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The QAnon conspiracy theory movement, which originated in 2017, has spread beyond the fringes of the internet and into mainstream culture.
Recent Fox News and One America News Network segments have portrayed QAnon in a flattering light, though Fox News distanced itself from the movement after criticism.
Facebook groups related to QAnon have reached more than a million new people during the pandemic, according to data compiled by extremism researcher Marc-André Argentino.
Now, QAnon is leeching into mainstream politics, with the president and numerous sitting congressmen sharing messages favorable to Q, and multiple congressional candidates running on Q-related platforms.
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On Saturday night, Fox News host Jesse Watters said in an interview with President Donald Trump’s son, Eric Trump, that followers of the far-right conspiracy theory movement QAnon had “uncovered” some “great stuff.”
“Q can do some crazy stuff with the pizza stuff and the Wayfair stuff,” Watters said, referencing the debunked Pizzagate and Wayfair QAnon conspiracy theories, “but they’ve also uncovered a lot of great stuff when it comes to [Jeffrey] Epstein and when it comes to the Deep State.”
It’s unclear what exactly Waters was praising, but many of QAnon’s conspiracy theories revolve around child sex trafficking and the allegation that the “deep state” is out to get Trump.
His unfounded statement, made on-air on the most-watched cable news network in the US, demonstrates how the conspiracy theory is leaking into mainstream American culture.
QAnon originated on the fringe message board 4chan in 2017 when an anonymous figure called Q claimed that Trump was sending secret messages through his press conferences. In the years since, the theory has evolved, but its central tenet remains the same: that Trump is secretly fighting to defeat the so-called deep state, a cabal of elites that QAnon’s believers say control nearly everything, including pop culture, finance, and Hollywood.
The movement has remained distinctly conspiratorial and has played a role in numerous violent events, including killings and kidnappings. It was even deemed a domestic terrorism threat, along with other conspiracy theories, by an FBI field office in Arizona.
But with the help of social media platforms, retweets from the president, and right-wing media, QAnon is now being taken seriously by a substantial number of Americans — a phenomenon one researcher has dubbed the “normiefication” of the movement.
Broadcast news segments on right-wing networks have spread QAnon messages
Hosts of One America News Network (OANN), which The Atlantic has called President Trump’s “favorite cable-news channel” given his propensity to share their segments on his Twitter feed, have frequently promoted QAnon’s debunked or unsubstantiated ideologies.
Kristian Rouz, an OANN correspondent, gave credence to QAnon’s primary theory in a segment last week when she said Twitter’s sweeping ban on QAnon indicated “the deep state appears to be fighting back,” Media Matters for America reported.
In the same segment, Rouz added parroted a common talking point among Q believers, saying “a growing number of Americans may be doing their own research, as reports also say QAnon is becoming a widely accepted system of beliefs — the new mainstream.”
Previously, Rouz has amplified other conspiracy theories, calling the COVID-19 pandemic a “globalist conspiracy to establish sweeping population control,” and linked it to George Soros, a common target of QAnon believers.
Similarly, Watters’ comments framed the false conspiracy theories spread by the QAnon movement as valuable. While it’s unclear what exactly Watters was referencing regarding Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy convicted sex offender who died by suicide in prison last summer, many QAnon zealots have attempted to trace connections between Epstein and other celebrities and businesspeople, alleging that they were also involved in child trafficking.
Watters discussed two other theories in his segment but downplayed their severity. The Pizzagate conspiracy theory from 2016 inspired an armed standoff at a Washington DC pizza restaurant where a QAnon vigilante was searching for non-existent child prisoners, and the recent Wayfair conspiracy theory originated among QAnon believers but went viral on social media, and has now reportedly resulted in a flood of calls that is overwhelming the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Watters, who previously produced an uncritical segment on QAnon in December, later walked back the claims, which appeared to show support of the far-right group. “While discussing the double standard of big tech censorship, I mentioned the conspiracy group QAnon, which I don’t support or believe in. My comments should not be mistaken for giving credence to this fringe platform,” he told Insider in a statement.
But the comment on Saturday was not the first time personalities on Fox News, known for its right-leaning opinion content, appeared to show support for QAnon. Recently, Ed Mullins, chief of the NYPD Sergeants union appeared on Fox News with a QAnon mug behind him. Mullins has previously appeared on Fox News with the mug on at least two occasions.
