QAnon: costs and benefits

Adrienne LaFrance on QAnon:

In Toledo, I asked [a woman named Lorrie] Shock if she had any theories about Q’s identity. She answered immediately: “I think it’s Trump.” I asked if she thinks Trump even knows how to use 4chan. The message board is notoriously confusing for the uninitiated, nothing like Facebook and other social platforms designed to make it easy to publish quickly and often. “I think he knows way more than what we think,” she said. But she also wanted me to know that her obsession with Q wasn’t about Trump. This had been something she was reluctant to speak about at first. Now, she said, “I feel God led me to Q. I really feel like God pushed me in this direction. I feel like if it was deceitful, in my spirit, God would be telling me, ‘Enough’s enough.’ But I don’t feel that. I pray about it. I’ve said, ‘Father, should I be wasting my time on this?’ … And I don’t feel that feeling of I should stop.”

Why do people believe such things? After all, there is no evidence that anything Q says is true; there is no reason to believe in Q’s Gospel. Or even to believe that Q is a single person. Or, if Q is a single person, that he or she isn’t doing it for the lulz.

The answer, I think, is pretty straightforward: Believing in Q has many benefits but very low marginal costs. Believing in Q gives people a sense of having tapped into the hidden meaning of things, an explanation for their low social status, and a strong network of like-minded people. WWG1WGA, as the QAnon mantra goes: “Where we go one, we go all.” These are significant benefits!

And those marginal costs? I suppose time spent on matters Q is time one can’t spend on Netflix; and if educated people mock and laugh at the followers of Q, well, weren’t they already mocking and laughing at people like Lorrie Shock? How does believing in Q change anything in that respect? Nor does Q-following affect the ability of those followers to do their jobs or raise their children.

Again: significant benefits, low marginal costs. Looked at from that point of view, belief in Q demonstrates a kind of rationality.

LaFrance writes, near the end of her excellent report,

The Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are thriving religious movements indigenous to America. Do not be surprised if QAnon becomes another. It already has more adherents by far than either of those two denominations had in the first decades of their existence. People are expressing their faith through devoted study of Q drops as installments of a foundational text, through the development of Q-worshipping groups, and through sweeping expressions of gratitude for what Q has brought to their lives. Does it matter that we do not know who Q is? The divine is always a mystery. Does it matter that basic aspects of Q’s teachings cannot be confirmed? The basic tenets of Christianity cannot be confirmed. Among the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming. They’ll wait as long as they must for deliverance.

In order to evaluate this view of the matter, I think we need to press hard on the word “adherents.” People who spend a lot of time chasing down Q on the internet don’t really qualify. Even the occasional IRL meetup won’t do it. A movement gains genuine adherents when the costs of belonging to it — financial, social, intellectual, legal — reach a kind of critical mass of pain. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of every church.