In the last week, the “QAnon” conspiracy theory has burst into the mainstream press. As Trump has once again begun to step up his schedule of rallies in anticipation of the midterm elections, journalists have noticed the presence of peculiar signs and t-shirt emblazoned with the letter “Q”. While publicly roaring, his staffers have said that Trump is privately brooding about the ongoing Mueller investigation, calling him out by name and referring to the investigation as a “witch hunt” — 46 times in June and July, up from 29 times in April and May. At his rallies, members of Trump’s audience promote a grand theory by which to explain the Mueller investigation, a theory referred to as “The Great Awakening”, “The Storm” or simply “QAnon”. The latter is in reference to the pseudonym “Q”, used by a figure posting mysterious “breadcrumbs” about this conspiracy on 4chan and 8chan, claiming to have access to classified information concerning Mueller and the alleged “deep state”.
Emerging from the subcultural depths of the internet — which in our research we like to refer to as “the deep vernacular web” — the QAnon story is not new; it was most popular on 4chan/pol/ over half a year ago, in November 2017. What is new, however, is the recent press attention it is receiving — much of it by what Trump refers to as the “fake news media” and his fans as the MSM (mainstream media). As journalists should now well appreciate, after two years filled with scandals on fake news, these attempts at debunking can have the paradoxical effect of fanning the flames of the story — what “trolling scholar” Whitney Phillips refers to as the oxygen of amplification. With this caveat in mind, what follows is an attempt to explain the dynamics of the QAnon conspiracy theory in relation to the specific affordances and culture of 4chan, in particular the /pol/ board, where much of the story has been developed. The argument offered here is that the affordances of 4chan/pol/ make it uniquely productive of bullshit — an argument also developed in relation to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory within this journal article and our contribution to De Correspondent [Dutch].
As with Pizzagate before it, the sudden coverage of QAnon can be understood as a mainstreaming of a niche idea from chan culture, in which something of its ironic tone has been lost in translation. We refer to this phenomenon as “normiefication” in reference to the 4chan jargon normie, used to refer to “regular” people who don’t “get” their online, transgressive subculture. What is important to understand about 4chan is its pragmatic and paradoxical relationship with belief that has been characterized in terms of a kind of ironic collectivism. Since collective engagement in offensive, endlessly intertextual, and subcultural humour is one of its cornerstones, in the deep vernacular web, “no one shitposts alone”. The resulting webs of ambiguous in-group jokes presents an epistemological problem, since whenever this humour is combined with seemingly politically motivated campaigns (like QAnon), it is impossible to know whether 4chan’s participating anonymous users, or “anons”, are joking or actually believe the things they post (partly captured in the Internet adage of “Poe’s Law”). Although intents might differ, when considering the diffusion of theories like QAnon’s, the question whether contributors sincerely believe what they post is beside the point. While for one anon, participation might be politically motivated, and for the other, it’s all about the “larp” or the “lulz” (see figure 2), both camps reinforce the presence of the conspiracy. Further, 4chan/pol/’s rampant irony, anonymity, and lack of emotional markers (e.g. “likes”), mean the imageboard affords an environment in which various intents are stylistically homogenized, stimulating “circular reaction” between actors that might be “in it” for differing reasons.
Thus, we should be cautious with taking claims made on 4chan seriously. However, rather than taking QAnon with a grain of salt, as Vice put it, QAnon is more like “Pizzagate on bath salts”. Believers have staged marches in downtown Washington, D.C, and, in a replay of Pizzagate, in the past week in Arizona, armed gunmen have once again sought to take it upon themselves to expose a child sex traffic ring, speaking of seeking “the truth on behalf of all Americans, all of humanity for that matter“. QAnon has indeed carried forward some of the preoccupation of deep state theories and the earlier Pizzagate conspiracy, notably the narrative that the political and media establishment is a den of pedophiles. The core of this pedophilia narrative even predates Pizzagate, stemming from the association between the Clintons and a Democratic funder, Jeffrey Epstein. The story, originally referred to as Orgy Island, stems from the fact that Epstein, whose private Caribbean island the Clintons had visited on numerous occasions, was convicted for soliciting an underage prostitute. This particular narrative was found to have made significant inroads with nearly half of Republican voting public. However, whereas in the case of Pizzagate these stories have tended to arrive on people’s Facebook news feeds ready-made in the form of “fake news”, in the case of the QAnon phenomenon, it increasingly appears as though an ever larger audience is becoming more actively involved in seeking out these stories from the fringes of the deep vernacular web — even if most of the normie influx generally tends to amounts to no more than a “relatively casual” level of engagement with the theories peddled in these forums.
4chan breathed new life into the Orgy Island story when they discovered clues in the Wikileaks dump of the Podesta emails — whose release on October 7th 2016 increasingly looks to have been orchestrated in collusion with the Russian troll farms. In 4chan vernacular, “cheese pizza” is a code word for child pornography, the latter which is forbidden on the site. Unsurprisingly, one can imagine both the conspiratorial suspicion as well as lulz when anons found a Podesta email referenced “pizza” and “pizza party” (see figure 3). Within a day, anons had cooked up an elaborate narrative which then went on to spread across Twitter and the new right-wing media network, which had played such a significant role in the 2016 election. On 4chan/pol/, though, the theory had largely burned out within about a month after its creation (see figure 4; read more about the origins of Pizzagate here). QAnon started similarly in 4chan/pol/, about a year after Pizzagate, in November 2017, laying out a conspiracy alleging that the military had convinced Trump to run for president in order to root out a Democrat-run pedophile ring. In such theories, reality is not merely different from how it appears in the mainstream media, but often it appears precisely inverted. As an example, Robert Mueller is imagined here to be working in league with Trump, as opposed to investigating him for criminal collusion. In reference to Trump’s bizarre non sequitur at a photo op with the military, on 4chan, this conspiracy was, amongst others, referred to as “The Calm Before the Storm”, discussed in a series of CBTS “general” threads (for an explanation on general threads, see this post).
