QAnon and On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults
by Van Badham
Hardie Grant Books
Published November 2021
My initial impression of Van Badham’s new book was hardly affirmative. On its cover, the words QAnon and On are set against a yellow background emblazoned with a white spiral. This is suggestive of a Swinging 60s pop record, and thus threatens to trivialise a phenomenon that has caused untold grief and suffering.
Actually, the cover might be a reference to falling ‘down the rabbit hole’. That phrase, lifted from Lewis Carroll, refers to the disorienting sensation of becoming obsessed with a particular internet narrative; that obsession escalates, and one’s critical faculties erode further, with every click. Mercifully, this kind of sensationalism – a sensationalism that is further evidenced in the subtitle A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults – features sparingly in the pages that follow. The book has some strengths, though there are areas that could have been explored in far greater depth.
Badham commences by discussing her interest in ‘the internet’s extremist underworld’. This began in 2013, when she was writing for Guardian Australia and found herself on the receiving end of virulent misogyny from readers. These attacks unfolded around the same time as ‘Gamergate’, an online campaign premised on the anxiety that a misandrist
‘plot’ was brewing to destroy online gaming. Gamergate was energised not only by hatred of women, but also a distinct conspiracy logic; a sense that powerful actors (feminists, most notably the US commentator Anita Sarkeesian) were scheming to oppress and marginalise a vulnerable section of the community – in this case, male gamers.
Of course, conspiracies are not unique to the internet era. As Badham points out, though, the online world has provided fertile grounds for conspiracy theories to flourish. Thanks to social networking sites and other Web 2.0 affordances, these theories have spread across global borders at a speed that would have been unimaginable even twenty years ago. The author explores other factors that have contributed to the appeal of such narratives. These include the ‘tribal identity’ that conspiracies offer, the sense of being part of a collective that is awake to the carefully concealed behind-the-scenes machinations that threaten the populace. They also include a sense of feeling empowered in a situation where one otherwise has limited power (the past two years, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the ceaseless slew of apocalyptic headlines, spring to mind here). And finally, Badham discusses the ‘participatory’ nature of these conspiracies, their positioning of followers as fighters against invisible but insidious powers.
Badham surveys a number of popular internet conspiracies. These include ‘Pizzagate’, a 2016 theory that Hillary Clinton (then a presidential nominee) was leading a ring of child rapists whose headquarters were beneath a Washington D.C. pizzeria. She also consider theories that wealthy businessman George Soros, political staffer Huma Abedin and disgraced former politician Anthony Weiner belong to a ‘“cultural Marxist” conspiracy that the racist hard right … had been pushing for years.’ These theories all demonstrate a visceral disdain for ‘elites’ – individuals who have (or who are perceived to have) considerable degrees of cultural influence, not to mention money. The theories are also fuelled by anti-Semitism and Islamophobia (Soros and Weiner are Jewish; Abedin is Muslim).
The book focuses largely on the best-known online conspiracy cult, QAnon. This emerged on 4Chan, a social media platform that has enjoyed popularity within the Right, around 2017, and is based around cryptic missives posted by an omnipotent overlord known only as ‘Q’. These missives are known as ‘Qdrops’ and are designed to be decoded by followers. Qdrops call for followers to rise up and take action against the elites who supposedly rule the world. Qdrops also venerate Donald Trump, a man renowned for his stirring up of racism, misogyny and Islamophobia (before being suspended from the platform). QAnon supporters were amongst those who stormed the Capitol building on 6 January 2021, in response to the baseless conspiracy that the 2020 presidential election was rigged and that Trump had been robbed of the presidency. At a rally immediately preceding the insurrection, Trump urged followers to ‘fight like hell’ against this injustice. The Capitol insurrection led to at least five deaths and multiple arrests.
Badham traces the evolution of QAnon from a fringe phenomenon to mainstream news. In Australia, this mainstreaming was evidenced by an episode of the current affairs program Four Corners, which will be traversed later in the review. Badham chronicles the psychological and physical damage caused by this movement. This damage is what makes QAnon and, indeed, all the conspiracies discussed in this book so dangerous. Badham goes on to discuss some of the ways in which the influence and the violence of conspiracy movements might be mitigated.
