As many Americans sit down and turn on the news at the end of the night to relax, he or she is bombarded with frightening news about our government and society. To some, the way various news sources present wildly different perspectives on the news of the day seems like an effort to manipulate and control their minds. Many people feel bothered by this prospect but learn to live an ever-broadening -- but still somewhat realistic -- range of what can be considered fact or truth. However, a growing number of people have recently moved well beyond reality and have been sucked into the outlandishly dangerous world of the "QAnon” conspiracy. The name “QAnon” comes from “Q”: a purportedly high-level government official with Q clearance (access to top-secret information within the Trump administration). Anon, which is short for anonymous, as Q will not reveal his (or her) identity.
This conspiracy has been labeled as a terrorist threat by the FBI, drawn praise from president Trump, and captured the attention and allegiance of frightening number of American citizens. The ever-expanding extremist network originally spread exponentially in America through the internet and it has recently reached international audiences. The theory started as a fringe conspiracy for the deepest internet surfers, but it has taken a surprising turn as “normal” people, from suburban moms to Kindergarten teachers, have bought into it.
The conspiracy has its roots in the claims of a supposed government “insider” who calls himself (or herself) "Q." The basis of the theory is that Donald Trump is the world’s savior from the pedopheliac cannibalistic Democrats. Although this should sound dubious to even the most credulous adults, the QAnon internet presence uses skillful mental manipulation to draw normal people to their crazy ideas. As their platform has grown, their theories have broadened to encompass increasingly harmful and outlandish theories. They have claimed that the entire world is controlled by Satan worshipping demon people who run sex-trafficking rings and are working to destroy Trump. Their strategy includes using inflated claims of child trafficking in America to draw in concerned parents and other naïve social media surfers. Then, they draw this person further into a crafted sequence of increasingly extremist ideas through seemingly innocent or even noble hashtags such as “savethechildren.”.
The group capitalizes on the cult-like nature of some Trump’s supporters and controversial political issues to draw in people who feel manipulated by “the media.” There is not one leader of the extremist movement, which allows new lies and conspiracies to grow and spread rapidly around their networks with no form of mediation. Since many of their claims are too broad to be easily falsified with direct evidence, it can appear to believers that the lack of a clear negation makes their beliefs true. When there is not an explicit way to prove a theory wrong, despite how nonsensical it is, fake evidence and lucky predictions can be used to bolster a narrative. Additionally, members of QAnon tend to use the careful strategy of throwing in random tidbits of vague truth into their theories to add a minimum level of believability. Posts by "Q" are known to be ambiguous, but this feeds into the movement’s desire to fabricate new conspiracy theories.
QAnon’s theories rewrite historical events in American society and create a warped and evil perception of our current political climate. They claim that a “deep state” made up of Democrats, Hollywood celebrities, and billionaires has been responsible for all major political events from the JFK assassination (in their estimation, he’s still alive) to terrorist attacks like 9/11, which, they posit the US government organized. Much of their narrative is based on deifying Trump and taking his charges of “fake news” and the “corrupt media'' as an excuse for why he has not yet been able to overthrow the “deep state.”
The second component of their conspiracies is called “The Storm.” The Storm, which was supposed to have already occurred, would have sent all of the “deep state” members to Guantanamo Bay, a US military prison in Cuba, in a process called the “Great Awakening.” The parallels between this story line and elements of Christianity are uncanny. Trump is paralleled to Jesus Christ, and “the storm” would refer to the Second Coming of Christ. Finally the “Great Awakening” mirrors the ideas of multiple Christian extremist revivals dating back to the mid eighteenth century. "Q" and other influential members of QAnon had spread rumors that Trump was working with his associate, Robert Mueller, the FBI director who investigated Russian involvement in the 2016 election, to enact “the storm.” However, all of their predicted dates for this day of judgement have already passed; which they explained by blaming “the media” for thwarting or at delaying the supposed day of reckoning.
