Earlier this week, I tweeted a few screen caps of #QAnon believers announcing that they had foregone sleep, housework, and family responsibilities in order to research the fusillade of “breadcrumbs” that Q had left in the past few days.
I added a sarcastic comment that the movement isn’t a cult – because not feeding yourself or sleeping in order to read internet posts seems pretty culty to me.
I was deluged with responses by Q believers mocking me for calling it a cult, when Q apparently encourages members to think for themselves, asks for no money or adulation, and has no coercive mechanism by which to make members stay.
Indeed, QAnon believers STRONGLY dispute that their movement is a cult, or that they fit within the stereotypical image of blind, drooling, Flavor Aid drinkers.
To them, they’re not cultists, but hunting cultists – the child-trafficking, string-pulling, elite cabal members at the top of the Hollywood pyramid and Democratic party. And they do it through research, questioning, and holding power accountable, none of which are allowed in cults.
I’m not an expert in cults, and freely admit I have no special knowledge in the subject. But I’ve followed QAnon pretty closely since it first broke in October. So I thought I’d take the movement and apply it to some of the more commonly attributed aspects of cults.
To find out, I looked for a good primer of signs that someone is in a cult, or that a movement is a cult. RationalWiki (where, full disclosure, material I’ve written has been cited) has a good one, and I also found a good one in an article on The Atlantic.
Ultimately, I chose a piece called “10 Signs You’re Probably in a Cult,” a blog post on Medium written by Sam and Tanner, a couple who spent “25 years as unwitting cult members” being raised in a devout Mormon sect.
If anyone knows what is and isn’t a cult, it’s likely two people who were in one.
1. The leader is the ultimate authority
If you’re not allowed to criticize your leader, even if the criticism is true, you’re probably in a cult.
QAnon is the ultimate authority over what information gets shared, though the movement itself is autonomous and amorphous. But criticism of the movement and the leader isn’t tolerated well.
It’s deleted immediately from prominent Q subreddit r/greatawkaening, and Q will often single out 8chan posters who question him for ridicule and insult.
In particular, questioning the timeline of when the “great awakening” is supposed to take place, or why so many things Q predicts don’t come to pass, is not tolerated. One post on r/greatawakening dismisses these skeptics as “concern trolls who can’t comprehend why this historic and unprecedented purging of Evil from the world isn’t moving fast enough.”
Q does nothing to disabuse this behavior, and usually abets it.
2. The group suppresses skepticism
If you’re only allowed to study your organization through approved sources, you’re probably in a cult.
Mainstream media sources like CNN or the New York Times are usually denigrated as untrustworthy, while dodgy blogs (ahem) and hyper-partisan sources like Breitbart and Gateway Pundit are elevated. QAnon also puts very severe restrictions on how he communicates – only on 8Chan, never through Twitter or Reddit.
3. The group delegitimizes former members
If you can’t think of a legitimate reason for leaving your group, you’re probably in a cult.
I don’t know that this applies to QAnon, but few people seem to walk away from the movement. Many are introduced to it and immediately turn away, and some complain that if “the big event” doesn’t happen soon they’ll leave – but I can’t find anyone who has.
4. The group is paranoid about the outside world
If your group insists the end of the world is near, you’re probably in a cult.
This is a central plank of QAnon, the major event that the movement has revolved around since the first QAnon posts claiming Hllary Clinton had been secretly arrested, and the National Guard was being called up to quell the riots that would ensue.
To Q believers, the outside world is full of pedophiles, infiltrating the highest levels of government, business, and entertainment. And those pedophiles will be wiped out in a massive event that will frighten and confuse non-believers, ushering in a brave new world, full of truth and freedom.
Sounds pretty cult-like to me.
5. The group relies on shame cycles
If you need your group in order to feel worthy, loved, or sufficient, you’re probably in a cult.
6. The leader is above the law
If you’re held to a different moral standard, specifically in regard to sex, you’re probably in a cult.
I don’t know that either of these are completely applicable to QAnon, but there is an abnormal amount of praise showered upon Q – and by extension, President Trump.
It’s hard to separate the feeling that believers have about Q from those they have toward Trump. Indeed, much of the most obsequeous praise that Q fans display is toward Trump – a man praised as a hero, a genius, the savior of the republic, chosen by God, a great man, and even someone worthy of being killed to protect.
The majority of Q believers find the two inseparable, and even think that Q either is Trump himself or directly connected to Trump. So in a number of ways, you can freely substitute Trump for Q with no difficulty.
7. The group uses “thought reform” methods
If your serious questions are answered with cliches, you’re probably in a cult.
QAnon posts are often nothing but rhetorical questions, cliched catchphrases (“where we go one we go all,” “learn to read the map,” etc), and meaningless nonsense. In fact, many are nothing but reposts of previous Q posts, or collections of links to stories about Q.
8. The group is elitist
If your group is the solution for all the world’s problems, you’re probably in a cult.
This definitely applies to QAnon. Believers see both themselves and Q as special and chosen, awake in a world full of slumbering sheep. The knowledge Q drops is secret and unique, accessible and understandable only by those who speak the language of jargon and codes. Outside communication is frowned upon, and only Q can deliver the breadcrumbs to be baked by researchers into information.
And QAnon itself is held up as nothing less than a “plan to save the world.”
Despite railing against the elites, QAnon is as elitist as a movement can get.
9. There is no financial transparency
If you’re not allowed to know what the group does with their money, you’re probably in a cult.
Does QAnon make money from the movement he/she/they have created? Are they running a merchandise shop? Do they get YouTube ad revenue?
Nobody knows. And nobody involved seems interested in asking.
10. The group performs secret rites
If there are secret teachings or ceremonies you didn’t discover until after you joined, you’re probably in a cult.
QAnon isn’t secretive by nature, as anyone can read the drops and dissect them. But it does have the truckloads of detailed gibberish inherit to all conspiracy theories, and revels in jargon, codes, nicknames, and insular references.
It’s not cultish, but it’s designed to repel outsiders and buoy insiders.
So of the ten criteria laid out by two ex-cult members, QAnon squarely fits within six. The others don’t really apply, but aren’t totally useless, either.
Does this mean QAnon is a cult? I’d say it has the potential to go further down that road – particularly if the poster behind QAnon decides to further monetize the drops, or directs his/her/their followers explicitly toward violence. It’s easy to imagine the most die-hard believer inflicting harm on either themselves or others if QAnon were to will it.
But it’s also easy to imagine all of this disappointing over time, as the “great awakening” gets kicked further and further down the road, and the posts become more self-referential and less informative.
Let’s just say this: it’s not clear that QAnon is a cult, but it’s not not a cult, either.