Throughout QAnon and On, Badham quotes a number of social media posts pertaining to the topic at hand. Some are critical of internet conspiracies; for example, the book opens with a June 2021 tweet from Lucy Turnbull in which she recalls being confronted by a stranger who described her and her husband, Malcolm, as ‘paedophiles’(accusations of paedophilia are commonly lobbed by QAnon proponents). Many of the posts appear to have been penned by conspiracists; witness the warnings about ‘limp-wristed cuckserves’ and ‘Luciferian’ leaders, these also being terms of derision by followers of conspiracies such as QAnon. The posts appear suddenly within the text, suggesting how conspiracy (il)logic pops up unpredictably, without warning, in digital discourses. Yet while these posts might seem random, they are not; the posts from QAnon actors nicely buttress the points that Badham makes about the viciousness and irrationality of that movement.
QAnon and On is written with clarity and demonstrates a poignant compassion for conspiracy actors and their loved ones. An example is the chapter in which the author interviews members of both groups. This chapter eschews those stereotypes of conspiracy actors as erratic, tinfoil hat-wearing freaks. They are human beings, whose lives have been irrevocably impacted by bizarre online (and, increasingly, offline) narratives that include QAnon. Badham convincingly argues that conspiracy actors are suffering and that they should not be shunned, however tempting that might be.
Badham displays an impressive grasp of conspiracy rhetoric. She carefully defines key terms (e.g., ‘awakening’, ‘sheeple’), and the ‘us-and-them binary thinking’ – with ‘us’ being the all-knowing conspiracists and ‘them’ being not only the bad guys, but also those ‘sheeple’ who aren’t awake to the dangers afoot. The author demonstrates how this rhetoric is used to create and sustain conspiracy worlds. These are worlds in which dastardly plans are always being concocted by those in power – with the exception, of course, of Donald Trump, who’s got humanity’s best interests in mind, or so we’re led to believe. In these worlds, even innocuous items of clothing – red shoes, for example are read as being hints by the wearer that they are involved in nefarious activity. In conspiracy worlds, there is clearly defined ‘good’ and ‘evil’, with ‘evil’ represented by illiberal elites like Hillary Clinton and George Soros, and ‘good’ represented by those who have awoken to the malevolence surrounding them. Conspiracists frequently understand themselves to be quite literally on the side of God; their opponents are commonly aligned with Satanism.
Badham could have examined more closely why certain tropes have been conspiracy mainstays. The most notable trope is child sexual abuse, which figures prominently in QAnon narratives, and which also formed the basis of ‘Pizzagate’. This reader wondered how the potency of child sexual abuse narratives has been amplified by revelations of sexual misconduct against minors by institutions such as the Catholic Church and individuals such as the late UK comic Jimmy Savile. That latter point raises an issue that Badham really should have said more about, namely that conspiracies – even the outlandish ones like QAnon – do contain shreds of truth. More specifically, conspiracies acknowledge that real world injustices do occur, that power can be misused to sometimes excruciating ends. The existence of these real world injustices surely fuels cultural anxieties surrounding child sexual abuse, and makes allegations of such abuse the rhetorical tools de jour for conspiracists.
Elsewhere, Badham risks giving credence to the conspiratorial thinking she’s critiquing. See her discussion of Tim Stewart, the QAnon-supporting property developer who has counted Scott Morrison among his friends and who was the subject of a 2021 Four Corners episode. That episode made much of the suggestion that Stewart held a kind of sway over the Prime Minister. For example, in a national apology to victims of institutionalised sexual abuse, Morrison referred to ‘ritual sexual abuse’. The latter has been a common talking point amongst conspiracist and also a real world problem or at least, a problem that has its genesis in real world activities. The Australian criminologist Michael Salter uses the term ‘organised sexual abuse’ to describe crimes committed by network, groups and institutions (e.g., schools). Salter demonstrates how ‘ritualistic abuse and torture are practices through which perpetrators of organised abuse attempt to intensify relations of domination and subordination’. (Importantly, Salter has also been critical of how the term ‘ritual sexual abuse’ been deployed by QAnon to suit their agenda).
Yet no firm evidence is presented to show that Morrison’s reference to ‘ritual sexual abuse’ was in any way influenced by Stewart or QAnon. Badham does not acknowledge this, though she does write: ‘Discredited and dangerous and dangerous as [QAnon] may have been, there were sources suggesting that they were perhaps not entirely without influence upon the Australian prime minister.’ This is not entirely different to reading hand gestures and red shoes as evidence of one’s involvement in evil.
