The Making of QAnon: A Crowdsourced Conspiracy

Illustration (c): Bellingcat

On January 6, chaos descended on Washington D.C. as supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the United States Capitol Building. Amid the melee, a longtime QAnon promoter known as “the Q Shaman” made his way onto the Senate floor and occupied the speaker’s rostrum. He was far from the only QAnon supporter on the scene that day: another led the charge into the Capitol.

Once again, this dangerous and eclectic conspiracy is in the spotlight. It has come a long way since its birth on a forum barely three years ago.

On October 28, 2017, an anonymous user browsing the /pol/ section of 4chan, a notorious alt-right imageboard, saw a post that read, “Hillary Clinton will be arrested between 7:45 AM — 8:30 AM EST on Monday — the morning on Oct 30, 2017,” and decided to respond. This user would later adopt the name “Q Clearance Patriot” (soon shortened to “Q”). Q hinted that they were a military officer in President Trump’s inner circle; their writings — almost 5,000 posts to date — gave birth to the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Q’s first “drop”

Most accounts of QAnon present this first “Q drop”, as Q’s posts are known by their acolytes, as the starting point of the Q movement. This is mistaken for two reasons. One is trivial: Q first gained an audience with a different set of drops, because their earliest efforts sank without a trace and weren’t rediscovered by anyone on 4chan until November 11 that same year. The other is deeply significant: Q’s origins can’t be divorced from the culture of /pol/, which was a rich slurry of racism, anti-Semitism, and (especially relevant here) right-wing conspiracy theories.

Therefore, QAnon was both an outgrowth and an evolution of /pol/ culture: not only were many of Q’s claims already popular on /pol/, but Q borrowed key themes and ideas from predecessors. The key to understanding the roots of Q is to understand the culture of /pol/.

But first, we need to understand the myth.

Meet the Mythos

Here is the core of the QAnon myth: with the aid of a small group of military intelligence officers called the Q team (one or more of whom is supposedly responsible for writing the drops), President Donald Trump is waging a shadow war against a cabal of Satan-worshipping, child-eating pedophiles who are conspiring to obstruct and overthrow him. The military will arrest them en masse in an event called “the Storm.” The cabal’s membership has grown in the telling (at first, it was “many in our government;” within a month, any “celebs” who had “supported HRC” might very well be in on it; a few months later, there were too many to fit into Guantanamo Bay; later still, three other “detention centers [were] being prepped”), but it would be fair to say that virtually anyone who’s angered or defied President Trump is considered part of the cabal, along with the usual suspects like financier and philanthropist George Soros.

After the Storm, military tribunals will ensure that these baby-eating traitors are executed or sentenced to life in prison. Faced with overwhelming proof of the cabal’s existence, a stunned public will mourn; rage; and ultimately unite behind President Trump, ushering in a golden age of patriotism and prosperity.

Remarkably, this description covers none of the most bizarre corners of QAnon (for instance, in QAnon lore, North Korea was controlled by the CIA but has now been liberated by Trump and the Q team). It also omits a key aspect of the QAnon worldview: that every public act or utterance of President Trump or a suspected cabal member might contain “comms,” or secret messages, which QAnon believers can decode. And it leaves out one of the most important QAnon slogans: “disinformation is necessary,” which some might call a wonderful excuse for Q’s failed predictions, also allowing believers to pick and choose which parts of the theory they embrace.

From these humble and eccentric beginnings, QAnon has grown explosively. At first, that growth was limited to 4chan, where Q became a sensation on /pol/.  Soon after, a pair of 4chan moderators and a YouTube conspiracy theorist began working together to spread Q’s messages to a far wider audience. This effort succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Roughly 10 percent of American adults believe in some or all of QAnon’s theories, according to a Pew Research study conducted last year. This finding is consistent with another study conducted in 2020 by the British charity HOPE not hate. Political scientist Joe Uscinski, who has written that “support for QAnon appears to be deeper than it is wide,” nonetheless finds QAnon support running between five to 10 percent of the US adult population. However you slice it, millions of Americans believe in QAnon to some degree. Furthermore support for QAnon’s ideas is much more widespread than belief in Q: a YouGov poll last October found that fully 50 percent of Trump’s supporters agreed that “top Democrats are involved in elite sex-trafficking rings.”

