Urban myths, conspiracy theories, misinformation, false claims, and spooky stories have been hallmarks of the internet since its inception, and especially around the 2010 era. While it’s generally accepted that the world wide web has enabled people across the globe to learn about whatever is outside their physical surroundings and social bubbles, it’s always taken a great deal of contextual analysis to figure out truth from fiction. Some see the internet has a realm unto itself where only its own truths and realities are relevant, while others see it as a tool for real world communication.
If there’s only a single legacy that the internet leaves behind, it’s that it has blurred the lines between the digital and the flesh, between narratives and reality. Naturally, capitalists saw an opportunity to further line their pockets by blending fictional parallel universes that intersect with the real world.
ARG: From Mainstream Marketing to Obscure Internet Culture
Dubbed alternate reality games (ARG), entire storylines were created making use of codes, puzzles, and real-world treasure hunts for followers to discover, or even contribute to, an overarching narrative. The Dark Knight, released in 2007, made use of ARG marketing. Likewise, Cloverfield in 2008 released cryptic webpages for people to engage with and to codebreak. Halo 3, launched in late 2007, also used ARG marketing via forum posts filled with hidden IP addresses to unveil teasers to its target audience.
Though this was initially a marketing technique employed by corporations and Hollywood in the 2000’s, storytellers saw much more potential in this medium than merely improving their ability to sell a product. Some creative individuals picked up on these trends and pushed to further blur the lines between narratives and reality. They did this in the form of transforming creepypasta (online ghost/horror stories) into interactive online storytelling events.
The YouTube series that began in 2009, and arguably pioneered the blend of ARG marketing and creepypasta, was Marble Hornets. It’s one of the most influential phenomena to grace the internet, albiet in a niche sphere. Largely unknown to the general populace and experimental in nature, it was the beginning of online-based ARGs that aren’t just marketing schemes.
You might know this web series better by it’s star monster: Slenderman.
Successors picked up on the Marble Hornets trend by improving upon its shortcomings, adding their own creative flair, and expanding the ARG interactivity element. For a more detailed breakdown of Marble Hornets and other creepypasta/internet horror creations, check out Night Mind and his analyses.
While Marble Hornets was largely inspired by the ARG marketing trend, it brought the practice into the realm of entertainment as a way to improve one’s storytelling ability. In more recent times, the ARG/creepypasta genre has lost much of its vibrancy and attention of internet dwellers, though its creators are still passionate about their niche. Even though the genre has fallen in popularity, in some sense, everyone involved contributed to a small piece of internet history.
What should have remained a storytelling tactic purely for entertainment purposes transformed into something else. ARGs became co-opted by, perhaps, the most widespread conspiracy theory of all time. Maybe. Flat Earth certainly ranks up there in popularity.
QAnon is one of the weirder conspiracy theories out there. It seemingly came out of nowhere in late-2017 after Trump took office and acts as a sort of alternate layer of defense for the president.
So, what exactly is QAnon?
Essentially, the Deep State is out to get Donald Trump and he needs help from patriots like you to expose the alleged attempts to undermine, overthrow, or even assassinate him. There’s a hidden sect of the military on Trump’s side that posts various bits of coded info and encouraging messages under the guise of a person named “Q”, presumably referencing the “Q Clearance” status granting access to sensitive intel. The movement centers around waging a secret war of information and intrigue if the real patriots are to win the heart and soul of America back. Another part of this war is against liberal elites who actively engage in Satanic rituals, sacrifices, child sex trafficking, and the conditions leading to the existence of the infamous “ mole children .”
Supposedly, all of this is to take down “the cabal.” This isn’t just about America; this “cabal” is a global phenomena corrupting all world governments, but, for whatever reason, Trump is at the heart of the solution.
It’s kind of like if Donald Trump were James Bond, only America-centric, able to play 4D chess (or chess at all, really), and way more epic.
