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National Opinion

Where Does QAnon Go From Here?

The deep state is out to get Marjorie Taylor Greene. Or at least, followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory believe so. 

QAnon’s adherents assert that powerful Satanic pedophiles control state institutions and the media, plotting against President Donald Trump while running a global child sex trafficking ring. According to believers, Democratic politicians, including the Clinton family and former President Barack Obama, comprise the core of this criminal network. QAnon believers also insist that this operation is funded by billionaire George Soros, who some claim eats children with celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks for a supposed life-extending chemical (adrenochrome) in their blood.

Though fact-checkers have rigorously debunked every aspect of the conspiracy, it has continued to grow, incorporating a host of similarly fallacious theories along the way. Sometimes referred to as a “big tent” theory, proponents have woven classic and burgeoning conspiracy theories into the QAnon lore. Some claim the deep state operatives that oppose Trump also assassinated JFK or are hiding knowledge of aliens from the public. Many believers subscribe to the “plandemic” narrative, contending that shadowy elites like Bill Gates manufactured COVID-19 and plan to insert microchips in Americans through vaccines. QAnon disciples frequently spew anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric, alleging that Jews control global media outlets or making racist claims about Barack Obama. 

Yet all QAnon believers agree that President Trump is a unique, “god-tier” figure who ran for president at the request of top American generals to dismantle the deep state and the elites’ global criminal network in a coming war called “the storm” or the “Great Awakening.”

Greene, a political newcomer from Georgia, is one of several prominent Republican politicians who have embraced the tenets of QAnon. Though the theory is controversial within the party, it has proven not to be a political roadblock. This November, Greene won election to the United States House of Representatives with more than 74 percent of the vote in her district. On January 3, 2021 she was sworn into Congress, making her the first major QAnon adherent to take high office.

Once a fringe internet conspiracy spread across online message boards like 4chan and 8chan, followers of QAnon are now undeniably a force in mainstream politics. In August, Trump called Greene a “future Republican star.”

The theory’s creator and namesake, an anonymous 4chan user who called themself “Q Clearance Patriot,” began posting to the message board on October 28, 2017. Q—as adherents call them—claimed to be a high-level intelligence official with Q access authorization (equivalent to a Top Secret clearance) and intimate knowledge of the Mueller investigation and Trump’s effort to topple the global pedophile syndicate.

Over the past three years, Q has posted more than 5,000 times across the message boards 4chan, 8chan, and 8kun, using a unique “tripcode” (password-protected ID) to prove continuity. Though the posts all seem to come from one individual, some speculate that Q is actually several people, or that the posters have changed over time.

Q’s followers call new posts “drops.” These drops often appear as cryptographic messages which function much like a game, engaging and drawing subscribers into the theory and its growing online community. Other Q posts include memes, Twitter links, YouTube videos, right-wing news articles, and graphics claiming to connect media figures and Democratic politicians to instances of corruption and pedophilia. The posts often reference Christian scripture and include religious overtones which have helped the theory spread in religious communities and led some believers to perceive Q as a prophet who can predict the future.

On September 20, 2020, Q posted a “spiritual warfare” prayer, calling on God to grant his followers power over their enemies. “While evil still roams, the power of Your name and Your blood rises up to defeat and bring us victory against every evil planned against us.” Earlier last year, just after the Democratic National Convention in August, Q lambasted the Democratic party with a classic evangelical accusation, writing that “One party promotes God. One party eliminates God.” Their sign-off concluded, in all-caps, “GOD WINS.”

Q’s very first post predicted the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton: “HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur.”

Though the prediction never came to fruition, followers accepted that the lack of an arrest was simply a part of Q’s plan. Believers continued to listen as Q connected the Clintons with Satan worship and posed rhetorical questions about the role of shadowy government agencies.

If QAnon sounds similar to “Pizzagate,” that’s not a coincidence. 

In October 2016, trolls on online message boards like 4chan scoured the Clinton campaign’s leaked emails posted on WikiLeaks. They fixated on a series of emails John Podesta (then chair of the presidential campaign) sent regarding the Washington, DC pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong. Soon, prominent pro-Trump personalities like Alex Jones began amplifying the claim that these emails provided coded evidence of a child sex trafficking ring run by Democrats out of Comet Ping Pong’s basement—even though the restaurant has no basement. 

The conspiracy, soon dubbed Pizzagate, spread quickly to mainstream social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter. In December 2016, the theory culminated in Edgar Maddison Welch, a 28-year-old from North Carolina, entering the restaurant with an AR-15 assault rifle and firing several rounds at a locked door. Behind the door, Welch was surprised to find a small, nondescript computer storage room. Once he realized that no children were held captive in Comet Ping Pong, Welch surrendered to the police. In 2017, he pled guilty to weapons charges and was sentenced to four years in prison. 

Welch’s actions made national news and demonstrated the real danger posed by online conspiracy theories and their fanatic believers. Under the threat of legal action and growing public pressure, some of Pizzagate’s most vocal supporters backed down from their claims. But the assertion that powerful global elites traffic and abuse children persisted and grew online, laying the groundwork for QAnon’s ideology.

In 2019, internal FBI documents named QAnon as a domestic terror threat. The memo pointed to the 2018 arrest of a California man who planned to blow up the Capitol rotunda in Springfield, Illinois to “make Americans aware of Pizzagate and the New World Order.” In March 2019, a 24-year-old QAnon follower shot the head of New York’s Gambino crime family to death because he believed the mob boss was part of the deep state.