Even before what many are calling an attempted coup, QAnon had reached the halls of Congress.

Representative-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, praised as a “future Republican star” by President Trump, has written that “child sex, Satanism, and the occult [are] all associated with the Democratic Party.” Greene also recorded videos describing Q as “a patriot” and “completely for the good… very high up and connected,” offering “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satanists and pedophiles out.”

So what was it about QAnon that made anyone think this obscure theory on /pol/ might be worth trying to spread?

A Deep and Dark Well

Simply put, the broad outlines of Q’s beliefs were popular on /pol/ before Q started posting.

Reviewing threads on /pol/ that predate Q, as well as the earliest threads in which Q was active, yields a critical insight: many “anons” (as 4chan’s denizens called themselves) believed the key elements of Q’s story before Q came along.

As one perceptive anon writing before Q’s first mention of Satanism (and, in fact, before anons began discussing Q at all) pointed out: “Funny how everyone the /pol/acks dislike are all actually secretly part of a huge child abusing, devil worshipping [sic], Jewish conspiracy that is only coming to light as more people are threatening the big D [Trump]. Almost as if it’s all delusional fantasy, and D might actually just be a retard in danger of being impeached.”

An anon calls out Q’s conspiratorial appeal

If that fantasy was delusional, it was also incredibly common on 4chan. Lurid claims and conspiracies like these found in the anons an eager audience: the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which was far and away the most direct predecessor to QAnon, was mentioned at least 45,027 times on /pol/ alone in the year before Q’s first posts. (The actual number is sure to be higher: there were plenty of posts about Pizzagate before that name came into use, and almost 2500 more using the alternate name “Pedogate,” which more directly reflects Pizzagate’s claims — namely, that prominent Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton, sexually abused and ritually sacrificed children, using restaurants as a front for their crimes.)

Therefore, when viewed in its original context, Q’s conspiracy theory — far from blazing new trails — trod a well-worn path.

For example, here’s one anon predicting the imminent “arrest of the Cabal” and “liberation of Planet Earth from dark forces” in July 2017 — three months before Q’s first post. Here’s another, two weeks before Q appeared, writing: “Soon their demise will come. The storm approaches. Hollywood is directly connected.”

Even if we restrict ourselves to the week before Q’s first drop, we can find countless anons expressing their belief in ideas that Q went on to espouse.

For example, three days before Q’s first post, an anon who believed in the Pizzagate conspiracy listed Hillary Clinton’s supposed crimes: “Sex with a minor, rape, cannibalism” — the exact charges against Hillary that would go on to become a core part of QAnon. Another anon in that thread wanted to “talk about what the Clinton Foundation did in Haiti.” The reference was to a less-central part of Pizzagate lore which, despite its relative obscurity, Q folded into some of their early drops.

Yet another anon, writing on October 23, 2017 (five days before Q’s first post) created a thread that neatly encapsulates Q’s original story: Special Counsel Robert Mueller was working with Trump to take down the deep state in general and Hillary in particular, after which “tribunals involving hundreds are going to take place.” The denizens of /pol/ were thirsty for military tribunals that would punish their most hated enemies. Indeed, it was Q’s hints about the coming tribunals that won over the earliest converts. One anon, overcome by enthusiasm, all-caps’d it: “THE JUNTA !!!!! TIME FOR MILITARY OVERRIDE! All hail dictator Trump!” Another went straight to the point, with /pol/’s trademark anti-Semitism: Trump, he predicted, would declare martial law on November 4th, 2017, and while he wasn’t certain what would happen next, he offered up a guess: “kikes hang soon after in military tribunals?”)

There’s strong evidence that Q had read the October 23, 2017 thread: it references an obscure, months-old statement by Representative Trey Gowdy which Q cited less than a week later in one of the earliest drops.

