to this mistrust and align with other political beliefs.

Have you been surprised by the extent to which it has attracted followers and broken through into mainstream discussion? How much is the political climate feeding the growth of QAnon?

I’m not particularly surprised that QAnon has breached mainstream awareness. Surveys suggest that about half of the U.S. population believes in at least one conspiracy theory.

Contrary to claims that conspiracist ideation is an exclusively right-wing phenomenon, conspiracy theories that match different political alignments are endorsed by those on the right and the left. However, there is evidence that conspiracy theories have particular appeal within populist movements.

For many, whether a true believer or someone who is “just asking questions,” the appeal of QAnon is that it parallels the more general populist and nationalist concerns that got President Trump elected — the idea, for example, that we need to “drain the swamp” of corrupt Washington officials or that “elites” and “globalists” are trying to bring about the downfall of America’s greatness. QAnon is a byproduct of that larger political movement, one that started at the fringe but has become more entwined with American conservatism’s new center.


To read more about the psychology of conspiracy theories:

What Makes People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

Why Do False Flag Conspiracy Theories Follow Mass Shootings?

Is Alex Jones a Conspiracy Theorist or a Performance Artist?

Flat Earthers: Conspiracy Thinking on a Global Scale

Antivaxxers and the Plague of Science Denial