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In this Aug. 2, 2018, file photo, David Reinert holding a Q sign waits in line with others to enter a campaign rally with President Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (AP) In this Aug. 2, 2018, file photo, David Reinert holding a Q sign waits in line with others to enter a campaign rally with President Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (AP)

In this Aug. 2, 2018, file photo, David Reinert holding a Q sign waits in line with others to enter a campaign rally with President Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (AP)

Daniel Funke
By Daniel Funke August 27, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • Q is an anonymous internet persona who claims to be a government insider with information on a “deep state” plot to work against Donald Trump. Q’s posts on a fringe internet forum are the basis for the QAnon conspiracy theory.

  • But it has moved into the mainstream, promoted by congressional candidates, celebrities and influencers and thriving on social networks like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. 

  • The FBI has described QAnon as a potential domestic terrorism threat. The conspiracy theory has been linked to several criminal acts over the past couple of years.

In mid August, Marjorie Taylor Greene won the primary election in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, which is likely to vote red in November. Two weeks later, she was invited to attend President Donald Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention. Jo Rae Perkins of Oregon and Lauren Boebert of Colorado also won Republican primary elections this summer.

What do these candidates have in common? They are among several aspiring lawmakers who have promoted QAnon.

The conspiracy theory claims public figures like Hillary Clinton, Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey are Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles. QAnon is based on posts from Q, an anonymous internet persona who claims to be a government insider with information on a "deep state" plot to work against Trump.

Those claims are not grounded in facts, and lawmakers have introduced bipartisan legislation condemning the conspiracy theory. But QAnon has gained steam since its 2017 emergence, and Trump has, at times, tacitly encouraged its supporters.

Trump has amplified QAnon accounts on Twitter and supported political candidates who subscribe to it. When asked about QAnon in several recent press briefings, the president demurred.

"Well I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate," he said during an Aug. 19 briefing.

Trump is right — QAnon does like him. But there’s more to the baseless conspiracy theory than presidential politics, and the FBI warned that it’s a potential domestic terrorism threat.

Here’s everything you need to know.

Have a question about QAnon that we didn’t answer here? Send it to [email protected].   

What is "Q"?

The term "QAnon" is a mashup of "Q" and "anon," an abbreviation for "anonymous." The term has been used to reference the conspiracy theory and its followers. The Q is a reference to a high level of security clearance at the Department of Energy.

QAnon has been around since October 2017, when Q started posting vague and cryptic messages — which have become known as "breadcrumbs" and "Q drops" — on a fringe internet forum called 4chan. Those posts serve as the backbone of the conspiracy theory, whose believers trend conservative.

Q has published more than 4,600 posts on 4chan and 8chan message boards, including links, images and obscure messages. Here’s an excerpt from one of Q’s earliest posts:

There are more good people than bad. The wizards and warlocks (inside term) will not allow another Satanic Evil POS control our country. Realize Soros, Clintons, Obama, Putin, etc. are all controlled by 3 families (the 4th was removed post Trump's victory). 

11.3 - Podesta indicted

11.6 - Huma indicted

The dates at the end of the excerpt reference are a prediction for when John Podesta, former chair of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and Huma Abedin, the campaign’s vice chair, would be indicted for previously undisclosed crimes. Neither came to pass.

Some believers think that Q is a single person, while others speculate that Q’s identity has changed over time. The forum for Q’s posts has changed, moving from 4chan to 8chan, which rebranded as 8kun in fall 2019 after manifestos related to three mass shootings were posted on the platform.

A #SaveOurChildren demonstration in Hollywood, Calif., on Aug. 22, 2020. (Damairs Carter/MediaPunch /IPX)

What does QAnon claim?

It’s difficult to figure out Q’s exact message, and not all QAnon supporters believe the same things. But the general idea is this:

  • The world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles that include the most famous Democrats and celebrities.

  • In addition to molesting children, members of this group also kill and eat their victims in order to ingest a life-extending chemical in human blood.

  • In order to stop this elite ring of pedophilic cannibals, top military generals convinced Trump to run for president in 2016. He’s now secretly working behind the scenes to bring those involved to justice.

Many QAnon supporters believe that Trump’s efforts will culminate in something called "the storm." That term comes from some comments that Trump made to reporters in October 2017 while posing with military generals: "You guys know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm." (The White House never clarified what he was talking about.)

QAnon also touches on other false narratives about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, vaccines and the moon landing.

How is QAnon related to Pizzagate?

QAnon evolved from the Pizzagate conspiracy theory about child sex trafficking and prominent Democrats.

