Marc-Andre Argentino is a Ph.D. candidate at Concordia University in Montreal who studies how extremist groups use and leverage technology to create propaganda for recruitment, to inspire acts of violence, and the impact that these groups have on democratic institutions. Follow him on Twitter at: @4ngl3rf1sh
FAILED STATE UPDATE: Until recently, I haven't really taken QAnon seriously, because their claims are so absurd.
MARC-ANDRE ARGENTINO: That's the feeling that a lot of people have had, and that's how the reporting on them has been since they've come to the surface. It is a group that we need to pay attention to because they've shown not only to be an extremist threat, there's been a few instances of terrorism, kidnappings, one murder. And, you know, there is evidence that this is an ideology that can radicalize. But also we've seen that during the pandemic they've raised concerns as a public health threat. You know, they've made viral the movie the Plandemic, they promoted the drinking of bleach, alternative cures. There are different levels of harm. But ultimately, you know, if you're promoting alternative medicine, or that a global pandemic is a hoax, it means that certain proponents of a community will believe this and then go into their society and spread a virus, because that's the belief system they have adopted.
And then, let's not forget, there's also a threat to democratic institutions where, if a group like QAnon is so capable of running disinformation campaigns and getting hashtags, trending and spreading disinformation, it would be ignorant for people not to believe that foreign actors will not leverage this as a power to interfere in elections.
[Editor's note: I should add here that the threat is even greater that domestic lunatics will use this to influence (that is, win) elections.]
And it's not only in the US, you know. QAnon's in Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Italy, Germany. All these democratic countries have a proponent of QAnon that can be leveraged to spread this information. So there's a very large spectrum to consider. I don't want to create a lot of fear-mongering, and I don't think they're the most scary group out there. But it is a group that we need to stop considering as just, you know, these silly or weird groups, and start understanding that QAnon is an ideology, and it motivates people to specific types of behavior that can pose a threat to societies.
FSU: You referred to QAnon in one of your articles as a religion. I think the term was "a hyperreal religion."
MAA: Basically, "hyperreal" is a concept that comes from Baudrillard's philosophy. But what it means is ultimately, that hyperreal religions are a combination of religious belief created out of a mixture of popular culture, and basically a type of believer consumerism. In this case, it's the pop culture of conspiracy theories with a mixture of existing evangelical apocalypticism in the US. Conspiracy theories can act as an ideology. You believe in conspiracy theories because they're very black and white, they provide you clear cut answers between what is good and what is bad at times.
Now the problem with QAnon is originally, if we went back to their innate creation, it probably was just a LARP or a joke, which then turned into a regrouping of conspiracy theories. But over time, what happens is that Q and anything associated to Q, they basically claim that they're testable by the accumulation of evidence and above the observable world, right? You have Q drops [the dispatches Q sends to his followers], and you're trying to investigate these, and you're trying to provide answers.
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What's happening is, this obsessive quest for proof starts creating a type of paradox where it's no longer about the evidence, because conspiracy theories for the believers now are non-falsifiable. At that point, it's not about proof. But rather, it's a matter of faith. And when you get to the stage of a matter of faith, this is where you're getting into the space of a hyperreal religion.
So in the sociology of religion, we're not necessarily interested in whether someone's beliefs are true or not. That's not our responsibility. What we're interested in is the behaviors that these beliefs or these ideologies have on people. And we're seeing that QAnon is having behavioral impacts on these people. QAnon has theology, it has a cosmology, and has an anthropology. Those are the basic elements that you kind of need to form a religion, without getting too academic on you.
I think hyper-religion is a better way to talk about the movement, because then we have frameworks to understand, you know, violent extremists. To understand public health threats from religious groups, how to understand the threats to democratic institutions. It provides a way and language and framings that experts and decision-makers could respond and analyze to this group, rather than how do you deal with a bunch of tinfoil-hat-wearing wackos in their basement. And it's also important when we consider that these conspiracy theories are not just being spoken by the powerless. We have people in positions of power, elected officials, or people running for elected office that believe in this. And this is another place where we need to take this seriously, because now individuals who believe in this may come into positions where they could decide laws and regulations or impact our human rights and our freedoms.
FSU: And speaking specifically about the George Floyd protests over the last week or two, have you seen examples of far-right actors mobilizing around this or trying to affect it in some way?
MAA: I've seen a lot of trolling about the events, or trying to hijack hashtags. There have been reports of this [mobilization] in the media, but because I'm not tracking groups specifically, I can't corroborate any of that. The obvious one is the three Boogaloo Bois who got arrested yesterday, that kind of made the news.
["3 self-proclaimed members of the far-right 'boogaloo' movement were arrested on domestic terrorism charges for trying to spark violence during protests" by Rosie Perper and Sonam Sheth, Business Insider.]
Boogaloo Bois are interesting to me because they do have their roots in the world of imageboards and shitposting and memes, right? So whereas QAnon started in /pol/ [the 4chan politics board], Boogaloo Bois really started on /k/ on 4chan, which is the weapons board, and "k" stands for commando. And they really come out of this meme community. It's very hard to find a specific ideology, because this type of behavior really depends on where these individuals are.
It's kind of a silly example, but they're basically a real-life portrait of 4chan, in the sense that you're these meme-ing anons. And you're going to these protests, and you're wearing your Hawaiian shirts, instead of your tactical colors, and you're wearing the silly patches instead of something more serious looking. And a lot of times, it isn't necessarily for violence, but it might just be for the shock factor, or the behavioral impact to see the reaction of individuals.
But there's always a potential for violence with groups like this, in the sense that if you look at their social media behavior, they're regularly linked to militia pages and other organized groups in that sense. Or even when you're looking at them in the far-right circles, they're usually loosely linked to a little more of the extremist language. And it's kind of like a real-life portrait of what you'd expect an anon on 4chan to be.
So it's very hard to quantify that. You're seeing these people, and it's like, are they a threat? Are they just there for shocking? Are they just there for shitposting? And you can't really tell when you're seeing these individuals. Are they more of the anti-government types that maybe we should take more seriously? Or are they just some of these keyboard warriors that are there for a photo-op and “shock and awe” image or whatever? You're seeing these individuals kind of latch on to other movements, not necessarily centralized on their own. So it's kind of like this idea of like, how do you map out and study and examine a loose group like this? And then how do you tell the difference between a shit-poster in real life and an actual extremist that's there to cause harm? And that is a very difficult challenge to do.