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What is QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory that took over the internet?

We’ve all been spending a lot of time online—more than in our lifetime for most of us during these last few months thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. This means that you’ve probably heard of QAnon, the viral, controversial conspiracy theory that reached the American mainstream and took over Trump supporters in August. But while we’ve heard about it, QAnon remains a constant question mark for many of us. Here’s everything you need to know about QAnon.

What is QAnon?

It all started in November 2017 on 4chan, one of the most extreme message boards on the internet along with Reddit and Voat, when a YouTube video creator named Tracy Diaz and two 4chan moderators, one named Paul Furber and the other still unnamed, got together to shed light on one specific anonymous user and his posts which were originally lost in the sea of conspiracy theories that populated the website. These were the 4chan posts of ‘Q Clearance Patriot’, the pseudonym of a person claiming to be a high-ranking military officer and who later became known as ‘Q’.

Shortly after that, the trio started creating videos, a Reddit community, a business and an entire mythology was started based off of Q’s 4chan posts. The theory they adopted would become QAnon, also spelled Qanon, and it would eventually make its way from those relatively secret message boards to national media stories and Trump supporters.

QAnon followers believe that a group of Satan-worshipping Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and billionaires run the world while engaging in paedophilia, human trafficking and the harvesting of a supposedly life-extending chemical from the blood of abused children. They also believe that Donald Trump was recruited by top military generals to run for president and fight a secret battle against this society and its “deep state” collaborators to expose the culprits, then send them all to Guantánamo Bay detention camp and military prison.

According to QAnon followers, this satanic clique includes top Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros, as well as a number of entertainers and Hollywood celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres and religious figures including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama.

In 2017, Q confidently asserted that Hillary Clinton’s “extradition” was “already in motion” and her arrest imminent. Q also predicted that this war against that cabal would soon culminate in ‘The Storm’, an appointed time when Trump would finally unmask the secret society, punish its members for their crimes and restore America to greatness.

In other words, QAnon is a wide-ranging and baseless internet conspiracy theory that has been festering on the fringes of rightwing internet communities for years. Its visibility only exploded in recent months amid the Black Lives Matter protests and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But that’s not the end of it

Wait! There’s more. QAnon has also incorporated elements of many other conspiracy theory communities, including claims about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and whether he is still alive, the existence of UFOs, and the 9/11 Truth movement, which is a group that disputes the general consensus of the 11 September attacks and suggests a cover-up, and the Rothschild family controlling all the banks.

Even the podcast QAnon Anonymous, which is based on the QAnon movement calls QAnon a “big tent conspiracy theory” because it is constantly evolving and adding new claims to its beliefs. But, just to keep things clear, the existence of a global, satanic, paedophile cabal is the main theory of QAnon and the one that most of its followers believe.

QAnon is based on Pizzagate

If you feel like you’ve already heard these strange conspiracy theories somewhere, it is because QAnon is actually basing all its beliefs on previously established conspiracy theories, some new and some a millennium old. Do you remember Pizzagate? The conspiracy theory that went viral during the 2016 US presidential campaign, when rightwing news outlets and influencers promoted the idea that references to food and a pizza restaurant located in Washington DC in the stolen emails of Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta were actually a secret code for a child trafficking ring.

The theory led to harassment of the restaurant and its employees and culminated in a December 2016 shooting by a man who had travelled to the restaurant believing there were children there in need of rescue. Well, unsurprisingly, QAnon based many of its own conspiracy theories on the same structure Pizzagate showed—characters and plotlines remain quite similar and the provable specifics are yet to be seen.

Only QAnon has taken it even further. The movement has its roots in much older antisemitic conspiracy theories. After all, the idea of the all-powerful, world-ruling group comes straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fake document claiming to expose a Jewish plot to control the world that was used throughout the 20th century to justify antisemitism.

Furthermore, the idea that members of the secret group extract the chemical adrenochrome from the blood of their child victims and ingest it to extend their lives is a modern version of the old antisemitic blood libel, which accused Jews of murdering Christian children in order to use their blood as part of religious rituals.

