Tens of thousands of people are members or followers of online communities and figures promoting the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory in Australia. But given its focus on US politics, why are more Australians buying into this ridiculous theory?
Despite being completely unfounded and detached from reality, QAnon is well and truly mainstream. Devotees of the theory are running in-person protests, amassing enormous social media followings and will soon be in U.S. Congress.
It’s also been listed as a domestic terrorism threat by the FBI, and is linked to real world violence including alleged murder.
While it is largely U.S.-centric, there are likely thousands of believers in Australia who have incorporated existing domestic conspiracy theories as part of their beliefs.
OK, I guess I’ll bite: what is QAnon?
QAnon is a sprawling conspiracy theory incorporating many different other conspiracies.
At its core, believers think that U.S. President Donald Trump is secretly investigating an elite cabal of Satanic pedophiles who are in positions of power. This theory has its roots in older, antisemitic conspiracy theories.
The conspiracy was born from an anonymous imageboard account which in 2017 began posting claiming to have a “Q” clearance — the top available security clearance in the U.S. — which gave the theory its name.
This account has posted hundreds of cryptic clues over the years alluding to important dates and events that rarely ever bear out.
And while the posts are on imageboards, QAnon content has found a large audience through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. An internal Facebook report found that the 10 biggest Facebook groups had more than 3 million members, NBC News reported.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok have taken some action to limit the proliferation of the conspiracy theory on the platform, however all still allow it in some form.
Proponents of the theory have begun to hijack other human trafficking-related campaigns like #SaveTheChildren to bring in new audiences.
How big is QAnon in Australia?
It’s difficult to figure out just how many Australians are engaging with QAnon content for a couple of reasons.
QAnon is international and many online groups are non-region specific. So this means that some Australians believers won’t be included in Australia-specific QAnon communities and accounts.
Additionally, recent crackdowns by social media companies have eliminated some of the bigger QAnon communities, including Australia’s biggest Facebook group. In response, some QAnon groups have taken steps to evade bans by changing their names or other efforts.
Concordia University Ph.D candidate specialising in online extremism Marc-André Argentino said that Australia is in the top 5 countries in both size and activity for QAnon.
A Gizmodo investigation found several obvious Australian Facebook groups and pages with thousands of members, dozens of Instagram accounts with hundreds of followers, and several Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of followers. All up, these Australian accounts, pages and groups have more than 70,000 followers in total.
As well, search trend data suggests that more Australians are searching for QAnon — although this does not distinguish between people who believe it and those who don’t.
Compared to the U.S., Australia doesn’t have many public figures who’ve publicly shared QAnon content.
However, former television host and celebrity chef Pete Evans has repeatedly shared QAnon content with his 1.75 million followers across Facebook and Instagram. And at least one QAnon believer has run for federal parliament.
And there are some believers with close links to power: in 2019, the Guardian reported that a family friend of the Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a QAnon believer.
How is QAnon different in Australia?
While the majority of QAnon remains imported from the U.S. — it is a theory that is centred on the U.S. president, after all — there are some notable differences.
According to online conspiracy researcher Cam Smith, there’s a different demographic of QAnon supporters in Australia than in the U.S..
“It does seem like there’s a younger contingent getting into it than the U.S., where it’s all these baby boomers who’ve been radicalised,” he said.
He points out that there’s no Trump-substitute in Australia. Instead, he claims, QAnon believers in Australia tend to have a bipartisan distrust rather than mostly towards progressive politics, like it is with Democrats in the U.S..
University of Tasmania lecturer and online researcher Kaz Ross agrees there’s a younger demographic in Australia. She also says other cultural factors affect it too.
“In America, there’s a more evangelical overtone. As well, with more things like multi-level marketing scams there, it’s primed certain parts of the population for this,” she said.
On top of the U.S. mythos, local proponents have incorporated or created other domestic conspiracy theories into the lore, including:
- In 2015, Senator Bill Heffernan claimed to have received a police document of 28 prominent Australians including “a former Prime Minister” that came out of royal commission into police corruption but was ignored. There is no evidence to suggest the allegations were correct. The former royal commissioner denied that any referrals had been ignored. Senator George Brandis responded to Heffernan’s statement saying “just because someone’s name appears on a list doesn’t make them guilty”. Despite the lack of evidence, QAnon supporters have latched onto this as ‘proof’, also claiming without proof that there is a suppression order on the list.
- Conspiracy theories about Chinese planes flying in Australia bringing 5G towers, Chinese soldiers, or, in some versions of the theory, reinforcements on behalf of Donald Trump.
- Some believers have accused Melbourne’s COVID-19 testing centres and the city’s tunnels of being used by child trafficking organisations without evidence.
Smith said QAnon believers will often just transplant a U.S.-specific belief straight into Australia. He gave the example of the debunked theory in California’s 2019 bushfires that the fires were intentionally lit to clear the way for high speed rail. The same theory was then repeated in Australia during its 2020 bushfire season.
“The bushfires theory, that was a copy-paste of a California conspiracy. You see American conspiracy theorists say ‘wow, they’re doing it in Australia too’. Actually no, we’re just really lame and can’t think of our own,” he said.
Why does it matter that people believe in QAnon?
On top of the violence and corrosive impact on democracy from a group being detached from reality, there’s also damage to friendships and families as people become enveloped in a conspiracy theory.
The subreddit r/QAnonCasualties features hundreds of posts from people who’ve lost their friends to the conspiracy theory.
One user from Melbourne shared a story about how her two best friends of ten years became consumed with QAnon and other conspiracy beliefs during the pandemic lockdown. With a baby due in just a few weeks and being in the high-risk category for COVID-19, she reached out to them to try engage and challenge them on their beliefs.
She never heard back from them.
“I want this to be a happy time but instead I’m utterly consumed with trying to work out what happened to my two best friends,” she wrote.
And then there’s the impact of having an online, engaged community who are spending their time sharing misinformation and falsehoods.
In the U.S., QAnon believers overwhelmed anti-human trafficking charities’ tiplines with fake tips, making it impossible to chase up real cases of abuse.
Charities in Australia haven’t seen the same flood of conspiracy content. But Hetty Johnston, founder of the Australian child protection organisation Bravehearts, warned that spending time chasing conspiracy theories is counterproductive.
“There’s no doubt there’s pedophiles in every country around the world. They’re across every industry and they wield power and authority and no one can argue that,” she said.
“But the rest of it, you can’t have a committed view on. Unless you’ve experienced it, you need to prove it. You need to go to the police,” she said.