Does it matter if Qanon emerged organically from the infosphere, or if it was synthesized in a lab as a weaponized political meme? I don’t know. I don’t know if we can ever find out exactly who was behind Qanon. When people have posted about it all being a psyop (psychological operation) led by shadowy intelligence agents, it’s sounded like, well, a conspiracy theory.
But I want to explore that theory, with an open mind, in this post and a subsequent one. We will explore the overlap between New Age conspirituality, intelligence communities, and right-wing illiberal politics — and how various actors within the ‘occulture’ of conspirituality use each other for their various ends.
My exploration of the ‘Qanon as clever psyops’ theory began last week with this Twitter thread by Dave Troy — a technology entrepreneur who has been researching the mechanics behind Qanon. The thread begins:
QAnon was enabled in part by former military and intelligence professionals “gone wild.” They lent credibility to the myth and laundered QAnon messaging to the public, sometimes via E-list ‘influencers.’
Troy then lists various ex-military, ex-intelligence Americans who helped to promote the Qanon conspiracy meme. What caught my eye was that some of the ex-intelligence figures were connected to New Age culture, which struck me as weird, and worthy of further investigation.
That led me to a Medium article from November 2020 by someone called Daniel Morrison, which gathers together a lot of information, much of which seems credible to me, about the people Morrison claims are behind Qanon. It also looks at how it spread in the New Age.
That research, which has been gathered by a collective of researchers, was picked up by the Financial Times, in this video:
Is QAnon a game gone wrong? | FT Film
You can enable subtitles (captions) in the video player The human mind is a tricky thing. For example, if you sit in…
I’m going to sketch out the theory, before diving a bit deeper on the part which really interests me –how right-wing activists may have targeted and hijacked the New Age community, steering it towards illiberal and anti-democratic forms of politics. That’s the bit that affects my ‘spiritual’ culture, and some of my hippy friends, who have been unwittingly exploited to spread far-right talking-points.
In the 2015 Trump campaign, Trump’s close advisor, self-proclaimed ‘dirty trickster’ Roger Stone, decided to try and target the world of alternative media, and specifically the ‘king of conspiracy culture’ Alex Jones and his channel InfoWars.
Alex Jones was an amusing oddball conspiracist in the 1990s, who among other antics broke into the ‘Bohemian Grove’ secret society’s annual jamboree, accompanied by Jon Ronson (Ronson tells the story brilliantly in his 2001 classic, Them).
But Jones became a much darker figure after 9/11, which Jones said was an inside job. He even claimed, repeatedly, that the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, in which 26 people died, was a hoax. It didn’t matter to him that this was a cruel lie which led to the families of the murdered children being hounded online. Whatever got him clicks.
Jones’ InfoWars became hugely popular, with millions of viewers, and Jones became a very rich man — Jon Ronson, in the PBS documentary about Jones’ relationship with the Trump regime, suggests Jones was making $100,000 a day, and the majority of that — according to the New York magazine — was from a range of dietary supplements Jones promoted. The business model is clever — create apocalyptic panic, sow distrust in governments and mainstream health, then sell your alternative supplements as a panacea.
In 2015, as outsider Donald Trump took another shot at the Republican nomination, his advisor Roger Stone first appeared on InfoWars. He would appear on the channel many times in the run up to the 2016 presidential election, and even spent election night there, drinking champagne with Jones.
Stone tells the PBS documentary:
Alex Jones is a character, and he has a very, very large, very, very loyal following out there in the blogosphere.
Trump’s campaign got access to Jones’ army of millions of loyal and hyper-motivated conspiricists. And Jones — the perpetual outsider — got the validation of powerful politicians. Stone told him in one appearance: ‘They can call us conspiracy theorists, all we are is truth tellers. We speak from the heart like Donald Trump’.
In December 2015, Trump appears on InfoWars himself — on an online TV channel that said 9/11 was a hoax, Sandy Hook was a hoax — and told Jones ‘your reputation is amazing, I will not let you down’.
Trump wins the Republican nomination and begins a vicious campaign against the favourite, Hillary Clinton. As part of the campaign, Roger Stone connects to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who says he has obtained a cache of hacked emails from the Democratic National Congress which will scupper the Clinton campaign. The hack turns out to have been done by a Russian intelligence agent. Stone coordinates with Wikileaks to release the emails at a certain time in the campaign.
At the same time, a LARP account appears on the image sharing website 8Chan, called FBIAnon. LARP means Live Action Role Player. Various LARP accounts popped up on 8Chan at this time, sometimes claiming to be deep moles in the intelligence services, posting anonymously (hence ‘FBIAnon’). Most were ignored, but some managed to weave a spell on followers for a while.
FBIAnon seemed to have a specific agenda — weaponize people on the internet to attack Hillary Clinton’s reputation. The account declared:
The task is this: unleash every meme, image, and horrible story about HRC that you can muster… In order to be effective, you must proselytize… For example: Start a website aggregating the images/facts and then try to get it linked to Drudge. Shove the images down every news anchor/journalists throat. Push out to people who you normally would have nothing to do with… Why don’t you invade their circles? … We should be spreading memes to subs on Reddit.… blitz Twitter, Tumblr, and all social media with memes on the Clinton Foundation tonight, the last night of the DNC… We need TrumpGen with us, and the meme division blasting the Tumblr tags. Bring up the old methods that /b/ used to use during their Tumblr raids… We’re going to war tonight …Repeat something often enough and it becomes the truth. Repeat after me: ‘Hillary is evil and will destroy the planet.’…
The Medium article by Daniel Morrison speculates that FBIAnon was part of a ‘psyops’ or psychological intelligence and disinformation strategy devised by the Trump team. It also speculates that this psyops strategy was crafted by an Israeli company, run by ex-Mossad agents, called Psy Group, which specializes in memetic warfare — basically weaponizing communities by flooding them with social media memes in order to shift public opinion for particular political or corporate goals (such as winning the American presidency). We know the head of Psy Group, Joel Zamel, met with Donald Trump Jr., to discuss building a social media strategy for the campaign, it’s not clear if they ever signed a deal. Others have mooted that other psyops or disinformation agencies were hired.
