lockdown protest
(Image: AAP/Scott Barbour)

On Saturday the crazies may well be out in force. A loose coalition of lockdown opponents and COVID-19 truthers are set to rally around the country to mark “freedom day,” despite a police crackdown and a number of pre-emptive arrests.

Some will claim COVID-19 is a hoax, no worse than the flu. Others will be worried about 5G towers. There’ll be plenty of garden-variety anti-vaxxers and crunchy Byron Bay New Age types. And some will believe that US President Donald Trump is a messiah fighting to liberate the world from a Satanic cabal of paedophiles and child sex traffickers.

What began with an anonymous internet poster claiming to have top level US government “Q Clearance” dropping cryptic breadcrumbs on 4Chan has mushroomed into a sprawling conspiracy theory and millenarian doomsday cult. It’s been classified as a potential domestic terror threat by the FBI. Its followers have committed murder.

In the world of QAnon, everyone from Hillary Clinton to Ellen deGeneres and Daniel Andrews are part of the satanic cabal. They’re trafficking children and drinking their blood. Accelerated by social media, QAnon has expanded across the world. It’s become a kind of mothership, the “big tent” conspiracy theory to which all others return.

Spend time around any of the anti-lockdown protests that have been sputtering across the country since March, and the QAnon talking points can’t be missed. See #SaveTheChildren? That’s QAnon. Paedophiles? QAnon. The “Great Awakening”? Also Q. Six months ago most Australians, outside the extremely online, would never have heard of QAnon. Now it’s the tie that binds together a disparate constellation of anti-lockdown conspiracies.

And thanks to the pandemic, it may have broken into our politics for good.

QAnon with an Australian accent

Even before the pandemic, QAnon had been bubbling away just outside the political fringes, slowly closing in. As Crikey reported last year, one of Scott Morrison’s closest family friends is a Q believer. At the recent Eden-Monaro byelection, an independent candidate with a QAnon-influenced social media history ran unsuccessfully.

It’s started to pull in anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists — most prominently NRL WAG turned anti-vax influencer Taylor Winterstein and celebrity chef Pete Evans. But it’s the pandemic that has truly turned it into the mothership.

“Look at any conspiracy theorist’s Facebook, and you’ll almost universally see that they’ve been ‘Q-pilled’ since March,” University of Tasmania lecturer and online disinformation researcher Kaz Ross tells Crikey.

Some of the anti-lockdown mob won’t even know what QAnon is, but will still recite its talking points — a global cabal, fear of paedophilic, satanic elites, the world on the brink of a “great awakening”.

How did QAnon come to dominate Australia’s conspiracy theory landscape so quickly? Ross says firstly, much like evangelical Christianity, QAnon tries to offer sense and cohesion during a seemingly apocalyptic time.

“We know that there’s a turn to religion and to try and make meaning of distressing events. We’ve been through the horrendous bushfires, then on the back of that, we get the pandemic. It’s all a bit Biblical.”

QAnon has considerable overlap with centuries-old anti-Semitic conspiracies like the blood libel, which have been aggressively pushed out of the internet sewers by the alt-right in recent years.

And finally, there’s the anti-vaxxer wellness types, who are highly Instagram literate, and adept at spreading junk science through social media. Once they started speaking the language of QAnon, those verbal queues — references to the “Great Awakening” and a “gathering storm” seeped into the anti-lockdown lexicon.

What’s interesting is the way QAnon has flourished in Australia in the absence of a charismatic Trump-like figure, drawing in hippyish sorts who might’ve once ostensibly been on the political left.

But outside of the core beliefs, QAnon’s great strength is it’s ability to quickly subsume other strands of conspiratorial thinking, to latch onto new contexts and acquire a distinctly local flavour. QAnon effortlessly incorporated fears about 5G and vaccines through the pandemic.

Concordia University online disinformation researcher Marc-Andre Argentino has described Australia as among the “five eyes” of QAnon — it has one of the largest followings in the world here.

Looking back at Australian QAnon posts in January, Argentino pointed to a uniquely Australian focus on bushfires and the Catholic Church.

Politicians under attack

In August, three years after QAnon started popping up, reporters finally confronted Trump about it. The President nudged and winked and didn’t condemn QAnon. Who was he to disavow people who “love our country” and “like me very much”, Trump said.

In August, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a pro-QAnon businesswoman, won the GOP primary for a safe congressional seat in Florida. A future Republican star, Trump called her. Come November, there will be several QAnon-supporters in Congress.

In Australia, QAnon has started poking its head out of the political shadows in the last few months. Last week, Nationals MP Anne Webster was in court fighting a defamation battle against Karen Brewer, a conspiracy theorist who’d accused her of being part of a paedophile network.

As Victoria’s crossbench prepared to vote on extending the state’s emergency laws this week, dozens of MPs were bombarded with abusive messages, many from QAnon supporters, after their phone numbers were shared in anti-lockdown groups.

Dan Andrews is public enemy number one for QAnon Australia right now, Ross says. He’s accused, falsely, of being a paedophile. Believers have showed up at his electorate office, and he’s one of many politicians copping a stream of abuse.

The future of politics?

Australia’s politics has, by and large, always been a little more sober than that of the United States. It’s harder for Q-infused crazies to jump from the fringes into the political mainstream. But QAnon believers don’t need to be in parliament to influence our elections for the worse.

A now largely forgotten footnote to Labor’s 2019 electoral choke was the death tax scare, a Facebook misinformation campaign with no basis in the party’s platform. Labor candidates felt the ground beneath them shift, like they were fighting an impossible battle against a viral lie that wouldn’t go away.

Since 2016, sensible, normie technocrats like Bill Shorten have struggled to find an answer to the turbo-charged politics of fake. All QAnon followers need to do is clutter newsfeeds with enough white noise, and a tight election could start to shift. If Facebook carries through with its threat to block news content in Australia, that could become even easier.

In the US, and to an extent in Australia, right-wing disinformation is destroying the competition in the battle for eyeballs on Facebook. The Trump team knows that those same very fine people, radicalised by Facebook, are central to his re-election chances.

It’s not implausible that an Australian candidate could, like Trump, start really tapping into that misinformation, winking at a growing chorus of revved up Q believers.

And no matter what happens to Trump in November, those believers will grow. Because Q offers what regular life doesn’t. It’s a really good story. It has heroes and villains. It helps people make sense of a world that is surreal, nonsensical and often increasingly grim. It’s no surprise that The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance, in one of the seminal pieces of writing on QAnon, calls it a new American religion.

When adherents fall down the QAnon rabbithole, they’re often so feverishly drawn into that parallel universe they let their offline relationships wither and die. Q gives them all the purpose and hope they need. They’re patriots, citizen journalists, internet sleuths piecing together the fragments of a great, terrible secret, helping to save the world from a terrible evil.

Mainstream politics, the media, institutions that are meant to give people hope, meaning, clarity and solace, have failed to do that. Their message is far less compelling. And as long as that continues to be true, QAnon will be here to stay.

Peter Fray

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