Around four in 10 Americans trust Fox News, and Republicans trust the network more than any other news outlet, according to the Pew Research Center. Reece Peck, the author of “Fox Populism: Branding Conservatism as Working Class” and an assistant professor at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island said that Fox News giving any weight to conspiracy theories is “incredibly dangerous” because of the network’s reach.
The network “is the agenda-setter, much like The New York Times is for the mainstream journalism sector,” Peck said. “Fox News functions that way in the conservative media ecosystem, and it has credibility, and that’s what makes it incredibly dangerous.”
The spread of QAnon theories on social media has extended beyond the dark corners of the internet
Social media companies are trying to mitigate the rapid spread of QAnon theories after months of inaction. Last week, Twitter announced a sweeping ban on QAnon content, reportedly removing 7,000 accounts connected to the conspiracy theory. TikTok followed suit, making the two main QAnon hashtags, #QAnon and #WWG1WGA (the movement’s slogan, “where we go one, we go all”) unsearchable on the short-form video app. The New York Times reported that Facebook is preparing to roll out similar measures. A representative for YouTube, which has played host to OANN segments on QAnon among other QAnon videos, told Insider that the company treats QAnon related content as harmful content, and has removed tens of thousands of videos and hundreds of channels associated with QAnon since an overhaul of its hate speech policy in June 2019.
But, as Abby Ohlheiser reported in the MIT Technology Review, it might be impossible to stop QAnon at this point. The issue will be particularly difficult to contain during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has become a major subject of QAnon conspiracy theories and has been connected to higher engagement with certain conspiracy theory websites.
Based on three years of data, extremism researcher Marc-André Argentino, a PhD candidate at Concordia University, found that the majority of Facebook interactions related to QAnon have occurred since the pandemic began. More than 49 million of the 74.2 million interactions on QAnon Facebook groups took place between March and July of this year, Argentino found, and of the 1.64 million members of QAnon Facebook groups that have existed since October 2017, 1.2 million have joined since March. The unpublished data is part of Argentino’s ongoing research into QAnon’s reach and impact.
QAnon theories are also stretching beyond the walls of specific Facebook groups. The Wayfair conspiracy theory, which alleged the high-end furniture retailer was selling human children disguised on its website as expensive items, spread for weeks in non-QAnon spaces online after QAnon accounts created the theory.
The Wafair conspiracy has been promoted by Instagram influencers, singer Maisy Stella, who has otherwise never mentioned QAnon, and was nearly inescapable on social media at its peak, with hundreds of thousands of people discussing it on Twitter alone.
The wide popularity of the Wayfair theory demonstrates how QAnon can appeal to different kinds of people.
QAnon is worming its way into Congress
QAnon has also begun to find a home in Congress. Sixty-eight current or former congressional candidates have voiced support for the conspiracy theory online, according to research by Alex Kaplan of Media Matters for America. Fourteen of those candidates will either be on their ballots in November, having won their primary elections or are awaiting runoff primaries, Kaplan found.
Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican who defeated a five-term incumbent to win her state’s primary election, will be sworn into Congress if she wins the election in November. Boebert said on SteelTruth, a web series hosted by a QAnon supporter, that she hopes QAnon is real. “Everything that I’ve heard of Q, I hope that this is real, because it only means America is getting stronger and better, and people are returning to conservative values, and that’s what I am for,” she said, according to Forbes.
Boebert told Axios that she is “glad the IG and the AG are investigating deep state activities that undermine the President,” but that she doesn’t follow QAnon herself. After her primary win, the National Republican Congressional Committee said in a statement that Boebert’s seat would remain Republican. Another QAnon candidate, Marjorie Taylor Greene, is awaiting an August primary runoff for a Republican Congressional seat, which is in a Republican district. Greene has made anti-Semitic, racist, and Islamophobic claims in Facebook videos, Politico reported, in addition to espousing QAnon beliefs.
As Matthew Rosenberg and Jennifer Steinhauer wrote in The New York Times, “their mere presence on the political scene is helping to further spread a conspiracy that, at its core, sees the government as a dangerous enemy.”
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