QAnon: Bizarre Conspiracy Theory? Alternate Reality Game? Huge Social Experiment? Or Worse?

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

Most of us by now have heard of the right-wing phenomenon known as QAnon. We spotted Q T-shirts at Trump rallies and read articles about them in the popular press. All of a sudden, QAnon became a thing. Now, there’s been a surge of interest again with HBO’s recent 6-part series Q: INTO THE STORM that purports to reveal the identity of the person who is Q.

Photo Credit: Marc Nozell

For any who might need catching up: Q is supposedly a secret high-ranking official with “Q” clearance who drops puzzling bread crumbs on the fringe message board 8chan (now 8kun). According to this insane theory, the government has been infiltrated by an international cabal of Satanists, pedophiles, cannibals, and child sex traffickers.

According to Q, on the day of the Storm, Trump would declare martial law, and the military would round up all the members of the celebrity sex-trafficking cult and pack them off to Gitmo. It was first scheduled for November 3, 2017, but postponed again and again. Many had focused on January 6, 2021, as the big day. Finally, Trump’s fake inauguration on March 6 passed without incident. By then, even Q had long stopped leaving bread crumbs, so a lot of believers had begun to wonder whether the Storm would ever come.

Safe Space for Losers

All this is so preposterous that you really must wonder how so many people could have gotten into it. I think it starts with a willingness to depart from mainstream reality for the sake of emotional comfort. They’re running away from a changing world.

Let’s face it, there are some loopy religions out there that have lots of devoted believers. So when politics has no direct bearing on your everyday life and voting is just a civic ritual, why not go for something that makes you feel better about yourself? QAnoners feel they’re in on something and sticking up for their beliefs: Where We Go 1, We Go All is their motto. They have cool chants and T-shirts and hey, you might get on TV.

For the Trumpies, QAnon is their thing, a way to set themselves apart from the mainstream. It’s also a way to attract the liberal derision they thrive on.

And there has been plenty of that. I’ve read article after article attempting to explain the QAnon phenomenon and to psychoanalyze the believers, coupled with dismay that so many have been taken in. These speak of alienation, now leading to disillusionment.

Quoted in Wikipedia:

People in the QAnon community often talk about alienation from family and friends. ... [t]hough they typically talk about how Q frayed their relationships on private Facebook groups. But they think these issues are temporary and primarily the fault of others. They often comfort themselves by imagining that there will be a moment of vindication sometime in the near future, which will prove their beliefs right. They imagine that after this happens, not only will their relationships be restored, but people will turn to them as leaders who understand what's going on better than the rest of us. (Weill, Kelly (December 23, 2018). “Christmas Is the Loneliest Time for QAnon Fans.” The Daily Beast

But I wonder if there might be more to it, and so we now take a turn into the bewitching world of conspiracy and speculation. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Photo Credit: Marc Nozell

QAnon is a Global Internet Game

Being a gamer, one day I came across an article by Reed Berkowitz of Curiouser Institute, A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon, that convinced me QAnon is really a game.

In particular, QAnon is an alternate reality game (ARG), or at least it started out as one.

An ARG presents a puzzle to be solved by a massive cloud-sourcing scavenger hunt. A community of solvers searches for clues distributed across multiple sites created especially for the game. These have often been done for movies, the most famous being The Beast, which was created to promote the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The TV show Lost operated in the same fashion. ARGs can be lots of fun.

Q presented its followers with a massive community project aimed at solving the meaning of Q’s cryptic messages. Every drop of a bread crumb would spawn a hurricane of Google searches and speculations. Followers were urged to “do your own research,” which for most amounted to visiting QAnon sites where others presented their (non-scientific) findings.

QAnon operates like a massive multiplayer game. As Q bread crumbs are parsed, analyzed and deciphered, the findings are culled by a set of influencers known as bakers, who compile the speculation and then scrutinize it for synchronicities. The bakers’ interpretations seek to draw commonalities out of the chaos, proving a focal point for members that do their own “research” and creating an orthodoxy for the cult faithful. By delivering aha! moments and a sense of being in the know, they give members a sense of confidence and inclusion.

