QAnon Is a Brilliant Pyramid Scheme
Marketing lessons from America’s craziest conspiracy cult
Marketing lessons from America’s craziest conspiracy cult
There is a global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles in Congress.
The CIA is harvesting adrenochrome from children’s brains.
Hillary Clinton runs a sex dungeon under a pizza parlor.
Time-traveling lizard people rule the world.
How did QAnon, a gathering of isolated people from the fringes of society and online message boards, coalesce into one of the fastest-growing political movements in American history? More importantly, what can QAnon teach us about market psychology and human nature?
Here are just a few lessons:
1. Find a Hole in the Market
QAnon filled a massive leadership vacuum. As the President and his allies launched volley after volley in their ongoing assault against democracy and civil discourse, QAnon filled in the details, providing thought leadership for millions of citizens who are disenfranchised by the political process. For the first time in generations, they had a real say in the direction of the country.
2. Go Big
“Große Lüge” (the big lie) is an expression coined by Adolf Hitler to describe a “gross distortion or misrepresentation of the facts,” a lie so colossally massive that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”
One such example: that Germany was not beaten in World War I, but rather, it was betrayed by the Jews. This one big lie led to the murder of millions.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister said:
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
Or that’s at least that’s what thousands of books and articles have claimed Goebbels said. In truth, there isn’t a single reputable source for the quote. But it sounds like something he’d say, doesn’t it?
That’s the point. You can lie big — the bigger the better —just make sure there’s the slightest shade of reality to make it feel like the truth. From there, the sheer audacity of the lie will do the rest.
[Society, for the record, believes all sorts of state-supported big lies. The American state is doing its best to shield people from the political and economic consequences of the big lie that “free”-market corporatism is the best way to create widest-spread wellbeing. We are now entering the dissent-repression phase.]
3. Tell the Truth (but Not the Whole Truth)
Almost every QAnon theory started with a germinating truth before morphing into a crossbred poison-ivy-venus-fly-trap.
No, Hillary doesn’t run a pizza-based child brothel, but let’s face it: Jeffrey Epstein did run a child rape ring and a whole bunch of very powerful people — including Bill Clinton and The Donald — were on his Rolodex. The reality is that child abuse is rampant in America and every other country, and if you hate someone enough, it’s not a hard leap to make.
Consider a few other “small” sourced facts that QAnon has used as a launchpad for rocketing its propaganda to truly unbelievable heights:
The Rothschilds still control huge amounts of wealth.
George Soros really does manipulate democracy.
There is a real deep state.
There may not be a clandestine group of Illuminati who meets in the crypt of Rosslyn Chapel at the summer solstice, but there are more than 2,095 billionaires who are battling to control the economic fates of billions of people around the globe.
A little bit of truth seems to be all the serum that’s necessary to inject a huge amount of falsehood into the human brain without high rejection rates.
4. Maintain Mystery
We still don’t know the identity of “Q,” the supposed founder and inside leaker of all these “truths.” But to come to an approximation of who they might be — and it’s almost certainly not a single individual — we have to look at who could possibly profit from such huge amounts of chaos in American political life.
This turns many eyes eastward. It’s entirely possible that a brilliant and creative Russian or Chinese psych student with an intimate understanding of the American psyche concocted the whole scheme, ran it up the flagpole to central leadership, and received a war chest of funding to play disruptor with the U.S.’s already-sham democracy.
But Q could’ve just as easily been created by a group of hackers on message boards for cosplay purposes. It really doesn’t matter. Humans simply love a good mystery.
There’s a reason why Agatha Christie sold 2 billion books. It’s fun.
5. Offer Community
“We are living in Biblical times. Children of light vs children of darkness. United against the Invisible Enemy of all humanity.” -Q
QAnon is brilliant for meeting a deep human need: to belong.
