An earlier version of this article appeared in the Halifax Examiner on September 13, 2020, before the US election and the storming of the Capitol in Washington on January 6, which involved many QAnon adherents. This article contains graphic descriptions of conspiracy theories about child abuse and torture that may not be suitable for all readers. Jesselyn Cooke at the Huffington Post has written a powerful and heart-wrenching account of how QAnon affects families.
The change in the Nova Scotian woman – I’ll call her Lidia – was dramatic and it happened suddenly. According to a member of her family, Lidia had always been left leaning and progressive, and in 2016, had said she strongly supported Bernie Sanders in his bid to be the US Democratic Party’s presidential candidate.
Then, one day about a couple of years ago, after she spent time speaking with a sibling in the United States, Lidia did an about-face.
“She suddenly went all weird and Trumpy on us. But she couldn’t stand Trump before,” said a family member who worries about Lidia and the way her new belief system is affecting people around her, including her children.
“It has broken up the whole family,” said the relative.
The cause of Lidia’s transformation?
In a word: QAnon.
How it began
Today QAnon is a global movement fuelled by convoluted conspiracy theories. But it began with a single post on October 28, 2017 by an anonymous entity on the 4chan internet forum, on a “politically incorrect page” in a dark corner of the internet that has been criticized for its racist, violent and misogynistic posts.
In the months that followed, there was little media attention paid to this online phenomenon, with the notable exception of the excellent podcast “QAnon Anonymous,” hosted by Julian Feeld, Travis View and Jake Rockatansky, which, almost from the beginning has provided in-depth and critical coverage of QAnon.
The first Q thread claimed that Hillary Clinton would be arrested within days. It was called “Calm Before the Storm,” an ominous phrase Donald Trump had used and refused to explain at a military dinner two weeks earlier. The anonymous poster signed off as “Q,” a clearance level in the US Department of Energy.
In the 4chan post, “Q” claimed to have classified information about the “deep state” opponents of the Trump administration – prominent liberal Hollywood celebrities, Democratic politicians and government officials.
Since then, thanks to more posts from “Q” – known as “Q-drops” – and a lot of help from the algorithms, alchemy and echo chambers of social media, compounded with the isolation and increased online activity during the COVID-19 pandemic – the conspiracy theory has metastasized into a whole belief system with many variations of the original bizarre conspiracy theory.
From what can I have gleaned from YouTube videos, Facebook and Instagram posts and Tweets, basically QAnons believe that a global cabal of Satan-worshipping political and Hollywood elites are pedophiles who are abducting and trafficking children whom they sexually abuse and torture, or whose blood they drink and flesh they consume.
But that’s hardly all; it gets even more outlandish and far-fetched.
According to QAnon, the only person who can fight the liberal elite evildoers and save the children from this global child-trafficking cabal is Donald Trump, which means that QAnons stridently support Trump and supported his re-election in November.
In May 2019, the FBI released a memo warning that QAnon adherents could be possible domestic terrorists driven by conspiracy theories, and a study in July 2020 summarized five criminal cases in the US involving violence motivated by QAnon.
However, in August 2020 Forbes reported that Trump was still retweeting Republican congressional candidates who were promoting QAnon conspiracies online.
The grand conspiracy mash-up
QAnon conspiracy theories also view the media as part of the evil global conspiracy; all “just actors reading a script.”
QAnon adherents use a wide range of hashtags, slogans and code when they share their conspiracies online, among them WWG1WGA (Where We Go One We Go All), Save The Children, and Great Awakening Worldwide – which became increasingly common on social media feeds around the world.
Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has spawned its own conspiracy theories, there has been what the BBC calls a “grand conspiracy mash-up” with QAnon beliefs merging with those about the coronavirus.
The signs that someone has been burrowing into the depths of the QAnon coronavirus rabbit hole include posts on social media or talk of claims that COVID-19 is caused by the G5 network, or that it’s a hoax meant to steal freedom, a conspiracy headed by George Soros, or by Bill Gates who has the patent for a vaccine or for an implant that will control us all. Others say that the coronavirus is just a cover-up for the global sex-trafficking cabal.
Legitimate questions can be asked about some of the restrictions that some governments have imposed and also the lack of transparency about the spread of the virus, something the Examiner has reported on here in Nova Scotia.
But the conspiracy theories that the pandemic is a hoax completely ignore or just dismiss science and the constant monitoring and measuring of the extent of and fatalities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide by medical science and reputable sources such as the Johns Hopkins University’s Corona Virus Resource Center.
From the internet to the streets
Such conspiracy theories have brought together many disparate groups – from new-age progressives to far-right groups, and fuelled an anti-masker movement that in August converged with QAnon, and leapt from the internet to the streets.