Memetic warfare is a concept first articulated by an American Green Beret strategist called Michael Prosser in 2005, as a form of psychological operation which could be used by states, insurgencies or corporations. The 2016 presidential campaign has been called ‘The Great Meme War’.
In November 2016, Wikileaks released the Democratic National Committee emails. The problem was, there was nothing obviously insinuating in them. But that didn’t necessarily matter in conspiracy land.
This is because conspiracy theorists are prone to something I’ve called ‘patternicity’, and which is also sometimes called apophenia — the mystical / quasi-psychotic tendency to see signs, codes, hidden meanings and nefarious connections in anything. So that email where John Podesta talks about pasta, or pizza, or cheese? That’s really secret code for Satanic ritual paedophilia.
And so Pizzagate, the prototype for Qanon, was born in 2016. It suggested that senior figures in the Democratic Party, led by evil Satanist Hillary Clinton, and aided by equally Satanic figures in Hollywood — were running a global Satanic paedophile ring, and they were using all sorts of occult signs and codes to advertise the fact.
Pizzagate was actively promoted by Alex Jones, who foamed and ranted:
Hillary Clinton is not human. She is a demon…. Clinton is an evil demon from hell….When I think about all the children that Hillary Clinton has personally murdered, and locked up, and raped… Hillary Clinton is one of the most vicious serial killers the world has ever seen….
Pizzagate is so out there, so goddam weird, the Clinton campaign didn’t know what to do about it. Should they deny she’s a Satanic paedophile serial killer? Don’t be ridiculous. So they ignore it, and the meme builds and builds and builds. It is spread by a network of far-right conspiracy theorists, some of whom are disgruntled ex-intelligence or ex-military agents like Robert David Steele, an ex-CIA analyst turned pro-Trump conspiracist, who in 2017 appeared on InfoWars and claimed NASA was hiding trafficked children on Mars.
But what helps the meme go viral is its given credibility by senior figures in the Trump team — like Michael Flynn Jr, and Trump himself, who calls Hillary the devil.
We should say something here about Michael Flynn Sr, by the way. He was a lieutenant general in the US Army, in charge of counter-terrorism in Afghanistan. He was briefly director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, in 2012, but resigned in 2014, partly because of concerns he had been compromised by Russian intelligence.
That led to a grievance against the ‘deep state’ which had ejected him. He set up a private intelligence company, was hired by clients including the Russian state (here he is, below, sitting next to Putin at a dinner he was paid $30,000 to attend) and then became a core part of Trump’s campaign team.
General Flynn was particularly focused on building an army of ‘digital soldiers’ to spread memes in favour of Trump and against Hillary Clinton. He talks about it in this 2016 speech, 13 minutes and 45 seconds in, where he says ‘we have an army of digital soldiers, this is an insurgency’.
This is, basically, the sort of psychological operation the CIA carried out in Afghanistan during the Cold War — weaponize the Mujahideen to take on your enemy, the USSR. Give them resources, fan the flames of Jihad, and then let them do your dirty work. But this time, the Mujahideen are online conspiracy theorists, Alex Jones is their Osama bin Laden, and the Jihad is ‘memetic warfare’.
The Pizzagate meme seemed too outlandish to catch on. But it played on one of the oldest myths of all — the blood-libel fantasy, that a diabolic hidden cabal is ritually harvesting the blood of children. It goes back hundreds of years, inspiring pogroms against early Christians, and then against Jews, repeatedly. Most recently it was wielded by the Nazis to foment panic and gain power. This time, the target was the liberal elite.
And it worked. Alex Jones and Pizzagate helped to galvanize an alienated rabble of anti-federalist conspiracy theorists, who usually don’t vote, to become super-motivated ‘digital soldiers’ for Trump, endlessly posting memes in support of Trump and attacking Satanic Hillary. That same army marches to the polling booths to vote for their guy Trump.
Trump becomes the unlikely winner of the 2016 American presidential election. Roger Stone watches the victory live on InfoWars, drinking champagne with Alex Jones. ‘I have won!’ says an emotional Jones, tears streaming down his face. The conspiricists have taken over the White House.
It is ironic, to me, that conspiracy theorists — people who spend their lives obsessing about a shadowy cabal using occult techniques of mind-control — could themselves become so easily manipulated for political purposes. But conspiracy culture is powered by emotional drives — grievance, alienation, narcissism — and the Trump campaign made them feel like insiders. It made them feel powerful and special. When you know what drives someone emotionally, it’s easier to control them.
But now the far-right need to hang on to power, and perhaps take power in other countries. And to do that they need an even better meme, and a new army of memetic Mujahideen — New Age hippies. Remember what FBIAnon told his digital soldiers:
Push out to people who you normally would have nothing to do with… Why don’t you invade their circles?
Here is the second part of this story, where we dive deeper into the intelligence connections to conspirituality in the New Age, focusing on the figure of New Age influencer Sacha Stone.
In the meantime, you may want to read these previous pieces I wrote on this topic. This is a piece I wrote in April 2020 on the rise of ‘conspirituality’, this is a piece I wrote in September 2020 on ‘Nazi hippies and the overlap of New Age and far-right thinking’, and this is a piece I wrote in January 2021 on the Qanon shaman.