Perceptions Versus Reality of QAnon Radicalization: A Comparative Study
Keywords:QAnon, Radicalization, Activism, Perceptions, ARIS, Conspiracy Theories
The online following of conspiracy theory believers known as QAnon has recently come into focus of U.S. government agencies and terrorism scholars, raising questions about the risk of violence it poses. To address these questions, as well as to triangulate existing research on QAnon’s threat, the present study compared survey responses about actual radical intention and activist intention scores of QAnon supporters (n = 113) and non-QAnon participants (n = 287), relative to QAnon’s radicalization as perceived by non-QAnon participants. Actual radical intention scores for QAnon supporters were significantly lower than the perceptions of QAnon radical intentions, and were not significantly different than the actual radical intention scores for non-QAnon participants. Activist intention scores were lowest among QAnon supporters, followed by non-QAnon supporters, and then by perceptions of QAnon activist intentions. The implications of the results for public policy are discussed.
Financial support for this study and the authors was provided by the Office of Naval Research grant N000 14-21-275485 Weaponized Conspiracies: Mapping the Social Ecology of Misinformation, Radicalization and Violence.
Aftergood, S. (1996). DOE Classification and Security. FAS. https://sgp.fas.org/classdoe.htm
Allington, D., Duffy, B., Wessely, S., Dhavan, N., & Rubin, J. (2021). Health-protective behaviour, social media usage and conspiracy belief during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Psychological medicine, 51(10), 1763-1769.
Amarasingham, A., & Argentino, M.-A. (2020, July 31). The QAnon Conspiracy Theory: A Security Threat in the Making? Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. https://ctc.westpoint.edu/the-qanon-conspiracy-theory-a-security-threat-in-the-making/
Bail, C. A., Argyle, L. P., Brown, T. W., Bumpus, J. P., Chen, H., Hunzaker, M. F., ... & Volfovsky, A. (2018). Exposure to opposing views on social media can increase political polarization. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(37), 9216-9221.
Bansal, G., & Weinschenk, A. (2020). Something Real about Fake News: The Role of Polarization and Mindfulness. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/326836107.pdf
Baurmann, M. (2007). Rational Fundamentalism? An Explanatory Model of Fundamentalist Beliefs1. Episteme, 4(2), 150–166. https://doi.org/10.3366/epi.2007.4.2.150
Bellingcat. (2021, January 7). The Making of QAnon: A Crowdsourced Conspiracy. bellingcat. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/americas/2021/01/07/the-making-of-qanon-a-crowdsourced-conspiracy/
Bennett, W. L., & Livingston, S. (2018). The disinformation order: Disruptive communication and the decline of democratic institutions. European journal of communication, 33(2), 122-139.
Betus, A. E., Kearns, E. M., & Lemieux, A. F. (2021). How perpetrator identity (sometimes) influences media framing attacks as “terrorism” or “mental illness”. Communication Research, 48(8), 1133-1156.
Bierwiaczonek, K., Kunst, J. R., & Pich, O. (2020). Belief in COVID‐19 conspiracy theories reduces social distancing over time. Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being, 12(4), 1270-1285.
Bin Naeem, S., & Kamel Boulos, M. N. (2021). COVID-19 misinformation online and health literacy: a brief overview. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(15), 8091.
Blazakis, J. (2021, February 21). Op-Ed: Why QAnon’s similarity to other cults makes it a significant national security threat. The Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-02-21/qanon-cults-capitol-attack-trump-threat
Bloom, M., & Moskalenko, S. (2021). Pastels and pedophiles: Inside the mind of QAnon. Stanford University Press.
Blumer, T., & Döring, N. (2012). Are we the same online? The expression of the five factor personality traits on the computer and the Internet. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 6(3), 5.
Bote, J. (2020, October 22). Half of Trump supporters believe in QAnon conspiracy theory’s baseless claims, poll finds. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/10/22/qanon-poll-finds-half-trump-supporters-believe-baseless-claims/3725567001/
Brashier, N. M., & Schacter, D. L. (2020). Aging in an era of fake news. Current directions in psychological science, 29(3), 316-323.