To be clear, there’s no reason to think Q stole the entire Mueller theory from the author of this thread — just that one line. Q had almost certainly already encountered the idea that Mueller and Trump were working together, which was widespread on /pol/: “this shit has been spammed here for months,” complained an anon, with “literally not one iota of proof.”

Yet another anon, two days before the advent of Q, posted a thread that practically begged for an overarching conspiracy theory to come along that would make “all these scandals… converge,” leading to “the biggest military tribunal in world history.”

An anon calls for order to chaos

This was fertile soil. Even before Q came onto the scene, all of the raw materials for their writings were scattered about their environment, waiting to be forged into a semi-coherent mythos.

Playing to the Gallery

In this respect, a reply to the post asking if “all these scandals” would “converge” is especially notable. This reply listed almost every alleged Democratic scandal that was popular on Fox News (and therefore also widely discussed on 4chan) at the time. Q devoted extensive attention to most of the items on the list. As of the writing of this article, the “Awan scandal” has been mentioned in 26 drops; “Uranium 1” — in its abbreviated form of “U1” — appears in 39 drops, and the word “uranium” appears in 11; Seth Rich is mentioned in 13 drops; and “dossier” appears in 32 drops.

Fox News meets QAnon

In other words, Q — far from leaking top-secret information to the anons — simply repackaged what right-wing media (and therefore the anons) were already discussing.

In the hands of Q, these scandals — seemingly unconnected — became part of a sinister, pedophilic conspiracy the anons could work to unravel, saving innocent children and sweeping their enemies away in a wave of cleansing fire.

Probably the two most hated individuals on /pol/ were Hillary Clinton and George Soros. Considering /pol/’s nature — right-wing, anti-Semitic, and conspiracy-minded — its hostility to a liberal Jewish philanthropist like Soros is supremely unsurprising. For similar reasons, /pol/ also loathed President Barack Obama.

But the anons’ animus towards Clinton was special. Inspired by Pizzagate, their enmity was all-encompassing and unremitting. Just a day before Q’s first post, one anon put it succinctly: “Victory,“ he wrote, “is when [Hillary] and everyone related to the pedophile ring known as [the] ‘Clinton Foundation’ are thrown in Gitmo.” (Gitmo, or Guantanamo Bay, looms large in the QAnon imagination: the US naval base and detention camp in the Caribbean is’ supposedly where the Cabal’s members will be imprisoned, tried, and executed when the Storm arrives, a belief which has Q encouraged both cryptically and directly.)

From the beginning, Q focused fire on all three figures: drops 1 and 2 concerned preparations for Clinton’s arrest (the second drop even claiming that she’d been “detained”), while Q mentioned Soros in drops 2, 4, 5, 6, 14, and 15, ending the latter with: “Soros is targeted.” Obama was mentioned even more often than Soros, earning his own special role in the conspiracy to boot: he served, Q suggested, as a globetrotting point man for the Cabal.

Q’s most frequent targets — America’s first black president; a Jewish philanthropist; and Hillary Clinton — pandered to the audience’s prejudices, winning acclaim and attention from an audience that was hungry for a happy ending: the death or imprisonment of all of its enemies.

The Greatest LARP

One more element of 4chan culture helps explain QAnon’s success: LARPing.

Q embodied this practice, or perhaps even perfected it. The acronym refers to “live action role playing,” but on /pol/, it has a more specialized meaning: a LARPer is someone who pretends to be a well-placed source with confidential information about current events, which they then leak to the anons.

LARPing was and remains extremely common on /pol/ — so common that Q’s first post was itself a response to, or a riff on, another LARPer. In fact, that LARPer was greeted with a moan of “not another one” and a picture called “dance of the LARPer.gif.”

Most LARPs petered out within a few posts (which is what happened to the anon who wrote “drop 0,” the post to which Q first responded). Some lasted for a handful of threads. Several, however, found success and became well-known parts of /pol/ culture.

