MegaAnon vs QAnon: Anatomy of a failed conspiracy theory and of a success

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Thiago Vahia Malliagros
Thiago Vahia Malliagros is a brazilian historian focused on conspiracy theories and contemporary far right ideologies.

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I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.

Thompson, 1980:12

For each successful conspiracy theory, countless others fade away into history, forever forgotten and failed. This article is about one such conspiracy theory that failed: the MegaAnon theory. Its “work” did not get the traction and attention necessary to thrive, so it was abandoned, and now it lays forgotten in obscure corners of the internet.

Why should one study a failure like this? Because of its relationship with another conspiracy theory that “succeeded,” that spread and reached much wider audiences: QAnon. Both were born on the same site, 4Chan, emerged from the same boards, and they even coexisted for some time. Still only one flourished. Analysing the reasons why MegaAnon failed can shed some light on why QAnon managed to be so successful.

MegaAnon was a regular poster on the website 4Chan from May 2017 to January 2018, after which she effectively disappeared. During this time, several popular conspiracy theories were starting to take off, including a theory about the death of Seth Rich. Rich was an employee of the Democratic National Committee who was murdered by an attempted robber – except, according to the conspiracy theorists, his death was actually a political assassination tied to the 2016 leak of the DNC’s emails. MegaAnon’s time active on 4Chan also coincided with the first appearance of Qanon.

MegaAnon’s first posts concerned Seth Rich, and made the claim that he was actually a regular user of 4Chan, who went by the username ‘Panda’. She went on to claim that site MegaUpload had been taken down because Rich had used it to leak important information – her username, MegaAnon, was a reference to the defunct filesharing site. In subsequent posts she expanded her scope, claiming that Donald Trump was actively moving to take down key Democrats involved in child trafficking, and that all of their crimes would come to light on national TV, resulting in their arrest.

Why did Q succeed and MegaAnon fail?

Unlike many of the other board users who mostly identify as male, Mega – the originator of the MegaAnon theory – refers to herself as female and as an old user of the site. That is a central aspect of the way that she legitimatised herself: as someone with a long history on the site:

It’s sad. 15 years ago, /pol/ was magical. I am who I am and quite literally, much of what I do today and my career, are thanks to /pol/. 15 years ago, I was just a chick on a board no one had ever heard of, hashing out some heavy 9/11 shit that NO ONE would’ve dared question or discuss, in reality. Imagine that, right? Just a REALLY curious chick, participating and actively investigating, researching and archiving/posting my valid and sourced findings on /pol/, legitimately thinking we were all just a few fucking “connected dots” away, from busting the fucking lid off of what one day, will be known as the (((deepest))) scandal, of the last 60+ years and our lifetimes. /pol/ was a dedicated community and collective group of people, hellbent on a single fucking, unshakable mission to uncover the TRUTH of anything we had interest in, who also, (un)ironically, never told me, “tits” or “GTFO”. See, /pol/men used to ENCOURAGE us young, /pol/women to go into STEM-related fields.

25 May 2017 12:39:50, MegaAnon

This creation of an idyllic past where users of 4Chan were all dedicated to the truth and helping each other was a device she used regularly. Unlike other “leakers” and “whistleblowers” on the site, Mega never claimed to belong to an organisation like the FBI, the CIA, nor any other government agency. What she presented to legitimise herself was her connection to 4Chan’s past, as well as some demonstration of her knowledge of computers and IP addresses.

A brown envelope with a stamp that reads "top secret" and "classified"

On the other hand, QAnon legitimised itself by claiming to have Q access authorisation (the equivalent of Top Secret clearance), and by posting a photo that ‘proved’ they were on the same plane as the then-President Trump while he was traveling through Asia in November 2017. Q’s legitimacy came from the claim to be working at the highest levels of power and having close proximity to Donald Trump, and he offered alleged proof to back up those claims.

The creation of legitimacy is a very important step to creating a conspiracy theory. Major figures in conspiracist movements like David Icke and Alex Jones always present their sources as whistleblowers. It does not matter if what they are saying is untrue and unverifiable – all that matters is the appearance of truth and how to maintain it. Michael Barkun argues in his book “A culture of Conspiracy” that this can even be achieved through objects such as a supposed hidden document, a blurred photo, a witness that has no credibility, or a matter of appearance.

Conspiracy theories purport to be empirically relevant; that is, they claim to be testable by the accumulation of evidence about the observable world. Of course this “evidence” is highly biased, rarely-if-ever based in reality, and almost always taken out of context – or, at times, the inability to present such evidence is presented as evidence in itself.

