QAnon: What you need to know as this strange, pro-Trump conspiracy theory gains steam


QAnon followers continue to grow in numbers. 

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QAnon, a conspiracy theory that started on anonymous message boards and holds that US President Donald Trump is fighting a battle against evil, has jumped from the online world to everyday life. Now the broad and baseless hoax is influencing politics, with dozens of congressional candidates professing belief in a cabal of Satanist Democrats, child-trafficking elite and a deep state determined to topple the president. Just to be absolutely clear: These are bogus claims. 

The conspiracy theory appears to have started in 2017 when an online poster using the handle “Q” claimed ties to President Donald Trump. Other conspiracy theorists found and amplified Q’s posts, known as Q drops, expanding the audience for the cryptic messages. Three years on, QAnon continues to grow at a quick clip, and the FBI says it poses a threat to the nation. 

Understanding QAnon requires a look at where the conspiracy theory started, what its followers believe and how it’s provoked acts of violence in the real world. The hoax has troubled lawmakers enough to prompt a bipartisan resolution condemning it.

Here’s what you need to know about the weird world of QAnon.

QAnon sounds wild. What can you tell me about it? 

QAnon is an online conspiracy theory that claims Trump is waging a secret war against a deep state of Democratic elites and Hollywood stars who are pedophiles and Satan worshipers. Cannibalism is in there someplace too. Really, that’s what they believe. 

The conspiracy theory dates back to October 2017, when an anonymous post on a message board said extradition agreements had been struck with several countries “in case of cross border run” by Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival for the White House in 2016. (That run still hasn’t happened.) The person or group behind the post eventually came to be known as “Q,” which is where the conspiracy theory’s name comes from. 

The first QAnon post.

Since then, the conspiracy theory has gotten wider and weirder. It’s now folded in former President Barack Obama and billionaire philanthropist George Soros, both of whom, among other well-known figures, are frequent subjects of online conspiracy theories.

By the way, Q is a reference to the highest security level clearance at the Department of Energy. That’s the department that oversees nuclear weapons. Q claims to work in close proximity to Trump and the inner circle of his administration. 

Does anyone know who Q is?

Other than Q, not that we know of. 

Of course, more than one person has claimed to be Q, with one theory saying the mysterious figure is a time traveler. (Even some QAnon followers, who’ve proved they’ll believe just about anything, think that’s a bit too crazy.)

Paul Furber, a conspiracy theorist from Johannesburg, has been identified as possibly being the original Q poster because of an appearance he made on the Alex Jones-hosted InfoWars TV show a few months after the first post. The appearance on the conspiracy-minded program, which has a following among Trump supporters, was key to bringing QAnon from online message boards to a more mainstream audience. 

Jim Watkins, the owner of the 8kun message board, is another person often speculated to be Q because Q’s posts migrated to his site not long after they first appeared. Fredrick Brennan, who created the predecessor of 8kun, says the board’s authentication system could prove who’s posting the messages, even though the service is supposed to be anonymous.

Neither Furber nor Watkins responded to requests for comment. Neither has made a public statement about possible involvement in the conspiracy theory, though Watkins was responsible for creating the QAnon SuperPAC. 

How has QAnon jumped from online to the real world? 

Since Furber appeared on InfoWars, Q followers have taken to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even TikTok to generate huge followings with their attempts to decipher the arcane messages. Q followers, who refer to themselves as “anons,” are regulars at Trump rallies, even though they get turned away by security. They’ve also formed their own rallies with the message of “#SaveTheChildren,” co-opting a hashtag used by legitimate organizations combating child trafficking.

The fanaticism over QAnon has also fostered criminal acts. In June 2018, a Q follower blocked traffic on the Hoover Dam with an armored vehicle before being apprehended by police. He pleaded guilty to terrorism charges this past February. A man accused of killing a New York mob boss in March 2019 identified himself as a follower, displaying the letter Q drawn on his palm in court. His lawyer said he was fascinated with QAnon, and other far-right conspiracy theories, and he was later found unfit to stand trial. Multiple women who identify as Q followers face charges for kidnapping their own children, believing that they’re saving the youngsters from trafficking.

