What is QAnon?
It’s not easy to describe, but one thing we know to be true: It’s not a conspiracy theory — it’s bigger.
What started as a thread on the anonymous message board 4chan has long since entered the mainstream: Questions about QAnon have been asked in the White House press room, and a Q follower is poised to be voted into Congress later this year.
When QAnon started appearing several years ago, journalists fumbled to concisely explain it to mystified readers, and usually settled on far-right conspiracy theory.
The shorthand largely stuck. But QAnon is much more complicated and convoluted — and dangerous — than other conspiracy theories. The QAnon belief system has inspired violence and crime across the United States, leading the FBI to label it a domestic terrorism threat in 2019.
The editors at BuzzFeed News have become uneasy about using conspiracy theory to describe QAnon, which has grown to encompass a whole alternative world of beliefs and signals. The copydesk has to stay on top of language and note when terms become stale and reductive; QAnon has shifted, and so should how we write about it.
QAnon is a collective delusion, and that's what BuzzFeed News will be calling it from now on.
The name QAnon itself is a portmanteau: Q refers to the highest level of security clearance a Department of Energy employee can attain — credentials claimed by someone posting as “Q” on anonymous message boards, beginning in 2017 with prognostications about a supposed ring of child abusers and sex offenders in the Democratic Party and the “deep state.” Although their predictions started out very specific, when those were not fulfilled, they became more and more vague.
And when we say vague, we mean incomprehensible. One of Q’s posts reads, “_Comf D-TT v891 0600 yes. green 1 0600. Bunker Apple Yellow Sky...yes Godspeed. Q.” (Followers claimed those tea leaves referred to an aircraft accident in England.)
The nebulous nature of Q’s dispatches has been a blank slate onto which other deeply troubling conspiracies have been projected. “Birthers,” for example, who promoted the easily disproven claim that Barack Obama had been born outside the US and was therefore ineligible to be president (it’s now being applied to another Black aspirant to the White House, Kamala Harris), and anti-vaxxers, who want to deny lifesaving vaccines to children, have entered the QAnon universe. Some QAnon conspiracies are deeply rooted in anti-Semitism, and they have amplified efforts to demonize George Soros.
It has also embraced the dangerous “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory — a fixation on a Washington, DC, pizza parlor owned by a Democratic supporter whose name appeared in the infamous WikiLeaks emails. This culminated with a man driving from his North Carolina hometown to the restaurant, determined to investigate the alleged child abuse happening in the parlor’s basement — the building has no basement — and firing an AR-15 rifle inside the pizzeria. “I just wanted to do some good and went about it the wrong way,” the gunman told the New York Times. “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent.”
Some people have even compared it to a religion; it has a savior figure (Trump), prophetic scripture, what they have dubbed a “Great Awakening” (an acknowledgment by the mainstream that what they believe is true), and many followers refer to Q as a saint. “It is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants,” Adrienne LaFrance writes in the Atlantic. “It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. … To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”
QAnon is not something to joke about. The mere concept — a global Satan-worshipping cabal led by prominent Democrats, under the eye of Hillary Clinton, who are kidnapping, abusing, and eating children and drinking their blood in order to live forever — is cartoonish on its face. But it’s not to be underestimated, and it can’t be treated simply as an online phenomenon. The real-world effects of QAnon have already been made clear: In 2018, a Q believer engaged in an armed standoff at the Hoover Dam. Recently, they’ve worked to hijack legitimate attempts to fight child sex trafficking.
Not everyone who subscribes to parts of the QAnon mass delusion believes in all of it. Some people could be sharing the material in ignorance of its true depth. Others could be using it to carry out identity signaling — disenfranchised people seizing on a bizarre narrative to show that they are "Patriots," regardless of the content of the messages. And with such a mess of entry points, someone could very well pass along parts of the QAnon narrative without realizing what the whole entails — just look at the recent false rumors that Wayfair was involved in sex trafficking.
The copydesk wanted to focus on QAnon for this issue of Quibbles & Bits to emphasize that there’s more to the convoluted entity than the average reader might realize. The term we’ve decided to use — a mass or collective delusion — is not ideal; delusion could be interpreted as too sympathetic to Q believers, or as taking away their agency. (The word could also be related to a mental disorder, though that is not the context in which we’re using it here.) And, fair warning, you might still see conspiracy theory in a BuzzFeed News headline about QAnon since headlines and tweets aren’t conducive to nuance.
But delusion does illustrate the reality better than conspiracy theory does. We are discussing a mass of people who subscribe to a shared set of values and debunked ideas, which inform their beliefs and actions. The impact of QAnon is an example of “the real-world consequences of our broken information ecosystem,” the New York Times recently wrote. The proliferation of this delusion is in part a media literacy problem — which has become a reality problem.
Some more explainers and readings on QAnon:
BuzzFeed News: A video explainer on QAnon.
Fresh Air: “It’s almost like a bad spy novel,” Adrienne LaFrance says.
New York Times: “It’s a collaborative fiction built on wild speculation that hardens into reality.”
Washington Post: “How to Talk — and Ask — About QAnon”
The Atlantic: “American Conspiracy Theories Are Entering a Dangerous New Phase”
Wired: “A centuries-old anti-Semitic blood-harvesting myth is spreading freely on far-right corners of social media — suggesting a new digital Dark Age has arrived.”