QAnon has been described, inter alia, as a conspiracy theory, an alternate reality game and as a cult. None of these descriptions are wrong, although none of them really capture the full nature of the beast. The Internet puts communications on steroids, with the result that information (whether true or false) moves at far faster rate than ever before, while everybody has the opportunity to publish – fifty years ago vanity publishing accounted for less than 1% of all information published, but now, thanks to near-ubiquitous applications like Facebook and Twitter, the situation is reversed and vanity publishing accounts for more than 99% of all information published. QAnon rides this wave, with messages, images and ideas circulating near-instantaneously, and all adherents easily able to participate in the self-reinforcing flow. At the same time, the various descriptions noted above fail to account for QAnon’s rapid spread and resilience. One clue might be in the way it shares key characteristics with some of the most successful franchises.
I’ll take two very contrasting instances of successful franchises and examine how QAnon stacks up against them. The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and McDonald’s share a number of key franchising characterisics:
- Rigid control of the core product (Papal authority, the Doctrine of the Faith, the burger, the bun)
- Local flexibilities allowing adaptation to circumstance (very different RCC cultures in, say, poverty-stricken places in South America and conservative Bavaria; while McDonalds characteristic branding is adapted according to, say, local planning restrictions)
- Becoming a member/customer isn’t a two position, in-out, switch. You can go to Mass once a day or once a year, same with eating McDonald’s, it’s up to you how often you do it.
QAnon certainly shares the rigid product control characteristic, with Q Drops coming from a tightly controlled source. At the same time, their enigmatic clue-like nature opens the way to a variety of interpretations and applications, across borders, in much the same way that the RCC and McDonald’s adapt to local circumstances.
Another facet of QAnon that is shared with successful franchises is its resilience in the face of difficulties. Its prophecies regularly fail, but in many cases this only seems to strengthen adherence – a common characteristic in cults first delineated a study by Festinger et al in 1955 . This tendency can also be seen in franchises: McDonald’s was not too seriously affected by its McLibel PR disaster, while the RCC has survived numerous recent scandals involving sexual and financial misconduct.
The real issue is the rapid spread and resilience of QAnon. No doubt that the actual content of the QAnon mythos feeds into a whole series of circumstances that support the phenomenon: inequality; failure of government to address the concerns of many people; a growing suspicion that elites are manipulating events to serve their own ends. However, at the same time, there is a facilitating effect that stems from the franchise-like character of the phenomenon: the consistent, authoritative nature of its core product, together with a sufficient level of vagueness to accommodate the flexibilities that encourage adherents to fit their own individual paranoia into a complex system of mistaken beliefs. One observer, coming from a game designer’s perspective, has attributed this to apophenia, a human tendency to perceive meaningful connections between seemingly unrelated things. While this may carry some convincing explanatory force, it is nevertheless the franchise effect that enables this process and accelerates its spread.
To summarise: QAnon’s complex, multi-faceted nature makes its rapid spread and apparent resilience difficult to encompass in single-cause terms. By viewing it as a franchise, one that combines characteristics of strong central control with an almost infinite array of flexibilities, we are better able to understand and explain it.