The QAnon delusion has entered the Republican mainstream.
A cult-like movement powered by a sprawling online conspiracy that believes Donald Trump will arrest prominent Democrats and defeat a cabal of satan-worshipping, child-trafficking lawmakers and celebrities has found an audience among dozens of candidates in local and federal elections across the US.
Supporters of the conspiracy – which traffics in antisemitic and racist tropes that have circulated for decades – have joined campaign rallies for the president and appeared on social media feeds from members of his inner circle, including his own Twitter page, which has shared several posts from QAnon-affiliated accounts.
QAnon-related memes have also appeared on social media pages for his son Eric Trump as well as Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser, and Jeff Sessions, the president’s former Attorney General, who resurrected “Sessions Activated,” an early QAnon meme that followed a belief he would prosecute members of the so-called “deep state” and the president’s political enemies.
The president has twice refused to condemn conspiracy theorists spreading QAnon beliefs, at first appearing to court their support during a press briefing at the White House in August and then claiming during a recent town hall on NBC that he knows “nothing” about it, adding, “I do know they are very much against pedophilia."
NBC News correspondent Savannah Guthrie had asked the president whether he would “disavow QAnon in its entirety” during the 16 October broadcast viewed by an estimated 10.9 million people.
The entity behind the conspiracy – which analysts have likened closer to a cult, with followers converging around ideas delivered by “Q” in its “drops” on various websites – is believed by supporters to be a government official with “Q”-level security clearance delivering supporters coded messages about an alleged plot to take down the president.
QAnon, like its “pizzagate” predecessor, has aided the spread of dis- and misinformation and conspiracy theories tied to violence from obscure corners of the internet into mainstream channels across social media, latching on to existing conspiracy communities to launder its beliefs.
In the 2020 elections, the conspiracy has found its way into local races across the US and among Republican candidates in several congressional races, some of whom are competing in GOP-leaning districts that could elect the first QAnon-affiliated members of Congress.
But the online fringe movement has already influenced entrenched party members and longtime conservatives, who have reluctantly denied endorsing the conspiracy while leveraging its support – exploiting many Americans’ “deep state” skepticism and resolutely anti-Democratic views while QAnon threads a smattering of disconnected conspiracies that have thrived online for years.
In a 2019 intelligence memo, the FBI warned that “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.”
Nationwide US polling shared exclusively with The Independent from HOPE Not Hate found that roughly one in 10 Americans support QAnon, with 4.6 per cent of respondents explicitly identifying as a “strong supporter” and 5.4 per cent as “soft supporters”.
But a third of Americans surveyed believe that “elites in Hollywood, government, the media and other powerful positions are secretly engaging in large scale child trafficking and abuse,” while 19 per cent believe the Covid-19 crisis was engineered as part of “depopulation" plan orchestrated by the United Nations or a “New World Order.”
In 2018, Reddit, with one of the largest audiences for QAnon content at the time, banned the popular subreddit r/greatawakening – with more than 70,000 subscribers – and affiliated groups. The conspiracy had also spread to notorious 8chan message boards, where content was shared across social media platforms.
Recent QAnon bans on Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube culled hundreds of accounts and groups that contained thousands of members. Facebook has taken action against QAnon-related content for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” including a group with 200,000 members, one of the largest on the platform.
While those platforms are closing in on the conspiracy, it proliferates across platforms and messaging services dominated by right-wing groups and channels like Gab, Parler and Telegram.
It also has found its way into cable news. The right-wing, pro-Trump One America News Network has offered its subscribers QAnon emojis, including a US flag-themed “Q” and a yellow box with black letters spelling out “GITMO” – an apparent reference to a belief that the president’s opponents will be jailed at Guantanamo Bay.
The network also referred to QAnon as a “widely accepted system of beliefs” and “the new mainstream” in a segment about QAnon bans across social media.
OAN and other right-wing hubs have become a “regurgitation device” for conspiracies and propaganda, according to Samuel Woolley, project director for propaganda research at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth.
“What they’re seeing is always in support of the far-right conspiracies they’re seeing online,” he told The Independent. “They’re almost inextricable from the broader propaganda ecosystem … You can’t really have one without the other.”
As misinformation and conspiracies surrounding Covid-19 continue to spread, QAnon co-opted health and wellness groups, Evangelical spaces and a “save the children” campaign as thinly veiled conspiracy communities.
“It was a soft front, attracting followers to the movement by slowly introducing them to more QAnon-focused content, as newcomers engaged with the posts about needing to save children and unknowingly followed conspiracy theorists,” according to media watchdog Right Wing Watch.
Concordia University doctoral student and QAnon analyst Marc-Andre Argentino found at least 114 Facebook groups that have branded themselves “as anti-child trafficking pages or organizations, that in reality they are predominantly QAnon communities," he said.
At least 96 anti-trafficking groups have rejected the conspiracy theory, which they argued is harming its work to prevent actual trafficking.
“They are the youth that we as a society have failed,” the groups wrote in a recent open letter. “They are not abducted by strangers or Hollywood elites – they are abandoned by failing and under-resourced systems. There is not a deep state cabal of Democratic politicians and Hollywood celebrities who traffic children for sex.”
QAnon’s “save the children” campaign also prompted long-time international nonprofit organisation Save the Children to issue a statement.
