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QAnon Is Just a Warmed Over Witch Panic — and It’s Also Very Dangerous

In this cover story article (written in October 2020) for Skeptic magazine 25.4 (December 2020), Daniel Loxton considers the unsavory origins and rising threat of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Written prior to the deadly QAnon-led occupation of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021, this analysis exposes the conspiracy theory as baseless, unoriginal, and harmful for believers and society at large.

As 2020 nears its end and the COVID-19 pandemic continues, a rapidly growing far right conspiracy theory increasingly dominates headlines. QAnon is a crowd-sourced online mythology inspired by cryptic anonymous internet posts appearing since 2017 from an unknown figure (or group) known as “Q” or “Q Clearance Patriot.” It is an expanded successor to the debunked 2016 “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which claimed that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats operated a child sex trafficking ring under a Washington, DC pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong. QAnon is also rooted in much older mythologies about sinister secret societies of Satan worshippers, witches, or Jews.

QAnon believers hold that our modern world is secretly ruled by a “cabal” or “deep state” of cartoonishly wicked evildoers hidden in plain sight. “Every President after Reagan was one of these deep state criminals,” believers claim.1 Indeed, most “famous politicians, actors, singers, CEOs, and celebrities” are supposedly part of the cabal. For example, entertainers Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Lady Gaga, and Tom Hanks are all thought to be prominent members. The Obamas and Clintons are supposedly sinister cabal leaders.

These criminals aren’t merely bad, greedy, or ruthless. They’re said to be deliberately, totally, breathtakingly evil. They worship Satan and may be in league with supernatural demons. They systematically abuse, torture, and murder children. They’re pedophiles. They maintain their youth through intoxicating injections of blood drained from children ritually murdered at the moment of maximum terror. The cabal also eats babies.

To maintain power, the cabal controls all mainstream news media and engineers every ill that plagues modern society. As one seductive introductory video2 asks curious viewers,

Have you ever wondered why we go to war? Or why you never seem to be able to get out of debt? Why there is poverty, division, and crime? What if I told you there was a reason for it all? What if I told you it was done on purpose?

The idea that Satanists rule the world is a story of Lovecraftian horror in which the normal world is an illusion and a much darker true world lies just beyond the veil. And yet, QAnon believers are more excited than scared. People who “take the red pill” or “wake up” to the claimed conspiracy are offered a simple explanation for all of the world’s problems. They’re also offered a reassuring prediction for a better future:

What if I told you that those who were corrupting the world, poisoning our food, and igniting conflict were themselves about to be permanently eradicated from the Earth?

According to QAnon mythology, an apocalyptic event called “The Storm” will soon cleanse the world and usher in a utopia. The unlikely savior in this story of revelation and renewal is none other than President Donald J. Trump. “Good patriots in the U.S. military” supposedly “asked Trump to run for President so they could take back control of America” from the Satanic overlords. This righteous struggle is the true purpose of the Trump administration. “The world is currently experiencing a dramatic covert war of Biblical proportions—literally the fight for Earth—between the forces of good and evil,” believers claim.1 Clues about the progress of this clandestine war are to be found in “Q drop” posts by the anonymous Q, and in Trump’s more cryptic statements and typos. Critical news stories about Trump are Satanic lies.

When asked about QAnon, Trump dissembled, describing QAnon believers as “people that love our country” and “like me very much, which I appreciate.” When asked during a pre-election televised town hall interview to denounce the claim that “Democrats are a Satanic pedophile ring, and that you are the saviour,” Trump refused to do so. When exasperated moderator Savannah Guthrie pressed Trump to admit that his political opponents aren’t devil-worshipping child molesters, Trump insisted, “I don’t know that, and neither do you know that.”3

QAnon is broadly compatible with whatever conspiracy beliefs one happens to hold regarding vaccines, Covid-19, fake news, Jews, vampirism, a New World Order, the Vatican, deep state conspirators, “false flag” hoaxes, white nationalism, immigrants, or practically anything else.

