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The Spectre of Populist Leadership: QAnon, Emergent Formations, and Digital Community

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Abstract:  QAnon is an online conspiracy movement centred on cryptic posts published by an unknown figure referred to as “Q.” Its anti-hierarchical framework and deployment of an unknown leader can be understood as a substantial departure from other 21st-century populisms that are sustained by the celebrity relationship between a leader (often aspiring to or gaining political office) and its followers (constituted in community through consumption of the leaders’ social media posts). Reflecting on contemporary debates and insights within cultural studies and digital communication literature, this article investigates some of the ways in which the spectral leadership of Q presents challenges for understanding and apprehending populist movements. In light of QAnon, there is an emerging need to make sense of populisms that are built on mythical or anonymous characters rather than on identifiable human actors in leadership roles. We begin by discussing the role of key practices of contemporary populist leadership and contrast these with justice-based populisms that are community-led without the figure of an identifiable leader. We argue that, as a populist movement, QAnon fits neither of these frameworks and, instead, has drawn on the affordances of digital media and its intersections with postmodern hyperreality to produce a new formation of populist movement today. Arguing that Q is the simulacra of a leader, we theorise the ways in which QAnon fosters affiliation and action from its adherents who, themselves, take on the role of saviour-leader.

Keywords:  digital affordances; identification practices; leadership; networking; populism; QAnon; simulacra

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/mac.v10i4.5586


© Rob Cover, Jay Daniel Thompson, Ashleigh Haw. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.