In the summer of 2020, many thousands of people protesting pandemic restrictions and safety measures, many sporting QAnon paraphernalia, have gathered for anti-mask “freedom” rallies in cities in the US and UK, Europe, Australia, and Canada, including a very small one held in July in Halifax, on which the Examiner reported here.
On September 12, 2020, a QAnon rally drew thousands of protestors in Montreal. CBC described it this way:
Hare Krishnas marched alongside Christian fundamentalists and supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump. Others held signs about the 5G internet network, or perceived corruption at the United Nations.
CBC also reported that:
The most popular symbols at the protest — be it on t-shirts, placards or flags — belonged to QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory started in the United States that claims a satanic, pedophile cabal secretly controls the U.S. government, if not the entire world.
These days QAnon adherents can be found just about everywhere, including in politics – and not just in US politics.
Nova Scotia was the first jurisdiction in Canada to have a full-fledged QAnon run for a national political party in the 2019 federal election. Billy Joyce, who calls himself “Canada’s red pill” – a reference to the “red pill” from the film “The Matrix” that supposedly reveals the true world – ran in the Cape Breton–Canso riding for the People’s Party of Canada. Joyce had his own YouTube channel for two years, which promoted QAnon conspiracy theories. (That channel appears to have come down since social media platforms did a massive purge of QAnon posts and peddlars after the storming of the Capitol in January 2021).
Nova Scotians taking the red pill
Rural and small-town Nova Scotia appears to be fertile ground for QAnon.
Marla – not her real name as she requested anonymity – lives in Northern Nova Scotia. Over Facebook Messenger, she said she became part of the QAnon movement this year, after the onset of COVID-19. It began when a friend of hers shared a post, which she said, “showed that Public Health Officials were not following the science” about the pandemic.
The post was from Del BigTree, an American television and film producer who is a well-known antivaccine propagandist turned conspiracy theorist during the COVID-19 pandemic, and whose film “Vaxxed” has been panned as “anti-vaccination lunacy.”
However, Marla says she became skeptical about the pandemic as she listened to BigTree’s “common-sense approach” and “the fact that mainstream media was not reporting on the hundreds of doctors all over the world who were speaking out and exposing the fact that Public Health Officials were NOT following the science,” and that these doctors “were, and still are, being censored.”
Prior to that, I was not skeptical because I simply did not know any better. Just like many still today. They do not know any better because they cannot believe that the Government, Public Health Officials, and the Mainstream Media would lie or be part of any sort of corruption.
Marla says she then found out about QAnon “through a friend” and that she is “very concerned about the global pedophile rings,” which she calls a “multi-trillion-dollar industry,” but she “had no idea how big it was until COVID.”
This is how she describes her beliefs:
There are children (unregistered children at that) literally being bred for organ harvesting, human trafficking, and torture for adrenochrome [a chemical produced by the oxidation of adrenaline] compound collection. It is the utmost of evil and the corruption runs unbelievably deep ….. from Government Officials, to the Royal Family, to Supreme Court Justices, to the CIA, to the RCMP, and on and on and on. Even Child Protective Services are part of it (which Norman Traversy brought to the limelight when he orchestrated a Patriot March in Ottawa on July 1, 2020 to deliver an official 192-page legal document requesting that the US and Mexico Governments investigate the corruption in Canada through the new USMCA Treaty). But there was no media coverage of it! “THE PEOPLE” had to become the media with their phone cameras to share the information.
This is how Marla views QAnon and her affinity to it:
The movement, in my opinion, is simply the banding together of Patriots from all over the world and over all social media platforms and local communities to push the truth out there. There have been several Patriot rallies peacefully protesting the COVID mandates (they are NOT laws). They are unjust and unwarranted and were not developed under Parliament or from Science. The COVID restrictions are not about a virus. They are about grooming society to obey orders, to introduce a Socialist Government, which is ALWAYS the precursor to a Communist Government. All people have to do is find the truth and say NO.
Marla has received criticism from family and friends, but says:
I dealt with it by standing my ground. I will never not stand up for what I know to be true. They will find their own truth in their own time, and that is ok. I know many people who are not speaking with their families because they share truths and/or support Trump. Thankfully, that is not the case with me, but I truly believe everyone will come to see the corruption sooner than later, because it is continually being exposed.
QAnon conspiracy theories not new
The QAnon conspiracy theories about global child trafficking rings and pedophiles torturing children are hardly new.
They also appear to have emerged from Pizzagate conspiracy theory about Democratic Party leaders running a child sex ring under the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC, a fanciful and totally false tale that was concocted and spread during the 2016 election.
But according to Gregory Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch, the conspiracy theories go back further than that.
Writing in Just Security, Stanton summarized the narrative of the conspiracy theories around which QAnon has rallied followers like Marla and Lidia:
A secret cabal is taking over the world. They kidnap children, slaughter, and eat them to gain power from their blood. They control high positions in government, banks, international finance, the news media, and the church. They want to disarm the police. They promote homosexuality and pedophilia. They plan to mongrelize the white race so it will lose its essential power.