With Trump’s tacit encouragement, the QAnon community eagerly looks forward to a moment called the “Great Awakening,” when the good patriots will reveal all and Trump will seal his victory with mass arrests of high government officials. Hillary Clinton and all of the other alleged Satanists will be “severely punished.” As one QAnon YouTube personality gushed: “I’m excited. I’m happy! … Once you know the information you are not in fear; you’re, like, empowered! You are excited. You can’t wait for justice to go down, you can’t wait for the kids to be saved, you can’t wait for the bad guys to be put in jail.”4

The Power of QAnon

The anonymous Q purports to be a highly placed U.S. intelligence officer sharing classified inside information. Q’s posts provide fragmented source material about “pedo networks,” “child abductions for satanic rituals” and the supposed battle against the “powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” However, the style of these posts is generally opaque, vague, and posed in the form of insinuating questions. Dubbed “bread crumbs,” they require creative, collaborative interpretation by the QAnon community, allowing enthusiasts to fill in the blanks for themselves.

The result is a viral, organic, crowd-sourced ideology that can stretch to accommodate a broad diversity of conspiratorial views. It is also flexible enough to allow believers to dismiss Q’s failed predictions and shifting claims. (For example, Q’s earliest posts in October of 2017 predicted the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton, which did not occur.)

QAnon has emerged as a grand unified conspiracy theory. QAnon is broadly compatible with whatever conspiracy beliefs one happens to hold regarding vaccines, Covid-19, fake news, Jews, vampirism, a New World Order, the Vatican, deep state conspirators, “false flag” hoaxes, white nationalism, immigrants, or practically anything else. QAnon acts as a kind of glue that promotes and binds together seemingly unrelated conspiracy theories. When people approach social media with curiosity regarding one conspiracy claim (that vaccines cause autism, for example), those platforms’ recommendation algorithms often promote QAnon content that entices viewers into further conspiracy beliefs.

This flexibility allows QAnon to appeal to secular people as well as fundamentalist “spiritual warriors.” It is able to attract people we would normally expect to reject far-right positions. For example, some people in the “wellness” community find that their doubts about vaccines and mainstream medicine harmonize with QAnon’s rejection of mainstream media and public health. In QAnon’s bizarre melting pot, New Age hippies support a Republican president, adopt radical libertarian objections to pandemic safety measures, and help to inflame the passions of far right “militia” members and white nationalists.

Dangerous Beliefs

As I write this, the United States is confronting multiple serious and mutually compounding crises: a ferociously divided electorate; an unprecedented presidential election; mass protests against racial injustice; a severe economic recession; widespread unemployment; a pandemic that has already claimed 223,000 American lives; and the escalating threat of white nationalist domestic terrorism on the right and Antifa-fueled violent protests on the left. These crises created QAnon. In return, QAnon makes these crises worse.

The pandemic has thrown jet fuel on the QAnon fire, bringing in countless new believers. Those believers tend to interpret Covid-19 as somehow serving the agenda of the Satanic elite. Q suggests that the pandemic is part of a plot to steal the election from Trump by promoting the use of mail-in ballots. Other members of the community object to Covid-19 safety measures such as masks. For example, one woman who previously made headlines with her QAnon claim that actor Tom Hanks “purchased me from my father for sex as a dissociated mind control doll” has more recently claimed “masks are mind control” and “mandating masks is Satanic.” She argues in a YouTube video that masks are part of a “gigantic Satanic ritual initiation” intended for “evil and control, period.”5

QAnon claims are incitements to violence. They have already triggered isolated violent incidents, including an armed standoff at the Hoover dam and at least one murder. QAnon members anticipate further violence and civil unrest during the overthrow of the supposed cabal. For this reason, the FBI has warned that QAnon and other “anti-government, identity based, and fringe political conspiracy theories” will “very likely motivate some domestic extremists…to commit criminal and sometimes violent activity.” Further, QAnon encourages the targeting of specific people accused of membership in the cabal. “These targets are then subjected to harassment campaigns and threats by supporters of the theory,” warns the FBI, “and become vulnerable to violence or other dangerous acts.”

