Matthew Wright, armed with an assault rifle and hundreds of ammo rounds, parked his armored vehicle across traffic lanes on the bridge near Hoover Dam. His goal that day in June 2018: publicize the specious beliefs held by followers of the QAnon theory.
According to video he took inside his vehicle, Wright was upset that President Donald Trump had not made the mass arrests he and other QAnon followers anticipated.
Wright called for the release of a report he believed would show that Trump had been investigating crimes committed by political leaders, including child sex trafficking. Some believed those leaders engaged in pedophilia and nourished themselves with the blood of babies.
Weeks after his surrender to authorities, Wright wrote to Trump from jail and apologized for the hourlong standoff on the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.
He had failed to “represent the American people to the best of my ability,” Wright wrote. He closed the letter with a catchphrase popular in the QAnon community: “Where we go one, we go all.”
Two years later, there’s no need to generate publicity for QAnon. It has moved from fringe conspiracy to the Republican mainstream. Two congressional candidates on the ballot in Arizona have posted on social media about Q.
And Trump himself, after months of amplifying QAnon-related posts on Twitter, endorsed the group from the White House. Asked in an August briefing about the group, he said he wasn’t well-versed in the QAnon theory but understood “these are people that love our country.”
The Arizona Republic reviewed hundreds of posts and thousands of comments from a members-only Patriot Movement AZ Facebook group. The posts illustrated how the conspiracy spread among some of its members.
The QAnon conspiracy was born in 2017 on the 4chan message board — source of false news stories, hoaxes and online harassment. The conspiracy claims “Q” is an anonymous military or intelligence officer with clearance-level Q. Q’s cryptic posts have led followers to believe an event — called “The Storm” or “Great Awakening” — is imminent, in which elite pedophiles will be arrested and the truth revealed.
When a follower of QAnon introduced these ideas to the group of far-right Arizona conservatives in the Patriot Movement AZ Facebook group, he found a receptive audience. The Patriots already had an affinity for conspiracy theories and fabricated news stories, and a willingness to believe their political enemies are capable of boundless evil.
A man from California joined the invitation-only Facebook group in June 2018. He introduced himself in a post as a “hard core Christian American Patriot Trump supporter” and said how much he admired the Patriot Movement. He included with his message a picture of Trump standing alongside a man in a hoodie whose face was replaced by a burning letter Q and the phrase: “Where we go one, we go all.”
Soon he invited the Patriot Movement AZ Facebook group to learn more about QAnon, directing them to another Facebook group, the Perfect Storm. “This group’s for the hard core Patriots, those who demand the truth, and hunt for it…This group is for those who can’t sleep until they know the truth,” he wrote. “If this is you, grab a weapon and stand a post.”
His QAnon evangelism wasn’t met with any skepticism. Instead, it attracted at least one Q-curious Patriot. Was he required to believe in QAnon in order to join Perfect Storm, the Patriot Movement AZ member asked.
“I’m open minded,” the member wrote. “Just haven’t had enough time to research to form a solid opinion.”
The QAnon conspiracy has gained traction as its claims have become more outrageous and despite numerous warnings that it has become a threat to society.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2019 declared QAnon a domestic terrorism threat with the potential to motivate extremists to commit criminal and violent activity. In addition to still-pending terrorism charges against Wright in the Hoover Dam standoff, a handful of QAnon followers across the nation have been accused of crimes, ranging from trespassing to aggravated assault to murder.
In New York, a 24-year-old Staten Island man shot and killed a leader of the Gambino crime family. His motivation, according to a New York Times story, was that he thought the mob boss was tied to the “deep state” that controls the government.
A QAnon believer in Seattle killed his brother with a sword, convinced, according to documents obtained by the Seattle Times, that he was a lizard.
QAnon followers claimed earlier this year that Oprah Winfrey had been arrested for a purported role in a global sex trafficking operation. Tom Hanks and Ellen DeGeneres were also erroneously targeted.
QAnon followers claimed tents erected in April in New York City’s Central Park were used to rescue 35,000 children kept as sex slaves in tunnels beneath the city. In reality, the tents were a field hospital built by the evangelical Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse as COVID-19 ravaged the city.
In July, Twitter banned 7,000 QAnon accounts and said it would no longer highlight QAnon in searches and recommendations because of its potential for off-line harm. In August, Facebook removed 790 groups and 100 pages tied to QAnon and imposed restrictions on more.
Still, QAnon’s rise on the right has continued.
Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, posted a video of himself over the July 4 weekend using QAnon slogans and reciting an oath that ended with “where we go one, we go all.”
