What’s most striking about the Q Clearance Patriot phenomenon is how many people are taking its paranoid online conspiracy theory ‘crumbs’ seriously, says Mattathias Schwartz.
GO hungry for too long, and a lot of strange things will start to look like food. The smallest morsels become precious, especially if you believe they form some kind of trail with a meal at the end.
This is true not only of physical sustenance; it is true of knowledge as well. You always find scattered crumbs — inscrutable analogies, esoteric equations, unverified allegations from anonymous sources — gathered around those questions about which we know the least.
For months now, one anonymous source — an internet user called ‘Q Clearance Patriot’ or ‘Q’, posting on anarchic, underbelly-of-the-internet message boards such as 4chan and 8chan — has been spreading its “crumbs” across the web, offering a running commentary on the state of the US nation in a gnomic and paranoid style.
To call the result a mere “conspiracy theory” doesn’t quite do it justice, shortchanging both its utterly absurd wrongness and its vast pseudo-explanatory power. Q’s prophecies are something closer to a grand unifying conspiracy theory, one that incorporates older absurd theories (stretching back to the Kennedy administration) and continuously spins off new tendrils, glomming itself onto news events as they unfold.
Good and evil, it claims, have mustered two warring teams; the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. The heroes are the military (especially the Marines) and president Donald Trump, who is secretly co-operating with Robert Mueller to, some disciples imagine, uncover a global ring of sex-trafficking paedophiles.
And even this risks making it sound more realistic than it is.
What’s most striking about the Q phenomenon is how many people take it seriously. #QAnon billboards have started showing up beside highways in Georgia. Q’s supporters have turned up en masse, with signs and T-shirts, at Trump rallies. Actor Roseanne Barr tweets about it.
In June, an armed man was arrested after blocking traffic near the Hoover Dam; in jail, he reportedly wrote a letter to Trump including Q’s motto: “Where we go one, we go all.” Trump shows no particular inclination to discourage the theory. In August, he posed for a picture with the former talk-radio host Michael Lebron, who promotes Q theories online, inside the Oval Office.
“Your president needs your help,” writes Q in one ‘Q drop’ — that’s what Q’s followers, or ‘bakers’, call each bread crumb. Q engages the bakers as collaborators who “research” lines of inquiry and offer possible answers to Q’s hypnotic flurries of leading questions (“Las Vegas. What hotel did the ‘reported’ gunfire occur from? What floors specifically? Who owns the top floors?”)
But Q balances fear-mongering with notes of reassurance: The bakers are, by poring over each nonsensical hint, supposedly aiding their fellow “patriots” on the inside. Bad news is merely a “distraction”. The president’s behaviour is merely a ruse. The good guys are secretly in control, and they are going to win.
So the baker-followers assemble the crumbs into what they call ‘dough’ or ‘bread’, to be circulated online — feverishly complex diagrams and bulletin-board collages of words and images. Bright red lines highlight connections, an approach familiar to viewers of True Detective or Homeland or The Wire, and satirised by a popular GIF of a wild-eyed Charlie Day from the TV comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, standing in front of a messy bulletin board.
Day’s character, who is working in a corporate mailroom, has convinced himself that half of the company’s employees don’t exist, even as a friend assures him that not only are they real, but also that “they have been asking for their mail on a daily basis”. Rather than deal with the complex reality of his duties, he has retreated into fantasy.
Whoever posts as Q postures as a government insider with a high-level ‘Q’ security clearance and an enigmatic connection to Trump’s inner circle.
“I can hint and point but cannot give too many highly classified data points,” Q wrote, in one of the earliest posts. A bit later: “These are crumbs and you cannot imagine the full and complete picture.”
To reveal too much, Q claims, would be dangerous. Repeated and prolonged exposure to the crumbs — there are more than 2,000 of them, as of early September — is, supposedly, the only path toward comprehension.
“These are like our generation’s ‘fireside chats’,” a grateful baker on Reddit wrote.
