Think of it as an origin story, or a cautionary tale: imagine an anonymous persona in an online message board, posting tantalizing hints about a secret intrigue requiring communication and collaboration to unravel. Now add believers around the world devoting hours to dissecting and debating clues as they concocted intricate, unverifiable theories in the hope of solving the mystery.
Sounds like QAnon, but this secret intrigue predates the delusive right-wing conspiracy theory by 25 years. It was the Publius Enigma, an internet riddle stemming from Pink Floyd’s 1994 album The Division Bell. Beginning in June 1994, someone using the name Publius began sending cryptic posts through an anonymous online remailer to alt.music.pink-floyd, a usenet group (a sort of pre-graphical online discussion forum), alluding to a message hidden within the album.
In the first missive, Publius wrote, “You have heard the message Pink Floyd has delivered, but have you listened?” The author encouraged readers to work together, and promised to serve as a guide but wrote, “I will not solve the enigma for you.” In a subsequent message that more explicitly spelled out the challenge, Publius claimed “a unique prize has been secreted,” and offered a prompt: “Lyrics, artwork and music will take you there.”
The game was afoot. Over the next two years, until the remailer shut down, Publius occasionally dropped arcane clues and offered encouragement as Floyd fans who had some modicum of proficiency with the early public internet posted their theories and conjecture on the discussion board. Naturally, there were skeptics. Publius promised to provide proof that the riddle was real, instructing fans to pay attention when Pink Floyd performed at Giants Stadium in New Jersey on July 18, 1994. Sure enough, during “Keep Talking,” the light bank at the front of the stage flashed the word “Enigma,” followed by “Publius.” As it happened, the band also performed Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety that night, which some Enigma believers were certain couldn’t have been a coincidence.
For a certain segment of deep-diving Pink Floyd fans (including me, as a college student), the idea that Pink Floyd would have included hidden meanings in an album wasn’t super far-fetched. The band had been tucking snippets of conversation and dialogue into songs since 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, and there was even a tongue-in-cheek backward message on “Empty Spaces” from The Wall in 1979. “Congratulations,” then-singer and bassist Roger Waters says. “You have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the Funny Farm, Chalfont.”
Floyd was also known for elaborate album art: the man shaking hands with a doppelganger in flames on the cover of Wish You Were Here, for example or the pig floating over London’s Battersea Power Station on the front of Animals or the ribbon of old-fashioned hospital beds stretching into the distance on a beach on the cover of A Momentary Lapse of Reason. All of those images were real: the band and their art director, Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis, actually did float a giant inflatable pig over the power plant, and line a beach with 700 metal-frame beds.
Album art for The Division Bell featured a pair of stylized metal sculptures of heads facing each other in a field near Cambridge, England, with Ely Cathedral visible between them in the distance. The last song on the album, “High Hopes,” opens with the peeling of church bells. It’s silly in retrospect, but given the band’s commitment to a certain grandiosity of scale, maybe the latter-day Floyd lineup of David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Richard Wright would have dreamed up some kind of brainteaser. Maybe it even involved the cathedral!
Spoiler: nope. The whole thing turned out to be a stunt by Pink Floyd’s record label to promote the album, an early effort at viral marketing before that term even existed. The riddle was “some silly record company thing that they thought up to puzzle people with,” Gilmour said in 2002. If there was an actual puzzle, it remains unsolved, though the enigma became an obsession for some believers who never gave up trying. Even now there are websites and YouTube videos purporting to explain the mystery, though trying to follow the reasoning is like watching Russell Crowe eagerly connecting dots that didn’t exist in the 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind.
Fake or not, the Publius Enigma was more plausible than QAnon, which holds that Q, allegedly an anonymous high-level government official, is revealing details about a global cabal of prominent politicians, celebrities and billionaires who are Satan-worshipping pedophiles intent on bringing down Donald Trump, who is working to stop them. Like the Publius Engima, QAnon was born online—on 4chan, in this case, an anonymous message board known for white supremacy and anti-Semitism. That’s where Q posted in October 2017 that Hillary Clinton would be arrested within two days—the first in an ongoing string of false claims.
Q’s posts, known as “drops,” are often nonsensical, like some kind of right-wing cosplay fever dream. But they’re vague enough to allow his (or her, or maybe their?) acolytes to “decode” them and overlay their own interpretations, which often seem to involve the political right’s longstanding fixation with the Clintons, and a newer obsession with the sex-trafficking of children. The conspiracy theory has grown increasingly tangled to include the baseless suspicion that antifa activists are setting the fires currently ravaging the West Coast, or that Coronavirus is somehow connected to 5G cellular networks, among other bonkers ideas.
Deciphering Q’s inscrutable clues gives the conspiracy theory an immersive game-like quality that can be addictive, writes Joe Pierre in Psychology Today. The puzzle-solving aspect has trickled out from vile corners of the internet into the mainstream, where QAnon ideas increasingly pop up in a more sanitized form in Facebook groups, among influencers on Instagram and even in mommy-blogs, burrowing into the consciousness of people prone to believing in conspiracy theories. (See the Steak-Umm Twitter feed for a wealth of sources and studies. Bet you never thought you’d read that sentence.)
“That they’re willing to fuss with such puzzles is a testament to the compulsive power of Q’s methods,” the novelist Walter Kirn wrote in Harpers in 2018. “By leaving more blanks in his stories than he fills in, he activates the portion of the mind that sees faces in clouds and hears melodies in white noise.”
The Publius Enigma hit many of those same game-play pleasure centers, but never metastasized into something more toxic. For one thing, its spread was more limited: the public internet was nowhere near as prominent in the mid-’90s, and early social networking sites like Friendster and MySpace were still almost a decade away. Also, the Enigma was born in the marketing department of a record label, and not a message board known for buoying racism and bigotry. Given that the Publius riddle was a ploy to hype a late-career album by a band past its peak, the stakes were pretty low to start with, and, the obsessive searchers aside, the whole thing essentially faded from view after a couple of years.
Yet like the Publius Enigma, QAnon is, in a sense, a marketing campaign. Part of what it’s selling, of course, is a virulent far-right worldview set in an alternate reality, coupled with a very real threat of violence. The FBI in 2019 warned that conspiracy theories including QAnon are likely to drive “both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.” There’s more to QAnon than ideology, though: Wouldn’t you know it, a New Jersey man who runs a QAnon-affiliated website is also developing a right-wing social media app called Armor of God, according to an investigation by the fact-checking organization Logically. He’s already raking in $3,200 a month through Patreon for Q-adjacent website maintenance.
There’s something almost poetic about the possibility that QAnon is a disinformation campaign doubling as a long-lead grift seeking to exploit the deepest fears of Trump’s base for profit. It would be fully ridiculous if it weren’t also dangerous. Say what you want about The Division Bell—it wasn’t Pink Floyd’s best album—but at least their riddle had a soundtrack.