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Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

Less than three years after it started on an anonymous far-right message board, the QAnon conspiracy theory was being praised by the president of the United States.

On August 19, a reporter asked President Donald Trump if he had anything to say to followers of QAnon. Speaking in the White House briefing room, Trump said, "I don't know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate," adding that it was "gaining in popularity" and consisted of "people that love our country."

2020 was a significant year for many reasons: a pandemic, the election of a new president, a reckoning over systemic racism. But it was also a breakout year for QAnon, a categorically false and extreme conspiracy theory that has been tied to multiple acts of violence and that worried the FBI enough that in 2019 the bureau specifically mentioned it internally as a potential domestic terrorism threat.

What started in far-right spaces online gained widespread prominence and attention, in part thanks to a long lack of a response from — and even algorithmic promotion by — various social media platforms. As a result, QAnon has become a significant player in American politics and discourse, harmed our ability to contain a deadly pandemic, and left destroyed lives and families in its wake. And that outcome should provide a harsh lesson about allowing misinformation to spread unchecked across social media platforms.

QAnon's Beginnings

In late 2017, an anonymous user posted on "/pol/" (where users call themselves "anons"), a far-right message board on the site 4chan. The user, who called themself "Q," claimed to have "Q" government clearance and promised to have an inside scoop showing Trump and then-special counsel Robert Mueller had a secret plot that would take down his perceived enemies, the "deep state," and a cabal of pedophiles (which included people in Hollywood and Democrats like Hillary Clinton). Much of Q's claims built off of the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory.

Despite being just one of many users claiming to be government insiders, "Q" gained wider attention, in part thanks to moderators on the message board and a YouTuber who started promoting it. The conspiracy theory spread to Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter, and ultimately moved to the even further-right message board site 8chan (a site tied to multiple alleged mass shooters).

By early 2018, others in the far-right started embracing QAnon, including outlets such as Infowars, popular disinformation site YourNewsWire, and actors James Woods and Rosanne Barr. And by that summer, QAnon supporters had started popping up at Trump rallies.

Meanwhile, QAnon supporters slowly but steadily built an infrastructure of Twitter hashtags, Facebook pages and groups, and YouTube channels. Facebook and Twitter were reportedly warned about this movement internally, but they did not take action.

Offline, some followers had started engaging in violent or threatening acts, including multiple murders, kidnappings, an armed blockade of the Hoover Dam, and even an effort targeting a school fundraiser. Militia groups began to embrace QAnon as well, and supporters also relentlessly harassed figures they said were part of the pedophile cabal, such as Chrissy Teigen and Tom Hanks.

Yet, while its spread had become significant and its supporters' conspiracy theories would bubble up and sometimes reach public figures, there was a possibility the conspiracy theory's momentum was at least somewhat stalling early this year, as 8chan (and thus "Q") was knocked offline for months before relaunching as 8kun.

But then the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 election cycle provided the opportunity for the conspiracy theory to gain an even bigger foothold than before, aided by social media platforms' lacking efforts to limit its spread.

QAnon And Coronavirus: A Public Health Threat

The coronavirus pandemic forced many to stay in their homes or temporarily close their businesses, and with much more time on their hands, many people spent more time on the internet searching for answers and falling down rabbit holes. Interest and interactions with QAnon content soared. According to Mother Jones, over the spring there were significant spikes in Google and Wikipedia searches for "QAnon"; for "wwg1wga," the abbreviated version of the QAnon slogan, "where we go one, we go all"; and for "adrenochrome" (a substance QAnon followers claim elites harvest from the blood of children). There was a similar trend on YouTube for searches of QAnon content.

Mother Jones Google QAnon

CitationFrom Mother Jones

According to doctoral candidate and extremism researcher Marc-André Argentino, between March and August the number of QAnon Facebook pages and the "likes" they had more than doubled; interactions for QAnon Facebook groups doubled, and those groups' weekly interaction rate increased by over 900%. (Facebook by August found these pages and groups had more than 3 million total members/followers.)

And according to HuffPost, by June there was also a spike of tens of thousands of Instagram followers, YouTube subscribers, and Twitter followers of QAnon influencers on those platforms.

HuffPost social media QAnon

CitationFrom HuffPost

Even before this spike in searches, and before COVID was officially declared a pandemic, supporters of the conspiracy theory were spreading baseless claims about the virus. Some of them would eventually be embraced by "Q," who claimed it was planned in some way, maybe to harm Trump politically.

