Conspiracy Stand Down: How Extremist Theories Like QAnon Threaten the Military and What to Do About It
“Final preparations today for Devil Storm.” For disciples of QAnon — the viral, conspiracy-ridden domestic terrorist threat — this seemingly innocuous post on the Facebook page of the U.S. Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division on Dec. 7 was a sign. Rather than an update on a combat readiness exercise at Ft. Bragg, the secret message was that President Donald Trump’s righteous crusade against the “evil liberals” — the storm — was about to begin. As QAnon believers spread their conspiracy theory in the comments section, the account, which typically garners 10 to 50 comments and 20 to 30 shares, exploded to almost a thousand comments and over 5,300 shares. Most of the account’s followers are military members and their families, so they were both exposed to the conspiracy and possible contributors.
In the past six months, QAnon supporters — including law enforcement officers, veterans, and current military members — spread false information about election results, used violent rhetoric to draw people to the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., and led the mob on Jan. 6 that assaulted and violated the Capitol. The QAnon conspiracy theory is appealing to some servicemembers because its powerful narrative appeals to the same moral foundations which draw them to military service: care for others; sanctity of ideals; respect for authority; and the primacy of fairness, liberty, and loyalty. As a result, the Defense Department should act quickly to “inoculate” troops and veterans against this dangerous extremist group, and those like it, by understanding QAnon’s visceral appeal and using creative storytelling, media literacy training, and civic education to shift the narrative to the authentic values of military service.
What Is QAnon?
QAnon originated on the blogsite 4chan in 2017. It sprang to life from a confused mess of racist conspiratorial posts, most notably Pizzagate — the myth that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor. At the core of the conspiracy is that Trump is working with a small group of military intelligence officers to wage a shadow war against a dangerous cabal of Satan-worshiping, child-eating pedophiles led by prominent Democrats and liberal figures. When Trump pointed at senior military leaders during a photo opportunity and quipped, “this is the calm before the storm,” the story grew that “the storm” referred to 10 days of darkness during which the cabal’s depravity would be revealed and mass arrests would begin, including of notable liberals like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and George Soros. Enthralled by this conspiracy theory, QAnon believers have taken matters into their own hands and committed a multitude of criminal acts including transporting weapons to Washington, D.C. to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, plotting on Facebook to “take out” Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton before driving to a Manhattan pier with a car full of knives, and killing a New York mob boss after claiming the CIA had infiltrated the Mafia.
In 2020, QAnon gained legitimacy as several prominent political figures, including retired general and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, voiced support for the group, and QAnon supporters congregated at Trump’s rallies. In the 2020 elections, more than 60 (predominantly Republican) candidates running for office professed some degree of support for various elements of the QAnon conspiracy narrative. Some won seats in the House, including Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, both active QAnon promoters. Although Flynn was removed from Twitter in January 2021 for promoting QAnon content and Greene admitted some content was false in her February testimony, their prominent platforms provided visibility and legitimacy to QAnon and attracted members to the group.
Why Does QAnon Appeal to Servicemembers?
QAnon’s narrative, though mindspinningly crazy, contains all the ingredients for an emotionally compelling belief system. The garish stories grab people’s attention with the added bonus that believers become part of the story as they try to find the next “Q drop” or clue, transporting them deeper into the narrative.
QAnon activates all the moral foundations described by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind: care/harm, sanctity/degradation, authority/subversion, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, and loyalty/betrayal. These six factors form the moral foundations for people’s decisions and beliefs. Stories that contain multiple foundational elements are captivating and believable and can propel a person into action. The QAnon narrative is built upon all six foundations, and many of the reasons people believe it are the same reasons or values that attract young men and women to the military.
The care/harm foundation is the desire to protect the innocent and weak. QAnon claims that an evil cabal of Democrats are kidnapping, sexually abusing, and murdering innocent children across the world. QAnon supporters have inserted themselves into Save the Children blogs and online campaigns against the furniture website Wayfair. QAnon believers hijacked #Savethe Children, which had been associated with the humanitarian organization of the same name that fights child poverty and trafficking, and used it to draw unsuspecting people into their conspiracy universe. Q sleuths spread disinformation about Wayfair, claiming the names of its popular furniture matched the names of missing children, “proving” the company was participating in child trafficking. Saving children is a powerful image for servicemembers: They are often pictured in the media shielding children in war zones or running to their kids following a deployment. One of the reasons men and women join the service is to protect innocent people from harm, the same reason some people are drawn to QAnon.
