Moral panics don’t die; they simply evolve and come back in a slightly altered form.
The so-called QAnon conspiracy is just such a moral panic, and it’s one the federal government believes to be dangerous.
A new intelligence report compiled by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and released Monday by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, warns that believers in QAnon pose a continued threat of violence, especially against Democratic lawmakers and others whom they view as political opponents.
“Many QAnon followers believe former President Donald Trump was fighting enemies within the so-called ‘deep state’ to expose a cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibals operating a child sex trafficking ring,” summarizes an Associated Press story on the new intelligence report. “Trump’s loss to President Joe Biden disillusioned some believers in ‘The Storm,’ a supposed reckoning in which Trump’s enemies would be tried and executed. Some adherents have now pivoted to believing Trump is the ‘shadow president’ or Biden’s victory was an illusion.”
The report goes on warn that some of these true believers could resort to violence as various predictions promulgated within the movement fail to come true.
In some respects, however, there is little new about QAnon. The idea that there is a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping child molesters secretly running the world from behind the scenes is centuries old. It’s been said of everyone from Jews to Freemasons. In more recent times, it emerged as the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, and it was promoted not just by people on the fringe but national and local news media, law enforcement, and TV talk show personalities.
“Satanic Panic was characterized at its peak by fearful media depictions of godless teenagers and the deviant music and media they consumed. This, in turn, led to a number of high-profile criminal cases that were heavily influenced by all the social hysteria. Most people associate the Satanic Panic with so-called ‘satanic ritual abuse,’ a rash of false allegations made against day care centers in the ’80s, and with the case of the West Memphis Three in the ’90s, in which three teenagers whose wrongful conviction on homicide charges was based on little more than suspicion over their goth lifestyles,” writes Aja Romano for the Vox website.
QAnon is a variation on all of this, and it likely originated as a joke.
“There have been speculations that Q was a leftist prankster winding up Trump fans, but that’s far from certain,” writes Reason magazine’s Jesse Walker, author of “The United States of Paranoia,” a history of conspiracy theories in the U.S.
According to a recent HBO documentary, whatever Q’s origins, it seems likely others took up the identity for their own agenda. Regardless, even a joke can spiral out of control, especially if it plays to longstanding fears and paranoia.
But how big a threat is QAnon really? So far, the Justice Department has arrested more than 400 people in the Jan. 6 insurrection, and of that number about 20 are QAnon followers, according to The Associated Press. Some of them, like Jacob Chansley, the “QAnon Shaman,” seem to have done little more than trespassed on federal property. As yet, we don’t have a good handle on how big a role Q played in the thinking of those charged with more serious crimes.
Overstating the significance of QAnon, compared to other fringe groups on the right, could be its own form of moral panic — which, as the 1980s Satanic Panic showed, is something law enforcement and media can fall for, too.