Since its inception, with an anonymous post on the 4chan messageboard in October 2017, the QAnon conspiracy movement has been labeled a cult.
QAnon adherents believe that the world is run by an influential cabal of pedophiles and that President Donald Trump is akin to a kind of savior who is destined to expose and stop it. For many who follow the words of Q, the anonymous revelations have become almost a sort of religious text in themselves.
It isn’t uncommon for groups to be dismissed as cults by outsiders and the term is often thrown at supporters of politicians like Trump and former President Barack Obama. Some experts warn that the term is used too liberally and may not adequately fit QAnon. Still, an understanding of cults may offer insight into how to challenge the pull of QAnon.
The cult of QAnon?
In a 2018 Wired article, Renee Diresta lays out the case for QAnon being a cult. Diresta argues that QAnon, which he refers to as “Cult 2.0,” and other digital groups share traits with groups in the physical world that have traditionally been labeled cults.
Some of these traits include a prohibition on what Diresta calls “counterspeech.”
Of these groups, Diresta says that “dissent is likely to be met with hostility, doxing, and harassment.”
Travis View, the host of the “QAnon Anonymous” podcast, appeared on PBS’s “The Open Mind” in April 2020 to discuss “The Cult of QAnon.”
View has built a substantial Twitter following dissecting conspiracy theories in general and QAnon in particular. His description of the movement suggests a religious devotion to an unusual orthodoxy and one pivotal figure.
“Central to the QAnon conspiracy theory,” View explains, “is the belief that the world is run by a cabal of child sacrificing elites. And they control everything. They control governments and control the media. They control Hollywood, and they would have continued doing this sort of basically indefinitely were it not for the election of Donald Trump.”
According to View, “people in the QAnon community revere Trump, almost on a spiritual level.”
View describes QAnon as a “big tent conspiracy theory,” one with space for a range of beliefs, including the presence of UFOs and a literal Satan. It’s a group in which some members believe COVID-19 is a hoax while others have a link to the pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement. This omnivorous belief system accepts basically anything, so long as it isn’t from the “mainstream media.”
View says he doesn’t know of anyone who is “deeply into QAnon” who has come out. He has been contacted by multiple people who have told him they’ve lost touch with family members who have “fallen into QAnon” and become obsessed with it. The QAnon movement provides a reassuring narrative (albeit a shifting, bleak one) by which the world can be understood.
Or, as one Q follower put it in a video, “Q is the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
What is a cult?
In religious terms, a cult is generally considered any group that practices an unorthodox or heretical distortion of the faith. However, in modern psychological usage, a cult possesses three main traits: a charismatic leader, a process of indoctrination or coercion (“brainwashing”) and exploitation of the members (financially, sexually, etc.).
Steven Hassan, a mental health counselor and expert on cults (his Twitter handle is @CultExpert), has discussed QAnon in his book, “The Cult of Trump.” In a video conversation with View, Hassan says the way in which QAnon finds followers “based on both hopes and fear,” is cultlike and something that keeps them “locked into the belief bubble.”
A different way to define cults
Dr. Ken Lewis, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and has been involved in the Rajneesh (or Osho) movement for fifteen years, spoke with The Millennial Source about cults.
Lewis himself is critical of the common use of the term “cult” and would rather not use it as a noun at all.
Instead of thinking about a cult as a “fixed entity,” Lewis says it should be thought of more as a verb, as in “culting.”
“Just as an individual is never fully evil, fully benevolent, or fully any-thing,” Lewis elaborates, “a group of people is also not a thing, not a fixed position.”
In this way, “groups can display cultlike behavior” without necessarily being cults. In reality, Lewis believes, “organizations of all types exhibit the quality or act of culting sometimes.”
Rajneesh is the movement, named after the controversial Indian mystic, featured in the Netflix documentary series “Wild Wild Country.” The series depicts a secretive commune led by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (also known as Osho), whose confrontations with the local Oregon government and law enforcement made national headlines.
Lewis holds up Osho as an example of why using “cult” as a definitive noun is insufficient. In his experience, the group has no connection to that portrayed in the Netflix series.
