The QAnon phenomenon has become a well documented conspiracy theory movement that has garnered widespread support around the world. However, it is difficult to determine just how influential QAnon has been in the lives and minds of Americans. At its peak, some experts have suggested that as much as 14% of the United States population believed in QAnon (Shanahan, 2021). However, according to a recent poll conducted by Ipsos 46% were not sure if “a group of Satan worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media” (Newall, 2020). This same poll revealed that those who subscribed to QAnon were largely male, non-college educated, Republican, and primarily from the South and Midwest regions. Our secondary analysis of their survey found that when controlled for by geographic region (N=184), those with beliefs in QAnon were largely from rural and suburban areas (70%).
Few have been quick to dissect the movement and ask “how it is that so many Americans could become attracted to the movement.” Even after many of the prophecies related to QAnon have been proven wrong, followers still flock to channels in the hundreds of thousands across social media platforms such as Telegram, and even more mainstream websites like Twitch.TV which platforms and partners with accounts that have thousands of subscribers on the Amazon owned site. Several known QAnon influencers rank among the top streamers on the website, which means they are potentially making several thousands of dollars a month spreading lies about the election, medical misinformation, and other conspiracy theories.
Those not familiar with subcultures, new religious movements, or other such groups might easily dismiss followers of the QAnon conspiracy movement as religious zealots, gullible fools, or as lacking the mental capacity to dissect these claims. However, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Based on our qualitative analysis of 500 hours of QAnon related content including live streams, videos on and about the movement, and media reports produced by followers and journalists, we have begun unpacking the important sociological elements that helped give rise to QAnon—the first of several of these papers from this research project has been accepted in an academic peer reviewed journal Critical Sociology.
One of the main underlying features that adherents to QAnon seem to share is their desire to be part of something bigger than themselves. Throughout the discipline of sociology scholars point to a concept known as “Anomie” as an important tool for understanding cultural phenomenon—everything from punk rock, chess clubs, and even Wednesday night church groups can be explain by “anomie.” Anomie, a French word meaning without norms, and discovered by the late Emile Durkheim in 1897, the concept refers to unstable social conditions in which people feel disconnected from each other. To solve this problem humans’ create social networks, groups, and other cultural manifestations that draw us together. Religious movements are great examples of this. People who feel isolated, or that they lack purpose, and are searching for meaning may find groups like QAnon attractive because it provides them with a community of like-minded individuals where they belong.
QAnon also draws upon the collective trauma that is experienced by many of these people drawn into it. Recall, that many of the adherents to QAnon come from the South and the Midwest. As has been argued extensively by Thomas Frank (2004, 2017, 2020) these areas have been the most impacted by globalization and the deindustrialization of America’s manufacturing centers. As Frank has shown this general sense of distrust can be traced back to the changes in production and neo-liberal policies which, from the point of view of those impacted, left working- and lower-class individuals in the Midwest and the South without good paying jobs necessary to maintain the middle class.
Moreover, recent work on the deaths of despair brought to light by Shannon Monnat and echoed by other scholars (Case and Deaton, 2020; Monnant and Brown, 2017; Quinones, 2015), reveal that the regions hit hardest by the opioid crisis correlates to where Trump received the most support. While not all Trump supporters believe in QAnon, a good deal of them do. Moreover, the Trump Campaign and QAnon overlap in their ability to tap into the psychic trauma by those living in those areas and offer them an exciting alternative—by voting for Trump and paying attention to the prophecies of QAnon you can join a movement which will right all that it wrong and return those living in rural parts of the United States to their former state of glory.
As if the structural conditions weren’t enough, cultural portrayals of those living in rural areas as “backwards,” racist, uneducated, or as unfortunate victims of geography have created a stark political divide between rural and urban residents. These reductionist cultural portrayals of individuals in rural and suburban settings as “deplorables” glosses over the issues that impact them and paints them as irrelevant (Conner and Okamura, 2021; Reilly, 2016). Many of these issues are reflected in the core beliefs of QAnon who have expressed continued disdain long for the Clinton family, due in part to Hillary Clinton’s use of “deplorables” to describe middle America, long after the 2016 election.
Even Marx understood that “Religion is the opium of the people. It is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of our soulless conditions.” Marx’s point is that religion is something humans turn to when their problems seem insurmountable, and later scholars in the 40s and 50s would note the role of the mass media to tap into these same social conditions and offer attractive alternatives. One group, the Frankfurt School, tried to understand the rise of fascism in Germany. Were they alive today they would point to QAnon as a symptom of underlying irrational fears and desires, and more importantly as something that gives followers, however misguided, an answer to their real and perceived suffering. While to followers QAnon appears to be a grass roots phenomenon, it is in fact the kind of administered culture that the Frankfurt School warned could sow the seeds of an authoritarian regime in the United States. We would do well to listen to the voice of history, and to address the underlying issues that adherents to QAnon seem to be responding to. While we will never completely irradicate conspiratorial thinking, we can change the underlying social conditions that give rise to them, and with any luck prevent their ability to harm our democracy.
Christopher T. Conner is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Missouri, Columbia. He is editor of Forgotten Founders and Other Social Theorists, The Gayborhood: From Sexual Liberation to Cosmopolitan Spectacle, and is preparing a special issue for Symbolic Interaction on Forgotten, Neglected, and Misrepresented Interactionists of Color. His book Electric Empires: From Deviant Subculture to Culture Industry, scheduled to be released in the Spring of 2022, examines historical shifts in Electronic Dance Music subculture—from its origins within the underground gay club scene of Chicago and Detroit, to its current status as a billion dollar culture industry.
To read a more exhaustive account of the arguments in this article, check out the Christopher's recent Critical Sociology publication on the topic.