Most recently, QAnon adherents were among the most prominent Trump supporters in the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on January 6. Protesters held Q signs high above the crowd, while figures like “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley, shirtless and wearing a fur headdress, charged into the halls of Congress. The mob left five dead.

Despite the long standing recognition that QAnon’s followers might undertake dangerous, criminal actions, until recently, the theory found significant unchecked traction on mainstream social media sites.

Between late 2017 and spring 202o, few social media companies took steps to curb the conspiracy’s spread. In the years after the theory’s inception, QAnon-devoted podcasts and YouTube channels gained thousands of followers, while thousands more took to Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags to discuss the theory. Participants in these communities constructed independent websites and apps to track Q’s posts and propelled Q-related podcasts, books, and even merchandise into the limelight.

In April 2020, Facebook first began cracking down on the theory, removing five pages and six groups with more than 100,000 members and followers. This August, the company instituted a more systematic QAnon ban, taking down a further 800 groups and suspending more than 10,000 users across Facebook and Instagram.

After the attack on the United States Capitol, social media sites ramped up their efforts to eliminate QAnon evangelists and their followers, many of whom called for violent actions to overturn the election results. On January 11, Twitter suspended more than 70,000 QAnon accounts. Yet such crackdowns, which also occurred on YouTube and Reddit, came too late to stop the viral spread of the conspiracy theory.

Figures like QAnon “activist” Tracy Diaz, whom The Atlantic credits with helping bring the theory into the mainstream, greatly raised their profiles during the last months of 2020 by promoting false claims about the pandemic and the 2020 election results. Diaz, known online as tracybeanz, had 532,000 Twitter followers before her account was suspended on January 11. Her YouTube channel, which boasts 132,000 subscribers, remains online. According to the social media tracking site Social Blade, Diaz gained nearly 150,000 Twitter followers in the month before her ban alone.

While it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact number of QAnon devotees, growing evidence suggests a small but vocal minority of Americans subscribe to the theory. Most identify as Republicans. Pew Research polling conducted in early September suggested that 20 percent of Americans who have heard of QAnon view the theory as either “somewhat good” or “very good” for the country. Among Republican or lean Republican respondents, 41 percent said they perceived QAnon as good, while seven percent of Democrat-oriented respondents said the same.

Over the past few years, QAnon signs have become a staple at President Trump’s rallies across the country, a testament to the conspiracy’s surging popularity. Because the rhetoric pushed by QAnon subscribers (who typically refer to themselves simply as “patriots”) often overlaps with the discourse of President Trump’s broader base, including references to the deep state and corrupt Democratic politicians, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish QAnon followers from the president’s other supporters. 

Though the president has stopped short of endorsing the conspiracy theory outright, he has repeatedly refused to disavow it. When asked about QAnon in August, Trump feigned ignorance about the movement but praised the conspiracy’s followers, stating “I’ve heard these are people that love our country.” He has also retweeted several Q-related memes and phrases, fueling speculation among believers that Trump is sending coded messages to Q followers—or that he is Q himself.

Georgia’s 14th congressional district, which Marjorie Taylor Greene now represents, has long been one of the country’s most conservative districts. But the widespread acceptance of Greene’s QAnon endorsement demonstrates that the theory can play well with mainstream voters. 

According to the nonprofit Media Matters for America, 97 QAnon-supporting congressional candidates ran during the 2020 election cycle: 89 Republicans, two Democrats, one Libertarian, four independents, and a member of the Independent Party of Delaware. Of the candidates, 27 were on the ballot for the general election and two Republicans, Greene and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, were elected to the House.

In 2017, before Greene’s Congressional run, she posted a video summarizing the QAnon theory and asserting, “there’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it.” 

After she announced her candidacy, Greene purged her social media of QAnon content—but her actions have reflected her continued belief and support for the theory.

To Greene and her supporters, Q’s mission and her allegiance to Donald Trump take precedence over partisan politics. Though she has ceaselessly backed President Trump and challenged President-elect Biden’s win, she has also clashed with members of the Republican establishment, whom many Q followers believe are corrupt.

Just three days after her electoral victory, Greene entered into a Twitter spat with Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), who had suggested that Republicans should accept the outcome of a fair vote. Greene responded that “Republicans can’t back down,” accusing Crenshaw of not standing up for the president. 

Greene is far from the only QAnon supporter to question President Trump’s loss. Trump is fundamental to the conspiracy theory. Believers perceive him as a strategic mastermind. His loss to President-elect Joe Biden has thrown QAnon’s supporters into turmoil—but there is no sign the conspiracy theory will dissipate. 

Some Q supporters are certain Trump’s loss is a sign that the deep state is winning, while others think it is part of the president’s strategy. Every vocal adherent claims baselessly that the election was conducted fraudulently. On November 4 alone, Twitter flagged 19 of Greene’s tweets for false claims of election fraud.

Since the election, Q has gone largely silent, posting only four times. In one of the posts, they referenced elections “post-POTUS” and wrote “It had to be this way. Sometimes you must walk through the darkness before you see the light.” This apparent admission of defeat shocked some disciples but reassured many that Q’s failed prediction of a landslide Trump win was simply another aspect of his grand plan.

As QAnon spread its tendrils into other conspiracies online, it took on a near-religious significance in hard-to-track communities scattered across the internet. Now, supporters are in the limelight. In June, Jo Rae Perkins, a Republican candidate for US Senate who captured nearly 40 percent of the vote in Oregon declared herself “one of the thousands of digital soldiers” for QAnon. Such adherents view this as their calling—so long as they have internet connections the theory will persist, including in the halls of Congress.