Bruzzese, M. (2021, March 26). Fake news and information disorder: A journey through QAnon’s conspiracy theory [Bachelor’s Degree Thesis]. Luiss Guido Carli. http://tesi.luiss.it/29522/
Bump, P. (2020, October 20). Even if they haven’t heard of QAnon, most Trump voters believe its wild allegations. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/10/20/even-if-they-havent-heard-qanon-most-trump-voters-believe-its-wild-allegations/
Chan, H. F., Rizio, S. M., Skali, A., & Torgler, B. (2021). Early COVID-19 Government Communication Is Associated With Reduced Interest in the QAnon Conspiracy Theory. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.681975
Chmiel, M., & Thompson, G. (2022). All the lonely people: Considering the attributes of audiences who consume and share untruthful content. Reboot: Should Organizations Rediscover Communication with Internal & External Stakeholders? http://csr-com.org/img/upload/CSRCom_Proceedings_2022_Web1.pdf#page=229
Cinone, D. (2019, January 19). Self-described Proud Boys member thought his brother was a lizard—So he allegedly killed him with a sword – New York Daily News. https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/ny-news-seattle-man-thought-brother-lizard-killed-him-20190109-story.html
Crookes, E. (2021). The Second Coming of King Arthur: Conspirituality, Embodied Medievalism, and the Legacy of John F. Kennedy. Arthuriana, 31(1), 32–55. https://doi.org/10.1353/art.2021.0001
Dastgeer, S., & Thapaliya, R. (2022). QAnon: The Networks of Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories on Social Media. In J. Harris Lipschultz, K. Freberg, & R. Luttrell (Eds.), The Emerald Handbook of Computer-Mediated Communication and Social Media (pp. 251–268). Emerald Publishing Limited. https://doi.org/10.1108/978-1-80071-597-420221015
D’Amore, C., van Zomeren, M., & Koudenburg, N. (2021). Attitude Moralization Within Polarized Contexts: An Emotional Value-Protective Response to Dyadic Harm Cues. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 01461672211047375.
Decker, S. H., & Pyrooz, D. C. (2019). Activism and Radicalism in Prison: Measurement and Correlates in a Large Sample of Inmates in Texas. Justice Quarterly, 36(5), 787–815. https://doi.org/10.1080/07418825.2018.1462396
Dickson, EJ. “QAnon YouTubers Are Telling People to Drink Bleach to Ward Off
Coronavirus.” Rolling Stone, January 29, 2020. https://www.rollingstone.com/cul
Doxsee, C., Jones, S. G., Thompson, J., Halstead, K., & Hwang, G. (2022, May 17). Pushed to Extremes: Domestic Terrorism amid Polarization and Protest. Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://www.csis.org/analysis/pushed-extremes-domestic-terrorism-amid-polarization-and-protest
Duffin, E. (2022). USA - number of arrests for all offenses 2021. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/191261/number-of-arrests-for-all-offenses-in-the-us-since-1990/
Ebner, J., Kavanagh, C., & Whitehouse, H. (2022). The QAnon security threat: A linguistic fusion-based violence risk assessment. Perspectives on Terrorism, 16(6). https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:b31bea4d-51af-4676-8cdb-d67b0cec65f8
Ellis, Ralph. “QAnon Activist Dies Amid Ivermectin Debate.”
WebMD, September 15, 2021. https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20210915/qanon-
Enders, A. M., Uscinski, J. E., Seelig, M. I., Klofstad, C. A., Wuchty, S., Funchion, J. R., Murthi, M. N., Premaratne, K., & Stoler, J. (2021). The Relationship Between Social Media Use and Beliefs in Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation. Political Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-021-09734-6
Fajmonová, V., Moskalenko, S., & McCauley, C. (2017). Tracking radical opinions in polls of US Muslims. Perspectives on terrorism, 11(2), 36-48.
Farivar, M. (2021, April 14). FBI Director Concerned About QAnon’s Potential for Violence. Voa News. https://www.voanews.com/a/usa_fbi-director-concerned-about-qanons-potential-violence/6204582.html
Fasce, A., Adrián-Ventura, J., Lewandowsky, S., & van der Linden, S. (2021). Science through a tribal lens: A group-based account of polarization over scientific facts. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 13684302211050323. https://doi.org/10.1177/13684302211050323
Goggin, B. (2022, September 21). QAnon videos are getting millions of views on TikTok as Trump embraces conspiracy theory. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/social-media/qanon-tiktok-trump-salute-theme-song-embraces-conspiracy-theory-rcna48641
Gottheil, R., Strack, H. L., & Jacobs, J. (2021). BLOOD ACCUSATION - JewishEncyclopedia.com. https://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3408-blood-accusation
Greenspan, R. E. (2021). The history of QAnon: How the conspiracy theory snowballed from the fringes of the internet into the mainstream. Insider. https://www.insider.com/qanon-history-who-is-q-conspiracy-theory-what-does-believe-2021-2
Hannah, M. (2021). QAnon and the information dark age. First Monday.