Pizzagate emerged during the 2016 campaign after WikiLeaks released Podesta’s emails. Some people on internet forums noticed that Podesta had communicated with the owner of Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C., to discuss a fundraiser. 

RELATED: How Pizzagate went from fake news to a real problem for a D.C. business

With no evidence to go on, they claimed Podesta’s use of the word "pizza" was a code word for pedophilia and that Comet Ping Pong was holding children hostage for Clinton and her allies to abuse. In December 2016, a North Carolina man entered the pizzeria with an assault rifle to "self-investigate" the claims. The man fired his rifle inside the restaurant before he surrendered. There were no reported injuries.

How has QAnon spread?

QAnon has found a home on more mainstream social networks in the leadup to 2020.

In 2018, QAnon found a larger audience after its supporters started showing up at Trump rallies. Trump has at times retweeted accounts that had promoted the conspiracy theory. Although several of QAnon’s predictions, including January 2019 military tribunals against the "deep state," never came to pass, fervent supporters remain undeterred.

Since then, QAnon found a loyal following on the largest social media platform in the world — and during the coronavirus pandemic.

An analysis from Storyful, a social media research firm, found that, between March and July, membership in 10 large public QAnon Facebook groups increased by nearly 600%. NBC News reported that an internal Facebook investigation found thousands of groups and pages with millions of members and followers dedicated to QAnon. 

Michael Flynn, Donald Trump's former national security adviser, leads a generic oath of office followed by a QAnon slogan in a video tweeted on July 4, 2020. (Screenshot from Twitter)

The hashtags that frequently accompany posts about the conspiracy theory include #TheGreatAwakening and #WWG1WGA, which stands for "where we go one, we go all." The latter slogan is a kind of oath that QAnon supporters take to pledge themselves as "digital soldiers" for an upcoming apocalyptic event.

On Aug. 19, Facebook announced that it had removed hundreds of groups — and restricted thousands of groups, pages and Instagram accounts — that regularly promoted QAnon. Some of those groups published information that PolitiFact fact-checked as false or misleading.

Here are a few examples of hoaxes that were promoted by QAnon-supporting groups and pages just since July:

  • False posts attacked online furniture retailer Wayfair as facilitating a child sex trafficking operation. The narrative originated in communities that regularly promoted QAnon and Pizzagate.

  • Photo and text posts that claimed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is a pedophile. We rated those posts Pants on Fire!

  • A viral video called "Shadowgate" made sweeping claims about Trump, the media and protests against police brutality. We rated it Pants on Fire!

It’s not just Facebook and Instagram — users on YouTube and Twitter were instrumental in helping QAnon jump from 4chan and 8kun to a more mainstream audience. Both companies have also taken action to limit the spread of QAnon-related content, to some effect.

Who supports QAnon?

Supporters of QAnon have broadened since the early days, when data suggested that most adherents were white men who supported Trump or Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. But it appears most Americans are still not familiar with it.

A Pew Research Center survey published in March found that more than three-fourths of Americans still hadn’t heard of QAnon. Those who had tended to be liberals who got their news from outlets like the New York Times, NPR and MSNBC, or active Twitter and Reddit users.

Polling suggests that, among Americans who are familiar with QAnon, the conspiracy theory is unpopular. In June, one online poll of 1,039 Floridians and 1,040 American adults found that both Democrats and Republicans had unfavorable views of QAnon.

Still, QAnon has gained more mainstream support, amplified by influencers and celebrities.

Curt Schilling, a former MLB pitcher and a commentator for conservative news outlet BlazeTV, has amplified QAnon content to his Twitter followers. In 2018, Roseanne Barr tweeted, and deleted, posts about the conspiracy theory and Trump’s efforts to address sex trafficking. Through his podcast, comedian Joe Rogan has given a platform to QAnon supporters.

On Instagram, some lifestyle influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers have promoted QAnon during the coronavirus pandemic. Many are drawn to QAnon’s concern with child sex trafficking and repackage the unsupported claims for a younger audience.

And QAnon has spread beyond the United States. A July report from NewsGuard, a company that tracks online misinformation, noted that QAnon has taken root in the European Union, where related Facebook groups have swelled in numbers and applied regional flavor to the conspiracy theory "to target local politicians and elites." 

A member of the audience with a Q drawn on the cheek cheers before the start of a campaign rally for President Donald Trump on Feb. 10, 2020, in Manchester, N.H. (AP)

Why do people believe QAnon?

The QAnon conspiracy theory is as far-fetched as it is bizarre, but it appeals to people because it gives them a sense of control.