That same weekend, Arizona Republican state Reps. Jay Lawrence of Scottsdale and Vince Leach of Tucson posted tweets referencing QAnon.
Lawrence later apologized on Facebook, saying he tweeted without knowing much about QAnon. After learning about it, he wrote, he realized “half of them are rather nuts.”
Leach did not return a call from The Republic seeking comment.
State Sen. David Farnsworth, a Republican from Mesa, told The Republic he believes in the existence of a global sex trafficking conspiracy run by powerful people, whether it was espoused by QAnon or anyone else.
Farnsworth said he feared that children are being funneled into the hands of sex traffickers by rogue workers within the Arizona Department of Child Safety.
Farnsworth said the Book of Mormon commands members of his faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to awaken people to a prophecy of a secret group that would seek to destroy the government and end freedom. Farnsworth said he has prayed over the issue and believes this sex-trafficking ring might be the one foretold.
“I do feel called to share the message and warn and awaken,” he said.
Two Republicans seeking U.S. House seats, Josh Barnett and Daniel Wood, have shared Q-related posts on social media. Wood has posted on Twitter dozens of times using the hashtag #WWG1WGA, popular shorthand for the QAnon catchphrase, “Where we go one, we go all.” In August, he posted on Facebook that he followed QAnon “at times” and has found “many truths and some inconsistencies.”
Barnett on Twitter posted this year he didn’t believe in Q, but expressed a passing curiosity with the phenomenon. Last October, he was more overt, posting a string of Q-related hashtags and the phrase: “Nothing can stop what’s coming…”
Trump says QAnon extremist group ‘love our country,’ ‘like me very much’
QAnon has been classified by the FBI as a domestic terror threat, according to an internal memo first published by Yahoo! News.
Two Republicans seeking legislative seats, Suzanne Sharer, of the Ahwatukee Foothills area of Phoenix, and Justine Wadsack, of Tucson, have also posted about Q on Twitter.
Trump himself, in a briefing with reporters, said all he knew of the movement was that they liked him as president and loved their country. Pressed further about the theory that Trump would save the world from Satan-worshiping pedophiles, the president did not back away.
“If I can help save the world from problems,” he said, “I am willing to do it.”
Nationwide, 75 Republican candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives or Senate this election cycle have voiced support or given credence to QAnon, according to the liberal watchdog Media Matters.
Among them, a Georgia politician and QAnon follower who won a congressional primary race. Trump praised her as a “future Republican star.”
Over the past few months, a smattering of postings on the Facebook page of the San Tan Valley Republican Club have featured QAnon slogans. But the group’s president, Kathleen Nowak, said the posts did not reflect the official party position. She said she needed to limit who could post and keep a closer watch on the page.
Nowak, who oversees several precincts on the eastern edge of metropolitan Phoenix, said she hasn’t seen an increase in QAnon belief among Republicans in her area. “If you say ‘Q’ to people, they say, ‘Oh, c’mon,'” she said.
QAnon’s bizarre claims and rising popularity have been in the spotlight in recent months.
But members of the Patriot Movement AZ Facebook group had for years seized on and shared conspiracies and false stories that tapped into fears and confirmed deep-seated biases. They frequently claimed to have confirmed the accounts themselves and attacked members who suggested they were amplifying fabricated stories.
This was the case no matter how far-fetched the conspiracy: a liberal cabal runs the media and the world’s governments and sexually abuses children; racist rallies like the Charlottesville, Virginia, Unite the Right rally were set up by billionaire George Soros and Antifa to discredit Republicans; mass shootings in Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Parkland, Florida, were staged by crisis actors whose goal was to seize guns from Americans.
The Patriots: How a political movement took root and became a force in Arizona
The Patriot movement has an increasing influence in Republican politics. The movement was influenced by an Arizona author most don’t know.
David Wallace, The Republic | azcentral.com
People fall for QAnon and other conspiracies because it gives them an identity and explains the “complex and potentially chaotic and stressful world,” said Joe Vitriol, a senior researcher in the political science department at Stony Brook University.
They believe “there is something awry and powerful actors are influencing world events and nobody knows about it,” he said. These narratives also make them “feel better about their group and differentiate themselves from the out group.”
When events challenge their worldview, they reach for explanations that confirm their beliefs — for example, that mass shootings are staged, “false flag” operations carried out by shadowy forces to further the gun-control agenda. Such theories allow people to believe they have privileged information and are in control because of their courage and patriotism, Vitriol said.
“Belief in a ‘false flag’ is one way a person can maintain confidence in their preexisting beliefs … in the face of an event that might challenge those beliefs,” he said.