The concern has grown so great that the FBI said last year that the movement represented a domestic terrorist threat. The House of Representatives also condemned the unhinged theory, though a handful of lawmakers voted against the resolution.

Nonetheless, the popularity and influence of the conspiracy theory continue to grow. Dozens of self-identified QAnon believers are running for office in the coming election. Jo Rae Perkins, a Senate candidate from Oregon, tweeted a message that included #WWG1WGA, an abbreviation of the expression, “where we go one, we go all,” that’s commonly used among QAnon followers. (The tweet is no longer available on Twitter, but it’s been archived on the Wayback Machine.) “My support of Q is no different than my support of any other person or group of persons who exercise their First Amendment Rights, Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech,” Perkins told CNET in a statement.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican who is running for a House seat, called Q “a patriot” in a nearly 30-minute video that focussed on the conspiracy theory. Trump has said she is a “future Republican star” on Twitter. The president has regularly retweeted accounts of Q followers. 

Are social media and tech companies doing anything about QAnon?

Like a lot of fringe ideologies, QAnon spreads quickest on social media. The YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok platforms have all played an important role in expanding the number of QAnon followers. 

Social media companies are aware and have begun to take action. 

In August, Facebook removed or demoted thousands of QAnon groups and pages after an internal investigation found they were violating its policies. The company also removed thousands of QAnon accounts from Instagram. On Tuesday, Facebook ramped up its response by saying it will remove all Facebook pages, groups and Instagram accounts representing QAnon. 

Twitter began cracking down on QAnon accounts in July. It removed thousands of accounts that tweeted about the movement, though some have since restarted under different names. That same month, TikTok began banning QAnon-related hashtags, making videos harder to find on the platform.

And YouTube said moderation policies implemented earlier this year have reduced the views of QAnon videos by 70%, but it hasn’t cracked down on accounts like other social media companies have. Reddit has also taken steps to curb the reach of QAnon posts and subreddits.

LinkedIn, the social media platform focused on professional networking, isn’t a stranger to QAnon. Users began posting misinformation and filling their profiles with QAnon slogans, which led to a crackdown by the site. 

The e-commerce site Etsy cracked down on QAnon according to a report from Business Insider on Wednesday. The company says it will remove any merchandise related to the fringe movement. 

Even the fitness-tech company Peloton intervened when customers began using QAnon-related hashtags, according to a report Friday by Busines Insider. Tags such as #SaveTheChildren, #Q and #WWGOnePelotonWGA showed up on Peloton machines, allowing users to find other Q followers.

“We have a zero tolerance policy against hateful content. We actively moderate our channels and remove anything that violates our policy or does not reflect our company’s values of inclusiveness and unity or maintain a respectful environment,” a Peloton spokesperson told CNET in an email. The QAnon hashtags have since been removed from the platform. 

OK, I have to ask: What are some of the other wacky ideas QAnon followers believe? 

Are you sure you want to know? Keep in mind these ideas are completely baseless. 

The core belief is that Trump is working to remove Satanic criminals inside the government, the Democratic Party and Hollywood.

Followers believe notable members of the Democratic party and the Hollywood elite operate pedophile rings. Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Degeneres are baselessly named as being participants. (CNET didn’t contact any of the stars for comment because the accusations are bogus.)

One of the wackier strains of QAnon is the belief that John F. Kennedy Jr., the son of late President John F. Kennedy, is still alive. (Kennedy Jr. died in a 1999 plane crash.) Not only do Q adherents think he’s still alive, they say he’ll be announced as Trump’s running mate later this month. Never mind that current Vice President Mike Pence is already on the ticket.

QAnon also ropes in a host of other popular conspiracy theories, including flat Earth and anti-vax. Believers have been at the forefront of misinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Among their ideas: the Chinese government created the virus, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates will use the pandemic to microchip Americans, and the pandemic is a hoax designed to sink Trump’s reelection.

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