"The bad news is that a group of Satanic plotters have incredible power in this country; the good news is that QAnon followers and their hero, the president, have figured out the plot and are going to expose it," said Kathryn Olmsted, a history professor and conspiracy theory expert at the University of California, Davis.

There’s also an appealing element of participation. Q’s posts are like clues at a murder mystery party, but the party is on 8kun and the baseless clues are about pedophilia, cannibalism and Satan worship. 

RELATED: QAnon and Donald Trump rallies: What's that about?

Because Trump is the hero in this narrative, people might assume that only conservatives are likely to support something like QAnon. But that’s not necessarily the case.

According to the book "American Conspiracy Theories," gender and political party do not determine whether someone believes in conspiracy theories. More telling factors include less education and income. People who are less likely to participate in politics or are more likely to accept violence are also more inclined to believe.

"Our predispositions to conspiracy theorizing interact with our political views," said Joseph Parent, the book’s co-author and an associate political science professor at the University of Notre Dame. "So conspiracy theorists on the left are focused on threats from the right and vice versa. People believe what they want to believe; they fear what they want to fear."

Is QAnon dangerous or illegal?

The conspiracy theory has been linked to several crimes, some of them violent, and the FBI has said it’s a potential domestic terrorism threat. Some of QAnon’s claims could be potentially defamatory.

In a May 2019 intelligence bulletin obtained by Yahoo! News, FBI officials described "conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists" as a growing threat. The memo mentions QAnon specifically.

"The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts," the document says.

In a July report, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, an academic institute within the United States Military Academy, cited a number of examples of violence linked to QAnon.

RELATED: QAnon hoax has been linked to violence. Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld falsely claimed it hasn’t

"QAnon has contributed to the radicalization of several people to notable criminal acts or acts of violence," the report said.

Here are a few examples of such incidents, as documented by several news outlets:

  • In June 2018, a Nevada man named Matthew Philip Wright blocked traffic on a bridge near the Hoover Dam, demanding that officials release a government document about the handling of Hillary Clinton’s email probe. After a standoff with police, Wright drove away and was later arrested, during which he mentioned QAnon talking points. Police found several firearms, ammunition and a flashbang device in his car.

  • In March 2019, a New York man named Anthony Comello allegedly killed a member of the Gambino crime family who he said was part of the "deep state." During one court appearance, Comello wrote "Q" on the palm of his hand.

  • In April, an Illinois woman named Jennifer Prim was arrested after allegedly driving onto a New York City pier with a car full of knives. In a livestreamed video, she threatened to kill Joe Biden for his purported involvement in a sex trafficking ring.

There’s also a question of whether QAnon’s claims could violate defamation laws. Since the conspiracy theory makes many salacious, unproven allegations about public figures, there could be grounds to sue the QAnon supporters who espouse them.

"If there are false factual allegations that would harm someone’s reputation, then that can be fodder for a libel lawsuit," said Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida. "The problem here, though, that we might think about is the so-called Streisand Effect — that you give more attention to something than it's probably worth by filing the lawsuit."

A #SaveOurChildren demonstration in Hollywood, Calif., on Aug. 22, 2020. (Damairs Carter/MediaPunch /IPX)

What does #SaveTheChildren have to do with it?

Posts with #SaveTheChildren and #SaveOurChildren, along with related demonstrations in hundreds of cities across the country, purport to be about ending child sex trafficking. But the hashtags were propped up by supporters of QAnon and Pizzagate.

#SaveTheChildren has been shared millions of times, but it is not linked to any humanitarian organizations. Save the Children, a London organization that aims to improve the lives of children around the world, has nothing to do with the viral hashtag.

#SaveTheChildren and #SaveOurChildren started circulating in QAnon and Pizzagate Facebook groups in July before spreading to conservative sources like PragerU, a powerhouse page on Facebook. More recently, conspiracy theorists helped plan demonstrations in scores of towns and cities across the country.

RELATED: QAnon, Pizzagate conspiracy theories co-opt #SaveTheChildren

"The whole danger of this whole thing is that it’s such an effective entrypoint for QAnon and Pizzagate’s style of thinking," said Travis View, co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, in a recent episode. "There’s no decoding involved. It doesn’t ask you to go through the Podesta emails, it doesn’t ask you to read the Q drops — it asks you to recognize that children are being harmed and trafficked and then get outraged about it."

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Our Sources

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ABC News, "QAnon: What is it and how did we get here?" Aug. 20, 2020

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The Associated Press, "Marjorie Greene invited to RNC to attend President Trump's acceptance speech," Aug. 25, 2020

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The Atlantic, "The Women Making Conspiracy Theories Beautiful," Aug. 18, 2020

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