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QAnon: inside the 4Chan conspiracy that suggests Donald Trump is a secret genius

Things are getting pretty weird.

On 15 June 2018, Matthew Phillip Wright, a 30-year-old marine corps veteran from Henderson, Nevada, drove a homemade armoured truck to the middle of a bridge near the Hoover Dam in Arizona. He parked, blocking traffic, and got out, carrying a sign which said “Release the OIG report”, a reference to an investigation by the US Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector-General into Hillary Clinton’s email server scandal that had in fact already been released to the public earlier that week.

In his other hand he was holding an AR-15 assault rifle.

After a 90-minute standoff with Arizona police and a brief chase, Wright was arrested and charged with attempted terrorism. From his cell in the Mojave County jail, he then wrote two letters apologising for and excusing his misadventure. One was addressed to Nevada senators Dean Heller and Catherine Cortez Masto and rep. Dina Titus, and cc’d to almost every federal law enforcement agency; the other was addressed to President Donald Trump.

In the former, he said that “I am no seditionist, nor do I want to overthrow the government,” continuing: “I understand that the evil and corruption is limited to a select few in power and that the greater good is doing its best to combat this.” In the latter, which is more personal in tone, he said that the American people “deserve nothing but the best. That is why we elected you as commander in chief, in spite of those whom I will not name that were attempting to obstruct our voice.”

Both letters ended with the same curious sign-off phrase: “For where we go one, we go all.”

Wright’s use of that phrase immediately sparked a gold-rush of media interest, because it’s a quote from a mysterious figure, one who until then wasn’t widely-known outside of the denizens of the internet’s darkest corners. “For where we go one, we go all” is one of the signature catchphrases of the shadowy anonymous figure known simply as Q, the central figure in the conspiracy known as QAnon.

The character’s origins are unknown, because of the nature of the message-boards on which it was born: 4chan. It is a roiling melting-pot, the ground zero for internet culture, but it is a fertile mix of earnest believers and, crucially, “trolls”, whose aim is to trick the unsuspecting public in a variety of ways. The biggest win for the troll is media coverage, and many of their ploys are aimed to ensnare journalists into writing about things that aren’t true. Even an article like this one will be seen as a win by many of them. It’s a game to them.

The Pizzagate conspiracy is a good starting point to understand QAnon. Pizzagate was a crackpot conspiracy theory about a supposed child sex ring being run out of the basement of a restaurant in Washington DC. It started out as a joke but metastasised into a conspiracy theory, which is to say it became unmoored from its origin-point. It became a narrative, which spread virally from mind to mind and, in the minds of the credulous, it took root.

Pizzagate did not simply remain in the digital realm. It flowered, reached out across the gulf from the imagined world to touch real lives, when a man called Edgar Maddison Welch walked into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria with an assault rifle strapped to his back and fired three rounds. He was there, he later told police, to “self-investigate” the huge and horrifying and entirely non-existent serial child abuse the theory had led him to believe was taking place there. It is little short of a miracle that nobody was hurt.

Wright was not the only person taking action on the basis of this conspiracy. Police in Tucson, Arizona, were called to a homeless encampment in May which another QAnon acolyte was convinced was a child sex trafficking ring. The man who called them, Michael Myer, was later arrested for leading a group that occupied a compound owned by the Mexican cement company Cemex, which had become one of QAnon’s favourite bugbears.

QAnon, a new conspiracy theory on the scene, is the same kind of beast as Pizzagate. It flows from the same wellspring – the febrile anonymous message-board site 4chan – and is believed in similar sections of the population. It has the same ambiguity in its origins: ie, we have no idea whether those who started its dissemination were aiming to make fools of true believers, or the media – after all, the tricksters of 4chan consider getting a story they cooked-up into the press to be a valuable trophy.

QAnon began on October 28, 2017, with a post on one of 4chan’s most febrile subcommunities, Politically Incorrect – the politics board, commonly known by users simply as /pol/. 

It read:

“HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M’s will conduct the operation while NG activated. Proof check: Locate a NG member and ask if activated for duty 10/30 across most major cities.”

A few hours later, the same user (posts from the same IP address can be identified within threads on /pol/, but no further than that) posted another message. This one was just a staccato string of one-line notes: “Mockingbird”. “HRC detained, not arrested (yet).” “Where is Huma? Follow Huma.” “This has nothing to do w/ Russia (yet).” “Why does Potus surround himself w/ generals?” “What is military intelligence?” and so on.

It goes on for 23 lines. The last five read: “They never believed for a moment they (Democrats and Republicans) would lose control.” “This is not a R v D battle.” “Why did Soros donate all his money recently?” “Why would he place all his funds in a RC?” “Mockingbird 10.30.17”. “God bless fellow Patriots.”