Indeed, as Richard Hofstadter has pointed out, conspiracist literature often mimics the apparatus of source citation and evidence presentation found in conventional scholarship:

The very fantastic character of [conspiracy theories’] conclusions leads to heroic strivings for ‘evidence’ to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.

Barkun, 1992, p. 7

This sense of legitimacy is very important to attract new members as it provides what Michael Barkun describes as “the appearance of stigmatized, hidden knowledge.” This is essential to attract new followers. By this logic, Q is not just another figure on the internet, they are valid proof of information demonised by the enemy. This is also the entire explanation for why QAnon is on 4Chan: the mainstream media is controlled by the enemy and it is only possible to tell the truth in a place like an anonymous message board.

MegaAnon was different, because instead of her information coming from the high levels of power, it was wholly backed by her. There were no real indications of what office she held, or what she actually did for a living, so why should the reader trust a person like that? Unlike Q, the only thing that sustained her narrative was the site they both inhabited: 4chan.

4Chan is a site where all users are anonymous and can only be identified by numbers or a nickname users choose. Indeed, there is a long history of whistleblowers or leakers on the site, usually in pop culture, who post information such as games/movies that will be released, or behind-the-scenes details about these games and movies.

Alongside these pop culture leakers, there are accounts which claim to be “high-level leakers” on 4Chan: those who expose the “truth” behind what’s really going on in the world. Coincidentally, that truth would usually concern targets that 4Chan users might already dislike or mistrust. The first Mega posts were an answer about the death of Seth Rich, and that conspiracy claimed the Clintons and the deep state were involved in his killing. What Mega added was the claim that Rich was a member of 4Chan, a user named Panda, who used to leak information on MegaUpload, and that his killing was why the site was shut down.

Framing the situation as an attack on one of “them” (a 4Chan user), the next posts of Mega were focused on the developments of the Seth murder case and strengthening the idea that there was a conspiracy involved. After that, MegaAnon devolved to a myriad of subjects, but the main focus was a defence of Donald Trump’s actions and the creation of a narrative that he was cleaning the Swamp.

What is important here is that Mega was focusing inwards. She associated 4Chan and its user base to a much larger narrative: Seth Rich was one of them, therefore, his murder was an attack on the entire community, one of them tried to destroy the evil people, and the MegaUpload site (which they mainly used to share porn) was taken down as a result. While it speaks directly to a 4Chan user, for an outsider the theory does not make sense: what is the importance of MegaUpload and some user called Panda?

By comparison, this is QAnon’s first post:

HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M’s will conduct the operation while NG activated. Proof check: Locate a NG member and ask if activated for duty 10/30 across most major cities.

Qanon Post 1 Oct 28, 2017

QAnon is not talking about 4Chan users and download sites being shut down. Q is clear: at this time and date, the evil person, Hillary Clinton, will be arrested, and the National Guard will be activated. All terms and characters were already well known to the reader: Hillary was Donald Trump’s opponent and a major figure in conspiracy theory circles.

Another important distinction is the question of language and how to convey information. Mega kept her language simple and consistent in all her posts. She explained what happened (a Trump action, an arrest, a mass shooting, all through a conspiracy lens), and she berated people for not taking her or her prediction seriously:

Here’s how you have to look at it. 98% of people in the world involved with politics, agencies, departments, the military, law enforcement, religion, the free masons, etc. are good people. They show up for work every day, busting their asses, feeling good about the work they do. They are completely oblivious to what’s actually going on behind the scenes. The elites of everything are very tight knit and lipped. They work in the shadows, hide their efforts, finances, communications, etc. not only from us “outsiders” but also from the rest of the 98% of people outside of their internal elite. For instance, 98% of the FBI and CIA, think they’re showing up to fight crime, stop threats, prevail justice, the legal way, every single day. It’s only a very small percentage that pulls strings and profits to make certain shit, purposefully happen. I mean, if 98% weren’t in the dark and didn’t think this way, we wouldn’t refer to it as (((deep))) or to them as (((they))), because it would all just be (((normal))) and normal would be corrupt.

