This post is the beginning of a study of conspiracy theories, from initial development to what I think is their fruition with QAnon. It is not super detailed or rigorous, I wrote it mainly to connect the psychedelic and conspiratorial modes of thought together.
I used to browse /pol/ pretty often, in the most embarrassing and weak teenage rebellion I could muster. In high school I was one of those edgy "right-wing logician" guys. I was led that way by research into the NSA's surveillance programs; on a whim I bought an edition of Wired whose cover-story was about an NSA data storage center, and then I did more research from there. At that time 4chan was still just a refuge for script kiddie teens. It was home to generally harmless edginess.
People who used 4chan a lot have probably followed a few happenings, named after the classic Ron Paul GIF. There are Happenings on /mu/ just as often as /pol/, so it's not necessarily a political thing. 4chan attracts bored weirdos, so when something interesting comes to light 100 anons immediately start digging into it. I think the feeling of a Happening hints at the appeal of conspiracy theories: there's a feverish clarity as the mind stitches everything posted in the thread together, then refreshes over and over for new posts. Happenings are extremely exciting, but almost always result in the Happening being nothing at all.
Pizzagate was, at first, just a Happening. The initiation of a Happening corresponds to some agreed upon truth; Pizzagate started with John Podesta's emails and the bizarre food messages therein (true), and eventually came to center around Comet Ping-Pong. Like with most Happenings there was a kernel of truth that quickly got warped. Comet Ping-Pong and the circle of people involved with the business seem pretty shady, but no concrete evidence has ever tied them to child trafficking. Another line of inquiry, into the politicians involved, has been much more successful (see Jeffrey Epstein).
A peculiar kind of alchemy started happening around the time of the 2016 election, where memes could suddenly change the world. Before this there was the odd news report about Anonymous or the pool being closed, but these instances were mostly the product of news orgs, not 4chan itself. Before 2016, Happenings were basically roleplay sessions which used reality as a prompt. Then Trump got elected, and /pol/ probably had a hand in it. Then that guy shot up Comet Ping-Pong, and /pol/ definitely had a hand in it. He was certainly mentally ill and would have done something awful without /pol/, but 4chan caused a guy to shoot up a restaurant.
Before these events, memes were a reaction to the world. At risk of sounding pretentious, after 2016 the relation between real life and online discussion became dialectical: events effected the internet, and the internet effected the real world. This is around the time that the public sphere (i.e. Twitter and the news) completely lost its footing and abandoned facts. This doesn't do much to normal people, but a lot of fairly powerful people are part of The Dialogue(tm) and have their minds warped by this lack of a common reality. This effect will intensify as more people get into social media.
Also, the fact that I still distinguish between real life and the internet is a relic of being online before social media was ubiquitous. The synthesis of the news-meme dialectic might be a sort of cosmology which sees the internet as a higher realm, and earth as earth. Meaning is derived only from participation in spiritual practice. I'm getting off track.
This is a long-winded way to say that the world is more complicated than ever, it is easier to lie than ever, and faith in political narratives has completely collapsed. There is an unordered mess of information constantly bombarding everybody. An obvious response to this is to embrace ideology as a way to filter information without really thinking about it. As ideology develops, it eventually tends toward the conspiracy theory, which is a totalized thought-terminating cliché, a perpetual Happening. During a Happening, the reader makes many connections between facts on their own, so on its face any conclusion they draw 1) makes them feel smart and 2) feels like the truth. I was pretty enamored with this sort of conspiracy-ecstasy when I was a teenager, and in the grip of it rationality fades away.
Conspiracy theories, while they may have many complex moving parts, are essentially very simple. Once you accept the initial conceit the rest comes easily, or in their words: once you wake up you see the signs everywhere. The conspiracy theory has the very important function of restoring order to the world. A good conspiracy theory suggests a narrative for recent history, and provides a lens to view current events through. It rejects the fact that the systems which underpin society have a fractal complexity, and that no cabal is in control of the machine but in fact everyone is just desperately trying to keep the whole miserable affair from melting down.
(I'm not an absolutist Capitalist by any means, I just think that there has to be a collapse of some form or another for meaningful change to take place.)
Conspiracies are amorphous. They have their premise, and everything else is negotiable. Flat-Earthers don't agree on the purpose of pretending the world is a globe, or the actual form of the cosmos, or what the phenomenon of gravity truly is. They do agree that the Earth is flat. Clearly, conspiracies provide a great deal of freedom to their believers, so long as they uphold the premise. In other words, there is only one fixed point in conspiratorial thought.
Conspiracy theories do become more systematic over time, because they are perpetual Happenings which churn and digest new information. As the branches become more complex, the number of possible connections increases exponentially. This is why it's so difficult to shake a True Believer: the conspiracy has become broad enough and complex enough to replace the truth. The root premise is unshakeable, even if you can cut off some branches. There is an even higher stage of a conspiracy's development, what we might call the cultic stage. I like Q Stage better. It's the top of the ideological pyramid, so to speak ;).