The posts – tantalising, filled with clues to unpack – could not have been better designed to intrigue the denizens of /pol/. Word soon spread. The poster, whoever it was, began calling themselves Q, denoting the Department of Energy’s highest level of security clearance – the equivalent of top secret military clearance.

For a community of digital-savvy but socially-outcast right-wingers – the politics of /pol/ fall somewhere to the right of Adolf Eichmann – /pol/’s elation at Trump’s victory had been starting to fade. The new administration stood on its rake over and over again. Many on /pol/ had consistently claimed (though again, the proportion of them who are joking is unknown) that Trump was playing some kind of multi-dimensional chess, pretending to be incompetent while really signalling to them. His dithering “fine people on both sides” response after a neo-Nazi killed a protester at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017 had been seen to confirm that view.

But by the beginning of 2018 it was beginning to dawn even among some of the most earnest /pol/ denizens that Trump was more incompetent ingenue than secret white supremacist genius. 4chan likes to see itself as a villain, or at least a rogue; occasionally a hero, and certainly not the fool; a fool is the worst thing you can be. Much of its culture revolves around finding more and more inventive ways to trick someone: that’s the core of what trolling is. They were losing hope that they were not fools.

Q gave them hope back. More than that: it made them the heroes of the story. It was the perfect hook.

The posts began to lay out the details of a radically different world than the one the denizens of /pol/ saw playing out in the news. The world, according to the QAnon story, is in fact controlled by a deep state-like structure made up of Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, intelligence officials, and the Hungarian-American liberal investor George Soros (for whose name, read: “Jews”). And all of Trump’s visible incompetence, his lack of knowledge, his awkward ham-fistedness meeting other world leaders, his decades-long history of dumb-assery – it’s all a cover.

Like any good prophet, Q promised that redemption was at hand for the true believer. The election had been fixed in favour of Clinton, but Trump had somehow managed to overcome it. The Mueller investigation isn’t really looking into Trump; that is cover for an investigation of Clinton. John Podesta’s arrest is imminent. In this story, Trump – and the people who voted for him – are the unsung heroes with a moonshot at saving America and the world from tyranny.

These weren’t presented as facts exactly, but as clues laid for the community to work out. Those first posts came to be known as “The Calm Before The Storm,” in reference to a bizarre ad-lib moment of Trump’s in which he described a meeting with a group of generals that way. Asked what he meant by reporters by this cryptic message, Trump responded “you’ll see.”

Trump always resorts to that kind of faux-mysterious air when asked a question to which he does not know the answer. But to a QAnon follower, each time he does, he’s confirming the story. When he said in a speech that before he was president he’d only come to Washington “about 17 times”, that was also seen as confirmation because Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet. And meanwhile Q, or people pretending to be the original Q, kept dropping clues.

If there’s one thing the internet really loves it’s a puzzle-game, and /pol/ is no exception. YouTube channels popped up to decode Q’s supposed messages. QAnon’s followers started describing themselves as “Bakers”, because they were following the breadcrumb-trail, and they refer to the completed worldview they construct from Q’s clues as “bread”.

The community jumped to the much larger and more mainstream platforms of Reddit and Twitter, and started to attract followers outside the 4chan orbit. One of those was the disgraced comedian Roseanne Barr, who tweeted “who is Q” to her 887,000-odd followers in November 2017, followed quickly and intriguingly by “tell Qanon to DM me in the nexxt 24 hours [sic].” The controversy surrounding the outspokenly right-wing Barr, whose TV show was cancelled in May after she went on a racist Twitter rampage targeting, among others, George Soros, only reinforced the story’s ideological credentials among its particular demographic.

In July 2018, just a few weeks after Matthew Wright’s misadventure on the bridge in Arizona, the conspiracy reached new heights of publicity when a group of Trump supporters appeared on TV behind the president at a rally in Florida wearing QAnon t-shirts and holding Q signs. The New York Times and the Washington Post took notice.

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/Pol/ is often portrayed in the media, when it is portrayed at all, as a separate entity, a group synonymous with the far-right, but that’s not entirely accurate. Certainly if you go on there you will be overwhelmed with posts so awful that they would set Stalin’s eyebrows on fire and make Genghis Khan blanch, but there is a lot of dissent on there too. Whatever else it may be, 4chan is not a filter-bubble. It’s not some pro-Trump Facebook group. It’s something else, something far more interesting and complex.

The site has a number of different topic-related boards, each with its own distinct community and variant lingo, but by far the two most influential are /pol/, the politics board, and /b/, the random board. The latter carries the disclaimer: “The stories and information posted here are artistic works of fiction and falsehood. Only a fool would take anything posted here as fact.” That is actually pretty good advice on how to deal with spending any protracted time on the site.

