Internet Nerd Compendium

Internet Nerd Compendium

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Qanon and the rise of online mysticism

Imagine a secretive group who believe they, and they alone, possess secret knowledge that will allow them to deliver the world from darkness.

They believe they are on a noble path to knowledge through careful research, and yet the world around them treats them as if they are… a cult. No, not Qanon but the early Christian Gnostics, part of the Western mystic tradition. They share a belief in a hidden layer of reality, hidden  but for those privileged few who hold the secret knowledge. For the Christian Gnostics Jesus was the embodiment of logos – from the Greek for the divine ordering principle of the universe.  When he died for our sins he brought enlightenment and order to the Earthly plane. The key difference in Qanon? Donald Trump is the second embodiment of logos. The literal second coming of Christ.

Apart from being horrendously blasphemous, the Qanon philosophy is dangerous thanks to it’s belief that it is drawing from the ultimate authority – God. While the Qanon movement is currently in disarray, thanks to the US election result, the question is what will happen to it next. It has already begun to metastasise – but will it become more dangerous as it breaks apart? First let’s look at the core components of their beliefs, and where they come from.

The origin

Like many strange online subcultures, Qanon began in the irony-poisoned message boards of 4chan. In October 2017 a user joined a discussion where each person pretended to be a high ranking member of the intelligence community, and the others quizzed them to try and catch the lie. CIA, FBI, Navy and so on – and then ‘Q’ joined. He predicted that Hillary Clinton would shortly be arrested.

A series of vague and arcane messages, or ‘Q drops’ followed, that Q refers to as ‘bread crumbs’. His followers (Anons) think of themselves as ‘bakers’ who ‘bake’ the information into something understandable. It is this ‘baking’ which most closely resembles the esoteric knowledge as the Gnostics understood it. The Anons contemplate and ‘research’ (by sharing doctored PDFs and screenshots, memes and scenes from movies) to fully comprehend the drops. The beauty of this special, secret knowledge is that it can be interpreted many ways. If Q seemed to have predicted something and it doesn’t come to be – that’s alright, the followers must have got it wrong. The information must simply require further baking. Q is the keeper of the gnosis, or secret knowledge, and his followers only glimpse it through careful interpretation. This is mysticism – the belief that by surrendering to the faith and contemplating the ‘truth’ you will become one with the divine.

The beliefs

The Gnostics, like Anons, believed in secret knowledge that would set them free and bring on an enlightenment. The Gnostics were essentially peaceful – their beliefs were drawn from Christianity but varied from it in essential ways. Some believed Jesus was not the Messiah, but an angel. Some depicted Jesus alongside a female angel who represented the Holy Spirit, as a couple. Others believed in experiencing bodily pleasures and enjoying orgies. Still others believed that they should be aescetic and cleanse their body by refraining from excess. Some thought that there was a dualistic nature to the world – that God was in a battle with a force equally powerful and totally in opposition to Him. They believed all this, safe in the belief that their secret knowledge would save and preserve them.

While Qanon shares the similarity of the secret knowledge and the purifying light brought about by the second coming in the Great Awakening, their other beliefs are much, much darker than the Gnostics. This is where the similarity ends. So what are the core tenets of Qanon belief?

  1. That Q is a high-level agent within the US intelligence community.
  2. That he is leaking secrets via cryptic messages on a series of message boards (4chan, 8chan, Reddit and now 8kun).
  3. That the deep state – in collusion with an international cabal – secretly control the world.
  4. That Donald Trump is the sole person holding back the deep state and able to bring them to justice.
  5. That the ‘international cabal’ consumes terrified children in order to stay young forever.
  6. That Q and Trump have a plan to overthrow both the cabal and the deep state and rescue all the children.
  7. That the enemies of Trump – including Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and members of the Sunrise Movement – will be taken to Guantanamo and executed in an event called ‘the Storm’.
  8. That following this moment of reckoning the world will be restored to peace and prosperity – with secret cures to diseases such as COVID-19 and cancer being distributed for free.

Following this set of beliefs is usually referred to as ‘trusting the plan’, and some Qanons believe parts of the above and not others. Their rallying call is ‘Where we go one, we go all’ or:

WWG1WGA

which comes from a 1996 sailing adventure movie called ‘White Squall’. Since this hashtag has been restricted and Anons are being removed from many social media sites you might also see adherents use #savethechildren or #saveourchildren – sometimes referred to as ‘soft Qanon’.

Let me state clearly here – these beliefs are baseless and have been debunked numerous times.

Each of these beliefs has developed over time and Qanon has grown to be somewhat of an umbrella conspiracy, welcoming in flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers and COVID-deniers to their ranks. I’ve expanded on some of the most problematic sources they have drawn their faith from below.

Anti-Semitism and the Blood Libel

For those familiar with far-right conspiracy theories, the above phrase ‘international cabal’ may have set alarm bells ringing, as this is often used synonymously with talking about Jewish people by anti-Semitic communities. In this case – you would be correct.

Anti-Semitism is a core part of the belief system of Qanon, and it is rooted in the belief of the cannibalistic, paedophilic international cabal. This idea is hardly new – in fact it can be traced back to the Medieval period where Christian groups would persecute Jewish communities across Europe. They baselessly accused Jewish communities of kidnapping Christian children and drinking their blood. Sound familiar? In the Medieval Period this was called ‘the Blood Libel‘, and Dr Eleanor Janega has done a wonderful breakdown of the relationship between the Blood Libel and the Qanon conspiracy on her blog ‘Going Medieval’.