Hassan, S. (2020, September 11). Trump’s QAnon followers are a dangerous cult. How to save someone who's been brainwashed. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/trump-s-qanon-followers-are-dangerous-cult-how-save-someone-ncna1239828
Hernandez, J. (2021, August 13). A California Father Claims QAnon Conspiracy Led Him To Kill His 2 Children, FBI Says. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/08/13/1027133867/children-dead-father-claims-qanon-conspiracy-led-him-to-kill
Imhoff, R., Dieterle, L., & Lamberty, P. (2021). Resolving the puzzle of conspiracy worldview and political activism: Belief in secret plots decreases normative but increases nonnormative political engagement. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 12(1), 71-79.
Jaki, S., De Smedt, T., Gwóźdź, M., Panchal, R., Rossa, A., & De Pauw, G. (2019). Online hatred of women<? br?> in the Incels. me forum: Linguistic analysis and automatic detection. Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict, 7(2), 240-268.
Jensen, M. A., & Kane, S. (2021). QAnon-inspired violence in the United States: an empirical assessment of a misunderstood threat. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 1-19.
Jolley, D., & Douglas, K. M. (2014). The effects of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on vaccination intentions. PloS one, 9(2), e89177.
Kachuba, J. B. (2019). Shapeshifters: A History. Reaktion Books.
Kennedy, M. (2017, June 22). “Pizzagate” Gunman Sentenced To 4 Years In Prison. npr. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/06/22/533941689/pizzagate-gunman-sentenced-to-4-years-in-prison
Kumar, D., Hancock, J., Thomas, K., & Durumeric, Z. (2023, April). Understanding the behaviors of toxic accounts on reddit. In Proceedings of the ACM Web Conference 2023 (pp. 2797-2807).
Lamberty, P., & Leiser, D. (2019). “Sometimes you just have to go in”: The link between conspiracy beliefs and political action. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/bdrxc
Levy, R., & Kesling, B. (2021, January 27). DHS Issues Its First National Terrorism Bulletin for Domestic Extremists. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/dhs-issues-national-terrorism-alert-for-domestic-extremists-11611770893
Lewandowsky, S., & Van Der Linden, S. (2021). Countering misinformation and fake news through inoculation and prebunking. European Review of Social Psychology, 32(2), 348-384.
Lewis, J., & Sauro, J. (2020, June 17). How to Convert Between Five- and Seven-Point Scales. Measuring U. https://measuringu.com/convert-point-scales/
Li, D. (2022, September 14). Michigan man who killed his wife went down a “rabbit hole” of conspiracy theories after Trump’s 2020 loss, daughter says. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/michigan-man-killed-wife-went-rabbit-hole-conspiracy-theories-trumps-2-rcna47701
Los Angeles Times. (2021, April 18). Reseda mom who admitted to drowning her 3 children had posted about depression, QAnon-style conspiracies | KTLA. https://ktla.com/news/local-news/reseda-mom-who-admitted-to-drowning-her-3-children-had-posted-about-depression-qanon-style-conspiracies/
Marchal, N. (2021). Feeling all the (partisan) feels: Exploring the drivers of affective polarization at the individual-level (Doctoral dissertation, University of Oxford).
Marchlewska, M., Cichocka, A., Łozowski, F., Górska, P., & Winiewski, M. (2019). In search of an imaginary enemy: Catholic collective narcissism and the endorsement of gender conspiracy beliefs. The Journal of Social Psychology, 159(6), 766-779. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.2019.1586637
Marinthe, G., Brown, G., Delouvée, S., & Jolley, D. (2020). Looking out for myself: Exploring the relationship between conspiracy mentality, perceived personal risk, and COVID‐19 prevention measures. British journal of health psychology, 25(4), 957-980.