In fairness, Badham may be displaying what Paul Ricoeur famously called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, which refers to the sense that even innocuous aspects of the everyday might be tools deployed by the powerful for oppressive purposes. Ricoeur detected that hermeneutics in the work of Marx and Freud, amongst others. Given her subject matter, Badham could have demonstrated more awareness about how a hermeneutics of suspicion informs her analysis, and of where the dividing line might be between a healthy suspicion and a propensity to spot evil where it may not be. Her failure to do this detracts from the credibility of her investigation.
Perhaps the biggest issue with QAnon and On is that it does not offer any genuinely original insights into the topics under investigation. Badham should have more carefully established how her take on internet conspiracies differs from, or builds upon existing accounts of these movements. Many of those accounts are listed in the voluminous bibliography; they include academic journal articles and media thinkpieces, as well as the US journalist Talia Lavin’s excellent 2020 book Culture Warlords (about online white nationalism). Turning the pages, this reader resisted a nagging urge to cry: ‘You’re telling me what I already know! What are you bringing to the table that is new?’
A possible answer to that last question is suggested in the final chapter, when Badham outlines efforts (actual and potential) to stem the spread of online conspiracies. This is an urgent task for the protection of public health and safety, not to mention the future of democracy. The author discusses r/ReQovery, the Reddit support group for those who have awoken to the reality of ‘the great awakening’ that conspiracies promise. She cites the disinformation researcher Nina Jankowicz’s recommendation for ‘the installation of “counter-disinformation” czars and a whole-of-government take on the problem.’ Badham describes the power of personal interventions in the lives of conspiracists: ‘The nuanced, orthodox practicality of personal contact is antithetical to the simplistic, seductive heresies of the online conspiracy cults.’ Badham recommends that
we can and must and should – keep contact alive with those we love who might be lured towards conspiracy communities and ensure that no matter how far someone travels down a rabbit hole, they can always find their way home again.
Badham’s suggestions are sound, but they need to be much more specific and to provide examples to support her points. For example, what might a ‘whole-of-government take’ on online conspiracies look like, exactly? How can individuals intervene to save loved ones without themselves experiencing harm, be this psychological or otherwise? These are not easy tasks; as Badham concedes: ‘Even if we could blow up the internet and every computer it connects tomorrow, we can’t erase conspiracy thinking.’ The book would have benefited from reflecting in greater detail about how policymakers, social media companies and everyday internet users might protect themselves and others from falling prey to cults such as QAnon.
Badham could also have mentioned the kinds of public deliberations required regarding those contentious issues that are connected with the regulation of online conspiracists. Those issues include freedom of speech, internet safety, platform governance, mental health, social inequalities of every kind. Discussions of such issues are bound to be tense and it’s unclear what formats they might take. Shouting matches on Twitter certainly won’t do the trick, and nor will partisan op eds. Such discussions do nevertheless need to happen; uncomfortable questions need to be asked. Stemming the kind of phenomena under discussion in these pages should be a ‘whole-of-government’ effort; actually, it’s everyone’s responsibility. A 2020 University of Canberra report on misinformation states that
… it is incumbent on every one of us, and especially on those of us who have attracted a substantial audience of social media followers through our personal or professional activities, to act with particular care as we engage with topics that we are ill qualified to comment on.
A failure to do this will result in even more misery, public violence, broken relationships and lost lives. Examples of these outcomes appear throughout Badham’s text.
QAnon and On’s oversights are especially problematic given the author’s public profile, and her purported expertise on conspiracies and disinformation. Badham has written on these issues for Junkee and Guardian Australia, and tweets about them for her 100.9 K Twitter followers. Some readers will likely be learning about QAnon, Pizzagate and so on for the first time through her book. As such, the author has an ethical requirement to ensure that her text is as comprehensive and nuanced as possible; that she clearly identifies the problems that lie before us and sketches out realistic ways forward.
QAnon and On is eminently readable overview of online conspiracies, the devastating human toll that these have taken, and the pressing need to mitigate the damage they cause. The text brings little that is fresh to reportage on those movements, though it does illuminate future areas of enquiry – not least of which is the question of how to stop folk from tumbling down rabbit holes.
ABC Response to The Australian, 16 June 2021.
Mathieu O’Neil & Jensen, Michael J., Australian Perspectives on Misinformation. Canberra: News & Media Research Centre, University of Canberra, 2020.
Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, translated by Denis Savage, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970.
Michael Salter, Organised Sexual Abuse, New York: Routledge, 2013.
Elaine Zelby, ‘History of the Idiom “Down the Rabbit Hole”’, Medium, 29 January 2019.