I don't know if there are any conspiracy theories like QAnon. Only Muslim extremism and Christian apocalypse cults come to mind. Q, originally Q Clearance Patriot, appeared on 4/pol/ around the time Pizzagate was happening (late 2017), and started posting vague, cryptic messages. The first two were about Hillary Clinton's imminent arrest. Q moved to 8chan, then to 8kun. There are 4390 Q posts as I write this, logged in places like qmap.pub. 8chan and 8kun don't have dedicated archives, so qmap is a labour of love. The beliefs of Patriots (what Q's followers call themselves) manage to be both highly systematic and subjective.
The premise is that President Trump is going to liberate America from the Deep State/New World Order conspiracy, which seemingly encompasses every powerful person who isn't a Republican. An event known as the Storm or the Great Awakening will take place where Deep State agents are arrested, tried, and executed en masse. Q's following has grown massively in a relatively short period of time—three years isn't very long for a conspiracy—and is comprised largely of old, middle-class white people, although the audience is probably more diverse than we would guess.
What is systematic about the Q Stage? QAnon is a unified conspiracy theory. It connects everything together. The cast includes Democrat politicians, leftists, Hollywood, the Illuminati, Masons, Satanists, and pedophiles, with varying degrees of overlap between them. The conspiracy is also based on a body of literature, namely Q's posts. Many Patriots view Q's words as prophetic, and some have used the posts as a way of interpreting scripture. A Q post, or a real event, feeds the Happening. Patriots use the massive body of existing literature, coincidences, and inferences, to pull the event into the web of Q. The structure and narrative have grown and evolved over time, and qmap actually has net graphs that structure information month by month—you should check it out.
But Q's posts are vague, and subject to interpretation. This is why I think the Patriots are quite a diverse group, which includes new-age Instagram influencers and probably even more unexpected people than that. On their face the Q posts fit the typical conspiracy-nut stereotype, but it is evidently easy to project events onto the Q-lore and fit them into the overarching narrative. On 8kun's Q board, there are over 12,000 general discussion threads, so there's more than a little bit of information to feed on.
Belief in a conspiracy is innately egotistical; it hinges on a belief that you have access to some knowledge that was hidden in plain sight, and that the normies are unable or unwilling to see. This simultaneous universality and subjectivity gave QAnon its cult following and staying power. The Q Stage is when the conspiracy becomes enmeshed with the person; it doesn't just replace truth, but immediate reality. The Boomer Patriots are largely cut off from their families, their rhetoric being so constant and insistent.
Returning to my thesis that conspiracies arise from a need to simplify reality, Q's universality, on its face, represents immense complexity. Functionally, though, it is a simple universality. Patriots aren't discerning between virtuous heroes, Dems, leftists, Hollywood, Illuminati, Masons, Satanists, and Pedophiles; they're discerning between virtuous heroes and evil villains. The specific groups are interchangeable, and provide ample fuel for the conspiracy's premise. In other words, the conspiracy appears as complexity, but when it is grasped by the individual it collapses into a simple black-and-white narrative which fits whatever they already believed. Could be Jews, could be lizards, could be both.
The addictive element of Q is the perpetual Happening; those 12,000 threads are anticipating the Great Awakening. The 4chan and 8chan threads were too. As a Patriot gets further and further into Q, the whole thing becomes more and more real. The 'subjective collapse' feels like the moment of truth where everything makes sense. There's a constant cycle of growing and collapsing complexity. It will be interesting to see what happens after Donnie leaves the white house in 2020/2024.
My impetus for analyzing Q was a sudden realization I had while listening to that podcast I linked. When I was surveying DMT experiences, I observed a certain stubbornness in all of the psychonauts, though the negative experiences were the most striking. DMT users take as given that psychedelic substances and experiences are good and worthwhile no matter what. Even when users are mentally and/or physically injured by psychedelic experiences, they hold to their value. Taken as conspiracy, the premise is that DMT is Good, and all outcomes are interpreted so as to confirm the premise. Negative experience? You have much to learn. Positive experience? Now you know more about the universe. Tortured by demons? Try again later.
DMT is the strongest psychedelic, and Q is the ultimate conspiracy, for reasons previously discussed. Conspiracies and heavy psych use are characterized by trading reality for an inner fiction. You cannot get through to True Believers. But, like with psychedelics, the value in analyzing conspiracies isn't in the extreme cases but in what those cases teach us. Patriots and psychonauts are unstuck from reality; they have replaced their reference points with shifting, mental constructions. Trust in reality is slowly undermined by the dream-logic that they depend upon.
We are all, to some extent, trapped by shades of ideology. The brain's job is arguably to filter reality, so it's no wonder that ideology is so attractive. As more of life moves online, the desire to slip into simplified, fictional worlds becomes more dangerous. It is important to fight for the world we want, and not the words we want to read. Politics needs a narrative, and an absolute dedication to facts will not win any elections, but if your beliefs can't be reconciled with your eyes you need to walk it back.