Martherus, J. L., Martinez, A. G., Piff, P. K., & Theodoridis, A. G. (2021). Party animals? Extreme partisan polarization and dehumanization. Political Behavior, 43(2), 517-540.
McCaskill, N. (2021, January 13). QAnon believer who plotted to kill Nancy Pelosi came to D.C. ready for war. Politico. https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/13/qanon-nancy-pelosi-murder-plot-458981
McCauley, C., & Moskalenko, S. (2017). Understanding political radicalization: The two-pyramids model. American Psychologist, 72(3), 205.
Moskalenko, S. (2021a). Evolution of QAnon & Radicalization by Conspiracy Theories. The Journal of Intelligence, Conflict, and Warfare, 4(2), 109–114.
Moskalenko, S. (2021b). Many QAnon followers report having mental health diagnoses. The Conversation, 25.
Moskalenko, S. (2021c, March 25). Conceptualizing Radicalization in Comparative Context. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264079.013.661
Moskalenko, S., Burton, B. S., Fernández-Garayzábal González, J., & Bloom, M. M. (2022). Secondhand Conspiracy Theories: The Social, Emotional and Political Tolls on Loved Ones of QAnon Followers. Democracy and Security, 1-20.
Moskalenko, S., & McCauley, C. (2021). QAnon: Radical Opinion versus Radical Action. Perspectives on Terrorism 15.2: 142-146.
Moskalenko, S., & McCauley, C. (2009). Measuring Political Mobilization: The Distinction Between Activism and Radicalism. Terrorism and Political Violence, 21(2), 239–260. https://doi.org/10.1080/09546550902765508
Moskalenko, S., Pavlović, T., & Burton, B. (2023). QAnon beliefs, political radicalization and support for January 6th insurrection: A gendered perspective.
Moskalenko, S., & McCauley, C. (2020). Radicalization to terrorism: What everyone needs to know®. Oxford University Press.
National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). (2023). QAnon Crime Maps | START.umd.edu. https://www.start.umd.edu/qanon-crime-maps
Nielsen, J. (n.d.). Participation Inequality: The 90-9-1 Rule for Social Features. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/participation-inequality/
Papasavva, A., Blackburn, J., Stringhini, G., Zannettou, S., & De Cristofaro, E. (2021). “Is it a Qoincidence?”: An Exploratory Study of QAnon on Voat (arXiv:2009.04885). arXiv. http://arxiv.org/abs/2009.04885
Pascual-Ferrá, P., Alperstein, N., Barnett, D. J., & Rimal, R. N. (2021). Toxicity and verbal aggression on social media: Polarized discourse on wearing face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Big Data & Society, 8(1), 20539517211023533.
Pavlović, T., Moskalenko, S., & McCauley, C. (2022). Two classes of political activists: Evidence from surveys of U.S. college students and U.S. prisoners. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 0(0), 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/19434472.2022.2064894
Porter, E., & Wood, T. J. (2021). The global effectiveness of fact-checking: Evidence from simultaneous experiments in Argentina, Nigeria, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(37), e2104235118
PRRI Staff. (2022, February 24). The Persistence of QAnon in the Post-Trump Era: An Analysis of Who Believes the Conspiracies. PRRI. https://www.prri.org/research/the-persistence-of-qanon-in-the-post-trump-era-an-analysis-of-who-believes-the-conspiracies/
PRRI Staff. (2021, May 27). Understanding QAnon’s Connection to American Politics, Religion, and Media Consumption. PRRI. https://www.prri.org/research/qanon-conspiracy-american-politics-report/
Resende Da Costa, K. (2021). SCIENCE AS FEELING: THE EMOTIONS OF THE FLAT EARTH MOVEMENT AND ITS POLITICAL ALIGNMENTS [MESTRE EM RELAÇÕES INTERNACIONAIS, PONTIFÍCIA UNIVERSIDADE CATÓLICA DO RIO DE JANEIRO]. https://doi.org/10.17771/PUCRio.acad.53684
Rodrigo, P., Arakpogun, E. O., Vu, M. C., Olan, F., & Djafarova, E. (2022). Can you be mindful? The effectiveness of mindfulness-driven interventions in enhancing the digital resilience to fake news on COVID-19. Information Systems Frontiers, 1-21.