Especially worrisome is the possibility of QAnon-motivated violence during or following the 2020 U.S. presidential election. People radicalized into the belief that public figures are servants of Satan naturally pose a threat—especially when egged on by the President himself. When the perceived enemy is considered elementally evil, and the future of the world is thought to be at stake, the most extreme measures may appear reasonable to committed believers.

In recent months, this rising threat has motivated social media companies to take unusual steps to combat QAnon. Facebook has announced an evolving series of “measures designed to disrupt the ability of QAnon and Militarized Social Movements to operate and organize on our platform,” including the removal of “over 1,500 Pages and Groups for QAnon containing discussions of potential violence.” Facebook later expanded its restrictions on the conspiracy group, announcing, “we will remove any Facebook Pages, Groups and Instagram accounts representing QAnon, even if they contain no violent content.” Twitter and YouTube have recently taken similar steps.

However, QAnon has been growing since 2017. Much of the damage is already done. Polls suggest that around 23 million Americans hold a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” view of QAnon. Larger percentages are prepared to accept individual QAnon claims. For example, 18 percent of respondents in one survey agreed that it is “probably or definitely true” that Trump is secretly preparing for a “mass arrest of government officials and celebrities.” Although some of these respondents heard this “mass arrests” claim for the first time from the survey itself, this finding suggests that almost 60 million Americans could become receptive to this essentially fascist QAnon claim.6

Recycled Antisemitism

QAnon’s extremist claims are certainly outlandish, but this does not make them original. QAnon largely repackages older conspiracy beliefs dating back decades and even centuries.

For example, the belief that scheming elite puppet masters control the banks and the media merely rehashes tired but dangerous antisemitic tropes. The scenario envisioned by QAnon echoes the infamous early 20th century antisemitic hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That malicious document purported to record a secret Jewish plan to take over the world and oppress gentiles. The Jewish elite would achieve “absolute despotism” over all nations by controlling the banks and the press. Although discredited as a plagiarized forgery in 1921, the Protocols hoax went on to influence Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. Hitler claimed the Protocols were authentic, and said they revealed the true “nature and activity of the Jewish people and…their ultimate final aims.” Given this blood-soaked history, it is noteworthy that QAnon claims prominent Jewish Americans such as George Soros are secret despotic rulers of the Earth.

Conceptually, QAnon’s antisemitic roots extend back much further to the medieval “blood libel” that Jews ritually murdered and ate Christian children. These wildly dangerous false allegations had terrible and predictable real-world consequences: sporadic massacres of European Jews.

Satanic Panic

QAnon also rehashes debunked old claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse cults, which were based in turn upon Renaissance era claims about sinister secret covens of witches. QAnon’s imagined Satanic cabal is essentially identical to the network of highly placed Satanists imagined during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s—especially in their shared claims of systematic ritual abuse of children.

The Satanic Panic was ignited by a bizarre memoir called Michelle Remembers. Published in 1980, it tells the supposedly true (but later discredited) story of a girl ritually tortured for months by a Satanic cult. The story emerged during intense therapy sessions in which the adult Michelle was pressured to “recover” increasingly outlandish “memories” of her supposed childhood ordeal—false memories that did not previously exist.

The book’s claims were not true, but they were horrifying. Michelle allegedly endured ritualized humiliation and sexual abuse. In one passage, a woman wearing a “black cape with a hood” dipped a colored stick into a “silver goblet and inserted” the stick “in Michelle’s rectum.” The woman shoved other sticks “everywhere I had an opening!” Several scenes feature dead, murdered, or dismembered children and infants. In the book’s grisly, absurd climax, Satan himself appears as a character. He recites bad poetry and accepts tribute from the cult, including offerings of dead infants “in a pile at his feet.”7

This lurid tale proved much more influential than it deserved. It created a “script” for countless later claims of Satanic abuse of children. Many misguided therapists pressured their own patients to “recover” stories like Michelle’s. These copycat stories were then repeated in books, workshops, and TV interviews, reenforcing the moral panic’s standard narrative template: hidden legions of Satanists are secretly abusing thousands of children. Books warned of the “ever growing web being spun by those who desire to lead your children into satanism.” Ensnared youngsters could suffer “all manner of sexual perversions,” “sexual orgies which involved children and animals,”8 and even human sacrifice and cannibalization of infants.

