by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University 

On January 6, followers of former President Trump stormed and seized the United States Capitol, temporarily halting the certification of electoral votes.  Photos and news accounts of the event point to a popular conspiracy theory called QAnon being heavily involved.  QAnon believer Ashli Babbitt was shot and killed during the rioting. Photos on her social media accounts show Babbitt wearing clothing with messages endorsing QAnon, and news interviews with her friends and family depict her as a believer.  Photos and video of the event also show several of the rioters wearing costumes, which is common among QAnon followers.  These include one rioter dressed as Flash Gordon, another as King Henry VIII, and others wearing what appear to be Native American headdresses.  Other QAnon symbols spotted that day include the capital letter “Q” with a stylized American flag design, references to John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the hashtags #WWG1WGA (Where We Go One We Go All) and #Savethechildren.

QAnon was a major force behind the rioting, but what is it?  How did it grow and spread to the point where it could be a major influence behind the first seizure of the U.S. Capitol since 1814?

Brief Description

QAnon is short for Q Anonymous.  Its basic tenent is that leading members of the Democratic Party operate a child trafficking ring in which abducted children are bled in order to obtain a substance called adrenochrome, which is naturally synthesized from adrenaline by the human body.  Members of the cabal supposedly drink this chemical in order to get high and seek eternal life.  QAnon adherents also believe that these leading Democrats worship Satan.  One target particularly hated by the followers is billionaire currency trader George Soros, who gives a great deal of money to Democratic candidates and nonprofits.  Soros is also Jewish, and for centuries Judaism has been a popular target for conspiracy theories worldwide, particularly when connected to wealth and banking.  Others named include Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Sandra Bullock and Ellen DeGeneres, and of course the late pedophile and investor Jeffrey Epstein, who had friendly relationships with both former President Clinton and former President Trump.  QAnon followers focus only on his relationship with Clinton.

QAnon views Trump as a savior.  This is literal, not a metaphor.  Followers have produced comic book-like depictions of Trump with the stigmata in his hands.  (Stigmata are the wounds Jesus sustained when being nailed to the cross).  They believe that at some point, called the storm, Trump will have members of the cabal arrested and either incarcerate or execute them.

QAnon followers refer to their source as “Q,” which references a level of security clearance at the U.S. Department of Energy.  Q posts encrypted messages on social media, which are known as Q drops or breadcrumbs.  Calling themselves bakers (because of the breadcrumbs), followers decode and assemble the clues into complex diagrams revealing the conspiracy.  QAnon followers also believe that President Trump’s speeches contain encoded messages just for them.  Q’s social media of choice is 8kun (formerly 8chan), a medium similar to 4chan in that they maintain anonymity for the posters.  8kun has no fact checking or monitoring of what is posted whatsoever.  Racist rants are common on both platforms, and posts on 4chan and 8kun are often words or messages embedded in photos or graphics.  Like the images used to verify one’s identity by Captcha (“I’m not a robot”), these image-based posts are difficult or impossible to read with computer-based text recognition, making them harder to track and trace.  8chan was temporarily shut down in 2019 after a mass shooter who targeted Hispanic customers in an El Paso Walmart boasted about it beforehand on the platform, then killed 23 people.  It was later rebranded as 8kun and relaunched.  Anonymizing software accessing the “deep web” is necessary to use 8kun.

It is not known who “Q” is, or if they are one person or several.  A sub-thread of QAnon holds that it is in fact John F. Kennedy, Jr., whose death they believe was faked (QAnon has several sub-threads).

Forerunners: From Medieval Blood Libel to Pizzagate

A fascinating and deeply disturbing aspect of QAnon is its connection to an anti-Semitic, Medieval European legend called blood libel.  Images depicting blood libel are found in European religious statuary that still stands today.  Briefly, blood libel is the belief that Jewish people in a community would conduct rituals in which they would kidnap Christian children and re-stage the crucifixion of Jesus.  While crucified, the child would also be stabbed in the side with a spear, as depicted in the Gospel of John regarding Jesus.  The child’s blood would be collected in a bowl and used for rituals, often being baked into food.

Blood libel is factually baseless, but it has influenced European anti-Semitism for centuries, facilitating segregation, purges, and pogroms.  Not surprisingly, it was also reflected in some bizarre religious beliefs held by Heinrich Himmler and other Nazi officials during the Third Reich and Holocaust.