Has there ever been a more lonely generation? Digital corporatism has stripped away nearly every source of community we once shared: Airbnb destroyed the neighborhood, secularism supplanted the church as the religion of the masses, Netflix ate the cinema, video games emptied the parks, cell phones silenced hostels, offshore multinationals bankrupted the family-run shops, Tinder replaced the local pub, the list goes on and on.
QAnon offers a perverse form of community that few other institutions offer at present. Compared to many close-minded universities and all the mainstream political parties, QAnon is quite ironically a radically inclusive organization, willing to tolerate and accept almost any hair-brained idea its users can concoct. Don’t believe the “lies” you see on TV? You belong with us.
Not only is the QAnon community quick to assimilate new “truths” into its corpus of beliefs, but it’s brilliantly co-opting traditional communal institutions like cultural Christianity as well.
Since 2007, no nation has given up God as fast as Americans, and QAnon is rapidly stepping into its place. Many people believe that the owner of 8chan, the Philippines-based American helicopter mechanic and pornographer Jim Watkins, is the real man behind Q, and he’s using cultural Christianity — not to be confused with authentic Christ-centered faith — as a way to mainline his dangerous beliefs into religious America’s bloodstream.
“He knows Christianity is a way, in the United States, to get something to go big. [During] the time I knew him best, between 2015 and 2018, I never saw him go to church, I never saw him read a hymn.” — Fredrick Brennan, 8chan founder
Today, there are Zoom-based church services, Qvangelicals, “prophetic” spiritual advisors, and much more. Conspirituality — the marriage of conspiracy and spirituality — is rife within QAnon ranks. Rather than letting the Bible read them and change their lives accordingly, QAnon members are simply reinterpreting the Bible through their own conspiracy lenses.
It all leads us to the conclusion that there’s a new and growing religious movement in America, one that pastors are starting to warn their congregations about. But this won’t stop the movement from growing. QAnon is creating an entirely new virtual world for their followers, a sanctuary, a truly safe space, and inside that world, it’s a temple in which to find meaning in meaningless times.
6. Offer Meaning
QAnon is also brilliant for meeting the deep human need for meaning.
Academia, media, and individualist-consumer culture raised a generation to believe that life has no meaning beyond what we each make of it. So millions of QAnoners did just that — they connected scattered data points into a Rorschach mask of meaning and significance and purpose — and now mainstream culture is desperately backpedaling, trying to clean up the mess it created.
QAnon isn’t a root issue — it’s just the fruit of a very rotten life system. Life is a real struggle for millions of Americans and it’s getting worse by the day. So why not overthrow the government? Millions of children are trafficked for sex each year? So why not expose the rapists? China is locked in a Thucydidean battle with America. So why not blame them for the global pandemic?
Obviously, to the rational mind, these aren’t the best way to battle real-world problems, but when you need a cause to fight for — and the mainstream society has completely written you off — it’s only a matter of time before the fringes join together and make their own meaning like everybody else.
7. Offer Relief
Life is objectively horrible for tens of millions of Americans. Many areas of the Rust Belt and Deep South are as degraded as many parts of the developing world. Under the regime of late-stage corporatism, life will not get any better for any of these people in their lifetime.
As automation wipes out 40% of jobs within 15 years, and landlords evict the unemployed at unprecedented levels, we can’t expect conspiracy theories to lessen in any way.
Because when you discover “the truth” — any “truth,” even a conspiracy theory — it gives you a sense of power and control, however weak and false. It allows you to feel like you’re an agent of change, as though you’re somehow the master of your fate and the captain of your soul. In a world that wants you to be a slave, you now have control over your own destiny.
8. Offer Huge Amounts of Personalization
Unlike many belief structures with hard edges, QAnon offers something for the anti-vaxxers, the China-haters, the climate change deniers, the 9/11 inside-jobbers, and every other fantasy under the sun. Q is the ultimate DJ, borrowing decades of conspiracy theories, remixing fresh tracks in new ways that get the blood pumping.