The crumbs, of course, tend not to lead anywhere. Q was wrong about the imminent arrests of prominent Democrats, wrong about John McCain using his health as “cover” to step down from the Senate, and wrong (so far) about the “storm” or “great awakening” — a national redemption, under martial law, that is perpetually hours away from happening.
Still, the bakers reassure themselves by validating their beloved source, assembling what they call ‘proofs’ — tangential connections between the bread crumbs and reality.
Many of these have to do with the recurrence of certain numbers, like 17 (Q is the 17th letter) or 4, 10, and 20 (which correspond with Trump’s initials). These are known as ‘Qincidences’, and as Q often tells us, there are “no coincidences”.
Scattered among Q’s crumbs are plenty of yeasty bits that could later be puffed up into Qincidences — hazy aerial photos, co-ordinates for downtown Manila, a 90s rock video, alpha-numeric strings that could be codes or passwords. More likely, according to a review by one security researcher, they are the result of random typing.
Sherman Kent, a post-war official considered a founding figure of the US intelligence community, liked to say that CIA analysts are driven by three wishes: To know everything, to be believed, and to have some positive impact. The bread crumb draws its power from that first wish — our human discontent with how little can actually be known. Curiosity, in other words.
The line between inquiring our way into the unknown and speculating our way into it is evident only in retrospect. We can see this most clearly at the edges of old maps, where the terrain loses all proportion before lapsing into dragon-filled waters and rings of fire. But these maps were at least informed by the actual journeys of actual explorers; just as Kent’s CIA analysts had, for better or worse, real raw intelligence.
What makes conspiracy-theory bread crumbs different is that they do little more than rearrange the known in hope of sparking conversation about the unknown. They speculate, interpret wildly, ask baffling questions. They adjust their narratives to link new developments to old hints. These rhetorical moves serve to conceal the fact that they have nothing verifiable to add.
Q is just one particularly absurd manifestation of this mode of thinking. A related tendency can be found in corners of the anti-Trump resistance, where Twitter gurus highlight whatever nuggets of the day’s news are favourable to their camp.
Like the bakers, some flatter themselves by calling their work “research”, but their real formula is to aggregate and speculate (if the Russian ambassador, Paul Manafort, and Donald Trump were all present at the same Washington reception in April 2016, surely they must have hammered out the details of a criminal conspiracy then and there?).
The president is forever on the verge of impeachment; the biggest bombshells are always just about to drop; the full perfidy of the Trump-Russia iceberg is always just below the waterline, visible only to those faithfully connecting the dots. These figures lack Q’s mystique (and are far, far better connected with reality), but they share Q’s vulnerability: Their influence depends on producing a non-stop stream of portentous titbits, little pellets of encouragement to keep followers hitting the retweet button.
Q’s bread crumbs are spiced with accessible citations from fairy tales and pop culture: Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, The Godfather. And yet Q has, thus far, refrained from mentioning the story that gave us the bread-crumb analogy in the first place — the story of Hansel and Gretel, as set down by the Brothers Grimm.
It is an unusually brutal story, containing accounts of child abandonment, cannibalism, and the unexplained death of the protagonists’ mother. It takes place during a famine, and its core theme is hunger. Lack of food causes Hansel and Gretel’s parents to abandon them, giving each a piece of bread before leading them deep into the woods.
The trail of bread crumbs left by Hansel, though, is not intended as a series of clues for someone else. It is more like Theseus’ ball of thread, allowing the children to find their way home. And this plan does not work: The crumbs are eaten by birds, and the children wander deeper into the unknown, to the witch’s house. By the time they arrive, they are starving.
Q’s bakers, likewise, are starving for information. Their willingness to chase bread crumbs is a symptom of ignorance and powerlessness.
There may be something to their belief that the machinery of the state is inaccessible to the people. It’s hard to blame them for resorting to fantasy and esotericism, after all, when accurate information about the government’s current activities is so easily concealed and so woefully incomplete.
Despite Q’s insistence that “we are in control” and “you have the power”, the truth may be even more frightening.
Mattathias Schwartz is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a former staff writer at The New Yorker, where he won the Livingston Award for international reporting.