What about Q himself, who is he?

In 2017, after Q emerged from the message board 4chan with a post in which he confidently asserted that Hillary Clinton’s “extradition” was “already in motion” and her arrest imminent, he then established his legend as a government insider with top security clearance who knew the truth about the secret struggle for power between Trump and the “deep state.”

In all his posts (there have been more than 4,000 so far), Q used a ‘trip code’ which allowed followers to distinguish his posts from those of other anonymous users known as ‘anons’. Q switched from posting on 4chan to posting on 8chan in November 2017, went silent for several months after 8chan shut down in August 2019, and re-emerged on a new website established by 8chan’s owner, 8kun.

Q’s posts are very cryptic. They often consist of a long string of questions designed to ‘guide’ readers toward discovering the “truth” for themselves through “research.” Many of Q’s predictions have failed to become true, yet believers tend to simply adapt their narratives to account for inconsistencies.

According to The Guardian, close followers of QAnon have a very organised way of justifying Q’s false predictions. The posts (also called ‘drops’) contain ‘crumbs’ of intelligence that they ‘bake’ into ‘proofs’. For ‘bakers’, QAnon is both a hobby and a deadly serious calling. It’s like an internet scavenger hunt with incredibly high stakes.

As a 2018 investigation by NBC News uncovered, the fact that the trio of 4chan users worked together to promote and profit off QAnon might actually be why it is what it is today, which is a multi-platform internet phenomenon. Without this help, Q  would have probably been just another anonymous internet poster who claimed to have access to secret information. There now is an entire QAnon media ecosystem, with video content, memes, e-books, chatrooms, and more, all designed to attract potential recruits.

How many people believe in QAnon?

Because there isn’t an official membership directory, it remains unclear exactly how many people consider themselves QAnon followers, however, the number must be quite impressive. If you only count the ‘hard-core’ QAnon believers, the number may be at least in the hundreds of thousands.

Some of the most popular QAnon groups on Facebook have more than 100,000 members and Twitter recently announced it was taking actions to limit the reach of more than 150,000 QAnon-associated accounts. A recent report by NBC News found that Facebook had conducted an internal study of QAnon’s presence on its platform, and it concluded that there were thousands of QAnon groups, with millions of members between them.

However, conspiracy theory experts point out that belief in QAnon is far from common. While at one point, 80 per cent of Americans believed a conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination, a poll by Pew Research in March 2020, found that 76 per cent of Americans had never heard of QAnon and just 3 per cent knew “a lot” about it.

QAnon appears to be most popular among older Republicans and evangelical Christians but it has also spread to Latin America and Europe, where it appears to be catching on among certain far-right movements. The number of QAnon followers has also probably grown during the pandemic, as people stuck indoors spent more time online. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal found that membership in 10 large Facebook groups devoted to QAnon had grown by more than 600 per cent since the start of lockdowns.

What role have social networks played in QAnon’s popularity?

QAnon owes much of its popularity to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which have amplified the movement’s messages and spread its reach through their algorithms. QAnon followers have also used social media to harass, intimidate and threaten their ‘enemies’ and to promote other types of misinformation. Several of the most popular conspiracy theories on the internet this year such as Plandemic, a documentary containing false claims about COVID-19, as well as the viral conspiracy theory that claimed that the online furniture company Wayfair was trafficking children have been amplified by QAnon believers.

Some social media platforms have started trying to remove QAnon content such as Twitter, which recently banned thousands of QAnon accounts, saying it had engaged in coordinated harassment. Facebook has also taken down nearly 800 QAnon groups and restricted thousands of QAnon-related groups, pages, and Instagram accounts.

How has Trump responded to QAnon?

