We need to talk about talking about QAnon. So far, news coverage has focused on describing the phenomenon, debunking its most outrageous claims, and discussing its real-world consequences. The problem is, even after all the explainers, debunks, and stakes-laying, QAnon hasn’t receded in popularity—it’s exploded. Not talking about it is no longer an option, so we need to find a way to talk about it better. That means zeroing in on the movement’s social and technological causes to explain what’s happening for people who don’t believe in QAnon, offer an alternative explanation for those who do, and point toward broader, structural solutions.
The core of the QAnon theory is that Donald Trump is waging a war against a Satanic, child-molesting cabal of top Democrats. QAnon dovetails with the more secular “deep state” narrative, which claims that holdovers from the Obama administration are secretly conspiring to destroy Trump’s presidency from within. Deep-state theories—whether or not the term “deep state” is used—animate the false claim that Democrats and public health experts are in cahoots to exaggerate or outright lie about the Covid-19 threat in order to tank the economy and ensure Biden’s victory. Recently Trump has been tinkering with this narrative as a post-election incendiary device: If he loses, he’s almost certain to blame the deep state for his administration’s failures.
QAnon has spun off the “Save the Children” movement, too, which purports to be opposed to child sex trafficking. In some cases, QAnon believers have been organizing Save the Children rallies and Facebook groups as a way to launder the more extreme elements of the conspiracy theory into mainstream circles. In other cases, such rallies and groups aren’t knowingly tied to QAnon but still draw narrative threads and other information from the QAnon mythology. Either way, Save the Children has made the work of professional child welfare advocates much more difficult.
Beliefs in QAnon and the deep state are unified by one basic factor: their reliance on deep memetic frames. As Ryan Milner and I have explained, these are sense-making orientations to the world. Everyone, regardless of their politics, has a set of deep memetic frames. We feel these frames in our bones. They shape what we know, what we see, and what we’re willing to accept as evidence. In the context of conspiracy theories, deep memetic frames establish the identity of the bad “them,” as opposed to the valiant “us,” and prescribe what can or should be done in response. QAnon and deep-state theories don’t magically transform nonbelievers into believers; they’re not viral in that sense. People are drawn to these theories, instead, because the narratives line up with their deep memetic frames. QAnon and the deep state feel familiar for those already inclined to believe.
Those believers are steeped in a particular kind of distrust: of the mainstream news media, of the scientific establishment, of any other institution claiming specialized expertise. This is where they plot against us. Such distrust has a long history within right-wing evangelical circles, where QAnon and deep-state beliefs have been spreading quickly. But wariness of institutions isn’t restricted to the MAGA orbit. People with a wide range of political views can be deeply mistrustful of the press, science, and “liberal elites,” and at least open to QAnon’s assertions of a shadowy, string-pulling cabal. (Anti-vaxxers are especially susceptible.)
The most immediate benefit of reflecting on the deep memetic frames of QAnon believers and the QAnon-vulnerable is that it helps guide more strategic responses. Mockery ends up being dangerous. Debunking might seem to make more sense, but a person who fundamentally distrusts mainstream journalism will not be convinced by even the most meticulous New York Times analysis; there’s no point in sending one along. This might seem like a rhetorical impasse. Standing behind our own deep memetic frames, we know what information would convince us. What do we do when another person sees that same information not as evidence, but as fake-news trickery?