Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



In recent years, there has been concern about a surge of conspiracy theories in the mainstream political landscape. At the highest level of media and public awareness is QAnon. However, current understandings of conspiracy theory do not well account for QAnon’s mainstream growth in light of its apparent outlandishness. Moreover, QAnon is distinct from other conspiracy theories because it is an Internet-based phenomenon, highly participatory, and spans a diversity of conspiracy beliefs. Yet, research on QAnon has not examined the spread of QAnon conspiracy content through mainstream channels in a way that accounts for 1) the full range of QAnon beliefs expressed, 2) how these messages are communicated, and 3) the qualities of the visual media that are important to QAnon and conspiracy theory generally. This study addresses these points by examining QAnon conspiracy communication on Twitter.

Descriptive statistics and ordinary least squares regression are employed to examine a large number of tweets, and thematic content analysis is employed to examine the images and videos used in select influential tweets. Importantly, a qualitative classification of Twitter users as QAnon adherents or non-adherents is performed, which is seldom done in studies of social media. This procedure yields findings particular to the population of interest. The findings indicate, first, that QAnon is centered on a set of core beliefs, but has expansive peripheral beliefs. The QAnon content that reaches the most people tends to involve specific elements of QAnon belief rather than general conspiracy beliefs and phrases, and time and resonance also relate to a message finding a wide audience. Second, technical features, namely image and video media, help a message reach a wider audience, while the use of cognitive and emotional language largely does not. Third, the visual media of conspiracy theory are important both in expressing support for the group and as a means of conveying conspiracy beliefs. Finally, there is minimal explicit racism in the QAnon media files or tweets, rather, there are overt attempts to appeal to black Americans. The most important means of claim-making include grounding misinformation in half-truths, use of composite media, and aesthetic political messaging.



Committee Chair

Shrum, Wesley

Available for download on Tuesday, August 20, 2030