It’s important to bear in mind, because early on in the 15 years since it began, 4chan became the most powerful and important incubator of internet subculture on the web, and has stayed, largely unthreatened, on that throne ever since. You may not have ever visited 4chan but if you have even a passing knowledge of modern culture you will be aware of their work. Anonymous, the famous and fractured hacking group, originated on 4chan, and drew its name from the label that accompanies each post.

It is a petri-dish for memes. “Lolcats” came from 4chan. So did the art of “Rickrolling”, the famous internet joke where you trick someone into clicking a link to the YouTube video of Rick Astley’s 1987 “Never Gonna Give You Up”.

The trickery is the important thing. Trolling – the art of tricking someone for laughs – basically evolved into its current form on 4chan. Same with Gamergate, the misogyny-driven campaign against parts of the video game industry and journalists who covered it, which can almost be considered almost a dry run for some elements of Trump’s 2016 campaign – especially under Steve Bannon, who saw in Gamergate an object lesson in how internet subcultures, especially white male subcultures, could be harnessed for political gain.

Everything on there may be a lie, but that doesn’t change the fact that 4chan is an entity of occasionally awesome power. Rickrolling was single-handedly responsible for a revival of Astley’s career; the YouTube video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” was taken down in 2008 but its replacement has almost half a billion views. 4chan’s founder Chris Poole, known online as “moot”, was featured in the 2009 edition of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world list, when he was just 21. Rick Astley guest-wrote his entry. “That's one of the great things about the Internet. Young people now have easy access to material that they ordinarily wouldn't have been exposed to,” he wrote.

Despite this, journalists have struggled with how to cover 4chan. In part this is because it is next to impossible to engage with and understand 4chan on an individual level; yet it is not, as it is often referred to, a “group”. If anything, 4chan has achieved a kind of sentient life all of its own. It is greater than the sum of its parts. Like a mob, it moves with its own internal will seemingly separate from that of its component elements, but unlike a mob some of its participants are deceiving the others, play-acting or manipulating.

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4chan’s influence is built on two key pillars: anonymity, and ephemerality.

Anonymity means that each unit of information is decoupled from its origin-point. There is no direct personal accountability to any post or reply, no individual continuity of identity. A thread can gain a life of its own without reference to the individual human starting-point, which allows for the near-total deindividuation of participants.

Ephemerality is 4chan’s secret sauce. Other sites which have tried to replicate 4chan’s success but keep all threads permanently active, such as 8chan, have largely failed to gain the same kind of wide cultural traction. Participants are incentivised to comment on posts in order to keep them alive, and while there are some third-party sites that have tried to build archives of 4chan, largely once a thread is knocked off the site by newer ones it is gone forever. It is of the moment.

The interplay of these two ingredients is also key to explaining the extraordinary influence that 4chan has developed. Together, the anonymity and ephemerality of posts on 4chan allow people to post things that they would never even dream of saying in real life (the same thing happens with anonymity everywhere; anyone who’s been on Twitter for any amount of time will be able to confirm that the majority of abuse comes from anonymous or pseudonymous accounts). Part of what makes 4chan so compelling is that it therefore seems to offer an unparalleled view of the human id, or at least the id of the subsets of humanity that make up the majority of 4chan’s user-base.

It’s often an unpleasant place. Participants, when they become nodes on an anonymous, ephemeral network like that of 4chan, are pushed into finding different ways to broadcast and parse their status as part of the in-crowd. Denied the ability to draw actual barriers for entry, such as with real-world non-anonymous groups or private message-boards or on Facebook, 4chan users started to develop certain verbal or behavioural tics that serve as shibboleths, demarcating the in-group with outsiders.

One of the easiest ways to keep people out, it turned out, was to develop a lingo so peppered with offensive jokes, racial slurs, and general hostility that even attempting to understand some of the darker parts of 4chan becomes almost psychologically painful for a naive outsider. Becoming a part of the group requires the use of those terms.

It bears mentioning that to some extent there isn’t much comprehensive data on the age, gender or ethnicity of 4chan users. But from the levels of bigotry and adolescent machismo in the posts and replies, you get a pretty good idea. Then again: this is 4chan, so it is impossible to tell who is being serious, and who is just trying to get a rise out of someone else.

Just as language literally changes the neurology of the speaker, voluntarily submitting to this kind of cognitive dissonance naturally draws those who do it towards the average level of offensiveness within the group. In other words: within a set, humans tend to regress to the cultural mean. They may even find it difficult to maintain the distinction between their participation in the 4chan hive-mind and their offline self.

Others, more alive to how it works, are there to enjoy messing with the earnest ones. These are the trolls – not named after the mythological bridge-dweller, incidentally, but from the old Norse word from which we derive “trawl”, as in mass bulk trawler-fishing with a big weighted net. There is a constant ebb and flow between people messing with people, and people being messed with, on 4chan. “Bait” is 4chan’s term for an attempt at trolling that misses the mark; either it is too obvious, or too played-out, to bother to respond to it. But it’s not just internal trickery: the ultimate aim of a troll is to get coverage in the media, just for the sheer glee of making fools out of journalists, or the public.