Prominent LARPs before Q included FBI Anon, High Level Insider, Mega Anon, and White House Insider; other well-known LARPers included CIA Anon, Victory of the Light, Highway Patrolman, and Anonymous 5. In turn, many of these had their disciples and imitators.

In some cases, Q’s claims are directly descended from those made by other popular LARPers. In particular, some skeptical anons compared Q to Victory of the Light — with good reason, since “the Storm,” as predicted by Q, is almost a beat-for-beat copy of “The Event,” as described by a Victory of the Light superfan.

A checklist for “The Event”

A side-by-side comparison is revealing.

At the beginning of The Event, claimed Victory of the Light, normal economic life will be suddenly, jarringly disrupted for “two weeks max” as banks close down and the financial system is thrown into disarray. The Storm, in QAnon lore, will begin with  “ten days of darkness,” a phrase first deployed by Q only a week after beginning to post. The advent of this period is breathlessly awaited by Q’s followers to this very day.

In the second stage of The Event, the news will be full of “disclosure” (in which the government reveals some of the shocking truths it’s kept hidden). These messages will be pushed out to citizens on television and via the emergency broadcast system.

In the Storm, the ten days of darkness will also be followed by disclosure — not of alien life, but of the full extent of the Cabal’s depravity. This, according to Q, will happen via the emergency broadcast system, as the Cabal’s last-ditch resistance is crushed and the mass arrests roll on.

In The Event, “mass arrests of the Cabal” will be televized.” In both the Storm and The Event, these mass arrests herald the “liberation of Planet Earth from dark forces,” as Victory of the Light would have it.

By no means does this exhaust the parallels between the claims Victory of the Light made in the summer of 2017 and the story Q began to peddle that fall. However, as the subsequent parallels are not as strong, it would serve little purpose to keep listing them — especially since Victory of the Light wasn’t the only LARPer who served as a clear ancestor to QAnon.

For instance, Anonymous5 (also referred to by anons as Frank) was easily the most reviled LARPer on /pol/, but he was also the key figure in the development of /HTG/ (for “Human Trafficking General”) threads. In fact, he was so central to /HTG/ culture that the threads routinely included a post that began, “Look for these kinds of things to map out the trafficking networks (courtesy of Anon5).”

Frank wasn’t the first LARPer to realize that lurid tales of child sexual abuse would hold /pol/’s attention. It was a fairly obvious strategy; Highway Patrolman, for example, once burst into a thread (on Valentine’s Day, no less) to claim that he was investigating an international child prostitution ring. In this entirely fictitious ring, dastardly non-white offenders (especially “illegals”) held innocent white girls captive, and even murdered some. Since /pol/ is enthusiastically racist, this storyline was especially well chosen; it’s always wise to know your audience.

Frank’s claims, too, were heavily racialized. It was an article of faith for /HTG/ anons that Blue America (or, as the standard opening post for /HTG/ threads claimed, “urban areas, specifically sanctuary cities”) hosted a huge network of pedophiles trafficking unlimited numbers of children, and it was an article of faith (rather than fact) that these children were obtained primarily through child abductions and “breeding grounds.”

/HTG/ anons were a small, tight-knit community who, in the most charitable reading of their activities, engaged in collaborative storytelling and followed rules of evidence (however strange and disconnected from reality) that led them to believe they’d uncovered rings of pedophiles. A less charitable, but more accurate, description of /HTG/ threads might be that their participants were engaged in bouts of wild speculation and free association which they termed “investigations,” but which led to no arrests — because they’d uncovered no evidence of actual crimes.

Indeed, other anons often mocked /HTG/’s participants as a group of feckless idiots spiralling ever more deeply into confirmation bias. And yet the /HTG/ community endured.

In all of these respects, /HTG/ was almost exactly identical to QAnon — and that isn’t a coincidence.

Q’s audience was hungry for something like /HTG/, but better — more far-reaching, more connected. Q supplied it.