As Clive Thompson of Wired put it:

It's thrilling to be involved with other people in something bigger than yourself. Plus, it turns one's armchair-warrior Googling into a heroic quest for truth. It’s been compared to religious devotees poring over sacred texts for divine revelations. And there are social rewards. It turns out the QAnon community is highly social, and newcomers are given warm welcomes and praised for their devotion. If you contribute a new finding, you rise in status and attract your own following. It can be heady, entertaining stuff.

Berkowitz’s key insight is that the phenomenon is driven by apophenia, the tendency of the human brain to find patterns out of chaotic data even when they are not there. Think of cloud shapes.

QAnon grows on the wild misinterpretation of random data presented suggestively in a milieu designed to help the users come to the intended misunderstanding. Maybe “guided apophenia” is a better phrase. Guided because the puppet masters are directly involved in hinting about the desired conclusions. They have pre-seeded the conclusions. They are constantly getting the player lost by pointing out unrelated random events and creating a meaning for them that fits the propaganda message Q is delivering. (Ibid)

This means that QAnon has become self-sustaining. It doesn’t matter that Q hasn’t dropped anything since 2020. The game plays on. It has branched out into numerology: Any instance of the number 17 is taken as a Q signal. (Q is the 17th letter.) There is speculation that Trump was forced to abandon the cause and it is now taken up by retired U.S. General Michael Flynn. It’s been worked into the Capitol insurrection story and has won seats in the House, raising the media attention to the max. It’s broad enough that any right-wing fascination can be brought under its wing. (Lately, they’ve been delving into vaccination conspiracies.)

What’s the End Game?

It appears to me that Q started out as an ARG, but as it took off, it was co-opted by a political faction. After a dark period at the end of 2019, Q re-emerged with a very different tone. This was the occasion when Q’s message board moved from 4chan to 8chan (8kun) and the control of Jim Watkins and his son, Ron Watkins. (No relation to this writer.) Q has been totally silent in 2021.

Was there ever a person who was Q? Possibly, during the early days when it was just an ARG. Connections back into the ARG community exist that I don’t have room to explore. Ron Watkins likely threw out some Q material for his own purposes on occasion, but the messaging probably was crafted by intelligence pros. The whole setup seems like a psyop. In any case, there is no one individual acting as Q. Q is a fictional character speaking lines written by multiple writers – like Colonel Sanders.

But if QAnon is a game, even one running mainly on apophenia, there must be a gamemaster. The HBO series strongly suggested that Q was Ron Watkins, the admin of 8chan/8kun, owned by his father. Watch and judge for yourself, but my impression was that the Watkinses were probably complicit in something higher up. Then later, trying to exploit this association for personal gain, they got shut out. Now that QAnon has gone mainstream, it is platform-independent – and with 8chan/8kun exposed and under suspicion, there is no longer an authentic Q feed.

Where true ARG gamemasters fight against apophrenia as it draws their players out of their controlled game space and down blind alleys, reality is the game space with QAnon.

The question is, What is the endgame?

Somehow, I get the idea that the rubes at Trump rallies are not doing exhaustive internet research.

As QAnon grew from an ARG to a movement, a lot of people came on board for social reasons. Here was an online community that would welcome them, reward their loyalty and provide an ongoing source of infotainment that reinforced their controversial political views. It was a safe haven for wingnuts who needed one so badly as the Trump boat parade ran aground.

I suspect that most newbies who take up “doing your own research” never get beyond QAnon sites and the links they present. Valid internet research takes a certain skill set and a lot of time. A secondhand aha moment is not as thrilling as a real discovery, but offers much of the same emotional reward – and it’s much easier.

QAnon is likely the newbie’s first exposure to the ARG world, so it is easy to become addicted. In years past, such people have been drawn into the UFO scene, demonology, ancient aliens, political assassinations and (of course) the flat earth.

As in evangelism, believers are taught to spread the word and draw others into the fold. Q teaches followers how to proselytize. Message boards offer memes and technical resources for tracking individuals, hacking for their locations and tools for doing research.

Still with me? Bring out the wolf’s bane, because soon we’ll be howling at the moon.

The Lesson of Flat Earth

Preposterous theory. Met with loud derision in the media but defiantly accepted by people who know better. Where have we seen that before? FLAT EARTH.

Before QAnon came along, the Flat Earthers held their place as the joke of the internet. Their proofs were amusing and fun to refute, and we had the same hand wringing over how anyone could fall for such an easily disprovable “theory.” But is it just a joke? An estimated 2% of the population are believers, which is almost 6.7 million Americans alone.

