QAnon, the Conspiracy Web Creeping Into U.S. Politics
(Bloomberg) -- Supporters of the U.S. conspiracy theory known as QAnon have been a feature on the fringes of American politics since late 2017. The internet-fueled movement has crept closer to the mainstream, with some believers winning election to Congress. The coming end of Donald Trump’s presidency is an inflection point for the movement, since he has a starring role at the center of the QAnon tale.
1. What is QAnon?
It’s a concoction of allegations against Democratic politicians, celebrities and supposed members of a “deep state” bureaucracy against whom Trump is seen as valiantly battling. Purported pedophilia rings are central to the conspiracy theory, along with Satanism and secret judicial proceedings. QAnon believers await the “Great Awakening,” or the moment the general public realizes the conspiracy exists, and the “Storm,” when thousands of wrongdoers face justice. (During a photo op with military generals in 2017, Trump commented, “You guys know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.” That moment is thought to have inspired part of QAnon’s beliefs.) The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Phoenix field office said in 2019 that conspiracy theories like QAnon can potentially incite acts of domestic terrorism.
2. Where did this come from?
QAnon shares roots with the so-called PizzaGate conspiracy theory that took hold during the 2016 presidential campaign; it held that top Democrats including Hillary Clinton, Trump’s presidential opponent, were involved in a child sex-trafficking ring operating out of a Washington pizza restaurant. (One follower drove from North Carolina to Washington to “self-investigate” the theory and fired an assault rifle into a closet at the restaurant.) In October 2017, almost one year after Trump’s surprise win, someone using the name Q hinted on the pseudo-anonymous discussion board 4chan -- a platform known for perpetuating white nationalism -- that Clinton’s arrest was imminent. After that claim proved unfounded, Q continued to post cryptic content termed “drops,” which get deciphered into plain English.
3. Who is Q?
One common belief among QAnon subscribers is that Q is a Trump-supporting, high-ranking government official with access to sensitive military information. (Within the U.S. Department of Energy, which is responsible for the nation’s nuclear-weapons program, the letter Q designates a high-level security clearance.) QAnon holds open the possibility that control of Q’s messages might have changed hands over the years, and could now involve a network of individuals with security clearances. NBC News reported in 2018 that “a small-time YouTube video creator and two moderators of the 4chan website” banded together to turn initial Q posts into “an entire mythology.” More recently, a senior vice president at Citigroup Inc. was identified as the operator of the most prominent website dedicated to the QAnon conspiracy theory. Citigroup terminated his employment.
4. How many people believe in QAnon?
It’s hard to know, given that so much of the discussion circulates online and anonymously. But Pew Research Center polling found that the number of Americans aware of QAnon roughly doubled from March to September, reaching 47%. And while 77% of Democrats aware of QAnon said it’s “very bad” for the country, only 26% of Republicans agreed. QAnon pops up occasionally in mainstream consciousness. Actress Roseanne Barr and former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling have helped promote elements of the theory. The letter Q can be seen on shirts, posters and hats at Trump rallies. In 2018, Vice President Mike Pence posed for photos with members of a county sheriff’s office in Florida who had provided security for him during a visit. One sergeant, on his tactical vest, sported a red and black patch bearing the letter Q and the phrase “Question the Narrative.” The photo was widely shared on Twitter. The officer was demoted.
5. How is QAnon bleeding into mainstream politics?
Media Matters for America, a nonprofit group that says its mission is “correcting conservative misinformation,” counted 27 candidates for the U.S. Senate or House who had secured a spot on the ballot in the Nov. 3 election and “have endorsed or given credence to the conspiracy theory or promoted QAnon content.” Of those, 25 were Republicans (as Trump is) and two were running independently from either major party. Two of the Republicans were victorious and will join Congress in January. In addition, QAnon has affiliated itself with the global movement to end human trafficking. This summer, QAnon adherents began taking over the anti-trafficking social media hashtag #SaveOurChildren, which was widely used during an online campaign against the Netflix Co. film “Cuties.”
6. Can anything be done?
Social media platforms have taken some steps. Facebook Inc. said it would remove accounts associated with QAnon, and YouTube said it would ban videos that promote QAnon and other conspiracy theories if they target specific people or groups. In July, Twitter started taking down tweets related to QAnon, targeting posts with the catch phrase “Where We Go One, We Go All,” often expressed through the acronym WWG1WGA. The House of Representatives on Oct. 2 overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan resolution “condemning QAnon and rejecting the conspiracy theories it promotes.” Representative Kevin McCarthy, the leader of House Republicans, had mostly stayed quiet about QAnon. But he said on Aug. 20 that “there is no place for QAnon in the Republican Party.”
7. What is Trump’s involvement?
He has retweeted QAnon content on multiple occasions and has a predilection for conspiracy theories, having advanced unfounded theories about former President Barack Obama’s birthplace, foul play in the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and widespread voter fraud in the 2016 popular election. Trump’s repeated talk about a “deep state” of unelected government workers undermining his presidency, and about what he calls hoaxes and witch hunts, parallel the logic and language of QAnon.
8. Has Trump specifically addressed QAnon?
Yes. Asked about the conspiracy theory at a news conference on Aug. 19, Trump said, “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.” Pressed specifically on whether he is secretly battling a satanic cult of pedophiles, he said, “I haven’t heard that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, you know -- if I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there.” Asked about QAnon again, at an Oct. 15 televised town hall, he said at first, “I know nothing about QAnon,” then, “I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard.”
9. What explains this phenomenon?
QAnon’s apocalyptic narrative is appealing to some at a time when the goal of some American politicians and their followers is destruction, not mere defeat, of the opponent. Nancy L. Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead, authors of a 2019 book on “the new conspiracism,” say a key driver of “today’s storm of allegations” is Trump’s role “in formulating and promoting them.” The movement is also gaining ground in Europe, in countries including the Netherlands.
The Reference Shelf
- What Trump’s defeat may mean for the QAnon movement.
- QAnon is gaining ground in Europe, affecting politics in countries such as the Netherlands.
- Bloomberg Businessweek reported on the Citigroup senior vice president who was also a QAnon high priest.
- What social media platforms are doing about QAnon.
- PizzaGate was thriving anew in the TikTok era, the New York Times reported.
- More on “A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy,” by Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum.
- The 2019 FBI memo on conspiracy theories and domestic terrorism.
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