QAnon followers are casting Putin in a positive light

Is it a case of mass delusion or textbook cult dynamics? Experts weigh in

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published March 1, 2022 5:45AM (EST)

Participants display Qanon flags at an event marking the 7th anniversary of the Pegida movement. The flag features the head of Russian President Putin, the Q for "Qanon" and the letter abbreviation WWG1WGA ("Where we go one we go all"). Meaning "Where one of us goes, we all go", or "One for all, all for one". With this, the Qanon followers evoke the cohesion of their community. (Matthias Rietschel/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Participants display Qanon flags at an event marking the 7th anniversary of the Pegida movement. The flag features the head of Russian President Putin, the Q for "Qanon" and the letter abbreviation WWG1WGA ("Where we go one we go all"). Meaning "Where one of us goes, we all go", or "One for all, all for one". With this, the Qanon followers evoke the cohesion of their community. (Matthias Rietschel/picture alliance via Getty Images)

While the International Criminal Court in The Hague is being called on to open an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, QAnon followers around the globe are praising him and casting him in a positive light. Though it might sound macabre, adherents of the bizarre and all-encompassing conspiracy movement believe that a major global crisis such as the current one is intrinsic to something they call the "Great Awakening," a prophecy that forms the crux of the massive conspiracy that claims top Democratic leaders will one day be arrested for running a global sex trafficking ring.

Hence, QAnon followers have taken to social media in droves to explain that what's really happening in Ukraine and how the invasion by Russian troops is actually everything "going as planned." Case in point: the Conspirituality podcast, which studies the intersection of right-wing conspiracy theories and faux wellness, shared on its Instagram account a screenshot of one user stating that the "harvesting and trafficking of humans and children….it is all being stopped for good" — because of the ongoing fighting in Ukraine. "The old central bank systems are to be switched off, humanity if being liberated from its slave masters, and true freedom, health and abundance is at our doorstep," the QAnon adherent continued, adding "nothing can stop what is coming."

As Newsweek reported, John Sabal, who previously went by the name QAnon John on Telegram, praised Putin in a series of Telegram posts positioning him as some kind of hero. "Putin is straight gangsta," he wrote. "MSM (mainstream media) is totally losing their minds right now,"

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This isn't the first time a massive geopolitical event has been co-opted by QAnon's all-encompassing conspiracy theory. Previously, global events ranging from Donald Trump's presidency to the COVID-19 pandemic to Canada's anti-vaccine trucker protests have all been integrated into the QAnon narrative. Indeed, QAnon followers have an indefatigable ability to fit any news item under its umbrella conspiracy that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who just happen to mostly be Democratic leaders. And, as if it needed to be said, none of it ever manifests.

One of QAnon's biggest baseless conspiracy theories, known as #SaveTheChildren — which dates back to 2016 — claims that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, her former campaign manager, operated a child sexual abuse ring. Years later, there is still no evidence that there is any child sex–trafficking ring, or evidence of the other misinformation the conspiracy theory has generated. Still, the false narrative has not lost steam, and is now magically tied to yet another massive global event.

So why does this keep happening with QAnon? Is it a case of mass delusional, or textbook cult dynamics?

Experts tell Salon it's a mix of both.

Matthew Remski, a co-host of the aforementioned Conspirituality podcast and a cult dynamics researcher, told Salon in an interview that QAnon's attempt to reduce the war in Ukraine to being about saving children isn't necessarily a way for the conspiracy theorists to rationalize what's happening, but instead a strategy to keep QAnon followers engaged and focused.

RELATED: A QAnon expert says unhappy believers are now being lured into far-right extremist groups

"Everything that the QAnon imaginarium drives toward is on display at scale, but in real world form — and that's a real problem for a community that imagined something like this needing to happen, but in some sort of different way or for a different purpose," Remski said. "We have a real war that's very complex and yet quite visible, and it's a real challenge for the person who has been building a war-like alternate reality that only they and their comrades can see, and that they've had to convince and recruit everybody else into believing it."

Joe Kelly, a cult intervention specialist, added that all QAnon has to lure its followers is this narrative of the so-called Great Awakening.

"They have some fundamental narratives that they keep pushing forward, and in various forms, depending on which conspiracy theory arises," Kelly said. "In this case, it's a geopolitical consequence dealing with Russia and Ukraine, and somehow they tie in their own justification." Hence, the need to manipulate reality and fold everything back into QAnon.

Remski and his team explained on Instagram this is another example of QAnon's playbook when a massive geopolitical event occurs. Their playbook, which is often propagated by wellness influencers who have become de facto QAnon followers, goes like this: first, communicate to one's followers that such geopolitical events aren't "real" and, rather, are part of some bigger plan, which usually has to do with child trafficking. Followers are then advised to do nothing in the face of said event, which is seen as the "enlightened" option. As part of this, followers are often advised to know which type of media to consume — another sign of "enlightenment"— and the source posting is the only person to be believed.

This strategy might be seen as a form of spiritual bypassing, a term developed by a psychotherapist in the 1980s to describe hiding behind spirituality to avoid emotional issues. Remski said in these wellness communities that are QAnon-adjacent, spiritual bypassing is a "self-soothing tactic that goes too far."

"In some of the yoga-related, Pastel Q posts that we've come across so far, that's kind of the name of the game," Remski said. "They say, 'I see this thing in the world, it appears to be terrifying, but I'm going to tell my followers that the secret truth of the circumstance is that everyone is on the verge of some kind of miraculous transformation, and we can't be sure what that is yet, but that's what we have to keep our focus on.'"

Remski added this strategy "gives people permission for their boredom to be participatory."

Daniel Shaw, a psychoanalyst who specializes in cult recovery and who wrote a book called "Traumatic Narcissism and Recovery," told Salon that QAnon followers' praise of Putin also aligns with the conspiracy theory group's ideology.

"There's a very strong leadership group here who are interested in undermining democratic institutions, for whatever their ideological reasons might be, and they've aligned with Putin because Putin is representative to them of white nationalism and anti-wokeness," Shaw said. Indeed, some QAnon supporters are conservative leaders in the U.S., like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who famously defended the movement and has made social media posts in the past that indicate that she is an adherent.

"Not all the [QAnon] followers understand what they're following," Shaw opined, noting that more people have become engaged with such frivolous conspiracy theories amid the pandemic. "Followers have been have been mainly recruited more than ever during COVID, especially during lockdown, where people are isolated, where they're dependent on what they see on their screens for interaction and they believe that they are involved in a very important movement that fights evil," he added.

Shaw said that with cults in general, which QAnon is often called, there's a strong focus on "purification."

"Purification is always at the heart of a cult," Shaw said. "The leaders believe in a certain kind of purity and they profess to know how to restore this purity."

Shaw added that in general, from a mental health perspective, people grasping on to QAnon conspiracy theories speaks to a "time of increased paranoia in this country."

"There are fears that are generated at almost every turn of the century, and that has to do with some kind of paranoid fear," Shaw said. "Psychologically, my view is that people seek out these kinds of movements, because they give meaning to their lives when they feel uncertain about what's going on in the world."

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By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Conspiracies Misinformation Psychology Qanon Reporting Sociology Ukraine Vladimir Putin Wellness