Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters
"Gun-toting" restaurateur Lauren Boebert came out ahead of incumbent Rep. Scott Tipton in the Republican primary for Colorado's 3rd Congressional District. She was described as a "guns rights activist" by Twitter, USA Today's headline read, "5-term Rep. Tipton backed by Trump loses in Colorado primary, upset by businesswoman Lauren Boebert," and The New York Times' headline about her victory read "Lauren Boebert, Gun-Rights Activist, Upsets House G.O.P. Incumbent in Colorado."
One aspect of Boebert's history that initially received less prominent attention was her support of QAnon, a pro-Trump conspiracy theory baselessly alleging that Democratic officials are leaders of a worldwide pedophilia ring. The QAnon movement was name-checked in a leaked May 2019 FBI document highlighting the emergence of conspiracy theory-fueled domestic terrorism threats, and devotees have committed a number of murders, engaged in armed standoffs, and made politically motivated death threats. QAnon followers have vandalized churches, taken police on high-speech chases, and in one case, conspired with fellow followers to commit kidnapping.
"I hope that [QAnon] is real because it only means America is getting stronger and better," Boebert told QAnon supporter Ann Vandersteel on Vandersteel's SteelTruth show in May, adding that she was "very familiar" with QAnon. She also appeared on Patriots' Soapbox, a popular QAnon YouTube channel. Additionally, Boebert appears to have a YouTube account that subscribes to multiple QAnon channels.
Since winning her primary, Boebert has tried to distance herself from the movement, telling Colorado Fox affiliate KDVR, "No. I'm not a follower. This is just a fake attack from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee," and adding, "QAnon is a lot of things to different people. I was very vague in what I said before. I'm not into conspiracies. I'm into freedom and the Constitution of the United States of America. I'm not a follower."
In many ways, Boebert and other QAnon-following candidates have been normalized in the press. FiveThirtyEight published an article about the likelihood that Republican women will increase their representation in Congress with the November elections, and used a photo of Boebert. Her fringe beliefs are not mentioned anywhere in the article or accompanying tweet.
When The New York Times wrote about Boebert's victory, it made a passing reference to her support of QAnon, saying in the lead that she'd "spoken approvingly of the pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon." It wasn't until the 11th paragraph that the movement got mentioned again, and even that was framed in the context of how "Democrats immediately went on the attack" for her support of QAnon.
Media Matters' Alex Kaplan has reported extensively on the QAnon movement, and he has identified two concepts that journalists need to understand when reporting on this movement. The first has to do with QAnon-supporting candidates and the need to probe their actual beliefs. "Some of these candidates seem to see QAnon and its supporters as an explicit political constituency to appeal to for support, and are trying to use existing QAnon infrastructure to do so, such as using QAnon hashtags (particularly #WWG1WGA) and going on QAnon YouTube channels," he says. "So they seem to be treating a far-right conspiracy theory group tied to violence and flagged by the FBI as some normal voting block when it's clearly not."
The second issue is that reporters often seem unaware of, or aren't reporting on, the actual number of QAnon-supporting candidates who are progressing in their races. Kaplan says, "I keep seeing just a few specific candidates mentioned over and over regarding those who made it out of primaries or to primary runoffs (Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Jo Rae Perkins), when it's way more than that; it's at least 14 candidates that made it out of primaries to the ballot in November or to primary runoffs (and that's leaving out independent/write-in candidates)."
Boebert certainly seems to fall into Kaplan's category of QAnon candidates who may not be true believers of the conspiracy theory, but have found it politically expedient to associate themselves with it during the primary. Unfortunately, Boebert is nowhere near the only Q-curious candidate running for office. Kaplan has counted a total of 63 current and former congressional candidates who've either endorsed or lent credence to the theory. More than a dozen of those candidates will appear on the ballot come November.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, who came in first in her Georgia Republican primary, sending her on to an August 11 runoff, is an extremely vocal Q supporter who shared a campaign video in which she holds an assault weapon and demands that "antifa terrorists stay the hell out of northwest Georgia."
"Q is a patriot. We know that for sure, but we do not know who Q is," Greene says in a video. She later adds, "I think [Q] is something worth listening to and paying attention to." The Cook Political Report lists Georgia's 14th district as an R+27, meaning that if she wins in her August primary runoff, it's extremely likely that she will be elected to Congress.
What will it mean to put someone in power who honestly believes that President Donald Trump was secretly working with special counsel Robert Mueller to uncover a "deep state" conspiracy and fight back against a global child-trafficking cabal being run by celebrities and leaders in the Democratic Party? This is a movement that believes that the current global pandemic is the result of a biological weapon released by shadowy global elites, that celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Tom Hanks are secretly under house arrest for child trafficking, and that John F. Kennedy Jr. is actually alive, 21 years after his death. The movement has been amplified repeatedly by Trump allies and even the president himself. Online, QAnon followers have picked up on Trump and allies' promotion of Q-related posts, citing them as proof that QAnon is real.