“Our name in hashtag form has been experiencing unusually high volumes and causing confusion among our supporters and the general public,” the organisation said. “In the United States, Save the Children is the sole owner of the registered trademark ‘Save the Children.’ While people may choose to use our organization’s name as a hashtag to make their point on different issues, we are not affiliated or associated with any of these campaigns.”
During an appearance on Fox News this month, Republican Senator Ron Johnson suggested that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden possessed child pornography, amplifying QAnon claims and motivating its base.
Last month, a resolution in the House of Representatives that condemned QAnon passed with overwhelming bipartisan support – but 17 Republicans voted against it. One voted “present.”
The 371-18 vote followed death threats by alleged QAnon supporters against Congressman Tom Malinowski, who authored the measure, after House Republicans had targeted the congressman in television adverts suggesting he “lobbied to protect sexual predators.”
“The more that Republicans or Trump avoid denouncing the conspiracy theory, the more conspiracy theorists will shape the narrative,” according to Right Wing Watch.
As millions of Americans head to the polls in November elections, including the presidential race, QAnon-supporting candidates across the US – most making long-shot bids – have penetrated state legislative races and other local races.
While not all candidates are necessarily vocal proponents, many candidates have promoted the theory on their social media pages.
At least six Minnesota Republicans running for state legislative seats in the state have promoted the conspiracy.
QAnon-affiliated candidates will also appear on ballots in Democratic strongholds in Chicago and Illinois suburbs.
Media research group Media Matters has identified 88 current or former congressional candidates who have embraced the conspiracy.
Among them, 27 have secured a place on November ballots, putting QAnon closer to the halls of Congress.
Though several candidates have distanced themselves from the conspiracy after winning their primaries, at least one candidate with ties to the conspiracy movement is running in a district that will most likely elect a Republican.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, Georgia
Among the most prominent Congressional candidates with ties to QAnon, Marjorie Taylor Greene is vying for Georgia’s 14th district, a reliably Republican seat that Mr Trump carried with 75 per cent of the vote in 2016. Ms Greene defeated Republican challengers in the state’s August primary.
She has posted several QAnon-related messages and memes across social media over the last several years, including a video in which she calls “Q” a “patriot” who is “worth listening to.”
In a 2017 video, she said that the person behind Q “is someone that very much loves his country, and he's on the same page as us, and he is very pro-Trump.”
She also has embraced the conspiracy’s Islamophobic and antisemitic views, calling 2018 elections of Muslim congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib "an Islamic invasion" and describing Muslims as pedophiles who "marry their sisters." The candidate also has said Black people “are held slaves to the Democratic Party.”
In her primary victory speech in August, she said called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “anti-American” and said, “We’re going to kick that b**** out of Congress.”
The following month, she posted a photo on Facebook showing her posing with a rifle next to photos of congresswomen Tlaib, Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the words “squad’s worst nightmare.” The post was shared hundreds of times before it was removed.
Following her primary win, which the president praised, she told Fox News that QAnon “doesn’t represent” her.
"I was just one of those people, just like millions of other Americans, that just started looking at other information," she told the network. "And so, yeah, there was a time there for a while that I had read about Q, posted about it, talked about it, which is some of these videos you've seen come out. But once I started finding misinformation, I decided that I would choose another path."
The president invited her to his renomination at the White House during the Republican National Convention.
Lauren Boebert, Colorado
In a major upset victory in June, gun rights supporter Lauren Boebert defeated five-time incumbent Republican Congressman Scott Tipton in Colorado’s primary election for its third congressional district. She was the first primary challenger in Colorado to defeat a sitting member of the House in nearly 50 years.
In May, she appeared on the QAnon-supporting web series Steel Truth, on which she said: "Everything that I've heard of Q, I hope that this is real, because it only means that America is getting stronger and better, and people are returning to conservative values."
“If this is real, then it could be really great for our country,” she said.
She later said she does not follow QAnon, and her campaign has sought to distance her from the movement, pointing to her support towards Second Amendment protections and job creation in western Colorado.
Recent polling shows her neck and neck with Democratic challenger Diane Mitsch Bush.
Dozens of other congressional candidates in Democratic-leaning districts in which they are predicted to lose have promoted the conspiracy.
A Republican candidate pardoned by the president for her 2004 conviction for a role in a car-theft ring is running in a Democratic-leaning Georgia district that was served by late Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis.
Angela Stanton-King also has frequently promoted QAnon memes and conspiracies, including posting the slogan “THE STORM IS HERE” and its hashtag WWG1WGA, and promoting a debunked conspiracy that the furniture company Wayfair was enjoined in a child-trafficking ring.
The Republican National Committee has spent at least $2,800 on her campaign.
In Oregon, Jo Rae Perkins is challenging incumbent Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley in the state’s US Senate race. After she received the Republican nomination after winning the primary, she announced: “I stand with Q and the team.”
She has claimed that the reported death toll from Covid-19 is “doctored” and told Oregon Public Broadcasting that Q represents “a group of people that has put together information, much of it by topic [that] saves me hours of research.”
Senator Merkley won by more than 57 per cent of the vote in his 2014 race and defeated the incumbent Republican Gordon Smith in 2008.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy – whose caucus will be joined in 2021 by at least one person who has supported QAnon – told Fox News in August that “there is no place for QAnon in the Republican party.”
But he told C-SPAN in August that if Ms Greene is elected, “she’ll be given an opportunity.”