Members Only | February 8, 2021 | Reading Time: 7 minutes
Who needs Russian psyops when there’s a huge US market for conspiracy theories promising democracy’s violent overthrow?
Lindsay Beyerstein talked to the anonymous researcher behind Q Origins Project, who has just published the most exhaustive investigation to date on Bellingcat.
The cult of QAnon is at a crossroads. Adherents of the conspiracy theory/new religious movement convinced themselves that former President Donald Trump was poised to purge the cannibal pedophile cabal and its traitorous enablers in a cleansing burst of political violence. But with Joe Biden in the White House, and Capitol rioters facing charges for their insurrection of January 6, prophecy has apparently failed.
QAnon has been banished from major social media platforms. You can’t even sell Q merch on Etsy anymore. True believers are struggling to make sense of it all. Q himself has fallen silent. It has been over a month since his last dispatch to the faithful.
In just three years, QAnon has exploded from an anonymous post on 4chan to a household word. The FBI has declared it a domestic terrorist threat and the QAnon ideology has been the impetus for numerous terrorist attacks, not even counting the major role played by QAnon adherents in the assault on the US Capitol. QAnon has fractured families and destroyed lives. Astonishingly, we still don’t know who Q is.
Q’s identity has led to speculation about QAnon being an influence operation, (aka a psyop). That raises the question of who’s running this operation. Critics typically blame Russia or an alliance of Russia and Trump’s inner circle. Disillusioned former QAnon sympathizers, including Steve Bannon, have also embraced a version of the psyop theory, claiming that QAnon was a deep state hoax designed to fool patriots.
Whatever role Russia may have played in promoting this conspiracy theory, the real problem is that there’s a huge market in the United States for conspiracy theories that promise the violent overthrow of democracy.
Influence operations are typically military- or intelligence-led efforts to shape how a population thinks or feels without resorting to physical force.
Russian intelligence operates within the vast QAnon ecosystem but QAnon itself is a home-grown phenomenon, deeply rooted in American prejudices and preoccupations. QAnon and its forerunner Pizzagate were forged on 4Chan, a crucible of the Alt-Right and conspiracy culture. Understanding the racist, conspiratorial culture of “/pol” is key to understanding QAnon’s likely origins. It’s also important to understand how newer conspiracy theorizing incorporates and elaborates on older conspiratorial themes.
Q is old conspiracies made new
Many of the central tenets of the QAnon conspiracy theory are retreads of the antisemitic hoax tract, “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” which purports to be the meeting minutes of a criminal conspiracy of rabbis to take over the world. The Protocols, in turn, recycles the ancient antisemitic superstition known as blood libel, the notion that Jews are harvesting the blood of Christian children.
Q asserts that the Houses of Rothschild and Soros are “puppet masters” covertly manipulating historical events. (Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene notoriously speculated that a space laser from “Rothschild, Inc.” might have caused the Camp fire in California. Video of Greene berating a Parkland shooting survivor as a pawn of George Soros resurfaced recently.) Many of the QAnon faithful have their own take on blood libel, with the cannibal pedophiles being said to harvest a molecule known as adrenochrome from the blood of their child victims.
Ironically, the Protocols were commissioned by the head of the Russian secret police in the late 19th or early 20th century. The goal was to convince Czar Nicholas the II that the rise of capitalism in Russia was a conspiracy by Jews and the Freemasons. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was created by Russian conservatives to fool their own ruler, but the impact of the document was much broader. The forgery became the Ur-text of global conspiracy culture. Henry Ford’s newspaper published the Protocols in 1920. The Nazis cited the Protocols to justify the Holocaust. The influence of the Protocols can even be seen in Dan Brown’s bestselling Da Vinci Code novels.
In 2017, Vladimir Putin’s personal confessor was hyping the idea Nicholas was ritually murdered by Jews. (In fact, he was assassinated by Bolsheviks after the Revolution of 1917. The leader of the death squad was commended by Lenin for his work.)
QAnon sprang from the primordial soup of 4chan’s Politically Incorrect board, or /pol. 4chan is an anonymous imageboard where anyone can post almost anything. 4chan is often described as the birthplace of the Alt Right. Users are known as “anons.”
Many of the QAnon faithful have their own take on blood libel, with the cannibal pedophiles being said to harvest a molecule known as adrenochrome from the blood of their child victims.
“Q” is short for “Q Clearance Patriot.” Q purports to be a high-ranking US intelligence official leaking details of Trump’s campaign against enemies in the deep state. Q’s revelations began in late October of 2017. The researcher who posts as “Q Origins” on Twitter has published his findings on the investigative news site Bellingcat.
Some have said that pro-Russian themes in Q’s body of work are evidence the QAnon phenomenon is Russian influence operation. But this ignores the fact that Putin’s Russia is organically popular in the Alt Right and /pol. Q and his disciples may admire Putin’s brand of hyper-masculine authoritarianism without being Russian agents.
