How Q became everything

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You can track QAnon’s arc, like most things in America, through its relationship with corporate brands. Although the conspiracy movement emerged out of fringe imageboards in 2017, its first viral successes came on Facebook and YouTube, where its lore envisioning Donald Trump fighting an elite cabal of liberal pedophiles was honed and refined. When Covid came in 2020, QAnon ballooned under lockdowns, putting it in the mainstream, but leaving it short of actually being mainstream.
Call it the Wayfair era. In July 2020, followers of QAnon began spreading a particular pedophilic panic: the absurd notion that the online furniture retailer was selling children for sexual abuse via armoire orders. Non-Q masses took the bait: “Mentions of Wayfair and ‘trafficking’ have exploded on Facebook and Instagram over the past week,” the Associated Press wrote at the time, noting that related TikTok hashtags “together amassed nearly 4.5 million views.” A national human trafficking hotline issued a press release warning that a flood of calls about the conspiracy had distracted them from genuine work.
While it was widely peddled, it was also widely derided. Surely, something so absurd could not keep going. And looking back on the uproar from two years later, Wayfair seemed like the death of Q. By late 2020, major Q adherents had been purged from the platforms. Its influencers and weird hoaxes almost never broke into broader consciousness, except to be debunked. Its galvanizing messiah, Trump, was on his way out of the White House. Q was no longer inspiring people to murder mob bosses, kidnap their own children, or show up heavily armed at the Hoover Dam.
But far from being the end, Wayfair was a sign of what the movement was turning into—one confirmed in late November 2022, when the Balenciaga panic happened. The genesis point was a TikTok video posted by Brittany Venti, a right-wing provocateur and influencer with a history of aggravating culture war fights. While displaying pictures from a Balenciaga ad campaign showing small children with purses made to look like teddy bears wearing bondage straps, she complained that a “worldwide, internationally known brand” was “advertising their purses by having a child hold kink fetish gear.”
We are in an era of obsessive, odd, and sprawling fear of pedophilia—one where QAnon’s paranoid thinking is no longer bound to the political fringes.
“To me, it’s about sexualizing children,” Venti concluded in the video, which garnered millions of views. Popular YouTuber Shoe0nHead relayed the complaint on Twitter, adding the claim that the photo shoot had “included a very purposely poorly hidden court document about ‘virtual child porn.’” Her tweet took off, boosted by large right-wing accounts, including the notoriously transphobic LibsofTikTok. Together, these influencers—none of whom maintain explicit links to the Q movement—galvanized masses of people to throw up their arms in disgust. As right-wing influencers like Candace Owens and Andrew Tate seized on the Balenciaga panic and dolled it out to their audiences, it became one of the biggest stories on the internet.
For some, the conversation moved beyond the ads and into accusations that the campaign somehow captured a reality that children were being abused by Balenciaga. A Twitter user accused Balenciaga of “getting even sloppier about their underworld.” “Pedophiles telling us they’re Pedophiles RIGHT IN OUR FACES,” another wrote.
It was Wayfair again, but bigger. And like Wayfair, it didn’t make sense and wasn’t true. Bondage may have been intractable from BDSM in the ’70s, but it had long since been co-opted by other subcultures, like techno ravers, artists, high fashion, and anyone interested in cosplaying as subversive. The court documents hadn’t appeared in the campaign alongside the children, but in a separate one featuring adult women. And of course, there was no child abuse. The photographer who did the shoot was well known for his not-at-all-lewd documentary work, and his subjects were the kids of Balenciaga employees who were on set supervising.
The episode revealed that the paranoid thinking of QAnon hadn’t disappeared, but that its logic was influencing people far beyond the reaches of the conspiracy theory. The Wayfair panic had been partially incepted and egged on by QAnon boosters. The Balenciaga panic was not. But their contentions were the same: Liberal elites were molesting kids and were brazen enough to leave clues in plain sight.
The Balenciaga panic can be seen as QAnon by other means—a mainstreamed version that imagines threats to children lurking just about everywhere. The long history of moral panics has often centered on seeing attacks to “the family” as social progress reaches schools, libraries, and hospitals and challenges old moral foundations. To prove it, they say, one need only need to pay attention, and to stand by is to allow an attack on children. Think of the Christopher Rufo–bolstered critical race theory panics, drag brunch panics, transgender panics, LGBTQ panics. They’re all at least partially incubated in the same petri dish as Q: paranoid nightmares dreamt up during moments of a changing social order.
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A TikTok video from a right-wing provocateur attacking a November 2022 Balenciaga ad campaign went viral.Balenciaga
It would be easy to cast all this aside as the horrific, confused ramblings of the stupid. But that ignores a central, uncomfortable fact: Many of us act like Q adherents now. While the movement itself has been thrown away, its styling is now dominant. We are in an era of obsessive, odd, and sprawling fear of pedophilia—one where QAnon’s paranoid thinking is no longer bound to the political fringes of middle-aged posters and boomers terminally lost in the cyber world.
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A TikTok video from a right-wing provocateur attacking a November 2022 Balenciaga ad campaign went viral.Balenciaga
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Kim Kardashian, who had modeled for the high-fashion house, said she was “shaken by the disturbing images.â€Balenciaga