“They ask nothing of me beyond that I follow common sense rules and laws while on their property. They’ve never interfered in any life decision of mine, they never asked for a donation, they don’t interfere at all with my individuality and autonomy. They are much further away from culting than the religions I grew up in and around.”
What is “culting”?
“The definition,” Lewis explains, “would include intending to permanently manipulate another’s perceptions in order to convert the individual into a loyal ally to further one’s multidimensional aims. Permanent and multidimensional are important here, as this is categorically different than the short-term manipulation of sales pressures, for example.”
By his definition, Lewis doesn’t believe QAnon is culting.
“They peddle conspiracy theories which also seek to manipulate another’s perception … but they are inherently different in that they don’t exert magnetism.” By magnetism, Lewis means a spiritual influence that can work as a type of mind control.
That type of magnetism, in Lewis’ perspective, isn’t inherently bad. In fact, he says, “the magnetic pull towards those who are more conscious or spiritually awake than you is absolutely natural.”
Leaving a cult
The Millennial Source spoke with Kate W, who along with her husband, Adam, founded Pleasure Better, “a site aimed at helping people embrace and enjoy their sexuality.” In her youth, Kate was a member of “a megachurch that I now realize had very cultlike ways of handling things.”
Kate recalls how the church excommunicated members who “questioned the actions and decisions of the head pastor.” The church also had security that ensured members did not stay in touch with excommunicated members. Among the church’s rules were guidelines on how frequently couples should be having sex and a mandate for color-coordinated outfits at church events.
Kate says her path out of the church was gradual, starting when she went to college and began to see how different her church was from others.
“It still took several years,” she explains, “to realize those differences were actually unhealthy. The control that existed in the church was actually a bit addictive and for a while I found myself looking for a duplicate of that unhealthy environment.
“There was never a great leaving/escape moment. Many of my friends and family still are actively engaged in it though, and there are many difficulties that come with that. I’ve had to set boundaries of conversations I will or will not engage with since these people are still in my life.”
Kate believes her path out of the cult of her youth could be informative for people who are currently in cults. The first step is recognizing the identifiers of cult behavior.
At Kate’s church, “[the] primary control tactics used were fear and guilt, and a demonization of all feelings. Coming to a place where I could begin to trust my own internal thoughts and feelings (let alone notice them) was a huge step to breaking away.
“Because I grew up in this environment, all those patterns of thinking have been very hard to break for me. Having people very close to me who are supporting my transition out of that has been absolutely vital. “
In his Wired piece, Diresta explains that online radicalization by groups like QAnon can’t be undone by fact-checking, as people intrinsically don’t respond to such correction. Instead, Diresta says it requires “One-on-one interventions and messages from people within these trusted networks.”
In terms of stopping the spread of misinformation online, the process requires a changed business model. Companies like Facebook and YouTube, whose sites are used to spread QAnon conspiracy theories, must play a part in this, but it begins by fixing algorithms that recommend such videos to unsuspecting users.
Before Obama’s first election victory in 2008, the conservative political writer Jerome R. Corsi published “The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality.”
Simply put, any politician who develops a loyal following is capable of being labeled a cult leader.
Cult expert Hassan nonetheless argues that the label is more fitting for Trump than for other politicians. In a Twitter thread from January 2020, Hassan distinguishes between Obama and Trump by arguing that, while Obama had devoted followers, only Trump shows the characteristics of a cult leader. One who is willing to lie and openly challenge the rule of law.
Lewis acknowledges that Trump’s most loyal followers do appear, from the outside, to be engaged in culting behavior. He says he can see in the Trump presidency, “mind control, clearly altered perceptions, and clearly an element of magnetism.”
However, Lewis cautions that Trump’s magnetism doesn’t appear to have the higher consciousness appeal that cult leaders generally offer. Instead of telling his followers he can bring them greater enlightenment, he offers a “compromised life” in which his followers have the freedom to express their baser desires and underlying racist views.
At best, Lewis says, to his followers Trump “is an escape,” adding that “Trump appears to be more akin to a meth addiction than to a cult leader.”
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