The COVID-19 pandemic has also created space for the expansion of QAnon beliefs through anti-mask and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. People are spending more time at home on the internet, where social media algorithms can lead them to extremist content, especially with regard to alternative health communities. Videos of anti-mask confrontations, according to NBC News, have become a badge of honor in conspiracy circles, and provide examples of people fighting their shadowy enemy cabal in the real world. QAnon conspiracy theories are able to adapt to a variety of extant conspiracy theories and spread through more networks.
QAnon believers are also getting involved in politics. The SPLC Action Fund counted roughly 90 candidates running for office in 2020 who have shared QAnon messaging or stated their openness to the conspiracy theory. Of those, a few will probably win election. President Trump has also retweeted QAnon claims. A May 2019 FBI bulletin from its Phoenix office describes “conspiracy theory-driven domestic terrorists” as a growing threat, and specifically mentioned QAnon.
The ideas behind QAnon became more popular after the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which promoted a falsehood that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of the basement of Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, the rumors spurred at least one believer – Edgar Maddison Welch – to go to the restaurant with an AR-15 to look for the non-existent basement, where in December 2016 he fired shots into a door that led to a server closet. He was sentenced to four years in prison in 2017.
Cryptic posts by the anonymous “Q” (hence “QAnon”) then began showing up on message boards such as 4chan, 8chan and 8kun in October 2017. Q claimed to be a high-level government informant nicknamed Q because of their supposed clearance, the Department of Energy’s equivalent of “top secret.”
Q’s first post claimed that “HRC” (presumably Hillary Rodham Clinton) was on the run and would be extradited with massive riots resulting – none of which occurred. Nevertheless, followers continue to mine Q’s posts, trying to decode them for information about an alleged master plan in which President Trump will take down the cabal (“deep state”) they believe is working against him.
Just months after Q’s initial post, the theory started appearing on other social media sites such as YouTube and Facebook. And websites created for Q followers, such as QMap, had over 10 million site visits in July alone. QMap was subsequently shut down in September when the website’s owner was identified as New Jersey information security analyst Jason Gelinas, who offered no comment when the site went down. Gelinas was later fired from his job as senior vice president in Citigroup’s technology department as a result.
Eventually, QAnon ideas spread from message boards into the mainstream, and the movement now includes merchandise that has been sold on Etsy, Amazon and other platforms.
QAnon has spread into other extremist ideologies, including those supported by sovereign citizens, who believe laws don’t apply to them. A separate movement within QAnon is encouraging parents estranged from their children to kidnap them from Child Protective Services (CPS) and/or the custodial parent or guardian. Some of the people who have tried to do this believe that CPS, like the cabal, is trying to abduct children and harvest their adrenochrome. Some of the abductors also have ties to sovereign citizen movements.
Other ideologies, including some in the antigovernment movement, have also embraced QAnon conspiracies. The United Constitutional Patriots (UCP) works along the U.S./Mexico border trying to detain undocumented migrants. They claim that an unchecked “invasion” of immigrants will lead to civil war. UCP’s YouTube livestreams disseminate Q’s messages while group members praise Q and Trump. QAnon supporters have also shown up at rallies organized by Chris Hill and his III% Security Force militia in Nevada and North Carolina.
“QAnon is an especially dangerous movement because it relies on a series of conspiracy theories that can easily spread via social media algorithms and attract new adherents, pulling them into the existing QAnon network,” said Don Haider-Markel in an email to Hatewatch. Haider-Markel is an expert on domestic terror who is the chair of political science at the University of Kansas. Conspiracies tend to be more popular during times of great uncertainty because they provide a sense of control, according to Haider-Markel, but “the conspiracies espoused by QAnon undermine our democratic principles and are easily morphed when challenged by evidence.” Additionally, he said, the theories “have inspired individuals to commit acts of violence, including murder.”
The underpinnings of QAnon rely on Blood Libel, a centuries-old antisemitic trope that posits a secret cabal of Jews controls the world and traffics in children for their blood. QAnon believers claim that members of the cabal of Democratic officials and celebrities are trafficking children for their blood – specifically, a chemical within it (adrenochrome) that the cabal believes will extend their lives.
QAnon is, according to Genocide Watch’s Gregory Stanton, a rebranded “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” perhaps the most influential antisemitic pamphlet of all time, written by Russian anti-Jewish propagandists around the turn of the twentieth century. The pamphlet was a collection of myths about a Jewish plot to take over the world and included a central Blood Libel mythology, which posited that Jews kidnapped and killed Christian children whose blood they would then mix into matzos.
QAnon supporters have linked the conspiracy’s pedophilia claims to LGBTQ people, another longstanding trope that falsely paints LGBTQ people as predators of children, ostensibly to “recruit” them into being LGBTQ.
Recently, California state Sen. Scott Wiener was targeted by QAnon supporters with thousands of threats – including anti-LGBTQ taunts – and posts on social media. Wiener became a target because he introduced a bill to end discrimination against LGBTQ young people on California’s sex-offender registry, which treated consensual same-sex activity differently than heterosexual sexual activity. The bill, supported by a coalition of law enforcement, civil rights and sexual assault survivor groups, passed, but QAnon supporters made inaccurate claims about it, including the false claim that the bill legalized sex with children.
A brief timeline of criminal charges linked to Q
Several adherents have allegedly engaged in criminal or violent acts or have plotted to do so while thousands of others have threatened and harassed people online and off.
