MarkHatfield via iStock
MarkHatfield via iStock

First, Hillary Clinton was not arrested for taking part in a satanic pedophile cabal in November 2017. Then, Donald Trump was not reelected as president of the United States in November 2020—nor re-inaugurated in January 2021. 

Now, QAnon adherents are pinning their hopes on March 4, 2021, as the day when the former president—the central figure in this web of conspiracy theories—will be sworn in as the 19th president of the United States. 

If you don’t follow, don’t worry—this explainer will guide you through the fever dream that is the QAnon movement.

What is QAnon? Why is it dangerous?

QAnon is a disproven far-right conspiracy theory that falsely claims the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are operating a global child sex-trafficking ring in addition to plotting against former President Donald Trump. Alleged membership of this cabal includes top Democrats such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former President Barack Obama, President Joe Biden, philanthropist George Soros, various Hollywood celebrities, and religious figures including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. 

In late 2017, an anonymous user calling themself “Q” and claiming to have high-level “Q” government security clearance posted on far-right message board site 4chan, promising to reveal the inside scoop about Trump and then-special counsel Robert Mueller’s secret plot to remove his perceived enemies, the “deep state,” and the pedophile cabal. Many of these claims built off of the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory. “Q” predicted this plot would culminate in “The Storm,” in which Trump would unmask members of the cabal, punish them with imprisonment at Guantánamo Bay or with military tribunals and execution, and ultimately return America to greatness. 

Since then, QAnon has moved from a fringe conspiracy theory to a right-wing political and social movement, with followers waiting for additional information from “Q”—also known as “Q drops”—or complicated explanations from other users about the significance of previous messages. Because followers pore over the supposedly coded messages and debate their meaning online with fellow adherents, an infrastructure of Twitter hashtags, Facebook pages and groups, and YouTube channels surrounding QAnon have increasingly entrenched the misinformation and enabled the conspiracy theories to go viral.

In 2020, both the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 election cycle thrust QAnon into mainstream news as the movement expanded its tent to house parts of the anti-vaccine movement and became a stronghold for the false theory that the election was stolen from Trump. Even more concerning, QAnon has breached the Republican GOP. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, both first-term members of Congress, are the most prominent QAnon-affiliated lawmakers in the country and have supported the claims of a stolen election, among other conspiracy theories. Furthermore, several elected Republicans at state and local levels, influential Trump allies, and other conservative figures have declared support for QAnon and amplified the stolen election claims.

The danger of QAnon lies in its addictive, participatory nature online, which has spurred real-life violence and caused the FBI to cite QAnon as a potential domestic terror threat in 2019. Offline, some followers started engaging in violent or threatening acts, including targeting a school fundraiser, creating an armed blockade of the Hoover Dam, committing multiple murders, and kidnapping kids. Militia groups began to embrace QAnon as well, and supporters relentlessly harassed figures they said were part of the pedophile cabal. 

The Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol building was driven in large part by QAnon supporters, which caused major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to further de-platform spreaders of QAnon conspiracy theories—though these actions were arguably too little, too late. While many have become disillusioned by QAnon since the inauguration, a large faction of followers has continued to “hold the line” and “trust the plan”—common phrases used on their message boards when believers have suffered an ideological setback—and migrated over to Telegram and Gab, where they continue to search for meaning. 

What’s the significance of March 4? Is it cause for concern?

QAnon’s new fixation on March 4 is based on an anti-government sovereign citizen movement conspiracy theory. Members of the sovereign citizen movement argue they are ungovernable because the United States has been corrupt since former President Franklin D. Roosevelt ended the gold standard in 1933. Additionally, they claim every president after Ulysses S. Grant has been illegitimate, and all amendments to the Constitution have been invalid since 1871, when the 14th Amendment was adopted. 

QAnon followers have seized upon this conspiracy theory and adapted it to their ideology. They have been sharing “evidence” that Trump will be sworn in as the 19th president of the original republic on March 4—the date of inaugurations until 1933, when it moved to January 20 to shorten the lame duck period. 

Whether March 4 will be as effective of a rallying cry as Jan. 6 remains to be seen. In light of increased mainstream media attention, supporters appear to be split about a plan of action on March 4, with some warning others to avoid future QAnon events mentioned online because they could be “false flag” operations or intended to identify and arrest more followers. 

Regardless of what happens, the QAnon movement is no stranger to wild predictions that fail to come true; followers will simply adapt to a new line of thinking. QAnon has earned a reputation as a “big tent conspiracy theory” as it is constantly evolving, moving the goalposts, and adding new claims or features when something doesn’t pan out. By now, QAnon followers have grown into the millions and their intense fanaticism has torn families apart. As long as there is an online community to be found, adherents will “hold the line.”

Stefanie Le is the deputy research director at Media Matters for America, where she leads a team of researchers closely monitoring far-right message board communities and fringe platforms focused on mis-...