If that conspiracy sounds familiar, it should, writes Stanton. The narrative of the QAnon conspiracy is just like one published more than a century ago. According to Stanton it:
…was the conspiracy “revealed” in the most influential anti-Jewish pamphlet of all time. It was called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was written by Russian anti-Jewish propagandists around 1902. It collected myths about a Jewish plot to take over the world that had existed for hundreds of years. Central to its mythology was the Blood Libel, which claimed that Jews kidnapped and slaughtered Christian children and drained their blood to mix in the dough for matzos consumed on Jewish holidays.
George Stanton also wrote:
In July, the Texas Republican party unveiled a new slogan, “We Are the Storm.” Over a dozen Republicans running for Congress have signaled support for the QAnon movement. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican candidate from Georgia who has endorsed QAnon’s views, is likely to win a seat in Congress. The President praises her as a “future Republican star.” The Trump campaign welcomes QAnon supporters to his rallies. When asked about QAnon on national television, the President replied, “I understand that they like me very much, which I appreciate.”
And he concluded:
The world has seen QAnon before. It was called Nazism. In QAnon, Nazism wants a comeback.
“It’s a cult”
QAnon is far more than just a conspiracy theory, according to Evan Balgord, co-founder and executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
“It’s a cult,” he said during a telephone interview.
According to Balgord:
The conspiracies aren’t different. The spread of it, and how quickly and how each member of the conspiracy-theory-believing group can all contribute and buttress each other in their fervent belief of a thing, [means] we’ve gone from a conspiracy theory like flat-eartherism, into a cult. … That’s not a new phenomenon. But with the technology [of social media and the internet], there’s an acceleration of how quickly it can happen and coalesce.
And, says Balgord:
Like any cult, QAnon wraps itself up in being about something much more supportable or benign; they have this “Save The Children” campaign which is why they’re being seen as against pedophilia … So they have this thing that they’re all about protecting children. Meanwhile, one of the main figures that they worship as part of the QAnon movement is of course … the [alleged] rapist and child-trafficker, of course I’m talking about President Trump.
He points out that because social media has no borders, neither does QAnon.
Balgord notes that QAnon conspiracy theories and the “global elites” they choose to target vary in each country. In the US it is Hollywood celebrities and liberal politicians.
In Canada, he says, QAnons attack Trudeau: “It’s whatever elites they don’t like in their country, any leftist people who would oppose Donald Trump as the god figure of the QAnon conspiracy.”
In Balgord’s view, people who are “intellectually susceptible” are:
… looking for a sense of belonging and connection and secret knowledge they share with other people. Working on a group project gives them this kind of deep social engagement, and you can see people go from not really using social media all that much, to posting literally every 20 minutes for all of their waking hours.
Some people become obsessive. It becomes their life. And they just produce so much content and usually reinforce each other, like with their slogan, “Where we go one we go all.” That becomes a very, very powerful force.
Most people aren’t going to snap and do something absolutely dangerous, but by being part of that environment they’re contributing to the whole environment.
However, Balgord points to several examples of violent incidents in the United States that have been carried out by QAnon adherents.
He also notes that Corey Hurren, the member of the Canadian Armed Forces who crashed his pick-up through the gates of Rideau Hall on July 2, 2020, and who has been charged with 22 criminal charges, including illegal weapon possession and uttering threats against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is a QAnon. Hurren posted QAnon conspiracy theories on Instagram.
Balgord believes the QAnon movement “is dangerous” and that it “inspires terrorists who can grow organically out of this movement very easily.” He continues:
The most dangerous thing about it is, their beliefs, they have several of them, one of their core beliefs is that pedophiles should die and these people are pedophiles, so they are dehumanizing a target and making a target for a bunch of people who have gotten really riled up. So the potential for terrorism to grow out of QAnon is very high.
For Balgord, though, the biggest threat from QAnon is societal because it attacks institutions and undermines democracy for “great swaths” of the public, convincing adherents that government and the media can’t be believed. He sees QAnon as a nexus for the far-right:
I’m concerned about their part in sustaining the entire far-right ecosystem and how that again undermines democracy and makes it more acceptable and normal to say hateful and racist things, and there’s almost no consequence for doing so in Canada.
Balgord believes that individuals cannot counter QAnon because there are so many adherents pumping out and spreading far too much information on social media all the time. The solution, in his view, lies with the social media companies, which have the capacity to identify QAnon accounts and remove them, get them off mainstream platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.
Although it’s impossible to know how many QAnon adherents there are, Balgord says the group is “way more sizeable than people would like to think.”
He estimates that perhaps 10% of the population is “intellectually susceptible” to such conspiracy theories and could be radicalized. “I pray it’s not higher than that, but I know it is just so contagious.”
