A mob of President Donald Trump supporterson Jan. 6, shocking the world and unnerving the country as they smashed windows and trashed congressional offices. Among the rioters: followers of QAnon, a baseless, far-right conspiracy theory that originated on anonymous message boards. Even some members of Congress subscribe to the fantasy, in which Trump is battling a cabal of Satan worshippers.
Photos of the insurrection included men and women wearing T-shirts bearing the letter Q, the online handle of the person or group posting messages that have captivated a large and international following. One rioter, a shirtless man wearing horned headgear, is known as QAnon Shaman. Another QAnon believer was shot by law enforcement and later died.
The QAnon conspiracy theory appears to have started in 2017, when Q claimed to have ties to Trump. Other conspiracy theorists found and amplified Q’s posts, known as Q drops, expanding the audience for the cryptic messages. Four years on, QAnon continues to grow at a quick clip, and the FBI says it poses a threat to the nation, which was amply apparent during the attack on the Capitol.
Understanding QAnon requires a look at where the conspiracy theory started, what its followers believe and how it has 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 crazy. 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 asaid 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.
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, is another person often speculated to be the mysterious figure, because Q’s posts migrated to his site not long after they first appeared. Fredrick Brennan, who created the , says the message board’s authentication system, known as secure tripcodes, could prove who’s using the handle. In the case of 8chan and 8kun, a secure tripcode is verified by the site’s server and can identify a user via a specific number within a post, even though the message boards let users stay anonymous. Watkins has administrative privileges at 8kun and could use the Q-specific tripcode at any time.
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 did QAnon jump 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. A poll from Yahoo News/YouGov published Oct. 20 showed 50% of Trump supporters believe top members of the Democratic party are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings.
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, appeared in court with the letter Q drawn on his palm. 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 of kidnapping their own children, believing that they’re saving the youngsters from trafficking.
Tuesday’s riot at the Capitol put QAnon in the spotlight again, with the death of Ashli Babbitt, a 14-year Air Force veteran who had posted on social media about her belief in the conspiracy theory. Babbitt was in Washington as part of the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol building while Congress was counting electoral votes, and she died after being shot by law enforcement near the barricaded door to the Speaker’s Lobby. Four other people died during the riot, including a Capitol police officer.
Concern about QAnon has grown so great that the FBI said in 2019 that the movement represents a domestic terrorist threat. The agency is. A US Defense Department internal threat assessment dated Dec. 21 mentioned QAnon as part of a post-election increase in “the potential for civil disturbance activity” and “level of civil disturbance activity,” as reported by The Intercept on Wednesday. The National Counterterrorism Center, the Justice and Homeland Security Departments sent a bulletin to law enforcement agencies warning of domestic violent extremists who took part in the Jan. 6 insurrection and were QAnon believers,
The House of Representatives has 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 ran for office in the November election. Of the numerous candidates, two were successful.
Lauren Boerbert, a Republican from Colorado, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, took their oath at the House of Representatives on Jan. 3 after winning their respective races.
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 its photo-based social network, Instagram. Facebook ramped up its response on Oct. 6, 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 in early 2020 have reduced the views of QAnon videos by 70%. The video platform stepped up enforcement of its policies as it beganon Oct. 15.
A group of banned users filed a complaint against YouTube and its parent company, Google, on Oct. 26. The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court in the Northern District of California, alleges that the video platform is in breach of contract and in violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.
A spokesperson for YouTube said in an emailed statement that the company’s policies are updated regularly to meet new challenges, like harmful conspiracy theories that have been used to justify real-world violence.
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.
Pinterest began its crackdown on QAnon content in August 2018. A spokesperson for the company says it also disabled search results for anything related to the conspiracy theory.
Triller is a TikTok alternative growing in popularity, and it’s started banning QAnon-related videos.
“In light of the recent addition by the FBI of QAnon to its list of terrorist activity, we have initiated a ban of QAnon content,” company CEO Mike Lu said in an emailed statement on Oct. 14. “We are a platform that believes in freedom of speech, expression, open discussion and freedom of opinion, however when the government classifies something as a terrorist threat, we must take action to protect our community.”
The e-commerce site Etsy cracked down on QAnon, according to a report from Business Insider on Oct. 7. The company says it’ll 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 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.
The crowdfunding platform Patreon, though not a social media company, has been important for some of the more prominent QAnon members. The company said it’s taking action against creators who spread the conspiracy theory, by closing their accounts.
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 these celebrities 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, but they also said he’d be announced as Trump’s running mate back in October. Never mind that current Vice President Mike Pence was 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. Among their wild and unfounded notions: 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.