Richard Dawkins was the first to posit that certain packages of information behaved like genetic life. In each iteration, the life happens in the behaviour of the user. He was the one who coined the word “meme” as “a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” The idea Dawkins was driving at isn’t that information is literally a new form of life exactly, but that it spreads and behaves in a way that had been a core part of the distinction between the alive and the not-alive. Memes seek self-replication and survival.

All human information, certainly all human culture, is in some respects an example of this theory – after all, what is Christianity if not one of history’s most successful memes? The human brain cannot process the chaos of raw information from the world at a conscious level; we create stories, narratives that allow us to frame and understand our surroundings and other people. That is what Dawkins meant when he talked about “a unit of cultural transmission”; a meme is a story. It’s a metaphorical understanding, sure. But a metaphor is itself just another story, another meme.

What the internet has done is speed up to unprecedented degree how fast these stories can spread between and across this ecosystem of human minds. Where before an idea would have to evolve to travel from individual to individual, the internet has provided a whole ecosystem in which memetic “life” can develop, given the right conditions.

Much of the vastness of the internet is barren, inhumane, and inhospitable to memetic life, which by definition requires human attention and participation to exist. But sites like 4chan, which have the key ingredients for the evolution of memes – anonymity, ephemerality, and a critical mass of human participants – are the deep-sea volcanic vents of the information ecosystem.

QAnon may be an incredibly sophisticated trolling operation, but it may also have come about purely organically. There might be one key figure behind Q, some single person behind the curtain pulling all the levers, but it is just as likely that there are hundreds, thousands, just playing along with the game. The bits that seem obvious fail to gain traction, and the believable bits take flight, gain traction, and launch into the cultural ecosystem. It’s a hoax which writes itself as it goes along, correcting itself, updating itself, flowing down a path of least resistance that trends, inexorably, toward maximum virality.

Life in the information ecosystem operates on fundamentally Darwinian principles. Some memes can survive in one habitat – for which read: to appeal to one kind of human mind – and others another. Simple, often visual memes or shibboleths, requiring no further action from humans but to remember them and share them, are like single-celled organisms. Lolcats are amoeba-level ideas. More complicated behaviours then evolve from simple ones; things like Rickrolling, requiring trickery, are slightly more complex than simple visual memes. They are protoctista-level ideas, early multicellular organisms.

But in these terms, we are now living a digital Cambrian Explosion. More complicated behaviours, more complex memes, are analogous to more complicated fauna. The species of memetic organism called QAnon is evolving as it reproduces and spreads. It is interacting with the outside, with the real world, in meaningful and sometimes troubling ways. It is touching and changing the world and being changed by it in return. In terms of the biological life metaphor, it is a complex organism – a vertebrate. And it is a predator.

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But if QAnon is a predator, then who is the prey? It is still unclear whether there is a concerted effort to orchestrate QAnon or if this was a single post that someone else then riffed on, a third person took further, and so on. If it is orchestrated, it is unclear whether it is meant as satire, or perhaps history’s largest trolling exercise meant to trip up the credulous believers who lapped up Pizzagate. Equally, it could be the opposite; to create a story about a conspiracy theory which will get picked up by the media: also a win for the trolls. On 4chan, those in on the joke then join in, roleplaying in either the voice of Q or as acolytes, just for a lark. 4chan contains multitudes.

The people wearing Q t-shirts at the Trump rally in Florida, were they true believers who had fallen for the hoax? Or were they in on the joke, looking to trick the media into reporting that the conspiracy is spreading? Trickery is at the core of 4chan’s personality. If this is a trick, a troll, that would be the. most. 4chan. thing. ever. And the trolls win either way: news coverage of the QAnon group at the Trump rally is a victory whether it was they or their credulous victims who actually turned up.

The irony is that the QAnon narrative has become too big for its incubator. As the story grows more mainstream and the community becomes more unwieldy, some on 4chan seem now to be starting to worry that they are themselves the target, and that QAnon might be a trolling exercise meant to make them look crazy – or, worse, foolish. “While it's almost impossible to prove who started QAnon, there is some evidence that it was meant to be a prank all along. And more importantly, it’s looking more and more likely that QAnon is actually a prank by leftists or anarchists to make the far-right look deranged,” Buzzfeed News’s Ryan Broderick wrote on Monday.

Most likely the answer lies somewhere in the middle; that it started as a prank but then grew into something between trolling and live-action spy fantasy roleplay. And as Broderick points out, it doesn’t really matter if it started as a prank now – the QAnon story has a life of its own.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.