MegaAnon 07 Jun 2017

Her writing style is clean, what she is saying is clear, there is no pretence of a hidden meaning or code. She is being upfront, and in some sense personal; there is no  pretence of formal communication, her language is not different from the other members of the site. In comparison, this is what a Q message looked like:

News unlocks map.
Future proves past.
Why was the Lord’s prayer posted?
Which version?
Why is this relevant?
What just came out re: the Lord’s prayer?
What can be connected?
Do you believe in coincidences?
Re-review the map post relevant news drops.
Godfather III.
Q

Qanon Post 306 9 Dec 2017

Some of Q’s messages make more accurate predictions, but most were like this: asking questions or making claims that appear to have no meaning or reason. The contrast to MegaAnon is incredibly stark. What moves this movement is not the main figure: he is akin to a prophet who delivers the message that others decode.

crossroads

Mega’s future predictions were too clear and unambiguous, so when the events did not happen as she predicted, she would have to move on and jump to the next event, discarding and forgetting the past. Q, on the other hand, was purposefully cryptic – that way, failed predictions could be seen as just part of the plan, as the content of the posts was not obvious. Any small piece of news could be interpreted as a prediction coming true. Moreover, there was the belief that some of the messages were meant to trick the Deep State – therefore the lack of clarity was actually seen as a big advantage. A forgotten message in the past could be recovered and used to explain something that was happening in the present.

QAnon has a very strong new religious movement mentality that can be seen in how it managed to survive failed prophecies and other failures. As Rodney Stark put it,

New religious movements are likely to succeed to the extent that their doctrines are non-empirical.

Lorne, L Dawson, ‘Cult and New Religious Movements’ , 2003, p. 262,

This is even more evident when discussing the QAnon followers who would try to piece together Q’s cryptic messages: the so-called ‘Bakers’. According to the community, they picked the “crumbs,” the pieces of information in the Q ‘drops, and then they decoded these “crumbs”, or linked them to other news or previous posts to give the supposed message. There was no empiricism, just a series of narratives created by using what is needed at any given moment, which was all made possible thanks to the cryptic and ambiguous way the information was conveyed. Each ‘Baker’ translated messages in their own way and with their own convictions. One of the big advantages of Q and why it could spread so quickly was that Q could be anything.

Q can be decoded in any number of ways: there are Flat Earthers, 9/11 Truthers, Neonazis, and more, all deriving their proofs from Q’s messages. Any conspiracy theory can fit into the grand Q narrative. Michal Barkun described this phenomenon as a Superconspiracy:

This term refers to conspiratorial constructs in which multiple conspiracies are believed to be linked together hierarchically. Event and systemic conspiracies are joined in complex ways, so that conspiracies come to be nested within one another. At the summit of the conspiratorial hierarchy is a distant but all-powerful evil force manipulating lesser conspiratorial actors.

Barkun, 2003, p. 6

MegaAnon, however, cannot be considered a Superconspiracy, because its narrative was insulated from other conspiracies. Besides being inspired by other theories, such as the New World Order and antisemitic narratives, Mega never managed to co-opt or incorporate more theories. Even its main villain was specific and discrete.

It is important to note that what attracts people to QAnon is not nature of the evil threat, but the belief that a victory over evil is imminent. For QAnon followers, it doesn’t matter who the bad guy is – Q features several elements of older conspiracies like the New World Order alongside more recent ones, like Pizzagate – all that matters is there are unspeakably heinous deeds taking place, but the good guys are just about to emerge victorious and right all wrongs.

This is something that both Mega and Q share: their side is winning. The New World Order is being defeated by Donald Trump, each of the “false flags” and supposed losses (such as investigations and impeachments of the President) were merely the symptoms of their imminent victory. Indeed, Q’s very first messages were promises of imminent arrest for Hillary Clinton, and the deployment of the National Guard.

Besides messages showing how their enemies are being defeated, there was the building towards a day of reckoning. Mega claimed that Trump would go live on TV with an emergency broadcast, so the fake news media cannot distort his message, in which he would deliver a speech about the truth and the crimes that his enemy committed. For Q the reckoning was more complex: there would be ‘ten days darkness’, a shutdown when evil is taken down. These ten days are commonly interpreted by Q followers as reference to Revelations 2:10, imbuing this movement with Biblical significance, which as Lorne L. Dawnson and Jenna Hennebry explain is another characteristic of successful new religious movements:

They retain cultural continuity with the conventional faiths of the societies within which they seek converts.

Lorne, L Dawson, ‘Cult and New Religious Movements’ , 2003, p. 268

Due to the cryptic nature of Q, and the theory’s status as a Superconspiracy, its language, and its quest for legitimacy, QAnon managed to leave MegaAnon behind, and spread beyond the confines of 4Chan. Instead of being confined to just a board on a site on the internet, it was able to increase its user base, build a social media ecosystem, and even inspire its believers to become successful congressional candidates.

Having examined why MegaAnon failed while QAnon flourished, next time I will take a look at how much influence these two conspiracies had on each other.

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