In May 2018, a member of the members-only Patriot Facebook group mentioned a viral video taken outside a Flying J truck stop in Amarillo, Texas. A man in the video says employees told him they had taken down the business’ American flag to placate foreigners who were offended by it.
A member of the group suggested they boycott Flying J.
But another said the Flying J story had been debunked, including by the fact-check website Snopes.
“No it has not. You can search on FB (Facebook) and see the stories that are out there. Snopes is not a reliable source they are the left,” the first member responded.
After the fabricated story went viral, Flying J was forced to respond. The company called the account “absolutely false” and said it flies the U.S. flag according to military protocols. The flagpole at its Amarillo location was damaged and being repaired.
Still, the more disinformation is shared, the more people are inclined to believe it, according to Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor at University of Regina who has studied false stories and disinformation.
Pennycook conducted an experiment that asked subjects to read true and false headlines. They were then given a task. Later, when researchers again asked about the fake headlines, “the subjects perceived them as more likely to be true,” he said.
For example, when Hillary Clinton supporters who participated in the experiment were shown false headlines that were anti-Clinton, they rated them “completely inaccurate.” But after seeing them a second time, they rated the fake Clinton headlines “sort of inaccurate.”
They “believed them more” because the false information had been repeated, Pennycook said. Exposure to fakes had shifted their beliefs.
Nina Jankowicz, disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center and author of “How to Lose the Information War,” said Facebook aids the spread of conspiratorial thinking by inviting members of far-right groups on the social media platform to join other radical groups.
How to tell the difference between a credited news report and ‘fake news’
Social media helps misinformation spread like wildfire so instead of contributing to ‘fake news,’ there are ways you can validate information online.
When Jankowicz joined an anti-vaccine Facebook group for her research, Facebook recommended to her groups focused on QAnon, white supremacy and false flag operations.
“In order to keep you on the platform and keep you engaged, Facebook is continuing to feed you similar sorts of content,” she said.
Vitriol, the Stony Brook researcher, said shared acceptance of conspiracy theories strengthens ties among members and moves them incrementally toward extremism, with their beliefs becoming stronger as they become full-fledged members.
Otherwise rational people go “through processes of radicalization,” Vitriol said.
Such a movement was seen in a Facebook group, Great 48!, that formed in mid-April. It called for an end to government-mandated shutdowns of Arizona businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of its founders said in a video it would be moderated to weed out negativity and extreme views. But the group soon devolved into conspiracy theories and false stories about the virus’s origins, whether data on the disease’s spread was manipulated and whether Gov. Doug Ducey was personally profiting from the pandemic.
Thomas Kelso Evans, a Great 48! co-founder, had been an infrequent voter who didn’t pay attention to politics. Joining the reopen movement, he said, “opened his eyes” to other issues, from the rise of socialism to powerful politicians he believes are involved in child sex trafficking.
“I’m learning a lot,” he said. “People have been asleep.”
Evans has since started TheRise!!!, a group that he said aims to unite Patriots who could be summoned should a city need defending. He cited the riots in Portland as an example of activities his group aimed to stop, though he suggested it would also stand against larger-scale plans, like socialism.
“I’m more focused on bringing Patriots together to stop whatever it is that’s trying to happen,” he said.
A test of his system came in August, when Evans said he mustered 50 people on two days’ notice to Gilbert where Black Lives Matter planned to counterprotest a weekly pro-police rally.
Another group of self-styled militia patrolled Kenosha, Wisconsin, after police shot a Black man in the back, leading to civil unrest there in late August. A 17-year-old armed with a long gun, as other militia members had been, was arrested and accused of fatally shooting two people and wounding a third.
Jake Angeli walked the lines of people at Veterans Memorial Coliseum waiting to see Trump on Feb. 20. On his head was a fur bonnet from which protruded two horns. His face was painted black and white. He was shirtless and shouting. He carried a sign that read: “Q sent me.”
“You all know who Q is?” he yelled.
Occasionally, he stopped and answered his own question, explaining Q was a government agent who wanted to “take the country back” from pedophiles and globalists.
Angeli was reaping cheers of support and plenty of nodding heads of affirmation.
Q-themed shirts were easy to spot at the rally, the last Trump would hold in Arizona before the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Same with Q bumper stickers and decals on vehicles in the parking lot.
“The snowball has been rolling and it’s only getting bigger,” Angeli said. “We’re the mainstream now.”
A mother and daughter chatted with Angeli. Neither would give her name to a reporter.
The mother, who only identified herself as “a patriot,” said she discovered Q in November 2017. She researched it on 4chan and 8chan, bulletin board websites created to house thoughts outside the mainstream.