Rogers, K. (2021, June 11). Why It’s So Hard To Gauge Support For QAnon . FiveThirtyEight. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-its-so-hard-to-gauge-support-for-qanon/
Roose, K. (2021, September 3). What Is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-qanon.html
Sageman, M. (2021). The implication of terrorism's extremely low base rate. In Ethics and Terrorism (pp. 82-91). Routledge.
Schaffner, B. 2020. "Qanon and conspiracy beliefs." In secondary qanon and conspiracy beliefs, ed Secondary. https://www.isdglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/qanon-and-conspiracy-beliefs.pdf. Reprint, Reprint.
Scrivens, R., Wojciechowski, T. W., Freilich, J. D., Chermak, S. M., & Frank, R. (2023). Comparing the online posting behaviors of violent and non-violent right-wing extremists. Terrorism and Political Violence, 35(1), 192-209.
Smith, E. K., Mayer, A., & Bognar, J. (2022, October 21). Political Conspiratorial Beliefs are Likely Over-Estimated and Transitory. https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/evtrp
Sommer, W. (2019, January 9). Qanon-Believing Proud Boy Accused of Murdering “Lizard” Brother With Sword. The Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/proud-boy-member-accused-of-murdering-his-brother-with-a-sword-4
Swann, S. (2021, July 19). Poll finds most conservatives believe at least one QAnon conspiracy theory. Fulcrum. https://thefulcrum.us/big-picture/qanon-conspiracy-theory
Toribio-Flórez, D., Green, R., Sutton, R. M., & Douglas, K. M. (2023). Does belief in conspiracy theories affect interpersonal relationships?. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 26, e9.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5(2), 207–232. https://doi.org/10.1016/0010-0285(73)90033-9
UNCRI Publications. (2021, January 3). STOP THE VIRUS OF DISINFORMATION. issuu. https://issuu.com/unicri/docs/misuse_sm_web
U.S. Demographic Statistics. (2022). United States Demographic Statistics | Infoplease. https://www.infoplease.com/us/census/demographic-statistics
Uscinski, J. E., & Parent, J. M. (2014). American conspiracy theories. Oxford University Press.
Uscinski, J. E., Enders, A. M., Klofstad, C., Seelig, M., Funchion, J., Everett, C., ... & Murthi, M. (2020). Why do people believe COVID-19 conspiracy theories?. Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, 1(3).
Vanderzielfultz, V. (2021, April 20). Domestic Terrorism Threat: Analyzing the Q Conspiracy. Homeland Security Digital Library. https://www.hsdl.org/c/domestic-terrorism-threat-analyzing-the-q-conspiracy/
Van Prooijen, J. W., Spadaro, G., & Wang, H. (2022). Suspicion of institutions: How distrust and conspiracy theories deteriorate social relationships. Current opinion in psychology, 43, 65-69.
Vegetti, F., & Littvay, L. (2022). Belief in conspiracy theories and attitudes toward political violence. Italian Political Science Review/Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica, 52(1), 18-32.
Warzel, C. (2020, August 4). Is QAnon the Most Dangerous Conspiracy Theory of the 21st Century?. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/04/opinion/qanon-conspiracy-theory-arg.html
Watkins, A. (2019, July 21). He Wasn’t Seeking to Kill a Mob Boss. He Was Trying to Help Trump, His Lawyer Says. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/21/nyregion/gambino-shooting-anthony-comello-frank-cali.html
Williams, D. (2022). Signalling, commitment, and strategic absurdities. Mind & Language, 37(5), 1011–1029. https://doi.org/10.1111/mila.12392
Xu, W., & Sasahara, K. (2022). A network-based approach to QAnon user dynamics and topic diversity during the COVID-19 infodemic. APSIPA Transactions on Signal and Information Processing, 11(2).
Young, H., & Boucher, G. M. (2022). Authoritarian Politics and Conspiracy Fictions: The Case of QAnon. Humanities, 11(3), Article 3. https://doi.org/10.3390/h11030061
Copyright (c) 2023 Brett Burton, Sophia Moskalenko
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
The JD Journal for Deradicalization uses a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND) Licence. You are free to share - copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format under the following conditions:
Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, andindicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.
NonCommercial — You may not use the material for commercial purposes.
NoDerivatives — If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you may not distribute the modified material.