The forerunner of QAnon was a conspiracy theory called Pizzagate, which resulted when Russian agents hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s computer system and did a data dump onto Wikileaks in 2016.  Pizzagate followers believed that they could spot encrypted messages in the emails written by Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta.  They further believed that these hidden messages pointed to a child sex-trafficking ring operated out of the basement of a pizzeria called Comet Ping-Pong, which is located in Washington, DC and is popular with elected officials, staff, and lobbyists who support Democrats.  In 2016, one Pizzagate supporter discharged his weapon inside the restaurant and demanded to be shown the basement, where the ring operated.  Comet Ping Pong does not have a basement.

Costumes, Gaming and Pop Culture

An excellent video documentary by the Financial Times traces the deep connections between QAnon and online gaming.  The video is well worth watching in its entirety, but to summarize, QAnon spread rapidly by co-opting a non-political, online live action role playing (LARP) game in which players were challenged to solve puzzles by decrypting clues.  Using social media posts on Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms, QAnon followers used imagery from Alice in Wonderland and the movie The Matrix (1999) to lure gamers to QAnon along a trail of puzzles to be solved, using the tagline “follow the white rabbit.”

To various degrees, QAnon followers view the conspiracy theory as a game.  It is structured that way, with puzzles to solve via the Q drops.  As observed during the rioting at the capitol, a significant number of QAnon followers also wear costumes, and the capitol rioting and QAnon rallies often resemble Comicon conventions.  The Financial Times video depicts a believer sitting at a bus stop dressed as a rabbit, presumably intended to spread the “follow the white rabbit” message that lured LARPers to QAnon.

The adrenochrome references in QAnon appear to derive from two books, one of which was made into a movie.  Both Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson feature references to getting high on adrenochrome in their books The Doors of Perception (1954) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), respectively.  Thompson’s book was also made into a movie in 1998, starting Johnny Depp as Thompson himself.  Both books and the movie feature descriptions of hallucinations that the authors had while on drugs.  Huxley’s more famous book Brave New World (1932) depicts a dystopian future and is often compared to George Orwell’s 1984.

Doctors confirm that there is no life-extending benefit to adrenochrome, nor can it get one high.  It is naturally synthesized by all human bodies, adults and children alike, and artificial substitutes are also widely available.  A hyperlink to the source for this information about adrenochrome is found earlier in this blog post.

Like the alt-right movement more generally, QAnon supporters are also fascinated with the movie The Matrix (1999), which suggests that what we know as reality is in fact a false reality projected within a larger reality of which most of us are not aware.  This idea is similar to, and loosely based upon the Allegory of the Cave passage of Plato’s Republic.  QAnon and other alt-right followers particularly like the red pill/blue pill scene from The Matrix, in which a character played by Lawrence Fishburne offers a choice of red or blue pill to a character played by Keanu Reeves.  The red pill allows one to see the larger reality, which is honest but painful.  The blue pill allows one to retreat into a comforting but false reality.  Alt-right supporters believe that they have been “red pilled” and see a deeper, truer reality than most others, and that they are trying to warn those others about what is to come.

Sub-threads, Influencers and Merchandizing

QAnon is so large that it has its own social media influencers, who promulgate sub-threads of the larger conspiracy theory that spread rapidly.  A case in point is Wayfairgate, a subthread of QAnon that spread in July 2020.  The premise of Wayfairgate was that the online furniture and home goods retailer was a front being used to traffic the children exploited for adrenochrome.  It was apparently spread by a Canadian QAnon follower who discovered several items on the Wayfair website had unusually high prices and had been given product names similar to those of missing children.  Wayfair responded that the items had high prices because they were commercial, not household-grade and that the names had been chosen by an algorithm.  Several of the children named later posted online videos of themselves to show that they were fine.  Child trafficking hotlines reported spikes in calls during this time.

QAnon is heavily merchandized.  As I write this in the days following the capitol rioting, QAnon hats, T-shirts, flags and decals are still widely available on both and Ebay, with some of the Amazon items available for Prime delivery.

How widespread is the movement?  Facebook employees have found thousands of groups and pages linked to QAnon, which continue to be created despite Facebook’s attempt to remove them.

Addiction, #Savethechildren and Appeals to Women

In August 2020, Psychology Today ran a four-part series offering suggestions for friends and family of people who succumb to QAnon.  Author Joe Pierre wrote, “Some of the psychological quirks that are thought to drive belief in conspiracy theories include need for uniqueness and needs for certainty, closure, and control that are especially salient during times of crisis.  Conspiracy theories offer answers to questions about events when explanations are lacking.”

The hashtag #savethechildren was originally used by legitimate activists concerned about child trafficking, but QAnon has co-opted it.  It can frequently be seen at QAnon rallies including the capitol rioting.  There is no public opinion polling data on how widespread QAnon is, presumably because followers would not be expected to admit that they believe the conspiracy theory.  Anecdotally, it appears that the movement is particularly popular with middle-aged white women who are drawn in by the promise of saving children from exploitation.  The two avowed QAnon followers elected to Congress in 2020 are both women, Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado).  In September 2020, QAnon spread among the mostly female, online yoga community, among those who connect their passion for organic foods to vaccine refusal on the grounds that vaccines are unnatural.  Retired entrepreneur Bill Gates is a popular target for QAnon because of his work to fund vaccinations worldwide.  They believe that at Gates’ insistence, a tracking microchip is injected with each vaccine dose.

QAnon has also spread via TikTok, the social media platform featuring short videos of people dancing, singing, and so forth.  This has made QAnon more popular with teenagers, a trend which accelerated after DeGeneres was named as one of the conspirators, shortly after revelations of abuse by her and others toward the staff of her TV show.  Ironically, the Trump Administration tried to ban TikTok due to Chinese ownership, before a complicated, last-minute business deal that involved U.S. investors.  TikTok was used to spread Wayfairgate.  It is not clear how seriously teens forwarding QAnon posts take them, and to what extent they see this as a joke or game.  Like many other social media platforms—virtually all of them except 8kun, in fact—TikTok has tried to ban QAnon but the supporters keep shifting their messages, spellings and hashtags and are difficult to stop.

Previous Instances of Violence

Even before the coup attempt at the capitol, QAnon was linked to numerous acts of violence, including stalking, kidnapping, an attack on the Canadian Prime Minister’s home in July 2020, and at least two murders.  One of the murder victims was a member of New York’s Gambino crime family, the other a “fringe legal theorist” in Florida whose client, a QAnon believer, was angry about her child custody case.  QAnon followers have also blockaded the Hoover Dam, attacked a Catholic church in Arizona, and derailed a train near a hospital ship in California during the COVID pandemic.  Shortly after the 2020 election, heavily armed QAnon followers were arrested on their way to the Philadelphia Convention Center where ballots were still being counted.


QAnon has an unknown number of followers.  It is mostly popular in the United States and Canada.  It was a major force behind the first coup attempt in modern American history.  Former President Trump has refused to disavow it, and QAnon’s network of believers were instrumental in spreading the baseless conspiracy theory that Dominion voting machines were “rigged” to favor candidate Joe Biden, which has been proven false.

Many of us may have at least one friend or family member who has fallen for the conspiracy theory.  Pierre’s excellent series offers tips for those coping with someone who has fallen for QAnon.  He suggests that there are different levels at which people succumb, ranging form a vague feeling that “something isn’t right” and a distrust of official sources of information, all the way to hard-core true believer status including a willingness to resort to violence.

The value of different approaches to engaging with QAnon believers will vary depending on their level of involvement.  For example, reliance on reliable sources to fact-check may work with those at the early stages, but not with those at the latter stages.  Pierre suggests that if possible, family members and friends not cut off communication with believers, because having a sympathetic ear and a voice of rationality can help them avoid feeling lonely and isolated, as if no one but other QAnon believers understands them, which can drive followers to subsequent levels of addiction.  In terms of accuracy, QAnon includes bits and pieces of true information, such as the horrific Epstein case, but overall the conspiracy theory has no factual basis.  At a national level, authorities will have to determine how to cope with the threat of violence posed by QAnon believers, since the certification and inauguration of President Biden is not likely to quell it, and fact-checking is frequently ineffective in reaching them.


Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter