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Conspiracy and Consequences: When Mass Delusions Come to Work

During the siege on the U.S. Capitol on 6 January, the logos and signs of QAnon were front and center. It was impossible to miss Q flags and t-shirts, as well as the theatrics of a self-proclaimed “QAnon Shaman” decked out in animal skins.

While QAnon is not an organization, it is an infectious ideology that has spread across the country and around the world. While not all believers of QAnon’s ideas are members of extremist groups, all do subscribe to a core set of beliefs—that they or their way of life is under threat, or that others are threatened by dark forces which they must expose and defeat. It is a deeply paranoid mind-set.

Paranoia is an established risk indicator for workplace violence; that is not news. Employees who are convinced that their coworkers, supervisors, or organization present an imminent risk may act preemptively to protect themselves or others they believe are in danger.

Many instances of workplace violence have been motivated by paranoia; some have been fatal. Paranoia can be a character trait, a symptom of a mental health disorder, or a byproduct of substance abuse. Someone who is paranoid harbors excessive distrusts, without justification, and may believe that sinister plots are swirling around them. Sometimes paranoid people feel compelled to use violence to stop a real or perceived threat.

When speaking with a paranoid individual or assessing the risk of workplace violence, it is often obvious that the individual of concern is a “true believer,” with no doubt about the correctness and urgency of his or her views, often presenting examples or evidence that support those beliefs.

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It can be difficult and frustrating to try to reason with people whose beliefs range from extreme to delusional, or to try to refute their evidence—especially if there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of others who believe the same conspiracy theory. When so many people support the same views, is it as simple as considering them paranoid, extreme, or delusional? And how would you respond if that same conspiracy theory might incite violence or was viewed by the FBI as a potential domestic terrorism threat?

In an NPR/Ipsos poll conducted in December 2020, more than one in three Americans said they believe there is a so-called “deep state” government controlling things behind the scenes; many thought it possible that elites in Hollywood, government, and the media were secretly engaging in large-scale child trafficking and abuse. In October, the UK-based antiracism group Hope Not Hate found that one in four people in Britain subscribe to the same beliefs.

These views form the core beliefs of QAnon, a conspiracy theory that the FBI labeled a domestic terror threat in 2019. The Bureau said that such conspiracy theories have the potential to encourage both groups and individuals to carry out violent acts targeting specific people, places, and organizations.

Who is Q and What is QAnon?

On 28 October 2017, a user on the 4chan website calling itself “Q” posted a series of cryptic messages saying the individual worked in a key position in the U.S. federal government with a high-level security clearance. Q claimed to have access to classified information about the deep state that he or she would covertly disclose to inform the public about the elite group’s crimes and U.S. President Donald Trump’s secret plan to bring this group to justice. While some followers believe that Q is in fact a high-ranking government insider, others claim that the individual is John F. Kennedy, Jr., who faked his death, or that it is Trump himself.

Through more than 4,000 subsequent “Q-drops” the author or authors of these posts have crafted an intricate conspiratorial theory linking together issues ranging from anti-Semitism, to the death of George Floyd, 5G, vaccines, and immigrants. The QAnon belief system holds that the deep state (also referred to as “the Cabal”) controls not only the U.S. government, but all world governments, the banking system, the Catholic Church, the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, and the media and the entertainment industry—all in an effort keep people ignorant, poor, and enslaved.

During a September 2020 U.S. House Homeland Security Committee hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray described QAnon “as less of an organization and more of a complex set of conspiracy theories.”

QAnon is not a group per se, but rather a loose affiliation of adherents who believe Q’s claims that liberal elites are pursuing global domination in part through ritualistic child sacrifice to harvest their blood to produce a psychedelic drug called adrenochrome, from which they derive their power. As the conspiracy theory has evolved, the supply of adrenochrome has become linked to the coronavirus pandemic. Antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement have also been swept up into this complex belief system held by QAnon supporters.

While most QAnon activity occurs online on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as in the less policed 4Chan and 8Chan spaces, the physical presence of believers was a constant at pro-Trump rallies during the run-up to the U.S. presidential election in November 2020. QAnon theories were both promoted by—and directed at—a number of public figures, which helped keep the ideas in the news.

Prior to the 6 January assault on the U.S. Capitol, one of the highest-profile examples was a report of former U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn taking the QAnon oath at a Fourth of July event, ending with the phrase, “where we go one, we go all.” This motto of QAnon, often represented by the acronym WWG1WGA, is intended to project unity and strength.

While QAnon has its strongest following in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, there is evidence of QAnon activity now in 75 countries. What began as a conspiracy theory has quickly evolved into a specific religiopolitical ideology, in which the timeline from radicalization to mobilization can be very short, perhaps even just a few days, according to The QAnon Conspiracy Theory: A Security Threat in the Making?, a report in the CTC Sentinel. A number of recent cases demonstrate that a number of radicalized individuals have been extremists, motivated by this ideology to commit violence.

Ideological Violence in the Workplace

While the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has long held that there are only four types of workplace violence, in the post-9/11 environment many workplace violence prevention authorities recognize that ideological violence directed at an organization’s people or properties because of what the organization does or represents is a real and significant risk.

Ideological violence directed at employees and/or employers occurs at the intersection of workplace violence and terrorism. Extremist attacks directed at French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo’s offices and employees in Paris, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, and the San Bernardino Public Health Department, were all ideologically motivated, but clearly work-related acts of violence.

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This risk began well before 9/11. In 1994, Thomas Mosser, an advertising executive, was killed in his home by the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, because of Mosser’s firm’s work rehabilitating Exxon’s reputation in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Mosser was simultaneously a victim of lone actor domestic terrorism and workplace violence.

In July 2020, Roy Den Hollander, an attorney known to be a militant anti-feminist, showed up on the doorstep of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas in North Brunswick, New Jersey. Posing as a FedEx deliveryman, Hollander opened fire, killing the judge’s 20-year-old son and seriously injuring her husband. Hollander once argued a case before Salas, and he was a vocal men’s rights activist with a history of threatening the use of violence against powerful women, The New York Times reported. Tragically, this is another clear example of ideologically motivated violence associated with someone’s employment.

Conspiracy Theories, True Believers, and Violence

QAnon is a meta-conspiracy theory, meaning that believers think their ideas have been deliberately labeled a conspiracy theory by elites to discredit them. This speaks to the complexity of the worldview of QAnon followers—they believe there are conspiracy theories about their conspiracy theory.

In general, conspiracy theories are unsubstantiated, less plausible alternatives to mainstream reality. They typically hold that everything associated with a theory is intended with malignity, and that there is always malintent. That means that it is easier to believe things that happen are intentional and are planned by someone with a sinister motive, rather than by coincidence or chance.

Human brains are hardwired to search for patterns, which in everyday life have helped us develop art, religion, language, and the scientific method. Unfortunately, because patterns are so convincing, we can be conned and exploited by others who construct patterns to lead us to a desired conclusion for their own benefit. Powerful cognitive biases, such as the confirmation bias, reinforce our ideas because we continue to seek additional evidence to support our beliefs, even after they have been disproven. Ego also plays a role—it is human nature to want to seem smart and not to be wrong.

When people experience an increased level of chaos or confusion, the brain goes into overdrive, seeking patterns that may help us deal with the unknown. If nothing else, 2020 was an extremely chaotic and confusing year for Americans marked by devastating wildfires along the U.S. West Coast, record-breaking hurricane activity battering the Gulf Coast, a dramatic increase in civil unrest, and a deadly pandemic, as well as political upheaval and division. If there was ever a time where people were desperate for certainty, it was 2020. So, it is understandable that in the witch’s brew of world events, people would try to seek meaning and understanding, even with evidence that may otherwise seem farfetched.

At its core, QAnon is a militant and anti-establishment ideology focused on destroying the existing corrupt world order and accelerating the arrival of a new Golden Age. Many adherents are true believers; some promote violence to foster this necessary sea change in society. Violent true believers (VTBs) are those committed to a belief system that accepts or promotes violence as a legitimate means of advancing their goal, according to the Journal of Threat Assessment’s 2001 report, “The Violent True Believer: Homicidal and Suicidal States of Mind.” They are convinced that their truth is absolute and that no acceptable alternatives exist.

