Q fever, we're told, is sweeping the nation. Polls show that some 7 percent of Americans believe in or support QAnon, the cultish conspiracy theory and community that originated in online message boards in late 2017. Other fringe ideas draw wider support, but few are as bizarre or alarming. QAnon defies easy summary, but its core premise is that Donald Trump is waging a secret war against a cabal of celebrities and Democratic politicians who abuse children in Satanic rituals. In one lurid variation, Hollywood stars harvest the chemical adrenochrome from children’s bodies. According to Q, the anonymous poster who started the movement, the Mueller investigation was a false-flag operation, ordered by Trump, to investigate these sex criminals. In a prophesied event called “the storm,” Trump will strike against them with mass arrests and possibly executions.
The rise of a community committed to such outré notions has drawn extensive media coverage, much of which seems animated by a simple question: How can so many people believe such crazy stuff?
New research provides a partial answer: They don’t. Until now, polling on QAnon has generally gone no further than asking people how they feel about the movement. This left unexplored what it actually means when someone says they believe in QAnon. Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts University, recently sought to find out. In September, he conducted a nationally representative online poll asking respondents not just whether they support QAnon, but also whether they believe in eight specific false claims, including four that are central to the QAnon worldview. The poll was funded by Luminate and published by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The results suggest that most “QAnon supporters” have never even heard of, let alone believe, some of the most outrageous claims associated with it.
When it comes to general support for QAnon, Schaffner’s findings track those of other polls. Seven percent of respondents said they had a very or somewhat favorable impression of QAnon; the same number said they trusted QAnon to provide accurate information always or most of the time. (Sixty percent of people said they’d never heard of it.) When Schaffner drilled into that 7 percent, things got more interesting.
As you’d expect, QAnon supporters are much likelier to believe false conspiracy theories than everyone else, whether Q-specific or not. But while you might also expect the overwhelming majority of the QAnon group to uniformly embrace its core theories, the results were far more mixed. The highest-polling statement was “Democratic politicians and Hollywood stars are part of a global network that tortures and sexually abuses children in Satanic rituals”—62 percent of QAnon supporters rated it as definitely or probably true. The other three QAnon theories polled—Trump is preparing mass arrests, Mueller was secretly ordered by Trump to investigate pedophiles, and celebrities harvest adrenochrome from children—registered between 44 and 54 percent.
Those numbers, however, heavily overstate the level of belief. Toward the end of the poll, Schaffner asked respondents which statements they had heard of before taking the survey. A large number of Qanon supporters, it turned out, were rating as “true” statements that they were encountering for the first time. The “global network” statement only polled at 38 percent when discounting people who had never heard it. For the “Trump is preparing mass arrests” claim, which is generally described as the foundational QAnon belief, only 26 percent both had heard of it and said it was true. Recall that these are percentages of a percent. Thirty-eight percent of 7 percent translates to only 2.6 percent of the overall population.
The eternal caveat about polling data applies here: This was just one survey, with an overall margin of error of plus or minus 1.7 percent, and the QAnon supporter sample was only about 350 people. But the results should be stark enough to cause policymakers and journalists to reconsider how they talk about QAnon. Most obviously, they shouldn’t assume that all supporters believe every component of the theory. Banish sentences like this, from a well-intentioned recent CBS story: “QAnon adherents baselessly believe there is a cabal of pedophiles and Democratic politicians running a child sex trafficking ring and secretly controlling America—and that Mr. Trump is destined to expose them.” Some do, but most evidently do not. The same goes for the rise of QAnon-friendly politicians. The phenomenon has been breathlessly described as a sort of new Tea Party, a nascent political bloc that will have lasting impact. But, as Simon van Zuylen-Wood recently reported for New York Magazine, the penetration of QAnon into Republican politics may be overblown. Not every wannabe congressperson who has retweeted some Q content is a true believer. Some are just generalized conspiracy wingnuts; others are trying to get attention. As van Zuylen-Wood discovered, “you have no idea what they really believe until you get them on the phone.”
Indeed, QAnon may have less to do with politics, or with Trump, than is generally assumed. Among survey takers who said they approve of it, 28 percent said they plan to vote for Joe Biden. Compare that to 17 percent of white Evangelicals who say the same.
None of this is to say that QAnon is inconsequential. Even if its toeholds in government are exaggerated, they exist; one believer will almost certainly be sworn into Congress in January. There have been a small handful of reports of Q-related violence or attempted violence across the country, although far more cases of political violence have no Q connection at all. A few weeks ago, after a scurrilous attack ad falsely accused US representative Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) of protecting sex offenders, Malinowski said he received several death threats from QAnon supporters. (In response, last week the House of Representatives voted 371-18 to condemn QAnon.)
Perhaps most important, disinformation can have more subtle real-world costs. Forty percent of poll respondents who said they trusted QAnon to provide accurate information also said that their belief had negatively affected their relationships with friends and family. That’s real human suffering. Extrapolated nationwide, this suggests that QAnon is affecting millions of Americans’ lives for the worse, even if it never inspires them to the kinds of behavior that makes headlines.
The poll also fills in some of the picture of how people interact with QAnon. Most supporters said they see QAnon-related content on social media at least several times a week, including 75 percent of the QAnon believers who use Facebook and 68 percent who use YouTube. And 38 percent of people who said they trust QAnon to give accurate information reported belonging to at least one QAnon Facebook group. (Facebook announced a crackdown on QAnon groups in August, but at least as of the time the survey was conducted, they continued to thrive on the platform.)
To guard against the risk of the poll itself spreading misinformation, it explained at the end that the statements were false and provided sources debunking them. According to Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories, conspiracy beliefs don’t spread so easily anyway. “People are generally resistant to ideas that don’t fit their existing worldviews, so simply asking a question isn’t going to turn them into QAnon people,” he said. Rather, there is a stable subset of the population that is drawn to conspiratorial ideas. “When you say ‘They’ve come to believe this’—well, maybe, maybe not. The basic idea of QAnon that there’s a pedophile ‘deep state’ working against the president—as wacky as it sounds, that’s not new at all. That’s the plot of Oliver Stone’s JFK.”
QAnon has been persuasively compared both to a religion, for the fact-resistant faith of its adherents, and to a multiplayer role-playing game, for the collaborative, participatory dynamic by which the theory develops online. It’s important, however, to keep in mind the other implications of those comparisons. People who belong to a religion don’t necessarily believe all or even most of its teachings. And most people understand that a game is just a game.
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