Back in 2017, “Q” posted some “leaks” on the fascist-infested 4chan and 8kun, claiming to be a member of the military with highly-classified information. At its inception, it seemed to be a joke, as are many things on those platforms, but it quickly gained traction and “legitimacy.” Nevermind the fact that Q drops have been edited and retconned depending on current narratives and the support they need, but that’s neither here nor there.
Here’s the catch: Q can’t just outright state the info needed by patriots. So, he/she/they posts what are known as “Q drops,” or codes, hidden messages, and uninspired grade-school-level poetry for the “Anon” supporters to unpack and do… something… with…?
This aspect of “there’s a secret sect of the military that’s on the side of real patriots like you” is probably the most dangerous part of QAnon, though. Trump has been hard at work legitimizing the far-right and subtly nodding at the recurring theme of his presidency: scratch my back, or else, and I’ll scratch yours. This conspiracy only serves to strengthen his connection with his far-right base as it appeals to their paranoid world view.
Unfortunately, QAnon has also been able to draw a wide audience to the point where it’s become all but mainstream conservatism.
Its deliberate evangelical Christian apocalyptic language speaks to the rapture theology variant of Christianity that has taken over right-wing politics. This military operation to protect Trump and save America is called “The Great Awakening” and sometimes “The Storm.” It’s usually paired with blatant Christian imagery when spoken of, including a lion or a cross.
This way, it can appeal to the average God-fearing conservative who buys into the highly-politicized evangelical Christian movement instead of just conspiracy nuts, or the paranoid conservative patriot, who obsess over creating order in their world.
It also welcomes the faux new-age spirituality culture that has been mostly taken over by grifters and partially taken over by right-wing ideology with its slogan “Where We Go One, We Go All”, or the hashtag #WWG1WGA. So, QAnon simultaneously appeals to Christians and to false spiritual gurus and their followers that believe in such obscurities like the Mandela Effect and some sort of conscious global human awakening. Of course, this awakening is specifically directed at the perpetuation of the overall QAnon narrative and uses many tones specific to evangelical Christian dogma.
Normally, Christianity and new-age spirituality (save for the ones that invoke Christian imagery) step on each others’ toes, but QAnon gladly welcomes all forms of pseudoscience. There are even pagans and wiccans who convert to Christianity for the sake of becoming a “real patriot” because, apparently, witch burnings weren’t that bad afterall.
What Sets It Apart
However, what makes QAnon a truly unique conspiracy theory is how seamlessly it meshes with conservative ideology. While many conspiratorial mindsets often lead to right-wing reactionary politics, it’s not a guarantee or even the main focus.
Ever since its inception as a political philosophy after the French Revolution, conservatism has ALWAYS existed to protect the ruling class; whether it be monarchy, aristocracy, or extremely wealthy capitalists. It purports that society requires a hierarchical structure to function, so it manufactures one at any cost. Conveniently, these hierarchies exist to serve the interests of the ruling class at the expense of the masses.
One way conservatism protects whatever the ruling class of the time happens to be is through manufacturing a constant struggle against someone or something. That way, there’s always an “enemy” to battle, and fighting against that particular foe favors the ruling class in some way. The adversaries change over time, but one of them is always present: time itself.
The conservative is in a state of perpetual unease because, to them, they’re always struggling to preserve some form of an idealized past, thus they’re always oppressed by the forces of time and societal change. There’s always an enemy, and they’re always out to destroy what makes their country great. To them, there can never be true balance in society — they always have to be on the verge of losing what they hold dear to find meaning in their life. Struggle is the conservative’s primary mode of existence, so they always need some form of class antagonism to define themselves.
This is why conservatives are reactionaries and war hawks — they cannot imagine living a life without struggle. In fact, some of them even get bored if there isn’t a good war going on to unite the country. If there isn’t one currently, they’ll start one!
According to the USA Today piece “Same President, Different Man in Oval Office” from late 2001:
“Bush has told advisors that he believes confronting the enemy is a chance for him and his fellow baby boomers to refocus their lives and prove they have the same kind of valor and commitment their fathers showed in WWII.”