Hardcore true believers feel completely justified in using extreme means to achieve their goal. Such true believers can also seem paranoid and may have an irrational fear that others are plotting against them. They also often see themselves as warriors, willing to engage in battle against their perceived enemies.

About Radicalization

QAnon adherents are activists, in real life and online. In addition to consuming QAnon content, they are also the creators of text, music, videos, and memes that help recruit, retain, and radicalize followers.

Facebook has been key to QAnon’s growth and is a cornerstone of the community’s infrastructure, Forbes reported. An internal investigation by Facebook uncovered thousands of groups and pages, with millions of members and followers, that support the QAnon conspiracy theory. The top 10 QAnon groups identified in the investigation collectively contain more than 1 million members, with totals from more top groups and pages pushing the number of members and followers past 3 million. In October, Facebook announced it would ban any groups, pages, or Instagram accounts that represented the QAnon movement.

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YouTube has also played an important role in the sharing of QAnon-related content. The most widely viewed YouTube videos have been the hour plus-long QAnon film “Out of Shadows,” which has more than 15.5 million views. Many of the same online radicalization strategies employed by jihadist groups are used today by QAnon.

Unlike other extremist groups QAnon lacks a clear organizational structure and centralization command and control capabilities. Followers interpret the propaganda and act as they see fit. There has not been explicit direction from Q or others considered leaders in the movement. But like other forms of terrorism, followers can be inspired to take violent action, while not necessarily directed to do so.

QAnon’s Nexus to Violence

In 2019, the FBI labeled QAnon a domestic terror threat, observing that conspiracy theories have the potential to encourage “both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.”

Pizzagate is one of the most well-known incidents involved QAnon-motivated violence. A viral conspiracy theory claimed that Hillary Clinton and Democratic officials were running a child sex-trafficking ring from the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. According to The New York Times, a North Carolina man attempting to rescue the children fired a rifle inside the restaurant to break the lock on a door he believed lead to the basement dungeon. The restaurant owner and staff also received death threats from conspiracy theorists. However, the violent QAnon-linked incidents go on:

  • In April 2020, an Illinois woman was arrested in New York City with a car full of knives in an apparent attempt to reach a Navy hospital ship housing COVID-19 patients. Livestreaming while en route, she threatened to kill Joe Biden over claims of sex trafficking.
  • In March 2019, a New York man killed Francisco Cali, a member of a prominent crime family, claiming that Cali and the mafia were part of the deep state. He was a QAnon supporter and during one court appearance scrawled “Q” on the palm of his hand.
  • In June 2018, a Nevada man in an armored truck blocked traffic on a bridge near the Hoover Dam demanding the release of government documents, resulting in a standoff with police. Law enforcement officers found weapons in his car. The man discussed QAnon beliefs after his arrest and cited them in letters he later wrote from jail.
  • In May 2018, a man associated with an unofficial local veterans’ group claimed that he had discovered a child sex-trafficking ring at a homeless camp in Tucson, Arizona. Referencing QAnon, he led an armed group in a search for other camps where he believed children were hidden.

Preventing QAnon-Related Violence in the Workplace

Those serving on threat management or violence prevention teams must keep their eyes on the ever-changing threat landscape. With more people indoors and on social media due to COVID-19 lockdowns, as well as ongoing political tensions, it is likely that QAnon theories continue to spread and inspire violence.

Knowing the basics about QAnon, as well as the terminology and beliefs of this movement, can help security leaders recognize when someone is being led down the rabbit hole and possibly becoming a risk. Whether it is an insider threat posed by a true believer or rantings of someone posted to social media platforms, it will be important to understand the connection between the QAnon worldview and the action imperative for followers to advance or defend their beliefs through the use of violence when needed.

For more about the terminology QAnon believers use, review the glossary, Q-Speak: The Language of QAnon.

Steven Crimando is the principal of Behavioral Science Applications LLC, a training and consulting firm focused on human factors in crisis prevention and response. He is a Certified Threat Manager (CTM) and a consultant for corporations, government agencies, police, and military programs.

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