As you might have realised by now, Trump is QAnon’s main heroic character—the one who will save the US and the world. That’s why QAnon believers analyse Trump’s words and actions closely, looking for hidden meanings. When Trump says the number 17, they take it as a sign that he is sending secret messages to them only because ‘Q’ is the 17th letter of the alphabet. When he wears a pink tie, they interpret it as a sign that he is freeing trafficked children as some hospitals use ‘code pink’ as a shorthand for a child abduction in progress.

Although it remains unclear whether Trump knows the details of the QAnon theory, he has embraced the movement’s supporters by saying in a White House press briefing that “I’ve heard these are people that love our country.” He also declined to denounce the movement when asked about his support for Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon-affiliated congressional candidate. Last but not least, he has shared posts from QAnon followers many times on his Twitter.

What’s next for QAnon?

As QAnon picked up steam, growing scepticism over the motives of Diaz, Rogers, and the other early Qanon supporters led some to turn their paranoia on the group. Recently, some followers have accused Diaz and Rogers of profiting from the movement by soliciting donations from their followers.

Other pro-Trump online groups have questioned the roles that Diaz and Rogers have played in promoting Q, pointing to a series of slip-ups that they say show Rogers and Diaz may have been involved in the theory from the start.

Then again, it seems like QAnon believers don’t really care about who Q is or how he knows all these things. “The funniest thing about those who try to discredit Q. They focus on whether Q is real or not, instead of the information being provided,” tweeted one follower. “NO ONE cares who Q is. WE care about the TRUTH.”

Reddit bans The Donald subreddit and other far right forums. Why?

For those of you who’ve never heard of it, Reddit is an online forum and social news platform with an impressive network of communities based on people’s interests, which are separated into different pages called ‘subreddits’. The platform is also infamous for giving freedom of speech free reign, sometimes leading to some pretty shocking statements on there.

But on Monday, Reddit kicked off a surprising day of bans against Trump and the far right. It started by banning the subreddit r/The_Donald, a pro-Trump forum, known for repeated ‘rule-breaking’. As the platform banned more and more subreddits, many wondered why it was doing so only now. Here’s why.

Although The Donald was considered as the most important ban, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman announced that it was just one of 2,000 subreddits banned by the site as it was on a mission to institute rule changes designed to make the platform less accommodating to hateful and abusive communities. As it later turned out, The Donald had been close to inactive for months and most of the other banned subreddits were small or inactive too.

Only a few others were notable, including the subreddit r/ChapoTrapHouse, which was associated with the left-wing podcast of the same name. Another subreddit called Gendercritical, which regularly promoted transphobic views was also banned.

This day of bans reminded many of the similar sequence of bans that took place in August 2018, when conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was banned from many social media platforms in only a few days.

Later in the day on Monday 29 June, the live-streaming video service Twitch announced that it had temporarily suspended Trump’s account for rebroadcasting comments about Mexican immigrants that broke its “hateful conduct and harassment policies.” Could these new bans be specifically aimed at Trump?

YouTube also followed by banning several far-right and racist creators from its video-sharing platform, including white supremacists David Duke, Richard Spencer, and Stefan Molyneux. While these actions should definitely be appreciated, it should also be noted that all three seemed to have been taken a bit too late.

These bans were all preceded by policy changes at Facebook and Twitter, which both shifted how the platforms handle rule-breaking behaviour by accounts linked to the president as well as the far right. The subreddit The Donald once played an important part in the pro-Trump internet community and its organisation. Over the years, it had managed to bring extremist content in front of big audiences.

In 2016, Huffman had limited the reach of the subreddit after it figured out how to get the site’s algorithms to promote pro-Trump content. Members were spreading the Pizzagate conspiracy theory while volunteer moderators had asked Huffman to do something in order to fight the abuse and harassment communities faced from The Donald members.

Some would agree that Reddit’s bans came too late; but then again, better late than never, no? These policy updates come three weeks after Black Lives Matter protests led many Reddit forums to ‘go dark’ in protest of the company’s lax policies around hosting (and therefore promoting) conservative and racist content. Reddit’s change of approach towards free expression on its platform proves that things might finally start to change.