Even the late Christopher Hitchens, a member of the so-called “Four Horsemen of Atheism”, said that he felt “exhilaration” after witnessing 9/11, saying:
“Here was the most frightful enemy—theocratic barbarism—in plain view… I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.”
Perhaps this concept of the endless pursuit of an enemy is something we’ll examine in more detail later. For now, let’s get back to Q.
QAnon is the perfect tool because it gives the conservative an infinite list of potential enemies with only requiring paper-thin justification to deem something as a threat. Its framework really is that flexible because it’s based on extremely subjective criteria: “Q said so.” With Q on Trump’s side, it’s just another justification for protecting him as a member of, if not THE sole member of, the ruling class.
At the same time, you’ll never convince a QAnon follower that Q is ever lying to them — if there’s an apparent contradiction between the narrative and reality, it just means Q hasn’t dropped more vital info yet!
QAnon Is Just Bad Creepypasta ARG Marketing
The most amusing and tragic part of all of this is when you break it down, QAnon is just a really bad, uncreative bit of conservative marketing to galvanize the far-right base without going mask off.
It’s a way to justify their fear of The Red Scare, Cultural Marxism, the Jews (err, the “cabal”… and (((them)))… that’s it…), and also to further demonize their false opposition party: the Democrats.
It’s a way to more easily point the finger at whoever is politically inconvenient at the time, since the only justification QAnon needs for anything is just a well-timed “drop” and a particular interpretation of it.
It’s also a way to speak to the far-right, gun-toting, Constitution-loving, anti-government, “ready for the apocalypse” militia man that, coincidentally, Trump is attempting to turn into his own personal fascist militia. You know, kind of like exactly what happened in pre-WWII Europe!
The right missed the ARG marketing wave by a decade, yet, somehow, QAnon is in full force. QAnon truly is just a really bad creepypasta story with an emphasis on…
- paranoia (who is trustworthy in our government?)
- shock factor (Satanic rituals and blood sacrifices!)
- fear (scary scary communism and globalism oOoOoOoOoooo)
- anxiety (Civil War II/World War III is just around the corner)
- potential relief (only if you side with the “good guys” can you be safe)
…yet people still eat it up because it appeals to Trump’s cult of personality and psychologically traps people into accepting the narrative by hyper-focusing on particular interpretations of a curated list of problems, while presenting itself as the only solution.
QAnon owes its success almost exclusively to the ARG element that makes it FEEL real because of the engagement it creates with its audience. Other conspiracy theories, like Flat Earth, are espoused from the creator to the audience and little more. Sure, there’s always a sense of “test it yourself and see if with your own eyes!” However, with QAnon, the inherent interactivity always keeps it feeling “alive” and “fresh,” like there’s always something new to discover and that you can be a part of history if you’re on board and participating.
For the most part, the sort of participation QAnon encourages of being a literal “keyboard warrior” or “digital soldier.” However, there have been real world demonstrations orchestrated by Q believers and surely there will be more to come.
Once again, conservatives prove they’re not original and never have been.
- They can’t accept anything changing, so they turn to reactionary behavior and cling to the past.
- They can’t imagine anything new, so they rip off past trends and re appropriate language.
- They can’t inherently appeal to the masses in a positive way, so they copy/paste mass marketing techniques and manufacture their own enemies to “create” social cohesion.
- They can’t get enough control over the political narrative, so they manufacture new methods that are more extreme.
One has to wonder whether or not QAnon would even exist if conservatives weren’t so narrow-minded and closed off to alternate media (re: the Dungeons and Dragons Satanic Panic). The witchcraft/ghost/spooky elements, which surely scared off the Bible thumpers, are essential themes of the ARG/creepypasta movement that took off over a decade prior. Otherwise, they could have experienced the ARG phenomena first-hand and gotten over the trend earlier instead of discovering it now in the form of a conspiracy theory.
Still, if a vain, egotistical, greedy, heartless bully can play 4D chess, then so can anyone as long as they have a conspiracy theory on their side.