The sanctity/degradation foundation refers to humans’ desire to avoid disgusting entities and to hold certain ideals sacred. QAnon characterizes liberals as blood-drinking pedophiles — even spreading the lie that Hillary Clinton featured in a pornographic video on the dark web terrorizing and murdering a young girl — an image that immediately triggers disgust. By contrast, conservatives are portrayed as upholders of the ideals of the republic, clad in the sacred symbol of the American flag. Like most people, servicemembers are revolted by sexual crimes against children and they would be inclined to support a group that worked to uncover the perpetrators. Moreover, as the military skews conservative, members are more likely to identify with QAnon’s portrayal of conservatives as dedicated to the United States and share the same reverence for its symbols. The flag they wear on their shoulder with stars facing forward is the same that QAnon members carried into battle at the Capitol.
Like the military, QAnon’s narrative appeals to the importance of authority and the maintenance of a traditional, trusted hierarchy. QAnon asserted that a “deep state” was trying to subvert the rightful authority of the Trump administration. This narrative drove the “Stop the Steal” movement, which falsely claimed the 2020 election results were fraudulent and the election stolen by deep state actors who manipulated results and voting machines. The military relies on its rank structure and obedience to a trusted hierarchy to make decisions, disseminate information, and maintain order. A cabal threatening this rightful structure would be deeply unsettling to military members and could be a call to action, as it was for several veterans who participated in the insurrection to halt the certification of the electoral votes.
QAnon believers are also attracted to racist tropes rooted in the fairness/cheating foundation. They claim that undeserving ethnic and religious minorities receive benefits and welfare from the liberal elite. Unfortunately, some members of the military also believe that black and Hispanic members receive special treatment and that women are promoted based solely on their gender. These individuals are attracted to information that validates their beliefs, and QAnon provides that reassurance. This desire for fairness would also cause servicemembers who believed QAnon’s election disinformation to feel that the only way Trump lost was if the other side cheated.
The fifth factor of Haidt’s moral foundations is liberty/oppression, which triggers an urge to resist any type of attempted domination. This is the same moral foundation that led American revolutionaries to overthrow a tyrannical British king and the mob at the Capitol to carry “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flags as they stormed up the steps believing deep state actors were denying them the rightful outcome of an election. QAnon paraphernalia feature symbols of freedom and allusions to a just cause to fight evil oppressors. Servicemembers could easily view themselves as expert freedom fighters and potential leaders within this organization.
Finally, QAnon believers have pledged complete loyalty to former President Trump, whom they view as the savior not only of the United States, but of the world. Anything less is betrayal of the ideals that make this country great. Believers wrap themselves in the red, white, and blue — literally and figuratively. By the same token, the president is the commander-in-chief of the military, and servicemembers feel duty bound to protect the office. Servicemembers pledge an oath to support and defend the Constitution, which includes obeying and respecting the lawful orders of the president.
How Pervasive and Dangerous Is QAnon Disinformation?
Although there is no official count of QAnon adherents, the movement has gained both notoriety and membership over the last year. According to Pew Research Center polls, knowledge of QAnon increased over the summer of 2020, and by September, 47 percent of Americans knew something about QAnon and 20 percent of those who had heard about it believed it was a somewhat or very good thing. Since the election and the attack on the Capitol, a YouGov poll found that 30 percent of self-identified Republicans have a favorable view of QAnon, although 63 percent of all Americans have an unfavorable opinion of the group. Moreover, despite bans by Facebook and Twitter, QAnon-affiliated groups continue to emerge across social media. After Facebook’s initial ban on QAnon content in August, the New York Times reported that 100 QAnon groups were still achieving over 600,000 likes and posts per week. Though further bans in January 2021 decimated accounts, the beliefs and narratives remain and continue to spread through multiple venues, both extreme and innocuous.
Individuals who enter the QAnon information ecosystem will encounter other extremist groups, many of which are affiliated with law enforcement and military service. An FBI intelligence bulletin from 2019 described QAnon as a domestic terrorist threat, and FBI Director Christopher Wray stated his concern in testimony to Congress that believers of QAnon and its affiliates could be motivated to commit violent acts. Veterans increasingly are involved in violent QAnon-related events. In 2018, a former marine was charged with domestic terrorism for blocking traffic with an armored vehicle near the Hoover Dam. Several veterans participated in the storming of the Capitol, including an Air Force veteran who was shot trying to break into the Speaker’s Lobby and a retired Air Force officer photographed on the Senate floor in military gear carrying zip-tie handcuffs.
The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point concluded that there is a significant overlap between QAnon and extremist channels affiliated with groups like the Proud Boys, paramilitary groups, and white supremacists. These same groups attract former military members, too. A 2019 Military Times survey found that 36 percent of active duty troops had seen evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in their ranks. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue found several examples of blatant racism within QAnon discussion threads. One example is a Black Lives Matter thread which claimed George Floyd’s murder was staged to harm Trump’s reelection campaign. Servicemembers who peruse racist content online, or believe the election was a fraud, will likely stumble across QAnon conspiracy tendrils.
Even innocuous forums like those centered on health and wellness contain content that could expose servicemembers to QAnon dialogue. Marc-André Argentino of Concordia University in Canada has studied what he terms “pastel QAnon” which arises from internet influencers on Instagram and other platforms who color QAnon narratives with softer, less offensive narratives and rebrand them as an underdog movement trying to find the truth. Servicemembers searching for information on COVID-19 vaccinations could easily find themselves immersed in anti-vaxx disinformation spread through pastel QAnon.
What Should Be Done?
It is exceptionally hard to change the minds of true believers. The most effective campaigns will aim to inoculate servicemembers from being sucked into the abyss that is QAnon and conspiracy groups like it. Peter W. Singer and Eric Johnson offer excellent recommendations for digital literacy training in their recent article, “The Need to Inoculate Military Service Members Against Information Threats.” They suggest media literacy training to identify sources and methods of disinformation purveyors, showing short videos that guide how a person engages with the media, and creating video games that train media literacy in an engaging format.
A technical solution is to add the browser extension Newsguard as part of the required software on all military networks and request free access for veterans. Newsguard, which is run by a consortium of professional journalists, flags news links on search engines and social media as red or green based on their credibility. This allows individuals to immediately distinguish between false and factual sources and, if not deter them from reading junk news, at least cause them to question their validity. Designating individuals to serve as digital “elves,” the counter to pernicious trolls, can also help break the chain of transmission. These elves identify QAnon posts on official military sites or fellow servicemembers’ social media feeds and counter them with positive memes, links, and symbols that overwhelm and devalue the original post.
Civic education — which has declined in the United Sates — should also be a part of the long-term campaign to inoculate servicemembers from the QAnon and other conspiracy theories. One survey showed that one in four Americans could not name the three branches of government. This is the same population from which the military recruits soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who swear an oath to a constitution that they have likely never read and do not fully understand. As Walter Haynes wrote in War on the Rocks, “Without effective civic education, our society leaves itself open to continued pernicious interpretations of the republic’s founding fundamentals, interpretations that can extend toward sanctioning violence.” Training and dialogue should address basic government processes like elections and lawmaking, prevalent political ideologies, and civic and constitutional rights.
Any campaign against extremism in the military — whether in videos, training materials, or leader discussions — needs to appeal to the same moral foundations as QAnon’s conspiracy but do so in a way that reinforces the duty to protect your battle buddy, respect U.S. laws and codes, and emulate leaders of character, and that affirms the sanctity of the oath each servicemember swears to the Constitution. The campaign should include video testimonials from respected senior military leaders — particularly enlisted leaders who often have greater credibility with young troops — and junior servicemembers regarding why they serve and appealing to the values of loyalty, liberty, authority, and care. Leaders must present more compelling, inspiring stories than QAnon.
The military will find many willing partners to spread this message: No one wants to see the institution denigrated by the actions of violent extremists within their ranks. In a recent War on the Rocks article, “Bureaucratizing to Fight Extremism in the Military,” Doyle Hodges outlines the multiple avenues and agencies the military must engage with to counter the challenges of extremism in the ranks. This may include establishing a new office within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense to properly coordinate and resource a far-reaching, long-lasting, and innovative campaign. Recruiters should discuss sources of extremism and introduce aspiring servicemembers to the campaign’s video games and social media sites, while Veterans for Foreign Wars and Veterans Affairs centers can target those who have left the service. Sporting events, cross-fit competitions, video game tournaments, and social media sites like Twitch, a live streaming platform for gamers, are also excellent venues for engagement. Leaders need to get their message into the information ecosystem to drown out the disinformation spread by QAnon in the same spaces.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered a 60-day Department of Defense-wide stand down to address extremism in the ranks. Even if QAnon groups and hashtags fade with the inauguration of a new administration, similar theories, even more closely associated with extremist positions, will arise and pose the same threat to unit cohesion, discipline, and readiness. Several far-right movements are already seeking to “groom” disenchanted QAnon believers into their fringe organizations that share the same beliefs about deep state actors and evil global cabals.
Officials responsible for personnel need to appreciate the appeal of QAnon and similar extremist conspiracies and actively work to shift the narrative to the values that have made the military one of the most respected institutions in the country. This is not a partisan endeavor, and the military should not feel compelled to find examples on “both sides” of extremism. Civic education and media literacy delivered through innovative storytelling to young servicemembers and veterans form the bedrock of this campaign. The continued success of the military rests on its ability to recruit diverse and dedicated patriots and to maintain the trust of the nation.
Col. Christina Bembenek is the former 82nd Airborne senior intelligence officer (G2) and an Army War College Fellow at Columbia University. This paper originated from a group project with Columbia graduate students Arianna Bankler-Jukes and Amanda Papir.
Image: U.S. Army National Guard (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class R.J. Lannom Jr.)