An attendee holds signs with the words “We Are Q” before the start of a rally with U.S. President Donald Trump in Lewis Center, Ohio, U.S., on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018. Photo: Maddie McGarvey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Qanon is going mainstream and that’s bad. More than bad, it might be a national security risk. That’s the conclusion of a new report from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) on the emergence of the conspiracy theory into daily life. The QAnon Conspiracy Theory: A Security Threat in the Making clearly explains what QAnon is, its roots in American history, and how and why some of its adherents turn violent.
The CTC is an academic institute within West Point focused on studying terrorism and ideology through research. Amaranth Amarasingam, a professor of religion at Queen’s University, and Marc-André Argentino, a PhD Candidate at Concordia University, co-authored the paper, which breaks down the threat posed by QAnon and clear and simple terms. “Though less organized than jihadi or far-right extremists…QAnon represents a novel challenge to public security,” the paper said.
QAnon can be confusing for the outside observer. It’s like the greatest hits of American conspiracy theories from the past 50 years, supercharged, and turned into a vast online roleplaying game. It’s hard to articulate what adherents believe and why those beliefs lead to violence. It has no central leader and encourages its followers to do their own research.
“QAnon is thus markedly different from other far-right extremist groups and jihadi groups,” the paper said. “As it lacks both a clear organizational structure and a centralization of interpretive duties.”
Broadly, QAnon followers believe President Trump is waging a war against a shadowy cabal of entrenched politicians who traffic children for occult and sexual purposes. It sounds strange and novel, but as the West Point paper points out, it’s a repackaged version of old conspiracy theories.
“QAnon also represents a militant and anti-establishment ideology rooted in an apocalyptic desire to destroy the existing, corrupt world to usher in a promised golden age,” it said. “This position finds resonance with other far-right extremist movements, such as the various militant, anti-government, white nationalist, and neo-Nazi extremist organizations across the United States.”
That’s one of the things that makes QAnon so viral—it’s a one size fits all conspiracy theory, compatible with existing belief structures. “QAnon followers share roots with con-spiracy theories that have fed other anti-government movements, such as the 90s militias that feared the ‘New World Order,’ or the anti-government apocalypticism and religious fervor of the Branch Davidians,” the paper said.
Argentino and Amarasingam cited five examples of QAnon leading to real world violence. The most recent is Jessica Prim, a woman arrested in April with dozens of illegal knives in NYC. “She also livestreamed this two-day trip from Illinois to New York City and in it threatened to kill Joe Biden for his supposed involvement in a ‘deep state’ sex trafficking ring, in line with QAnon narratives,” the paper said.
Argentino and Amarasingam poured over Prim’s social media activity and built a map of her radicalization. “What stands out with this case is the rapidity with which Prim apparently radicalized to violence,” they said. “From her first contact with QAnon propaganda, apparently on April 9, 2020…20 days passed until she made threats of offline violence while in transit to New York City.”
Argentino and Amarasingam said it’s possible this will get worse as the movement gets bigger. There are currently more than 60 Congressional candidates who’ve expressed sympathy for QAnon. “With this mainstreaming, as well as the impending presidential election that seems likely to only increase QAnon’s salience, an increasing frequency of criminal or violent acts by QAnon supporters seems possible, even likely,” they said.
QAnon is indicative of how misinformation spreads online and how damaging it can be, but it’s just one example. It’s also not clear that deplatforming or regulation will work to stop the spread. As Amarasingam has pointed out before, deplatforming ISIS on Telegram gave the group something to fight for.
“Regulation of QAnon content could simply result in platform migration and further reinforce QAnon’s cosmology that sees a cabal of pedophiles lurking behind every corporate or gov-ernmental decision,” the paper said.
The big takeaway from the West Point paper is that QAnon isn’t going away and that the violence might get worse.
“Based on the authors’ observation of QAnon activity on Telegram, there is a growing overlap between QAnon channels and more extremist channels affiliated with the proud boys, paramilitary groups, and white supremacists,” they said. “QAnon is arguably no longer simply a fringe conspiracy theory but an ideology that has demonstrated its capacity to radicalize to violence individuals at an alarming speed.”