In addition to the strategic spreading of "Q"Anon from the inside out, social media companies’ initial refusal to shut down their expansion allowed them to dramatically increase their reach. Since its start in 2017, QAnon has been spreading its ideology on extremist message boards like “4chan” and “8chan.” However, the group’s influence is more effectively spread on mainstream social media sites. "Q" has allegedly posted over 4,000 times on these sites, claiming to be a top government agent with knowledge of the “deep state.”
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit only took action against QAnon in the summer and fall of 2020 after receiving immense backlash from government officials and many Americans. Their delayed response to the extremism spreading on their sites can be attributed to the benefits it brought them. On most social media sites,the more “spreadable” the content, they more attractive it is. Extremist rhetoric often draws people down rabbit holes and further into these sites, which then boosts revenue. QAnon is skilled at bringing people further and further into their content; so, because of the high rates of engagement on their pages, social media sites resisted banning them.
In October, Facebook announced that it would be banning QAnon from its platform, but it seems impossible to fully enforce the ban due to the number of followers already involved. Facebook has defended its delay in stopping these groups by claiming to protect free speech; however, since QAnon is classified as a domestic terror threat, this excuse is no longer valid. Further, it is not a private company’s duty to protect free speech; that responsibility applies only to government entities. Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook have recently removed QAnon videos and posts from the “suggested” sections of their platforms and have removed thousands of accounts. Facebook promised to further regulate QAnon’s influence by banning them from advertising and raising money on the site. Although these regulations are an important step in the right direction, QAnon’s media web of chat rooms, meme pages, and videos are now irrevocably circulating the internet and continue to draw new recruits to their dangerous reality.
Astoundingly, QAnon has even infiltrated the highest reaches of government, not only through President Trump’s approval, but also through its boosting by newly elected members of the US Congress. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly-elected member of the House of Representatives from Georgia, is the first openly QAnon supporter in Congress but more may follow.
Greene uploaded a 30-minute video prior to Election Day detailing her belief in QAnon. It has since been deleted, but she continued to affiliate with QAnon along with nearly two dozen other Republicans who were on the ballot in November. Greene stated in a 2017 video that, “Q is a patriot, we know that for sure,” and, “There’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president (Trump) to do it.”
Additionally, Lauren Boebert, a more subdued QAnon affiliate, claimed a Colorado seat in the House of Representatives in November. The radical claims of Green and Boebert are perpetuated by Trump’s refusal to denounce QAnon. He has repeatedly retweeted and republished QAnon’s posts and, when asked, said, “Let me just tell you what I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that."
The real dangers of QAnon have already materialized in America and internationally. QAnon has taken credit for “Pizzagate,” a conspiracy theory that arose during the 2016 election. The conspiracy theory claimed that a certain pizza store referenced in Hillary Clinton’s email was the site of a Democrat child-trafficking ring. In December of 2016, a man entered the Washington D.C. pizza place wielding a gun and demanding that the sex traffickers reveal themselves. Although the police arrived on the scene and nobody was injured, the instance is often pointed to as the launching point for QAnon. “Pizzagate,” a woman's attempt to assassinate Joe Biden, and other violent threats and acts of aggression attributed to QAnon show how dangerous its influence is.
QAnon is also responsible for surfacing extremely antisemitic and racist conspiracies that have contributed to the rise in hate crimes against both Jewish and racial minority groups. They have revived ancient conspiracies such as the Jewish plot to control the world, and a cannibalistic idea that Jews have extracted a specific chemical from the blood of children to extend their lives: a reference to the centuries-old antisemitic blood libel alligation. Qanon’s antisemitic and racist rhetoric is not hidden and yet members of the government support it.
In order to stop the spread of QAnon, policymakers and citizens must reject their mainstream outreach just as strongly as QAnon advocates for the “Great Awakening.” To do otherwise amounts to a surrender to the spreading of lies masked as fact, making the truth that much harder for many Americans to gauge.
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