Opinion

QAnon is suddenly everywhere — whether people realize it or not

How the fringe movement tricks normal people into amplifying incoherent conspiracy theories

Tapping through Instagram stories recently, I was surprised to find my entirely normal friend sharing QAnon content. She was surprised, too, because she'd never heard the word "QAnon" in her life.

Three in four Americans could say the same, as of March, and only 3 percent then said they knew "a lot" about QAnon, which refers to both a conspiracy theory and the movement that has grown up around it. As I wrote while exploring QAnon's religious aspects earlier this year, the gospel of Q goes like this: There's a cabal of powerful figures in government (the "deep state"), business, academia, and media who make time for child sex trafficking, cannibalism, and satanic sacrifice in their busy schedule of world domination. Q is the movement's anonymous digital prophet whose forum posts ("Q drops") reveal both the nature of the cabal and how the movement's messianic figure, President Trump, plans to defeat it.

Q drops are unfalsifiable to QAnon's true believers. Prophecies believed to have come true are taken as proof of the whole theory's veracity. Anything that doesn't pan out is evidence of the cabal's struggle to retain power. Whatever happens, Q is right. The inaugural Q drop, for example, promised Hillary Clinton would be arrested in late October of 2017. She'd be stopped from fleeing the country by the Marine Corps, Q said, and extradited if she made it across the border. The National Guard would be deployed to quell "massive riots" in response to Clinton's downfall.

None of this happened, of course — yet somehow the incoherent ramblings which forecast it sparked a movement anyway.

Q's influence is already significant in politics proper. A Q follower named Marjorie Taylor Greene won a Republican congressional primary in Georgia on Tuesday. As her district is solidly red, there's a strong chance we'll have QAnon in Congress come January. Greene may not be the only one, either: Axios counted 10 other GOP nominees with ties to Q. Forbes found several more. The Washington Post in July estimated almost 600,000 Americans have already voted for an openly pro-Q politician. Trump hasn't explicitly affirmed the theory, but he praised Greene effusively and has repeatedly retweeted QAnon posts. His press secretary once promised a Q supporter to ask Trump about Q's identity. His second son promoted a campaign rally with a Q graphic and hashtag.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided fertile ground for QAnon's growth, too. Various Q narratives have described the illness as a hoax to expand cabal power, hawked supplements as coronavirus cures, or spread myths, like the claim that having children wear masks puts them at greater risk of being trafficked. QAnon undoubtedly contributed to one in four Americans' belief that the pandemic was possibly or definitely "planned by powerful people."

It's difficult to estimate how many are knowingly involved in QAnon, but a guess in the low millions is reasonable. An internal Facebook investigation reported Monday found more than 3 million users have joined major QAnon groups or followed prominent QAnon pages. There's probably a lot of overlap within that total — a single user might be a member of multiple groups — but there are also no doubt plenty of QAnon users who haven't formally linked themselves to these bigger hubs of Q support. If Q's following is north of 3 million, that means roughly one in every 100 Americans gives Q some degree of credence.

That prospect is troubling enough. Some Q followers have become destructively obsessive, staying loyal to the theory at the price of total estrangement from their bewildered families. The movement's religious function is worrisome, too, particularly given its targeted appeal to some evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. As a fellow Christian, I lament that these adherents are being led astray by a false gospel which subverts the work of Christ — labels of "cult" and "heresy" are fair.

But I'm increasingly alarmed by a new realization: Knowing adherence isn't the only risk with QAnon.

Take my friend on Instagram. I clicked through to the post she shared and realized pretty quickly it was Q-connected content. One of the accounts the original poster credited with informing her perspective had a Q hashtag in its bio: #wwg1wga, an abbreviation for the grammatically obnoxious slogan of QAnon unity, "Where we go one, we go all."

But my friend had no idea what that hashtag meant. I don't think she even noticed it. She shared the post because it had a message against sexual abuse and trafficking of children, a cause she cares about deeply (and cared about before QAnon ever existed).

To my friend and the majority of Americans who likely still know nothing of Q, the movement's telltale phrases — "the storm is coming," "the calm before the storm," "nothing can stop what's coming," "trust the plan," "enjoy the show," and so on — won't suggest anything unusual. If you're not familiar with the movement, it's easy to miss these tip-offs. Q signs at Trump rallies might vaguely register, but a casual viewer is unlikely to connect them to what appears to be straightforward Instagram post about pedophilia and trafficking shared by a lifestyle influencer.

And who isn't concerned about pedophilia and trafficking? This is a big factor in Q's success. It builds on a universal human instinct and moral conviction: It is evil to hurt innocent children. There's no more accessible point of entry to a fringe movement than a statement every person of good conscience already supports.

QAnon has deliberately exploited online activism against child abuse for purposes of self-promotion, an approach at once tactically clever and ethically repulsive. Q followers co-opted the #SaveTheChildren hashtag, which began as a fundraiser for Save the Children, a century-old charity with no connection to Q.

"The idea, in a nutshell, is to create a groundswell of concern by flooding social media with posts about human trafficking, joining parenting Facebook groups, and glomming on to hashtag campaigns," explains a New York Times report on the strategy. "Then followers can shift the conversation to baseless theories about who they believe is doing the trafficking: a cabal of nefarious elites that includes Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, and Pope Francis."

The author of that report, incidentally, had the exact same experience I did: An acquaintance unaware of QAnon shared Q content in her Instagram story. Her post was about child trafficking, too, and Facebook data the Times article cites — that "[i]nteractions on posts with the #SaveTheChildren hashtag ... have grown more than 500 percent since early July" — suggests this phenomenon is widespread.

Many Americans, attempting to oppose abuse of children, are unwittingly evangelizing for Q. They may accidentally convert their friends. They may accidentally convert themselves.

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