The "QAnon" conspiracy theory/cult began in the fall of 2017 in the way that most modern horrors do: with an anonymous 4chan user. They claimed to be a government insider with knowledge of a secret effort by heroic mastermind Donald Trump to take down a vast international child-trafficking ring.
Fast forward three years and there are at least five Qanon believers on the ballot for Congress this November, at least some of whom are heavily favored to win. There's a whole heartbreaking subreddit about people losing family members down the QAnon rabbit hole, many now believing that society's elites are getting high off of a drug made by harvesting children's fear. That's right: They think the Monsters Inc. universe is real.
The whole thing is ridiculous but also kind of genius. Allow me to explain:
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"How can so many people believe in something so ridiculous and implausible?" Is a question that you probably ask yourself about 150 times in the course of a normal day. But it's like asking why people eat junk food; the answer in both cases is that the product has been carefully designed to light up pleasure signals in a hungry brain. Nothing in nature tastes as good as french fries and no truth is as much fun to believe as a good conspiracy theory. But there's another, less obvious reason the implausibility is a plus.
If a person feels powerless or insignificant in their life, the easiest way to achieve power is to make other people angry; every internet troll has known this since 1993 and every toddler has known it since the dawn of time. Confidently asserting a belief that the mainstream finds outrageous or offensive -- ie, that Trump is the smartest and most righteous man alive -- enrages the normies. That gives the believer power over them. It's like a wizard's spell: The believer has profoundly altered somebody else's mood just by repeating a few key phrases.
So when creating a conspiracy theory (or a cult or hate group -- they all work the same), the belief system has to be so weird that it offends the sensibilities of outsiders. Have you ever felt your blood boiling when confronting a flat earther? Your rage was their reward and -- this is key -- increasing the collective rage toward their movement only boosts its power. This is why every lasting religion has extensive lore about its past persecution. "They hate us because they know we're right!"
Every shitty behavior is born of an unmet need and, in 2020, the need is often just "attention." Even before a deadly pandemic forced everybody to stay home, the modern world was exacerbating a "loneliness epidemic," which is almost certainly related to the subsequent, "downing painkillers with wine epidemic." And note that "loneliness", according to experts, isn't just a lack of friends, it's feeling a lack of importance in other people's lives. As in, "If I died, will this girl I subscribe to on OnlyFans come to my funeral?"
Now think about all of the groups who especially feel like they don't matter, like young males without careers or elderly folk who lack friends/spouses/hobbies. For them, QAnon doesn't just offer a like-minded social group, but a tight group, bound together by the same bunker mentality every cult thrives on.
And here, oddly enough, we find the second reason the conspiracy theory has to be ridiculous: the more the group is shunned by society, the more the group members must lean on each other for support and the tighter the group becomes. But at the same time...
This may sound like I'm contradicting the previous point, but there is actually a balancing act here that is crucial for any movement like this to get traction.
Scientologists don't grab people off the street and start talking about Xenu and volcano aliens. Instead, they'll ask if you're under stress, or frequently ill, or " ... on an emotional seesaw, doing well one day and badly the next." Hey, I bet that sounds like you! In fact, I bet if they managed to cure all of that, you'd probably be willing to hand-wave away the weird stuff Tom Cruise said to you in line at the buffet.
Likewise, QAnon can be whitewashed for outsiders as, "Do you believe powerful people in business and politics conspire to do evil shit? And do you believe that evil shit involves horrifying sex crimes?" Well, you've seen all the pics with Jeffrey Epstein and pretty much every powerful person in America...
This pairing of an obvious fact with an outrageous one is tricky but also common, you may have heard of it referred to as a motte-and-bailey technique and it works like this:
QAnon believer: "Powerful people are trafficking sex slaves and Donald Trump is the head of a massive undercover operation to take them out, thus making Trump literally one of the greatest heroes in world history."
You: "That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."
QAnon believer: "Oh, so you're saying sex trafficking doesn't exist?"
At this point, they get one of two outcomes. Either you become like the hypothetical casual Scientologist and hand-wave away the weird stuff because the general premise seems true ("I mean, I definitely think the Clintons are sleazy...") or you laugh in their face and walk away. In the former case, they get a new ally, in the latter, they get to go back to their message board and talk about how they ran into another closed-minded sheep who refuses to see the obvious truth. "We have to band together, brothers! These mocking haters are everywhere!"
Hey, have you noticed how complicated most cults and/or religions are? Scientology has literally hundreds of acronyms and other pieces of jargon for members to learn across their nine levels of membership. The NXIVM sex slave cult (currently the subject of an HBO documentary) had individual training programs that were 160 hours long. But, why are they so convoluted? Why not keep it simple?
The answer, I think, is that it creates a sort of sunk-cost fallacy to lock-in believers. If you've poured hundreds of hours and tremendous amounts of brain power into memorizing the lore and jargon, well, it would really suck to find out it was all a waste. What are you going to do, start over with some other belief system? Even the thought of it is exhausting, it's like changing careers, or dating after a divorce.
That means there's incentive to give followers tons of stuff to learn -- maybe even with an inscrutable sacred text they're meant to endlessly read, analyze and memorize. Good news: QAnon has got you covered. Just google "QAnon charts" and prepare to have your brain slowly dribble out of your ears:
Even better, it's always growing. After those initial posts in 2017, anonymous Q-tippers have continually turned up in various places (including the now-banned subreddit) to add brand new content, like video game DLC. Just this last June, they accused furniture and decor seller Wayfair of being a front for child trafficking. In July, they claimed Tom Hanks and other celebrities were preparing to flee the country because of their involvement in the conspiracy. If I were to tell you that Donald Trump was about to personally arrest Tom Hanks and present incontrovertible proof that the former is a hero and the latter is a superpredator, are you telling me you wouldn't tune in to watch?
Continuous new developments = more time investment by the followers = more time spent talking to fellow believers = more use of in-group jargon in everyday vocabulary = more and more detachment from the world of the normies. A cult, when it's working, will turn you into someone nobody else can stand to be around. "They're the only family I have left."
You have to be careful when trying to instill a sense of superiority in your group. Whether it's based on sexual purity, veganism or financial responsibility, there's always the chance that some or all of your members will find it too hard to adhere to the code of conduct. You can wind up with a group full of bitter hypocrites and/or insecure liars.
No, to ramp up membership to a pseudo-cult in the Trump era, you need to set the moral bar lower. Like, so low that your members wouldn't even know how to get under it if they wanted to. Well, imagine waking up in the morning and feeling like a great person purely because you aren't participating in a high-flying Satanic child trafficking ring with Tom Hanks.
It appeals to that patently untrue thing we all secretly believe, that evil is this exotic and alien force and not just a bunch of selfish, mundane impulses that resides inside each and every one of us. Never mind that there are probably children being abused or neglected by the system within walking distance of your home and that there are products produced by child slaves within arms reach of where you're sitting. No, the true evil is isolated to some secret cabal of perverts we'll never meet. To root it out, we must scour the online world for bread crumbs, to be willing to look absolutely anywhere but in the mirror.
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