Travis View, one of the hosts of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, wonders what it will take for journalists to treat QAnon and its believers as a genuine threat to people's safety.
"The question isn't whether QAnon-connected murder, terrorism, and law enforcement scrutiny will cause the mainstream press to take QAnon as a serious extremist threat. We're past that point," he tells Media Matters. "The question is now how much QAnon-connected crime and death are required for the press to understand the dangers associated with QAnon."
"Characterizing QAnon as merely a 'pro-Trump conspiracy theory' undersells it and misleads readers," says View in a nod to how several news outlets have covered the movement. "I sense that most mainstream political reporters have a narrow grasp of extremism. They may understand the basic principles of white nationalism or salafi jihadism, but anything outside of that is invisible to them."
For View, that means journalists have to make an effort to understand where candidates and their party backers stand on some of the more outlandish QAnon claims. View suggests asking Greene what she found "brilliant" about a cryptic Q post reading, "BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. A WEEK TO REMEMBER. DARK TO LIGHT. BLACKOUT NECESSARY. Q," or why she showed interest in Rachel Chandler, a seemingly random woman QAnon followers have baselessly tried to connect to Jeffrey Epstein.
"Are the QAnon candidates at all concerned about the movement they're associated with being called out as an extremist threat by the FBI?" asks View. "Even if these candidates no longer subscribe to QAnon beliefs, then there is journalistic value in discovering that as well."
It's easy to brush conspiracy theories off, but there could be long-term consequences to inaction in the fight against them. Yale philosophy professor and author of How Fascism Works Jason Stanley faults journalism's normalcy bias for some of the surface-level failings on coverage of QAnon candidates.
"The U.S. media has a seemingly unyielding need to normalize the political process, especially when it comes to developments on the far right," he tells Media Matters. "Pandering and minimizing extremist far-right conspiracy theories is presented as 'balance' and 'objectivity' -- sadly, this generosity is not extended to the left, where even mild forms of social-welfare democracy present in Canada and Europe are often presented as utopian fantasy. As Republican politicians become ever more extreme in their fantasies [such as] child sex rings run by the Democratic Party, we are yet again receiving lessons about how this false conception of journalistic objectivity leads to the destruction of our shared reality, rather than an improvement in our understanding of it."
On Twitter, Stanley has expressed concern that the Trump administration and his supporters in Congress will try to "reverse engineer QAnon to make it seem plausible." Trump's ramblings about "Obamagate" would seem to be a part of this.
So they are really going to enact QAnon.— Jason Stanley (@Jason Stanley)1589165217.0
This wouldn't be the first time Trump had taken a ludicrous claim and tried to reverse-engineer it into reality. After Trump baselessly accused President Barack Obama of illegally tapping his phone lines prior to the 2016 election, Trump used the power of his administration along with right-wing media to try to validate what he said. The administration's decision to have John Durham conduct a wide-ranging investigation into the Mueller probe feeds into the QAnon "deep state" narrative. Should a large enough QAnon contingent come into power, it doesn't seem to be a stretch to think that they would unleash a series of specious investigations and hold show trials to prosecute targets of the movement.
Some reporting on the QAnon movement has been great and should serve as examples to reporters who may not be familiar with it.
NBC News' Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny stand out as examples of journalists who produce good, in-depth coverage of this conspiracy theory and corresponding movement. Similarly, the aforementioned QAnon Anonymous podcast as well as the work of Jared Holt of Right Wing Watch (and formerly of Media Matters) have been must-follows for anyone looking for a detailed breakdown of some of the movement's biggest players and what they believe.
Welp, Oprah is the top trend in the United States because QAnon people completely made up that she was arrested as… https://t.co/rTIIhBdrCw— Ben Collins (@Ben Collins)1584506615.0
Will Sommer of The Daily Beast has provided excellent reporting related to the conspiracy theory, Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic published a remarkable long-form piece on the history of the movement, and The Guardian's Julie Carrie Wong carried out an investigation about how Facebook has helped promote QAnon and other conspiracy theories.
Without a thorough understanding of internet culture and a familiarity with conspiracy theories, journalists may very well find themselves unprepared to cover Q-supporting politicians when they inevitably end up in the halls of Congress. Their ascension to those roles should in no way be an excuse to accept the conspiracy theory as anything less than a dangerous and deranged belief, but there's reason to worry that will happen, as the eternal fight for balanced coverage in media often means accepting the far-right's most outlandish beliefs as rational. Political journalists should spend time between now and November familiarizing themselves with this movement, because it's not going away.