The woman said she found the information fascinating, even the bits that seemed hard to believe at first, including that John F. Kennedy Jr. did not die in a plane crash in 1999 but was alive and working with Trump and Q.
“It’s fascinating to think that JFK Jr. is still alive and might be doing this,” she said.
She said that eventually the information that Q gives would become accepted by society at large. Especially after what she expects will be mass arrests for crimes against children.
That would help her justify to friends and family her obsession with the movement.
“Our leaders are eating babies,” she said. “You find out. You get pissed. You tell the people.”
Two men carry WWII veteran to seat ahead of Pres. Trump’s Phoenix rally
Video posted on Twitter ahead of President Donald Trump’s Phoenix speech showed two men carrying a WWII veteran to his seat.
Inside the Trump rally, organizers wanted to seat a 100-year-old World War II veteran behind the president. There were wheelchair ramps, but a crowd thought a quicker way was for two men to carry him down the stairs.
One of them wore a shirt with “We are Q” on the front and “WWG1WGA” on the back.
As the men carried the veteran to his seat, people held up cellphones to capture the moment, and the Q-themed T-shirt worn by Jason Frank of Las Vegas.
Days later, the Trump campaign produced an ad that included a two-second shot of Frank’s “We are Q” T-shirt.
Frank, reached by phone in May, declined to speak about the rise of Q and his involvement in one of the most visible displays of its popularity.
But he did speak about it with Kayleigh McEnany, then-spokeswoman for the Trump 2020 campaign. (In April, McEnany became the White House press secretary.) Frank told McEnany the best thing about the incident was “the shirt I was wearing.” He said carrying the veteran to a seat behind Trump embodied the phrase, “Where we go one, we go all.”
McEnany asked Frank what he would say to the president if given the opportunity.
“Who is Q?” Frank responded.
Six days before Trump’s 2016 election, a Patriot Movement AZ leader posted to the group’s Facebook page about the conspiracy that would come to be known as Pizzagate. It falsely claimed Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, and influential liberals were involved in a pedophilia ring based inside a Washington, D.C., pizza shop.
Emails hacked from Clinton adviser John Podesta and released by Wikileaks included mentions of pizza orders. People posting on bulletin boards created a conspiracy that saw the words “cheese pizza” as code for child pornography.
“I really hope everyone is doing their research and staying up to date on the biggest bombshell news in the history of America,” wrote Lesa Antone, the Patriot group co-founder. She said there was confirmation of a massive child sex-trafficking ring involving the Clintons. “Dig deep and you can find it. It will sicken you,” Antone said.
In December 2016, a man armed with an assault rifle went to the Washington, D.C., pizza parlor on a mission to rescue the children he was convinced were locked in the basement. He found no basement and no children. He would surrender, plead guilty and be sentenced to four years in federal prison.
That didn’t end the Pizzagate theory. It morphed into the larger QAnon.
Antone said she is not a believer in QAnon, but said she “still believes it’s coming” — that powerful people will be revealed to be behind child trafficking rings. “Do you think that there aren’t people in super high places behind all that?” Antone asked.
Antone said that she believes the Clintons to be pedophiles, but said she didn’t know if she still believed in Pizzagate, noting her post was from four years ago.
“I don’t have an opinion on it one way or another,” she said. “Time will tell.”
A Patriot group member continued the liberal pedophilia conspiracy, posting in August 2018 a picture of Jeff Sessions with the text: “Everybody laughs at me they call me names… Little do they know I am sitting on 13,000 sealed federal indictments.”
The post said passports had been flagged and assets were about to be frozen. Trump was making a $5 million upgrade to Guantanamo Bay, where the pedophiles would be tried in military tribunals.
In comments responding to her posts, the group member made it clear she was talking about QAnon: “WWG1WGA! We are waiting for the truth to be exposed.”
Vitriol says he believes QAnon followers mainly fall into two categories: general conspiracists who don’t trust institutions but are nonpartisan; and partisan Trump supporters “justifying and rationalizing his actions — which often involves the conspiratorial language that we see in QAnon.”
In May, QAnon was cemented into the official record of the Arizona Republican Party.
It came from the campaign speech of a losing candidate in the race to be the state’s national committeeman, the person who would lead Arizona’s delegation to the national Republican convention. That candidate, Aaron Butler, cited QAnon in his prerecorded speech played to attendees of the virtual Arizona convention.
Butler wrapped his speech saying, “Where we go one, we go all.”
Butler, in a phone interview later, said that Republican officeholders must be aware of what some of their constituents believe, given its growing prevalence online.
“They want the benefits of it, are happy to be around it and listen to it without criticism,” he said. “All Republicans are an audience to it now.”
Republic reporter Pamela Ren Larson contributed to this article.