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The Allure of QAnon: Cult, Conspiracy, and Role-Playing Game

How does QAnon "hook" people into believing conspiracy theories?

XPlayer2x/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license
Source: XPlayer2x/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

As we approach Election Day 2020, QAnon—the sprawling conspiracy theory that hails President Trump as the country's savior—has been garnering significant media attention. This is an interview I did for Nancy Dillon's article on QAnon in the New York Daily News:

How would you describe QAnon’s allure?

QAnon is part conspiracy theory, part religious/political cult, and part alternate-reality role-playing game. For those who are mistrustful of government and see President Trump as a savior, QAnon presents an appealing narrative of an epic battle between forces of good and evil where believers can play a role.

For believers and followers, QAnon provides a recreational pastime, a sense of belonging, and even a new identity and mission in life.

Conspiracy theories aren’t new, but what makes QAnon novel?

Because QAnon is closely tied with conservative political affiliation at a time in US history when partisanship has become hyper-polarized, QAnon seems to be gaining wider traction than other conspiracy theories in history. Its wide appeal can also be explained by the multiple “hooks” used to attract members including the “cult of Trump,” the Christian evangelical undercurrent, or the “solve-a-puzzle” gaming aspect.

What’s not clear is just how many people are “true believers” versus how many identify with QAnon dogma based on its metaphorical meaning. Similar to a religious text like the Bible or the Quran, it’s possible that many or most QAnon believers embrace its message without being literalists.

How can so many seemingly functional, ordinary people believe it?

The idea that “functional, ordinary” or “normal” people think rationally and logically all the time just isn’t true. Normal people have many false beliefs, whether “positive illusions” that help maintain self-esteem or religious beliefs that are supported based on faith as opposed to evidence

Research has shown that about half the U.S. population believes in at least one conspiracy theory. Similar rates have been found in other countries as well.

Does believing in hidden forces help people cope? Especially if the message is superficially profound?

In the face of uncertainty and fear, such as we’re facing globally now, any explanation is appealing for some who have greater needs for certainty, control, and closure. A big part of the appeal of conspiracy theory beliefs is also rooted in mistrust of authority and authoritative sources of information. In that sense, the idea that the “real” explanation for events involves a secret group of powerful people with evil intentions provides a kind of validation of that mistrust. It also paints a target upon which to focus our anger and discontent and can often serve a scapegoating role. In that vein, conspiracy theories are often used as a form of political propaganda to misdirect blame.

Despite these factors in making conspiracy theories appealing to some, there’s no evidence that they actually help people cope. Belief in conspiracy theories doesn’t alleviate stress or make believers feel safer. Unsurprisingly, the opposite instead seems to be true.

You have suggested that adherents go through a two-part process of being conditioned to mistrust and then exposed to misinformation. How has the Internet exacerbated this?

The internet has been described as a kind of “petri dish” that allows conspiracy theories to flourish because echo chambers and filter bubbles create an environment where confirmation bias is heightened—resulting in a kind of “confirmation bias on steroids.”

Confirmation bias means that we all tend to seek out information that supports our pre-existing intuitions and beliefs while rejecting whatever contradicts it. That process is heightened by search algorithms that are purposely designed to show us what we think it wants us to see.

The internet also makes it possible to obtain validation of even the most fringe beliefs imaginable—even frank delusions—at the touch of the button. Of course, you never know if that validation is coming from someone who is intentionally peddling disinformation for financial or political gain or someone who might actually be delusional.

So many political candidates espousing QAnon beliefs have made it onto November election ballots, in California especially. What’s going on there?

Well, again, the question is whether those—like President Trump himself—are actual “true” literal believers of QAnon dogma or whether they’re affiliating with the spirit of it. The spirit of it—that American is being destroyed by liberals seeking to topple Trump by any means necessary—is so closely interwoven with GOP political messaging now as to be indistinguishable.

In that sense, it’s a smart tactic for GOP politicians to be at least friendly to QAnon followers, in the same way that someone like President Trump tends to embrace pro-Christian rhetoric, seemingly without being much of a practicing Christian himself.

What do you make of high-level political figures such as Michael Flynn and President Trump posting "crumbs?"

President Trump has acknowledged that QAnons represent a fan base that benefits his political aspirations. So, it’s no surprise that he and politicians supporting a second Trump term would be willing to retweet QAnon memes—stopping short of actual endorsement while still making clear that he or they welcome the support with open arms. Again, the metaphorical part of QAnon dogma—that “radical” liberals are trying to destroy America as we have known it—has essentially become Trump's main campaign strategy going into November. And disinformation based on fear is a potent political strategy that has proven historically successful.

For more about how to talk to loved ones who have become obsessed with QAnon: