If you spent the last week reading the headlines out of the United States, you might get the impression that the QAnon conspiracy theory – that baby-eating Satanic sex traffickers control the government – has become a majority belief. The New York Times even went so far as calling it “mainstream”, comparing it to the once influential Tea Party, which blossomed from a minor grassroots movement into a brand with numerous elected proponents. Although there is surely disagreement about the mainstream status of QAnon across journalists and pundits, coverage of the movement seems to be unified in the assessment that the movement is growing.
However, the movement is not posited to be growing symmetrically among the mass public. Rather, most coverage of this conspiracy theory categorizes it as “far-right”. To be sure, Donald Trump is at the center of many versions of the QAnon theory, he has implicitly encouraged the conspiracy theory through retweets, and a few Republican candidates who believe the conspiracy theory may be headed to Congress in January. The latter, and most recent, development has led to speculation that “Republicans are becoming the QAnon party”.
The QAnon conspiracy theory, which started in 2017 by an anonymous poster on 4Chan, has developed a cult-like following. QAnon believers follow clues generated by an anonymous person(s) called “Q”. Supposedly, Q is working with Donald Trump to fight the deep state, which covers its tracks by eating trafficked children for magical powers. Q followers are waiting for the “Great Awakening” – a Manichean narrative that ends in the evil deep state being defeated and sent to Guantánamo Bay to answer for their crimes.
We’re willing to wager that most readers are in near disbelief that their peers believe these ideas. Indeed, the QAnon theory reads more like an amateur action movie than most conspiracy theories maligning small groups of elites. Can such ideas really have become mainstream under our noses, prevalent enough to overtake one of two major political parties?
To answer this question, we take a different tactic than most journalistic reporting by examining opinion polls – what people actually believe, and to what extent. Our findings reveal that the QAnon movement may be better at capturing news coverage than the hearts and minds of the American mass public.
Most coverage of QAnon has been sparked by growth in online activity or by observation of Trump rally attendees in QAnon regalia. But, claims that extrapolate from the number of QAnon Facebook pages or the number of people with Q T-shirts to broader public support are hard to square with polling data. Instead, polls repeatedly show that Q is neither well-known nor well-liked.
For example, in March 2020, Pew Research found that 76% of Americans knew nothing about Q, 20% knew a little, and only 3% knew a lot. In August 2019, an Emerson poll found that only 5% of voters believed in QAnon.
These numbers are very low even in comparison with other conspiracy theories we regularly poll on. For context, Kennedy assassination theories were believed by 80% of Americans at their peak, and a near-majority still believes in some version of these theories today. Even anti-vaxx, climate change, and coronavirus conspiracy theories find considerably more public support, among many others.
In short, support for QAnon appears to be deeper than it is wide: believers may spend considerable time thinking about the theory and interacting with like-minded individuals in social media groups, but belief (even basic knowledge of the theory) is hardly ubiquitous.
Even though QAnon theories posit Trump as a hero, the content of QAnon social media groups showcases a base of supporters who hold broadly antagonistic orientations toward the political establishment and (their perception of) elite culture. While Q supporters surely want to see the likes of the Obamas and Clintons hanged for their crimes, they endorse a similar fate for some Republicans, like the Bushes, as well. These ideas are hardly indicative of Republicanism or conservatism, or any “extreme” form of them.
Q supporters, themselves, also do not appear to systematically exhibit political attachments to the Republican party or conservative label. Strikingly, the 2019 Emerson poll mentioned above found that “6% of both Democrats and Republicans say that they are believers in QAnon as compared to 2% of independents”.
In our own repeated polling over the last two years, we asked representative samples of both Floridians and Americans, more broadly, to rate QAnon on a 101-point feeling thermometer, ranging from very negative feelings (0) to very positive ones (100). We found that QAnon was one the least liked political groups included in our polls, earning an average rating of 22. Importantly, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives failed to consistently rate QAnon differently. Instead, QAnon beliefs are better explained by conspiratorial worldviews, which are themselves uncorrelated with political orientations.
Regardless of its relatively meager, stable size and bipartisan membership, there are good reasons to be concerned about QAnon. Q support may be symptomatic of a deep-seated antipathy toward critical political institutions among some segment of the mass public. Some of these very people may be elected to Congress this fall. The story weaved by Q has even provided sufficient cause for violent retaliation against alleged perpetrators in the minds of some supporters. And, of course, politics is dynamic. Campaign strategies could change and QAnon support could increase amid a heated presidential election.
But, to understand the real threat (or lack thereof) of Q, we need to understand who believes in Q and why. The answers to these questions are the key to effectively addressing QAnon. Up to this point, claims about the unfettered power of Facebook groups and Trump’s Twitter account to convert an unwitting public into “true believers” are simply unsubstantiated.
Adam M Enders is assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisville where he studies conspiracy beliefs, misinformation, and political polarization. Joseph E Uscinski is associate professor of political science at University of Miami, co-author of American Conspiracy Theories and a member of the University of Miami U-LINK team combatting online extremist conspiracy theories
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