Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

After the Capitol riots Criminologists should take the QAnon conspiracy theory very seriously.

Last week, on the 6th of January, much of the world watched in horror as a mob of right-wing protestors and militia-men stormed the United States Capitol. Over several hours, they breached the Senate chamber, looted the offices of congress members, and clashed violently with police. The mob was motivated by veiled incitements to violence from outgoing President Donald Trump, and the shared false belief that the election was stolen from him. As the night ended, four people had died in the siege, a police officer would also die of his wounds in the days to come. However, what much of the world does not know, is the strange world of conspiracy theories that for the past four years laid the groundwork for the riot and may even now be sowing the seeds for future chaos. Sitting at the centre of this web of disinformation is one word: QAnon.


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5 Minutes

The QAnon movement has grown exponentially in the past two years. Going from a bizarre internet curiosity to a mass movement with potentially millions of followers. Yet, in its short life-span, QAnon has left a trail of devastation in its wake. Several crimes ranging from vandalism to murder have been attributed to its supporters all acting on their belief that they were at war with a satanic elite that controlled the world. Last weeks attempted insurrection is merely the culmination of QAnon ideology, an event that was entirely predictable to the small but dedicated band of activists, journalists and lay-researchers who have been sounding the alarms around the dangers of the movement since its inception. Despite all of this, QAnon has received little to no serious academic study. With a few notable exceptions, researchers have largely ignored Q’s influence. In this blog, I will the make the argument, that this is a grave mistake, and that academic criminologists should study and understand the QAnon conspiracy theory and the motivation and behaviour of its adherents.

Q: A Brief Introduction

Before I can begin to discuss why we should study QAnon, it is important to define what exactly we mean when we talk about this particular conspiracy theory. To put it simply, QAnon adherents believe that the world is controlled by a group of Satanic, child-eating, paedophiles known as the Cabal or the Deep State. This group is thought to be responsible for all of the world’s ills, such as war, and poverty. However, as the narrative goes, a secret war is being fought against this group by Donald Trump, who along with a clandestine group of military intelligence officials, known collectively as Q, is preparing to unleash an event known as the “The Storm.” Where all members of the cabal will be captured, tried, and then executed for crimes against humanity. The destruction of the Cabal will lead to “The Great Awakening” where the world will enter into a utopian future of economic prosperity and spiritual growth.

The Criminological Case for Studying QAnon

Despite the seeming ridiculousness of this narrative the movement continues to go from strength to strength, and unfortunately, there is now more than enough evidence of the carnage that QAnon leaves in its wake to speak to just how dangerous it can be and why it deserves rigorous and serious study. There are numerous ways criminologists could potentially engage with Q, but I will do my best to sketch just three potential avenues for research.  

QAnon as a Criminogenic Factor

The first and most obvious reason that criminologists should study QAnon, is the fact that it has been linked to so many crimes. Since the theory began to gain traction two murders have been committed by its adherents, along with attempted terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and numerous acts of vandalism and property destruction. In the majority of these cases, the offenders have been open in stating that their actions were motivated in part by their belief in aspects of the QAnon conspiracy. More research is needed to understand how and in what ways QAnon can act as a criminogenic factor that leads to these offences. Moreover, the events of January 6th add a further dimension to the Study of QAnon’s criminogenic potential, as it is now clear that belief in the theory can lead to mass public disorder with fatal results. Understanding how such disinformation is spread, how it is internalised by its adherents, and how it can lead to civil unrest, is imperative to understanding how the events of last week occurred and preventing similar events from recurring in the future.

QAnon and Victimology

Secondly, it is also important to understand how belief in QAnon itself may be a form of victimisation. QAnon adherents often suffer greatly for their belief in the movement, losing friends, and family due to their radical political views, and becoming increasingly isolated from the real world. Moreover, the QAnon movement is full of those willing to take advantage of the vulnerable. Scams and grifters are rife, willing to milk supporters of their money. In addition, since the beginning of the pandemic disinformation around health-care has become embedded in the community, allowing harmful medical conspiracy theories to spread. Perhaps the most dangerous of these is the belief that ingesting bleach can cure corona-virus. It is thus clear that belief in QAnon can potentially increase the risk of the individual being victimised themselves. There is already criminological literature that considers the phenomena of digital victimisation, where vulnerable individuals can be taken advantage of and de-frauded over the internet. It would be a valuable contribution to this body of work to consider the role online conspiracy theories may play in increasing the risk that individuals fall into such schemes and become victimised as a result.

QAnon, and the Politics of Crime 

Thirdly and finally, Criminologists should study QAnon not simply because of the concrete harms that the ideology causes to wider society and even its own adherents, but also because of the ways the movement is intertwined with the politics of crime control. A central tenant of the QAnon ideology is a form of punitive populism, a belief that society can only be made safe for a constructed group of good citizens when it has been cleansed of a malignant othered criminal class. Criminologists have long been familiar with this kind of rhetoric and have documented how crime control politics have been deployed to expand the power of the carceral state for many decades. In this sense, QAnon is merely the most extreme and fantastical extension of this belief system. It is what David Garland identified as the  “Criminology of the other”  but on steroids, where the other is not simply a dangerous criminal but a child-eating Satanist. Yet, QAnon is not merely an inactive recipient of these beliefs, but itself has slowly begun to feedback into more acceptable channels of political discussion. QAnon proponents have advocated for harsher penalties for sex-offenders and have allied with more mainstream politicians to achieve these goalsIndeed, last summer QAnon supporters organised worldwide rallies to protest “Child Sex Trafficking” and call for more criminal justice resources to hunt down, arrest, and execute child sex traffickers. In this way, QAnon may represent a new frontier in the politics of crime control, embodying a broader trend in political discourse where disinformation and conspiracy theories become an accepted norm. Criminologists should therefore be concerned with understanding if and how the QAnon movement is influencing punitive politics, and the potential impact it may have on societal discussions of crime, punishment, and social order. 



In this blog, I have only been able to give a brief sketch of the ways Criminologists might attempt to understand the broader QAnon movement. These understandings could build on other criminological research on the far-right and help gain a fuller understanding of the role disinformation plays in these movements. There are still many more avenues for potential research, yet it is imperative as a discipline we start taking QAnon and theories like it seriously. Disinformation is not going away, and as I hope I have demonstrated, such theories can seriously impact many lives, sometimes fatally. Without a concerted attempt to understand QAnon, the movement will continue to spread and mutate, and even if it dies off, it will not be long until something similar rears its head. If we are to prevent the events of the past four years, and their bloody culmination on January 6th from repeating themselves, we must be prepared to dive into these murky depths.