In order to understand the origins of QAnon, it is necessary to understand the imageboard tradition of LARPing. “In the 4Chan context, a LARP is when you pose as a big insider,” the anonymous author of the Q Origins Project explained to me.
Q isn’t a Russian psyops
There’s a long history of imageboard anons pretending to be high-ranking national security officials who, for inexplicable reasons, have decided to divulge highly classified information to one of the web’s most notorious cesspools.
In imageboard culture, LARPing is like spinning ghost stories around the digital campfire. Most people know it’s fake, but it’s fun to pretend that it might be real.
Before Q, posters with names like FBIAnon and MegaAnon acquired followings as LARPers, often exploring themes that would later be featured in Q drops. LARPers will often entertain their followers with puzzles and cryptic predictions—a style that is familiar to anyone who has read Q drops. Followers become invested in decoding the riddles. A LARPer may gain respect if their predictions seem to come true.
The anonymous researcher behind the Q Origins Project has painstakingly reconstructed the pre-history of QAnon. He notes that, like other LARPers before him, Q constructs his pronouncements out of conspiracy theories already popular on /pol.
“They love them a conspiracy theory and Q built on that,” the researcher said. “He stitches together the various LARPs and just creates this Frankenstein that very quickly explodes off of /pol.”
The first major proselytizers for Q were two /pol moderators and a YouTuber named Tracy Diaz. Within weeks, they started spreading Q content to YouTube and other social media platforms.
There is evidence that trolls from the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency helped to disseminate the forerunner conspiracy to QAnon, Pizzagate. The breakout Q drop of 2017 continues the Pizzagate narrative of the year before. We’re told that Hillary Clinton is going to be arrested.
If Pizzagate is the Old Testament, QAnon is the New Testament. Pizzagate diagnosed the cannibal pedophile problem and Q framed Donald Trump as the solution. Q is the prophet, the self-proclaimed intelligence insider who reveals the “truths” the OPs of /pol expected to hear: Donald Trump is the messiah who is going to usher in a golden age through a spasm of apocalyptic violence.
Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. One of their prizes was a trove of emails by campaign chair, John Podesta.
The basic tenets of the Pizzagate conspiracy gelled on 4Chan’s /pol board on or about November 3, 2016, as users combed through Podesta’s hacked emails. They fixated on banal emails chronicling Podesta’s social life, which included references to DC restaurants like Comet Ping Pong, as well as to home cooking. The anons decided that words like “cheese pizza” were actually code for “child porn.” This collective world-building exercise eventually decreed that Podesta and Clinton were part of a network of pedophiles enslaving children in the (non-existent) basement of Comet Ping Pong.
Q’s writings show a deep familiarity with evangelical culture, he notes. Q has an uncanny knack for distilling only those elements of /pol culture that would be acceptable on Fox.
The Trump campaign, like the Republican community at large, were enthusiastic consumers and distributors of lurid anti-Clinton conspiracies. Campaign luminaries like Michael Flynn and right-wing media outlets like Breitbart and InfoWars furiously amplified Pizzagate. This content was discussed by anons on 4chan’s /pol, reworked and elaborated into their conspiratorial worldview, including the next round of LARPs.
We know that accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, the notorious Kremlin-linked troll farm, hyped Pizzagate and QAnon. Russian state-controlled media like Sputnik and RT have also given sympathetic coverage, in keeping with Russia’s strategy of amplifying existing rifts within the US. Russian disinformation takes many forms, including amplifying content created by others. It’s easier and often more effective to amplify an American voice rather than to try to imitate one.
Q is all-American
The Q Origins Project researchers cautions against putting too much weight on the theory that QAnon was created by Russians. We don’t know exactly who Q is, but his investigation have convinced him that Q is primarily a domestic phenomenon.
Q’s writings show a deep familiarity with US evangelical culture, he notes. Q has an uncanny knack for distilling only those elements of /pol culture that would be acceptable on Fox. Unlike his fellow chan anons, who have no compunctions about racial slurs, Q works just clean enough to be mainstream. In the researcher’s opinion, navigating the subtleties of US racial politics would be very difficult for someone who wasn’t raised in the United States. Q also has a deep familiarity with US pop culture, particularly Hollywood movies. The famous “Where We Go One We Go All” slogan is from a 1996 Jeff Bridges sailing movie called White Squall, not the kind of material you’d expect an IRA troll to be familiar with. The researcher points out that the time stamps on the Q drops suggest that the author is working on West Coast time.
Whatever role Russia may have played in promoting this conspiracy theory, the real problem is that there’s a huge American market for conspiracy theories that promise the violent overthrow of democracy. It’s comforting to tell ourselves that QAnon is an exogenous phenomenon foisted upon us by a demonic Other. But that only distracts from the deeper rifts in our society that allow QAnon to flourish and thrive.
Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist. She’s host of The Breach podcast (for the Rewire News Group) and a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation, which honors excellence in journalism in service of the common good.
Published in cooperation with Alternet.
Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.