None of these Satanic abuse stories was true. Years of investigations by journalists and law enforcement failed to uncover even one single genuine case. Nevertheless, the resulting international panic led to numerous false accusations against individuals, some of whom were tried and wrongly convicted for imaginary crimes against children.

Covens of Witches

In retrospect, Michelle Remembers was clearly inspired by fantastical horror movie depictions of Devil worshipers. Those films were inspired in turn by centuries- old folklore.

It was widely believed in Renaissance times that society was plagued by hidden covens of witches who worshipped Satan and conspired against Christians. The witches were supposed to be utterly, unspeakably evil. “So heinous are the crimes of witches that they even exceed the sins and the fall of the bad Angels,” said the infamous witch hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of Witches”). The manual claimed that witches “are in the habit of devouring and eating infant children.” For example, one man allegedly “missed his child from its cradle, and finding a congress of women in the night-time, swore that he saw them kill his child and drink its blood and devour it.” The witches were also “taught by the devil to confect from the limbs of such children an unguent which is very useful for their spells.”

The threat of pure evil justified even the most extreme measures to protect society. Suspected witches were brutally tortured until they told the expected stories that interrogators wanted to hear. When they inevitably did so, they were burned to death. Their extorted false “confessions” appeared to confirm the beliefs of the witch hunters,and justified further attacks on innocent people—usually the most vulnerable, such as destitute women and the mentally ill. Many thousands of innocent people were murdered in the name of this conspiracy theory.

QAnon Will Not “Save” Children

President Trump has claimed that QAnon believers “are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard.” QAnon does indeed rally under a banner to “save the children!” However, both Trump and QAnon are mistaken. QAnon isn’t doing anything at all to fight pedophiles. They’re railing against imaginary witches.

One of the tragedies of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s was that it created confusion and diverted attention and law enforcement resources away from the genuine social evil of child sexual abuse. The people locked up for Satanic sexual abuse were innocent. People guilty of actual sexual abuse all too often went unpunished.

In an effort to protect children, moral campaigners in the 1980s led crusades against supposedly Satanic music, role-playing games, Disney movies, and young adult fiction. Their pamphlets and seminars taught law enforcement officers to look for imaginary signs of imaginary abuse by imaginary cults. Supposed signs of Satanic cult activity included everything from teenaged boredom to the hippie “peace” symbol.9 Activists and counsellors accomplished nothing for children with their bad advice about nonexistent threats. They did nothing to bring criminals to justice. Instead, they sent police on wild goose chases, left children in the hands of misguided, overzealous investigators, and ruined the lives of innocent people who were falsely accused.

Likewise, QAnon’s baseless accusations against Democrats and celebrities will not help children. Like the moral crusaders of the Satanic Panic, QAnon imagines that perpetrators of both genders conspire in a vast national network, abduct children, and gather in groups to commit abuse for ritual purposes. In reality, child molesters are most often lone males who are known to their victims and motivated by pathological sexual desires.

Instead of saving children, QAnon’s incitements to violence put children and adults in danger. On December 4, 2016, an armed gunman walked into the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor intending to rescue children from Hillary Clinton’s alleged child sex trafficking ring located in the basement…of a building that does not have a basement. Despite internet rumors, the only children in the pizzeria were customers. Those kids were placed in jeopardy when the wouldbe rescuer fired three shots from an AR-15 rifle. Thankfully, no one was hurt. (The man surrendered to police. He was later sentenced to four years in prison.)

The threat of QAnon-motivated domestic terrorism diverts law enforcement resources from real problems. Every minute cops spend watching QAnon is a minute not spent investigating other crimes—including abuse against children.

