Conspiracy theories require a couple of things to function

I was curious how Qanon type folk would adapt the conspiracy theory, now that Trump has lost. It’s certainly been the case that since the election, “Q” has been silent, which is unusual given that “Q” – whoever that is – is normally quite active when big things like elections happen. If you’ve spent any time on conspiratorial and/or Far Right message boards in the last few days, one of the things you’d have noticed is the sense of defeat and despair that’s beginning to set in. While there are certainly more than a few Q-believers arguing that the election was a sham and that millions of fraudulent votes were cast (spoilers: they weren’t), there’s a growing faction for whom math is an unfortunate reality, who see that even if tens of thousands of votes were cast illegally, that still wouldn’t be enough to hand the election to Trump.

Given that “Q” has spent the past few years exhorting believers to “trust in the plan”, the idea that the plan could have ended in failure, or that there was never actually a plan to begin with, is too much to bear. So a new twist in the labyrinthine narrative of “Q” has emerged: Q is dead.


As far as explanations for Q’s silence goes, it’s not terrible, but that’s sort of the point: it doesn’t have to be great. All it needs to do is give believers a little bit of time.


Conspiracy theories require a couple of things in order to function as coherent belief systems:


1. They require a kind of “self-preservation system”, a way of delegitimizing critical viewpoints or inconvenient evidence that the theory is wrong. You see this a lot when conspiracy theories are attacked by opponents wielding empirical evidence; not only is the evidence in particular wrong (according to conspiracy theorists), but anyone or any discipline involved in producing the evidence is wrong as well. If, for example, a researcher presents evidence that a conspiracy theory is wrong, then the researcher is a “shill” or “brainwashed”; if that researcher’s viewpoint represents the consensus view of a whole discipline, then that discipline must be “ideological” or “biased” and therefore untrustworthy.


2. Constant, positive reinforcement. Conspiracy theories – especially ones like Qanon – have a tendency to radicalize those who believe in them, and the longer a person associates with the theory, the more radicalized they tend to become. There are a bunch of reasons for this, both psychological and sociological, but the key point here is that for belief in the theory to remain strong, followers need to remain rooted in the theory’s ideological geography. If a person is removed (or more commonly removes themselves) from conspiratorial spaces, they are more likely to start seeing the cracks and holes in the theory’s logic. For a theory to survive, its followers must remain as close to it as possible.


Since “Q” has been silent for about a week now, requirement 2 of functioning conspiracy theories is in danger of collapsing. Without “Q” and their “Q drops” (cryptic posts that believers are expected to decode and interpret), Qanon believers have nothing to engage with besides each other – no “breadcrumbs” to follow, nothing to puzzle out. In the absence of this mechanism, people might begin to drift away. But what if “Q” isn’t merely silent, but dead? If “Q” is dead, then any attempt to paint the movement as a fraud or a grift can be challenged; “Q” is now a martyr. But there’s more.


The idea that “Q” might be dead is new, puzzling information for followers to dig into; they can begin to backtrack through older Q-drops looking for hints that “Q” might have foretold their own demise. They can use the possibility of “Q” being dead as potential evidence of their enemies’ nefarious actions. The death of “Q” gives the movement life, for a time.


In the meantime, another “Q” can emerge – a new champion to give new life and new meaning to the movement and it’s followers. Or, the original “Q” can return, back from “maintaining a low profile” or “going dark” for a while after suffering some setback or near-discovery. Bluntly, the possibility of “Q” being dead gives the movement breathing room to sort out what it should do and what it should become in the fast-approaching post-Trump era.


The take away from all of this is that Qanon isn’t going anywhere. It’s grown beyond Trump, and in a few more weeks, won’t need him at all.


By Edwin Hodge (former Kelowna Skeptic)

Dr. Edwin Hodge is an assistant professor in the department of Sociology at the University of Victoria, where he studies extremist social movements on the political Far Right. He also serves as a researcher at the Centre for Global Studies, where he has published research on border processes in the 21st Century.