In an attempt to curb the spread of QAnon conspiracy theories and the potential violence they may encourage, major social media platforms including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook implemented measures against QAnon materials, including bans on accounts affiliated with the movement and blocks on URLs related to QAnon to prevent them from being shared. Other measures include not highlighting materials or recommending Tweets associated with QAnon. However, as QAnon is embraced in mainstream quarters and has spread internationally, these bans may have come too late.
June 15, 2018: Arizona resident Matthew Wright blocked a bridge with an armored vehicle near Hoover Dam. In a letter written from jail, Wright claimed he engaged in these actions out of patriotism and to bring hidden truths to light. Wright pleaded guilty to making a terroristic threat and two other charges, including aggravated assault and fleeing from law enforcement.
March 13, 2019: Police allege Anthony Comello, 24, of Staten Island, New York, murdered Francesco Cali, a boss in the Gambino crime family, because he believed Cali was part of the deep state. Comello had been in New York City weeks before at a federal courthouse trying to make a citizen’s arrest of several elected officials, including Democratic U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Congressman Adam Schiff. In June 2020, Comello was found mentally unfit to stand trial.
Sept. 25, 2019: Timothy Larson, 41, was arrested for allegedly vandalizing an altar in a chapel in Sedona, Arizona. Larson allegedly shouted that the Catholic church supported human trafficking. Larson used QAnon hashtags on social media and claimed the vandalism was a mission. He was charged in October 2019 with aggravated criminal damage, disorderly conduct and a hate crime.
Dec. 30, 2019: Colorado woman Cynthia Abcug, 50, was arrested in Kalispell, Montana, for allegedly plotting to kidnap her son through a raid by QAnon believers. She was charged with felony conspiracy to commit kidnapping. Child protective services removed Abcug’s 7-year-old son from her custody because she is suspected of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a psychological disorder in which a caregiver fabricates an illness of a child for sympathy.
June 11, 2020: Alpalus Slyman, 29, of Boston, led police on a high-speed chase with his five children in the minivan. Slyman appears to have become convinced that the government was going to abduct his children or shoot them in a staged killing. Slyman was charged with three counts of felony reckless conduct and disobeying an officer.
Aug. 12, 2020: Cecilia Fulbright, 30, was arrested in Waco, Texas, after she reportedly chased other drivers and repeatedly rammed one’s vehicle. Fulbright told police that she believed the driver of the car she hit was a pedophile and she was rescuing a young girl from being trafficked. Two of her acquaintances reported that she had become absorbed by the QAnon conspiracy theory. Fulbright was charged with a second-degree felony of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and a misdemeanor of driving while intoxicated.
Oct. 1, 2020: Emily Jolley of Utah was arrested in Oregon after allegedly abducting her 6-year-old son from his father, who has legal custody. Jolley’s Facebook page was filled with QAnon references. In December, she posted an article that claimed Child Protective Services abducts children and drains them of adrenochrome. Jolley has been charged with a third-degree felony of custodial interference across state lines.
QAnon terminology and hashtags
Adrenochrome: chemical compound that forms by the oxidation of adrenaline, the stress hormone. QAnon believers claim the sex-trafficking cabal is harvesting this substance from the blood of children.
Breadcrumbs/bakers: the cryptic posts that Q makes are known as “breadcrumbs” (aka Q drops) and the people who try to figure them out are known as “bakers.”
Deep state: QAnon adherents believe a secret parallel government that has been in existence for years runs the world and is currently trying to undermine President Trump. According to QAnon lore, former president Reagan was shot by the deep state and every president since with the exception of Trump is a deep state agent.
Enjoy the show: rallying cry and also a favorite phrase used by Q that is a reference to an approaching apocalypse.
Nothing can stop what’s coming: phrase that references the judgment day soon to come on the deep state.
The Great Awakening/#thegreatawakening: another QAnon slogan referring to when elites will be routed and “the truth” about the deep state will be revealed.
#SaveTheChildren/#SaveOurChildren: hashtags that started out as a legitimate campaign against child trafficking that were hijacked by QAnon followers in August 2020. QAnon adherents used the hashtag in recruiting attempts and rallies, calling for people to save children from the pedophile cabal QAnon claims exists.
The storm: phrase derived from a comment President Trump made in October 2018 with regard to a military dinner he was having. The comment was “the calm before the storm” (CBTS). QAnon followers believe the storm is a coming series of mass arrests – a judgment day – that will destroy the deep state (see above).
Trust the plan: phrase in which believers are told to trust that everything President Trump does is part of a master plan to destroy the deep state.
White hat/black hat: in the QAnon universe, supporters of President Trump in the government are white hats while those who do not support him are black hats.
White rabbit: term referencing Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” used by QAnon adherents to discuss the path of information they are following, including the hidden truths and signals they believe exist related to the pedophile network and Donald Trump’s role in bringing it down.
WWG1WGA/WWG1WGAWORLDWIDE: “Where we go one, we go all.” Rallying cry for QAnon supporters. Although the quote is originally from the 1996 Jeff Bridges sailing adventure movie “White Squall,” adherents wrongly attribute it to President John F. Kennedy. QAnon supporters believe JFK was about to reveal the existence of a secret government when he was assassinated. Many currently believe that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his death in a plane crash and will soon emerge to either become Q or team up with Trump.
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