Conclusion

QAnon’s conspiracy claims are not based in fact. The anonymous Q poster could be anyone from an overseas “troll farm” to a teenaged prankster. Q’s claims are frequently meaningless or factually wrong. There was never any good reason to believe this absurd story.

However, some people do believe it, to their own detriment and ours. Intense fringe beliefs tend to harm believers by isolating them from friends and loved ones. In this case, the content of their beliefs also threatens society at large. It is dangerous when groups are radicalized to perceive their adversaries as irredeemably evil. What wouldn’t one do to stop people who eat babies? As one former QAnon member recently told CNN, it “still bothers me to this day, how willing and happy and joyfully I would have reacted to something that I would normally want no part in,” such as cheering for the extralegal arrest of Hillary Clinton. “This is how you get good people to do bad things.”10

Eliminating QAnon’s threat to society would take more than watchful cops and social media bans. It would require QAnon supporters to change their minds about a cherished belief and a community they’ve invested in heavily. Admitting serious error is an extraordinarily difficult and courageous thing for anyone to do. Generous, respectful, personal outreach can sometimes help; shaming will not. Believers need support if they are to have any hope of transitioning away from their misguided movement. “It has to start with empathy and understanding,” the former QAnon member told CNN. QAnon believers are highly insulated from contrary information by their beliefs that news media are untrustworthy and nonbelievers are blind to the truth. True communication can only take place when barriers to communication are removed through compassion.

That’s easier said than done. However, there’s urgent reason to try. Conspiracy theories thrive most dangerously during times of uncertainty and societal stress—such as during a pandemic. During the medieval Black Death, conspiracy theorists claimed that Jews were secretly causing the plague by poisoning wells. As a result, mob violence erupted across Europe. Hundreds of Jewish communities were wiped out; many thousands of men, women, and children were burned to death.

Another pandemic rages today. As millions suffer and mourn and political divides deepen into chasms, one simple truth can help make us safer: we are in this thing together. END

About the Author

Daniel Loxton was a professional shepherd for nine years before he became editor of Junior Skeptic. He illustrates and authors most of the current Junior Skeptic material. He wrote and illustrated the best selling award-winning Evolution: How All Living Things Came to Be, and the award winning children’s three book Tales of Prehistoric Life Series.

References
  1. “Q — The Plan To Save The World.” YouTube, March 20, 2019. https://bit.ly/3olxxVH (accessed October 18, 2020.)
  2. Ibid.
  3. “Trump refuses to denounce QAnon conspiracies.” CNN Politics, October 16, 2020. https://cnn.it/3mj8hxx (accessed October 18, 2020.)
  4. Kim Cohen. “Why I’m Not Scared & You SHOULDN’T Be Either! THE GREAT AWAKENING! (5 Levels To Q.)” YouTube, April 9, 2020. https://bit.ly/2Tn2lal (accessed October 18, 2020.)
  5. Sarah Ashcraft. “Masks are Mind Control.” YouTube, July 17, 2020. https://bit.ly/3dRWYJQ (accessed October 18, 2020.)
  6. Brian Schaffner. “QAnon and Conspiracy Beliefs.” Institute for Strategic Dialogue, October 5, 2020. https://bit.ly/3kFvdqB
  7. Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder. Michelle Remembers. (New York: Congdon & Lattès, 1980.) pp. 23, 216.
  8. Pat Pulling with Kathy Cawthon. The Devil’s Web: Who Is Stalking Your Children for Satan? (Milton Keynes, England: Word Publishing, 1990.) pp. 1, 67.
  9. Gayland Hurst and Robert Marsh. Satanic Cult Awareness. (Self published pamphlet, date unknown, acquired by NCJRS Jan 27, 1993.)
  10. Bronte Lord and Richa Naik. “He went down the QAnon rabbit hole for almost two years. Here’s how he got out.” CNN Business, October 18, 2020. https://cnn.it/3okuMUR (accessed October 18, 2020.)
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