While 4chan/pol/ produces conspiracy theories at a regular rate (most notoriously in response to mass shooting incidents) they usually have a short lifespan, due in large part the site’s ephemerality. Even in the case of the most popular threads, 4chan boards only allow a finite number of replies before threads must be “purged” (unless it is “stickied”). As a result of this design, no matter how popular a discussion might be, once having reached the “bump limit”, threads expire, moving down the front page onto the second and third page, either to be temporarily archived or removed from the site altogether (depending on the board). As a workaround of the purging process, general threads like CBTS thus involve anons combing through previous discussion threads in order to create a new thread that compiles all the salient details on a given topic. In addition to keeping a conversation alive after a thread has been purged, general threads frame discussions going forward, thereby affording significant authority to a single author in terms of deciding on which parts of a prior thread to include or exclude. These opening posters (OPs) are organised and referred to on 4chan as “bakers” — see our most recent research on this here in regards to the “President Trump Generals”. General threads are relatively common on 4chan. In cases like QAnon, Pizzagate, or the hunt for Shia LaBeouf’s art installation, generals can take on the form of a real-time collective research effort. Instead of thinking of these as conspiracy theories, per se, we prefer to think of this entire process as one of “bullshit accumulation,” an argument that we develop in an article in an upcoming issue of a peer-reviewed journal.
CBTS generals centred around posts by someone using the handle “Q”, who alleged top-secret clearance within the Trump regime, allegedly offering evidence in order to prove his insider credentials — by, for example, posting a picture of the back of Trump’s phone or of islands during one Trump trip to Asia, which anons and normies alike saw as proof that Q was onboard Air Force One. The motivated reasoning of QAnon’s true believers thus leads them to find signs of Q everywhere — a consummate example being encoded into Trump’s famous hand gestures. Q is even thought to influence Trump’s actions. For example, in a speech on the White House lawn on the occasion of the annual Easter egg hunt, Trump extemporaneously spoke out the words “tip top” — words that an 8chan anon had earlier requested that Q work into Trump’s speech as a dog whistle to the audience of QAnon’s true believers. The latter was made even the more portentous by the fact that Trump delivered these words while standing next to an actual white rabbit — Lewis Caroll’s metaphor of “going down the rabbit hole” has long been a popular saying on 4chan. As is a typical case with conspiracy theories, an entire cottage industry has developed to pick apart the meaning these cryptic “breadcrumbs”, including the Q t-shirts, increasingly popular at Trump rallies. An army of self-described “researchers” share print-screens of 4chan and 8chan posts to Reddit’s r/GreatAwakening, as well as sites like Qanon.pub and apps like QDrops– the latter which have since been removed from Apple’s store. QAnon has also spawned a whole host of YouTube videos, some of which with millions of views. As with Kekistan, another meme to have spun-off of 4chan/pol/, these artifacts often go on to enter the mainstream of social media, where they are then reinvested by “normie” users. With videos featuring screenshots of the latest breadcrumbs from Q, it has become increasingly common to find middle-aged parents and housewives explaining to journalists how they keep themselves informed about Q via 4chan or 8chan.
What is unusual about QAnon is the conspiracy’s longevity. This endurance should not be understood as a continued popularity on 4chan. Rather, what accounts for its persistence is its “normiefication”. While other 4chan conspiracy theories have enrolled new right celebrities led by Roseanne Barr, QAnon has also been embraced by tech-illiterate baby boomers, uniting under the slogan “Where we go one, we go all” (WWG1WGA), as many mainstream media outlets started noting. 4chan’s anons, however, quickly tend to distance themselves from these less ambiguous, politically overt readings of the theory — in part because of their long-standing self-imagination as a counter- or subcultural force. This characterisation is defended by what on platforms like 4chan and Reddit is called “gatekeeping”, i.e. appropriating a social identity by virtue of excluding others. In relation to 4chan’s awkward relation with political action, this often takes form of hostility towards overt activists, often scorned as “moralfags” or “causefags” (see e.g. figure 8).
The creation of a (political) conviction on 4chan, followed by its immediate dismissal to safeguard the political unpredictability and “edginess” of anons, can for example be indicated by figure 6 and figure 7. The Calm Before the Storm Generals blew up in November 2017 (mostly garnering around 300 replies). However, like Pizzagate, it sharply dropped in presence quickly after (though it possibly migrated to 8chan). In February 2018, just a few months after the conspiracies’ inception, the common sentiment amongst anon was that “Q” is indeed a joke, or “LARP”, a reference to live action role-playing. Such larping can take the form of a humorous anti-activism, for instance in the case of Kekistan, which also originated on 4chan but was taken up in YouTube and developed into a genre of what one might call protest-LARPing. With QAnon, however, the LARP seems to have been lost in translation. Nonetheless, the diffusion of QAnon once again shows 4chan as a hotbed of conspiracy creation, sprouting theories that might live on elsewhere, but are swiftly ridiculed on the imageboard itself. And while some anons find joy in this ridicule, believing that Q’s greatest achievement has been “how many normies and boomers got sucked into our lulz chaos“, many others would appear to simply prefer that the normies go away.