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Who is Q? A look at the Internet political conspiracy theory that is emerging at Donald Trump rallies. (Aug. 3)

A growing right-wing conspiracy theory has garnered national attention in recent weeks after a far-right candidate with ties to the baseless theory won a Republican primary runoff election and Twitter removed accounts  associated with it.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won a primary election in Georgia’s solidly Republican 14th Congressional District, earned praise from President Donald Trump, who called her a “future Republican star.” She has been connected to QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory that alleges the existence of a “deep state” that supports a child sex trafficking ring.

Last month, roughly 7,000 Twitter accounts tied QAnon were removed from the platform, and, eventually, 150,000 accounts affiliated with it will be impacted with less visibility for other Twitter users.

Greene’s win and Twitter’s announcement comes as QAnon has trickled into mainstream politics and conversation, experts who study the beliefs and growing movement behind it say.

QAnon supporters holding up “Q” signs have been spotted at rallies for Trump, who has regularly retweeted QAnon-linked accounts; other candidates with ties to the group have won Congressional primaries; and Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, recently posted a video using phrases and slogans tied to the conspiracy theory.

“It has grown very rapidly, and despite Twitter’s actions, there are really no indications that it is going to slow down,” said Travis View, who has been researching QAnon for the past two years and co-hosts the QAnon Anonymous podcast.

Here’s a look at QAnon, where it originated and what its followers believe:

What is QAnon and where did it come from?

The QAnon conspiracy theory baselessly claims that there is a “deep state” apparatus run by political elites, business leaders and Hollywood celebrities who are also pedophiles and actively working against Trump.

View described it as meta conspiracy theory that provides an underlying narrative for other baseless theories. According to View, its followers believe that this “worldwide cabal of satanic pedophiles” run “all the major levers of power,” including government, media, business and Hollywood.

QAnon theorists believe that were it not for Trump’s election in 2016, the cabal would stay in power, View says. But Trump, working with the military, is actively putting an end to it, according to the theory.

An anonymous poster named Q shares cryptic tips that followers then decode to learn the ways in which the “deep state” controls the world, how Trump is battling and marching orders to join in, said Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters for America, a nonprofit that researches misinformation in the United States.

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View said the first of these tips, dubbed Q drops, was posted on 4chan on Oct. 28, 2017, by a poster claiming to have insider information about the government. Q drops are “usually nonsense,” View said, but followers believe they are decoding these messages.

Carusone described it like an activity or “a choose your own adventure” for followers.

Part of what makes the QAnon theory so powerful is the trust that the original poster built in followers, Carusone said.

The platforms where the Q drops occur have changed over time, Carusone said. And followers of the theory share QAnon content on all major social media platforms.

Fact check: Ellen, Oprah, many others are not under house arrest for child sex trafficking

What do QAnon supporters believe?

There are a wide range of conspiracy theories that QAnon supporters believe, View said.

Many falsely believe that mainstream U.S. media outlets receive an email at 4 a.m. every morning dictating what to cover. Others bizarrely say adrenochrome, a chemical compound, is the drug of the elite, and the only way to get the substance is to torture and kill children. 

Others falsely say that John F. Kennedy Jr., didn’t die in a plane crash. The furniture retailer Wayfair was recently the target of an unsubstantiated QAnon belief that the company was trafficking children through listings of products with inflated prices.

“It sounds completely nutty, and it is,” Carusone said.

For many, these theories become obsessive and can take over a person’s life, View said. “We often see QAnon followers alienate family members because they believe they have been granted a key to the universe,” he said.

Many continue to adhere to the belief system, however, because they see themselves as evangelizing Q’s message, Carusone said.

Another central tenant of the QAnon theory is that there will be a “storm” during which 100,000 politicians, celebrities and business leaders involved in the “deep state” ring will be rounded up and held accountable, View said.

What’s the tie between Trump, other politicians and QAnon?

While Trump hasn’t specifically addressed QAnon, he has retweeted accounts that promote the QAnon conspiracy theory at least 185 times, according to Media Matters for America.

According to the group, Trump family members, including Donald Trump Jr., have amplified QAnon accounts on social media, too.

Carusone said that many of Trump’s QAnon retweets have come in recent months, fueling the theory’s growth and leading to more politicians openly supporting it.

Media Matters for America has also tracked more than 60 current or former 2020 congressional candidates who are tied to QAnon in some way. The group says that at least 14 candidates that will be on voters’ ballots in November have endorsed, given credence to or promoted QAnon beliefs.

“There are going to be Q members of Congress,” Carusone said. While some may distance themselves from messages explicitly tied QAnon and its symbols, the underlying beliefs are here to stay in U.S. politics, Carusone added.

“The core critique that Q is dabbling into gets at something that a lot of people believe and feel, especially right now: That there is this elite that has impunity, that gets away with anything that it wants,” Carusone said.

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Is QAnon dangerous?

A Yahoo News report from August 2019 says that the FBI identified fringe conspiracy theories as a domestic extremist threat, and it specifically mentions QAnon.

The majority of QAnon supporters say they are peaceful and most of their activities remain online, View said.

“The danger is essentially that there have been multiple instances where QAnon followers have taken their beliefs offline in violent or dangerous ways,” he added.

View cited multiple cases of violence connected to QAnon believers. 

In June 2018, Matthew Wright, motivated by his belief in QAnon, blocked the bridge near the Hoover Dam with a homemade armored vehicle. He later pleaded guilty to making a terrorist threat.

Anthony Comello, accused of killing Frank Cali, the alleged boss of the Gambino crime family, was influenced by right-wing hate speech and conspiracy theories, his lawyer said. He appeared in court with the letter “Q” written on his hand.

The Pizzagate conspiracy theory, a sort of precursor to the QAnon theory, culminated in a man driving from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., where he started firing an assault-style rifle at Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. No one was killed, but the event brought the fringe theory – in this case that there was a child sex trafficking ring operating in the basement of the pizzeria – into the national spotlight. 

View said the Pizzagate theory was based on a distorted attempt at decoding emails from John Podesta published by Wikileaks, and it plays on many similar themes of QAnon.

View said that posters believed to be Q have never openly advocated for violence – though they have organized target harassment of people.

“There’s this whole ‘the ends justify the means’ idea,” Carusone said of QAnon followers. “You have to be willing to rise up to save these children.”

Contributing: Richard Ruelas, Arizona Republic; Courtney Marabella, Asbury Park Press

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