The controversial Four Corners episode detailing links between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and a man who supports the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory aired on Monday night, following weeks of intrigue and interest.
The report detailed concerns about the radicalisation of Tim Stewart, who is a close friend of the PM and whose wife Lynelle worked at Kirribili House.
Among the revelations from the family was that the Stewarts were due to be on the PM’s controversial Hawaii holiday.
“Tim and Lynelle were just sharing that there was a holiday planned in Hawaii, and my impression was that there was a holiday planned in Hawaii, and my impression was it was going to be quite a few families, which would include many who’ve been going to Hawaii for years,’’ Mr Stewart’s mother, Val Stewart, told Four Corners.
“Scott and Jenny were going to go as well. That was … that was mentioned. Scott and Jenny were going to go.”
The Morrison’s Hawaii holiday was cut short after The New Daily revealed he was holidaying there even while bushfires raged across the east coast of Australia.
Four Corners said Mr Morrison had not answered questions on-record. His office has since told News Corp he won’t be addressing the “baseless conspiracy theories”.
“The government will not be responding to the baseless conspiracy theories being peddled by Four Corners,” a spokesman told news.com.au
The PM has previously slammed the reports and called the conspiracy cult “dangerous”.
The amorphous, convoluted world of QAnon includes bizarre claims about Satanic paedophiles, Hollywood and Donald Trump.
It has also absorbed numerous other fringe claims including anti-5G, COVID denial and far-right thought, into what Australian conspiracy researcher Dr Kaz Ross calls a “nasty tumbleweed”.
But while the conspiracy is heavily US-focused, a 2020 report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found Australia had the fourth-highest number of QAnon devotees in the world.
So what is QAnon? And why do a small number of Australians care about a conspiracy theory that is so America-centric?
Let’s unravel things.
What is QAnon?
QAnon is a baseless and discredited conspiracy theory that claims former US president Donald Trump is secretly fighting a ring of Satan-worshipping paedophiles, including politicians and members of the Hollywood elite.
The fringe movement was born after an anonymous figure called “Q”, a self-described “government insider”, began posting on message board 4Chan in 2017.
Followers are encouraged to decipher the opaque messages, in what has been described by some as like a treasure hunt.
Q claimed to have high-level US security clearance, and posted thousands of cryptic messages peppered with pro-Trump themes.
That was until December 8, 2020, about a month before the Capitol Hill riot in the US, when Q last posted.
Since then, QAnon followers have awaited clues, known as “Q drops”, while others kept the theory alive by trawling through old posts to create new spin-offs.
“People see some unexplained phenomena, and try to join the dots and fill it in. You make coincidences into meaningful information,” said Dr Ross, one of Australia’s leading experts on conspiracies and the far right.
“People like to make meaning out of stuff. At a time of pandemic, things seem meaningless. Humans are good at making meaning out of nothing. It’s like looking at a cloud and thinking it looks like a dog.”
But while the movement appears to have lost some momentum, some believers are adamant Q will return online and have proposed new dates for the so-called coming of the “storm”, when Mr Trump will rise to the rescue.
Why is it dangerous?
There have been numerous instances of QAnon adherents pursuing vigilante justice.
Some have searched for paedophiles in the real world, wrongly believing children were being held in homes or businesses.
For more notable examples, look no further than the Capitol Hill insurrection, led by QAnon believers, which led to the deaths of five people.
In response to concerns about the growing threat of QAnon adherents in 2019, the FBI named the conspiracy theory a domestic terrorist threat.
Pages belonging to group members were removed from social media including Facebook and Twitter.
But aside from its core tenets, QAnon followers are generally anti-lockdown and anti-mask.
Many claim the pandemic is a hoax created by world leaders, with other followers also subscribe to a grab bag of popular conspiracy theories.
“It’s not a cult with a concrete set of beliefs and a leader, it’s completely free flowing. Some people are concerned about chemtrails, or 5G, and become folded into the bigger thing called QAnon because it gives them a big community of active people to connect,” Dr Ross said.
“It’s gathered up like a nasty tumbleweed.”
Why do Australians care about QAnon?
The conspiracy is heavily US-centric, but its tendrils snake across the world. QAnon followers are found in Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Australia.
QAnon’s surprise flourishing is down to its core claims being highly “malleable”, according to La Trobe University’s Mathew Marques, a lecturer in social psychology.
Dr Marques said QAnon adapts to each country’s specific situation, merging with existing conspiracy theories or political circumstances.
For instance, during Melbourne’s lockdowns, far-right conspiracy groups spread debunked claims about children being trafficked in tunnels below public housing blocks, and sparked rumours of nefarious reasons for Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ injury.
“If you think of the basic elements, of Satanic paedophile rings, these conspiracies have been around well before QAnon,” Dr Marques told TND.
“QAnon just packaged them in a new way, for a specific time. A lot of the elements are long-standing conspiracies, just weaponised with a political target.”
As Dr Ross notes, QAnon groups in Australia and around the world hoover up adherents of other fringe movements into an amorphous clutch of concerns – which means it can evolve to fit any specific country.
“QAnon is a cult, but it doesn’t have a leader. People think there’s a structure, but it doesn’t work like that. It’s totally organic so it can adapt to any local nuance,” she said.
Dr Ross estimates there are several thousand Australians who follow QAnon through social media channels such as Telegram.
Dr Marques said he thought Australians latched onto it, simply because it was making waves in the US. It gained traction as followers found one another in fringe online groups.
“Many Australians are fascinated by US politics, whether Obama or whatever, but when you had the largest mouthpiece for conspiracy theories with Trump in power, speaking or retweeting these things, that’s attractive and alluring for people to latch on to,” he said.
“One aspect of conspiracy theories is that social aspect, to boost your self-esteem and connect with a group of people. It’s similar to a religious element, affiliating with people who share your ideology and world view is a fundamental need.”
Dr Ross had an even blunter assessment of how QAnon had spread to Australia.
“We may have closed borders to COVID, but [we have] very porous and open borders to conspiracy theories from overseas,” she said.