And, he says, QAnon has gained momentum during the COVID crisis, during which it has “hoovered up” individuals who are susceptible to conspiracy theories:
In Canada people moved sideways into QAnon from COVID conspiracies. So it has been it has been a big accelerator of how things picked up in Canada. Because people were vulnerable to the COVID conspiracy theories and there’s some QAnon COVID conspiracy theories and they just seamlessly merge one into the other. So that was definitely a big factor.
If they are susceptible to something like being a flat-earther, or anti-masker or anti-vaxxer, they’re more likely to be a QAnon person. And all of these people are also more likely to be anti-women, or susceptible to racial conspiracies.
Whipping up moral panic
Janet Conway, the Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, studies transnational social justice movements. In a telephone interview, she said that she observes – and is alarmed by – the rise of the right wing worldwide, and that she seeks to understand gender and race politics and populism across right wing movements.
Conway says that QAnon conspiracy theories mobilize people around issues of pedophilia and the abuse of children and this is not unusual:
That’s a thread that you see through a lot of right wing movements in different parts of the world. And that is the mobilizing of the figure of the vulnerable child. So a really strong thread in these right wing movements is their reaction to the gains that have been made by lesbian, gay, queer, and trans movements around their sexual and reproductive and marriage and parenting rights.
So these right wing entities kind of mobilize and whip up hysteria in reaction to these gains by proposing that children are in danger. And so they’re in danger from adoption by gay parents. And they’re linking, gayness or homosexuality to pedophilia, which is a longstanding myth that’s been propagated. And so that figure of the vulnerable child is a typical kind of figure that appears across these movements. The vulnerable child becomes part of an attempt to whip up moral panic.
Conway said such campaigns and conspiracies can have wide appeal, especially during a time of crisis, and that it is not surprising that many women – especially white women – are mobilized through their identity as mothers:
It’s true that in different parts of the world that that well intentioned people and morally upright people can get mobilized by these kinds of moral panics, and get swept into a larger vortex of right wing mobilization that they are not necessarily ideologically aligned with themselves.
It just gets blown into this enormous claim, which, of course, converges with a very real, very materially grounded sense of insecurity in many parts of the world among large swaths of the population, economic insecurity, insecurity around climate change, insecurity around, you know, a loss of confidence in governments to be able to secure people’s futures. You know, there there are very real reasons for people to feel insecure.
But, Conway notes, behind it all are some unsavoury race politics:
It converges with a kind of race politics in a sense that the mobilization around the vulnerable child is generally the child of the racial majority. So there’s not a worry about the vulnerable child in the refugee camp or the vulnerable child that is being assaulted by police. Or the vulnerable child who is doesn’t have clean drinking water on a reservation. So it’s a vulnerable child that is the child of the racial majority. That converges with the sense of the threat to the future of that nation, and this is where it converges with commitments to white nationalism or white supremacy.
Conway thinks that while the COVID crisis has been a setback for the new right in some ways – citing the use reliance of governments on scientific and public health experts, and the Black Lives Matters movement, which she sees as something that the white nationalist right can easily put back in the box – the pandemic may also have made other people more vulnerable to QAnon conspiracy theories:
People have been online more than ever and alone and isolated and desperate and depressed. The pandemic contributes to a sense of vulnerability and crisis, which is well-founded.
The bigger picture
Conway sees the rise of QAnon as part of a much bigger issue of our times:
I think the other part of this is that there is a real crisis, I would say, in liberal democracy. And that crisis extends to political parties of the left or the social democratic left. So people who are disillusioned feel cynical about voting for the so-called more progressive candidate. To me, that cynicism is very well-founded. But that doesn’t make voting for Trump the answer. But I think it’s really important to recognize that that there is a real vacuum. And that to think globally that the international order, the world order that was put in place after World War Two, is unraveling.
That is that’s part of the global context that we’re in now that is unraveling, and people are right to be scared about what that means. There is all kinds of evidence of the liberal democratic politics not being up to the job, not being up to the tasks of the times, including addressing climate change, and things like addressing massive economic disparities globally and also within societies.
Left-wing parties all over the world have been endorsing neoliberal globalization that has led to massive precarity and loss of livelihoods. So there are real reasons, very solid reasons, for people to be cynical about the political options on offer.
Conway says that the whole digital virtual world is a “huge challenge for social scientists in terms of how to study it” and the scholarship on it is still just emerging, so it is far too early to try to draw conclusions about who is behind such movements and who is involved:
I think that at the very least, there’s a massive cultural politics underway, to sow confusion, to sow division, to whip up people to make them more vulnerable to other forms of misinformation. But whether it’s just mischief, like whether it’s mischief gone mad or whether it’s actually some kind of strategy at work, I don’t know anybody who knows the answer to that.