From Pizzagate to QAnon

Perhaps the best way to describe QAnon is that it’s an evolution of Pizzagate; and perhaps the best way to describe /HTG/ culture is that it’s the missing link between Pizzagate and QAnon.

Pizzagate gained followers because it had the right targets; the right accusations; and, in its earliest days, a strong participatory element, as anons raced to find new “proofs” of child abuse derived from the DNC’s hacked emails.

But that kind of creative ferment could never last: there were only so many emails to read, and only so many “code words” to be detected within. Eventually, Pizzagate stopped being an exciting new thing to investigate, and became a set of ideas that anons were free to accept or reject.

Puzzlingly, /HTG/ threads were much less popular than Pizzagate. After all, they too had the right targets; the right accusations; and a seemingly infinite amount of source material, since anons were now “investigating” real-world locations from the comfort of their homes.

However, /HTG/ was missing two key ingredients: storyline and storyteller. There was no overarching story to keep the anons engaged, and even if there had been, Anonymous5 or “Frank” wasn’t the right person to tell it — /HTG/ threads were constantly derailed by outsiders coming in to make fun of him.

The Secret Sauce

Why did Q succeed where so many had failed?

One reason is that Q had the right idea at the right time. Q also had the right style at the right time, often relying on long lists of leading questions. Other LARPers acknowledged as much — in 2017, MegaAnon, who was perhaps the most successful active LARPer when Q first appeared, wrote that Q was “doing a fantastic job” of “breaking down a ton of detail in a more /pol/-friendly format” than she’d ever been able to.

You wouldn’t be reading this article if Q appealed only to /pol/ and had stayed there. I may not have even written it. Q slipped the surly bonds of 4chan within days of their first post, thanks to a handful of people who mounted a concerted push to promote QAnon in other venues (in particular, a subreddit).

“Normies”, as the anons call most other human beings, got a taste of Q for themselves. Some of them liked it. It turned out that normies — at least, the fanatically pro-Trump, conspiracy-minded normies who were Q’s initial audience — were at least as ready for a Pizzagate successor as 4chan was. Soon, across multiple platforms, Q and their fans had created a community strikingly similar to /HTG/: a band of followers convinced they were “uncovering pedophiles” via their own community practices and rules of evidence, despite a lack of real-world results.

The difference was that Q had a much larger and more committed following than /HTG/ ever did. Moreover, Q kept cranking out content and the anons kept dissecting it, finding new meaning in even the most baroque, outlandish claims.

Even Q’s failed prophecies could not dissuade them, for “disinformation,” as Q explained, “is necessary.”

Perhaps this answer to the question of Q is unsatisfying. It is an answer which boils down to: “Q was a skilled LARPer who fed the audience’s beliefs back to them; recycled ideas from earlier LARPs; and had help early on from a small but clever band of fans who spread word about the drops outside of 4chan.”

Whether the rise of Q has been simple or not, it has had tremendous and sometimes tragic real-world consequences.

The QAnon movement has taken a wrecking ball to families around the world — the QAnonCasualties subreddit offers a small glimpse of the human cost of QAnon.

And while most QAnon followers will probably never take any violent actions themselves, the political damage they have wrought is considerable.

Last December, President Trump reportedly described QAnon as a group of people who “basically believe in good government”.

But Q’s message is that “good government” can arrive only in the form of a purge — because every prominent Democrat, and most Republicans who don’t show enough fealty to Trump, is part of a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. True justice and “good government” can only exist after the Storm, when Trump — and Trump alone — rules the country, with all his opposition dead or imprisoned.

Three years ago, Q stitched together the most widely-held beliefs of one of the darkest corners of the internet. Drop by drop and stitch by stitch, the right-wing media scandals, the racist conspiracies and LARPs of bygone days grew into something greater than the sum of their parts. Q has eclipsed them all.

The story told above can only be incomplete. It addresses the supply side of the QAnon phenomenon, but the demand side is where the problem lies. To explore that would be to tell a story about the deepest fissures in American society — through the dangerous succor of conspiracy.