Anyone who has spent the last several years closely observing the disturbing far-right resurgence has surely encountered the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory. But the Jan. 6 storming of the US Capitol by Donald Trump supporters made it impossible for even the most tuned-out observers to recognize the Q crowd was no longer a wackadoo online subculture, but a full-blown cult.
Q: Into the Storm, the new documentary miniseries from director Cullen Hoback, delves into the origins of the QAnon conspiracy, the people who believe in it, the online personalities who propagate (and profit from) it and the people trying to identify the actual fraudster behind it.
For those unfamiliar (of whom I’m deeply jealous), the QAnon conspiracy theory is based on anonymous online message board posts by “Q,” someone claiming to be a close contact of Trump with access to secret intelligence. Q falsely claims that the US Democratic Party, Hollywood celebrities and other enemies of Trump are a satanic cabal of pedophiles and cannibals who traffic and eat human children. Trump, Q says, is a messianic figure sent to destroy these evildoers.
The “evidence” is all there, they claim, pointing to random combinations of numbers and letters in Trump tweets, public appearances or photos. In one scene, a believer points to a photo of Trump and four associates all giving the camera a “thumbs up.” He arbitrarily draws a circle and line between the thumbs and says, “Look, they form a Q!” It’s all reminiscent of King-Kill/33, the essay that claimed random numbers associated with the JFK assaniation prove the Dallas shooting was actually a mass-scale masonic ritual.
As stupid as it sounds, the conspiracy theory caught like wildfire among Trump’s deplorable crowd, eventually spreading well beyond his base. Two interviewees, a couple who were previously lifelong Democrats, have become Q diehards. Many of them say they became radicalized after watching YouTube videos from conspiracists or viewing memes.
In addition to acting as a good intro to the phenomenon, the premier episode of Into the Storm highlights the vast political gap between real-life and online identities. It speaks to a frightening confluence of internet and media illiteracy, which combined with online algorithms, age-old racist tropes and religious fundamentalism to birth QAnon.
Hoback’s skillful interviews highlight how this lack of online media literacy can upend and destroy QAnon devotees’ lives. One interviewee, a former gossip columnist whose career was ended by her QAnon obsession, tells Hoback, “nothing surprises me anymore,” saying she’d believe Earth was flat if Q said so. She seems so oblivious that when she says “nothing surprises me,” she really means “I’ll believe anything that reaffirms my worldview.”
Hoback treats his subjects with compassion. His tone has as much in common with recent cult documentaries like The Vow or Heaven’s Gate as it does with political documentaries or news coverage about the Trump phenomenon. This is essential to Into the Storm’s entire worldview: it understands QAnon isn’t just a cult, a conspiracy theory or a political crisis, but all three rolled into one.
Published in Volume 75, Number 24 of The Uniter (May 1, 2021)