Conspiracy theories are an interest of mine. I’ve followed Flat Earth since it starting showing up around the end of 2014 when all of a sudden we were seeing slick websites and professional-quality videos on the subject. Somebody put some resources into it, too many just to trick people for a joke.

Could it be someone’s social study? Suppose you wanted to see how people get caught up in conspiracy theories by starting one yourself. What would you choose? How about one that starts out universally discredited with few outspoken believers. Flat Earth is taught in schools as the very epitome of a false belief. The whole Columbus story hinges on it. The term has been long used to mock people who advance other dubious theories. If you can discover how Flat Earthers can be recruited, you’ll learn how to get people to believe in anything.

Like QAnon.

So it’s looking to me as though QAnon is Flat Earth politicized, a mass deception used by some shadowy political organization to draw people into a rightwing cult. Clearly, it’s not Trump. He could have pulled the trigger but did not. He lost a chunk of his following when the Storm never blew in.

But consider Trump’s big backers, who never really cared for his bluster but were happy to ride his popularity. Now that he is out, they’d want to retain as much of his base as possible in hopes of taking over the Republican Party and shaping the 2024 election. QAnon has become the only force in the party capable of challenging a Trump comeback, so it makes sense to promote it.

This is a planned takeover.

Since QAnon has enough adherents to swing the 2024 nomination, especially if Trump drops out, we will see a parade of politicians pandering to them. Marjorie Taylor Greene has become a national figure on the back of QAnon, and 2024 candidates will undoubtedly have noticed. We are already hearing dog whistles in that direction. Trump played footsie with QAnon throughout the 2020 campaign, always with good results. As the 2024 campaign heats up, I expect we will see someone higher profile than Greene jump out to try to get the QAnon vote.

I would not put that past our own beloved Ted Cruz, but he could get beat out by Don Trump Jr.

Could Q be Putin?

Photo Credit: TASS News Agency

The frightening possibility is that this could be the work of the Russians.

Everything in Q is pro-Russian: Q casts doubt on Russian meddling, hates Russia hawks like John McCain and promotes the Seth Rich conspiracy theory that exonerates Russia from the DNC hack.

The possible involvement of Michael Flynn supports the possibility of a closer Russian connection, as Flynn has recently sworn allegiance to QAnon.

When Jim Watkins needed funds to establish 8chan, it came from the Russians. Remember that one of QAnon’s main themes is rejection of mainstream media sources – also a Russian objective. The Russians have the cyberwar staff and advanced tools to plant attractive bread crumbs for Q seekers. They are present in all the same places as QAnon with established propagandists and high credibility. In this way, they can seed message boards and social media with memes and storylines that serve their purpose.

According to an account by Joseph Menn of Reuters in August 2020:

In 2019, accounts removed by Twitter and suspected of being controlled by Russia’s Internet Research Agency sent a high volume of tweets tagged with #QAnon and the movement slogan #WWG1WGA, short for Where We Go One, We Go All, said Melanie Smith, head of analysis at social media analysis firm Graphika. The IRA was indicted by Robert Mueller in his election interference prosecution.

More recently, Russian government-backed media and Sputnik have stepped up coverage of QAnon, which began with a false proclamation Hillary Clinton would be arrested for an undetermined reason and now includes theories about child trafficking.

The Russians got involved early, helping spread Q propaganda even before the emergence of Q in 2017. It appears that the Russian puppet site CrusadersPost was the first to use the term QAnon on social media. At the very least, Russia has had an eye on QAnon since its inception, and they’ve obviously helped publicize and feed the conspiracy group.

Isn’t this exactly what they do? In the 2016 and 2020 elections, the Russians seeded social media with pro-Trump propaganda. Some think it was enough to account for Trump’s win, but at least there is no doubt it fueled the Trump train. To do this, they built up an infrastructure of fake websites, rumor mongers and influencers, learning the best ways to insinuate themselves into social groups and news cycles. Now they’ve had at least 5 years of practice.

Hijacking QAnon is the logical next step, and they are ideally positioned to feed their propaganda into the right-wing delirium machine. Message boards are perfect in that they are anonymous and can be scammed in many ways.

Yes, this has to be the Russians.

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