The other key anti-Semitic conspiracy that’s been coopted into Qanon is ‘The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion‘. This is a purported to be a leaked set of minutes from a meeting of conclave of Jewish religious leaders. It includes a set of disgusting anti-Semitic myths that are baseless and are pushed by many far-right groups.

Some Anons are open about their prejudice and racism. Others allege that they are unaware of the anti-Semitism problem in their ranks. Since it has now been widely reported on, there is little excuse for those who continue to be part of Qanon to maintain their ignorance.

Violence and fascism

The ideology of Qanon is inherently fascist. It seeks to displace democracy and replace it with a theocratic government, with Trump and his family ruling over America. The spurious and baseless accusations are only ever levied at his political enemies. While some adherents to Q might genuinely believe the alleged crimes that John Podesta or Hilary Clinton have committed – many seem to be happy to label any public person who is openly critical of Trump as worthy of imprisonment and death. This is in fact why they were banned from Reddit.

Qanon in Europe has also been seen to be associating with neo-Nazi groups. Earlier this year in Germany they held a joint rally with the ‘Reichsbürger’ or citizens of the Reich, and together stormed the Parliament. In the UK they were seen marching with Union of British Fascists.

Then there’s the violence. Let me be very clear – Qanon believers have been charged with terrorism, murder, kidnapping and child neglect. It is a very violent ideology. The Guardian has built an excellent timeline of the most high-profile cases of violence, but it doesn’t include the two armed Anons who attempted to storm a polling station in Philadelphia last week.

Christianity

Trump embraced by Jesus

While some Anons come from other faiths or from the new age community, Christianity has become more and more central to the Qanon discourse. With influencers like Praying Medic using the language of the faith, quoting the Bible and invoking Trump as the second coming (see image to the right) Q has attempted to infiltrate the evangelical churches of America. MIT has put together a breakdown of how Qanon has exploited the fear and confusion of the pandemic to attract new followers from the evangelical community. The Atlantic suggested it could be becoming a new religious movement, above and beyond it’s roots as a conspiracy theory. While many publications are discussing how Qanon is dangerous and right-wing – few speak of the danger it poses from a faith perspective.

Christianity Today has created an audio guide for discussing Qanon with your loved ones if they seem like they are being groomed. It’s useful for anyone in this position, regardless of faith. Reddit also has a dedicated board for those who have lost relationships with loved ones to Qanon – it’s useful if you are seeking support.

It’s important to note here that the word gnostic comes from the Greek gnos, or knowledge. You might be familiar with the opposite term agnostic – which means absence of knowledge. If you agnostic about the existence of God, you feel that there is simply not enough information either way to make a firm decision on whether God exists or not. Someone who is gnostic is certain in the power of their knowledge. Qanon is a twisted version of this gnosticism – they are certain of their knowledge (see their list of beliefs) and there is no amount of information that can be given to them to shake their certainty. Additional information can either be processed as supporting their belief system or disregarded as ‘fake news’ made up by their enemies. Therefore it is my recommendation that you do not argue with these individuals about their core beliefs, whether online or in person.

The YouTuber Dan Olson has made a wonderful video about flat earth and Qanon in which he actually demonstrates the curvature of the Earth via a camera rig. I must admit that I was unaware this could be demonstrated from ground level and found it fascinating. When he presented the video to a flat earther (a person who believes that the Earth is in fact a flat disk and the truth is being covered up by – you guessed it – an international cabal) the person told him to go and pray the curve away. Belief in a conspiracy theory requires adherents to believe only in their secret knowledge and reject all objective facts and information that counter it.

Loss of faith

Basil Mitchell, in his Parable of the Partisan discusses the difficulty of maintaining faith in the face of doubt. He describes a member of the resistance who puts his faith in a stranger.

Sometimes he is seen in the uniform of the police handing over patriots to the occupying power. On these occasions his friends murmur against him; but the partisan still says, ‘He is on our side.’ He still believes that, in spite of appearances, the Stranger did not deceive him. Sometimes he asks the Stranger for help and receives it. He is then thankful. Sometimes he asks and does not receive it. Then he says, The Stranger knows best.’ Sometimes his friends, in exasperation, say, ‘Well, what would he have to do for you to admit that you were wrong and that he is not on our side?’ But the partisan refuses to answer. He will not consent to put the Stranger to the test. And sometimes his friends complain, ‘Well, if that’s what you mean by his being on our side, the sooner he goes over to the other side the better.’

The same could be said about Q and Trump. For how long will the Anons faithfully ‘trust the plan’?  At time of writing, Q has been dark for 9 days, with no new Q drops. Will any of the Anons have the courage to break the faith and return to the family and friends that they have isolated? I hope so, but it is likely that we will see remnants of this gigantic and powerful conspiracy cult for years to come as it breaks apart and attempts to hide from social media bans.

And what happened to the Gnostics? They were branded heretics by mainstream Christianity, though Gnostic movements have survived until today, such as the Mandaeans in Iraq. Their thinking also influenced the ideas of the psychologist Carl Jung and the magician Aleister Crowley – make of that what you will.

(Emily Morter on Unspash)

(Emily Morter on Unspash)

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