“QAnon is a buffet, offering something for everyone. [Most] cults need to build [a] world from scratch. QAnon, however, has picked up existing movements and communities, like a snowball rolling down a hill and collecting debris. By bringing in existing movements, enveloping them into its mass, QAnon absorbs a quasi-credibility and an existing fan base.” — Justin Ling
QAnon is so broad that it has essentially become a microcosm of American society itself. It’s so full of varying opinions and contradicting points of views that many of its own members don’t even believe many of its claims, but still take part in the community for its other benefits. Somehow, the irrational has some rationality to it.
9. Keep It Secret. There’s No Need To Advertise When You Can Tell a Gossip.
People want to be on the inside.
Insiders are those with secrets.
The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.
10. Find the Lowest-Hanging Fruit
On a per-capita basis, we can safely assume that there are very few people with PhDs in biochemistry within the QAnon movement. As the FBI begins to prosecute the hundreds of people who besieged the Capitol, they would do well to record their average IQ and education levels.
To be clear, I am not an academic elite who’s trying to slam the working class. (On the contrary, it’s quite clear that the bottom half do far more of the working and paying and struggling in modern society.) But when you look at the type of people the QAnon movement attracts, it’s obvious that there’s a huge amount of mental instability and undereducation at play. But will the ruling class invest in improving education and critical-thinking skills? It’s entirely unlikely.
11. Innoculate Followers From Outside Criticism.
It’s nearly impossible to rationally convince someone that QAnon is near valueless to democratic civil society.
And Elon Musk fanboys.
And Ayn Rand fanboys.
And iPhone fanboys.
And people who vote for Democrats and Republicans.
It’s quite simple, really: Make people feel special. Important. Wanted. Needed. Give them leadership. We’re at one of the most important moments in history… go, spread the truth. Expect people to laugh at you because they’re one of them.
After decades of being ignored by politicians and their corporate controllers, marginalized people welcomed QAnon because it gave them an identity, and more importantly, an audience. Suddenly everyone was an expert.
12. Pour Gas on the Fire
Mark Zuckerberg has a lot to answer for. Facebook has knowingly accepted hundreds of millions of dollars from bot farms, flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, Russian election disruptors, politicians of all stripes, pyramid schemes, and thousands of other scams, conspiracies, and cons against the commons.
Sure, they start censoring when the political pressure builds, but they’re reluctant reactionaries, not vigilant vanguardsmen. They allowed QAnon theories to propagate for years, earning untold amounts of money as tens of thousands of account holders reached millions of people with their toxic theories.
Sadly, social media is a broken business model that needs to be radically reformed if civil discourse is to survive.
13. Build the Pyramid
According to Wikipedia, “a pyramid scheme is a business model that recruits members via a promise of payments or services for enrolling others into the scheme, rather than supplying investments or sale of products.”
In this regard, QAnon is textbook. It promises “payments” in the form of attention, community, meaning, purpose, change, insider status, and hope. All you have to do is spread the “truth.”
But at the end of the day, QAnon has nothing of real value to sell — it’s a bastardized gospel — and when it can no longer onboard new recruits, it will simply collapse.
Who Is To Blame for QAnon’s Popularity?
The reality is that American corporations have long prevented their politicians from investing real money in mental health, combating loneliness, healing trauma, improving education, equipping young people with critical thinking skills, regulating social media algorithms, or addressing the breakdown of community and any sense of shared truth or reality.
Our Amazon-ordering, Netflix-bingeing, social-media scrolling, secularist-consumerist society created QAnon. We allowed this.
QAnon isn’t a playbook that marketers, companies, politicians, or real leaders should follow. It’s a cautionary tale. We haven’t seen the end of it yet, but we can be certain it will end badly.
But there are certainly lessons to be learned for marketers, entrepreneurs, startups, community leaders, and anyone who wants to leave a better world behind:
In your marketing messaging, tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Create products and services that cultivate community and friendship.
Help people discover real meaning, purpose, and vision for life.
Make people feel like insiders.
Appeal to our highest nature.
Give power to the powerless.
Give a voice to the voiceless.
Meet real needs.