By Lara Choy
Image Credit: NY Times
It’s no surprise that certain conspiracy theories spread like wildfire on the more obscure parts of the Internet, but when anonymous forums and real life start to collide, things start to get more complicated and even dangerous. We often believe that such beliefs only exist on the fringes of society, but disinformation has increasingly found its way into the political and cultural mainstream. In fact, one particular conspiracy theory called QAnon has caught on among thousands of Americans and one of its most prominent defenders will become a Congresswoman in January.
To understand QAnon, we have to go back to October 2017, when an anonymous commenter (“anon”) under the alias “Q” made his first of over four thousand cryptic posts (“bread on the message board 4chan. In the post, this supposed “government insider” claimed that Hillary Clinton would soon be arrested on child trafficking charges. Although this has not happened, users quickly latched onto his claims about Donald Trump’s power struggle with the so-called “Deep State.”
For these conspiracy theorists, the Deep State is not merely an organization of allegedly corrupt politicians secretly running the world. The QAnon narrative claims that a cabal of liberal figures, including billionaires and movie stars, secretly worship Satan, operate child sex trafficking rings, and harvest chemicals from the children’s blood. Additionally, followers believe that President Trump is one of the few politicians trying to end the group’s illegal activities.
It has pointed its finger at everyone from the usual conspiracy suspects, such as Hillary Clinton and George Soros, to more unexpected figures such as Pope Francis and Tom Hanks. Even more bizarrely, Q has accused Wayfair, the online furniture retailer, of transporting trafficked children in their cabinets.
President Trump has not explicitly endorsed QAnon, however, during his town hall in Miami on October 15, he claimed ignorance about the conspiracy theory before conceding, “what I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia. I agree with that. I do agree with that.”
Furthermore, the recent American election means that Congress will now include more candidates who have endorsed the views of QAnon. Consider, for example, Marjorie Taylor Greene, the congresswoman-elect for Georgia’s heavily Republican Fourteenth Congressional District.
Greene has long been involved in spreading the word of QAnon on various social media platforms and far-right websites, claiming as far back as late 2017 that Trump’s election provided “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out.”
The president himself tweeted that she was “a future Republican Star” after her Congressional primary win in August.
While QAnon’s rhetoric seems to resonate with voters in Greene’s district, it is difficult to gauge how successful such candidates might be in other parts of the country, especially more Democratic areas. Although some research has been conducted on this relatively recent phenomenon, no one really knows the extent to which QAnon has permeated throughout the American population.
One source of possible reassurance is the fact that less than half of American adults (47%) were aware of QAnon in September 2020, according to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank studying public opinion and demographic trends. Of that number, only a small fraction of respondents had heard or read “a lot” about the conspiracy theory; however, the data still indicates increasing awareness as 23% of respondents had heard about QAnon when the last poll was conducted in March 2020. Recent mentions of QAnon in town halls and presidential debates will likely increase the numbers as well.
Moreover, many respondents could be familiar with QAnon-type theories through social media and disinformation about child trafficking, which runs rife on the Internet, even if they cannot identify the conspiracy by name. This adds to the difficulty of determining QAnon’s actual influence on voters and the American public at large.
With the election of candidates such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, supporters of QAnon will celebrate their increased foothold on the political conversation. Whether this leads the way for more conspiracy theorists running for political office is still uncertain, but the fact that QAnon has gained this amount of influence in a short time period underlines a critical issue. If such disinformation continues its spread upon social media and real life, the United States is at risk of even more polarization and potential for extremist politics.