The impact of these allegations would be immense: One QAnon influencer falsely claimed that a British organization was linked to a supposed patent for the virus, causing the staff to get threats and abuse. QAnon accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter played a major role in spreading a false conspiracy theory about Microsoft founder Bill Gates implanting microchips in those who receive a vaccine; polls later found many people believing it. QAnon accounts also instigated a coronavirus-denying hashtag that resulted in people filming and harassing hospitals trying to deal with the virus. And a correspondent for One America News Network (which increasingly embraced the conspiracy theory over the course of the year) even framed a special entirely around a QAnon account's false coronavirus bioweapon conspiracy theory.

QAnon supporters also played a major role in spreading viral videos that pushed false claims about the virus. One of them, called Plandemic and featuring a woman named Judy Mikovits, came out in May and got a critical assist from QAnon Facebook groups. Before the video was released, some QAnon supporters were reportedly doing a "volunteer PR campaign" for and consulting with Mikovits. And in July, a QAnon influencer's copy of a video of a group calling itself "Frontline Doctors" -- which espoused a number of harmful claims about the virus -- may have contributed to about 20% of views of the video on Twitter.

These QAnon-connected conspiracy theories -- and QAnon becoming something of a catch-all for many of the conspiracy theories about the virus -- had an impact. A large number of QAnon followers, seemingly taking cues from QAnon content, flouted pandemic-containment measures such as mask wearing, effectively making the conspiracy theory a public health threat. One woman, for example, became so immersed in QAnon content that she went to a Target and filmed herself attacking the mask section. QAnon supporters also became regular attendees of the "reopen" protests throughout the country opposing lockdowns to contain the virus's spread.

Misinformation from the QAnon community about the virus even reached the very top: Trump in April amplified a tweet from a QAnon-supporting former congressional candidate which included a hashtag that called for the firing of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. And in late August, Trump retweeted a QAnon influencer pushing a false claim about coronavirus deaths; Fauci was subsequently forced to rebut the QAnon influencer's tweet on TV.

Mel Q Trump retweet

QAnon Candidates

In January, Jo Rae Perkins, a QAnon-supporting Oregon Republican who was running for the House of Representatives, told a reporter that she believed "there's a lot more people that are running for political office that follow 'Q' than are admitting to it." She appeared to be right: During the 2020 election cycle, at least 97 people who expressed some level of support for QAnon ran for Congress, while at least 23 ran for state legislatures. Of those, 27 and 21 of them made it to the general election ballot, respectively.

During the course of their campaigns, some of these candidates — some of whom were endorsed by a QAnon super PAC co-founded by Jim Watkins, the owner of 8kun — made their QAnon support an explicit part of their campaign. Perkins, who had switched races to run for a Senate seat, won the Republican primary; in a victory video, she said, "I stand with Q and the team. Thank you, Anons." Gary Heyer, who eventually earned the Republicn nomination for a Minnesota House of Representatives seat, campaigned outside a church with a "Q" sign to "invit[e] all of the churchgoers to partake in the great awakening."

Some candidates also posted Facebook ads with QAnon content, and multiple congressional candidates -- one of whom said she ran specifically due to QAnon Facebook content -- posted campaign videos of themselves taking a QAnon oath.

Some candidates also pandered to the QAnon following and infrastructure that had developed on the social media platforms in order to help their campaigns. Sammy Gindi, a New Jersey Republican congressional candidate, gained thousands of followers after tweeting that he needed help to "connect with more [Trump] supporters" and adding QAnon hashtags. And multiple candidates went on QAnon YouTube shows.

In November, four of these candidates were elected to state legislatures (three of them were incumbents who had made their support for QAnon explicit this year). And two were elected to Congress: Lauren Boebert in Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia. Boebert, who went on multiple QAnon YouTube channels, said QAnon was "only motivating and encouraging and bringing people together, stronger," and "can be really great for our country." She later tried to distance herself from QAnon after winning the Republican primary.

The other victor, Greene, a longtime QAnon supporter who had called "Q" a "patriot" who allowed a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out," later dubiously tried to distance herself from the conspiracy theory. Notably, Greene never explicitly denounced QAnon during her campaign, and since her election, she has in fact spoken generally positively of it.

Trump And QAnon

The conspiracy theory reached America's executive branch in 2020. QAnon supporters for years urged journalists to "ask the Q," and Trump's August 19 remarks praising QAnon thrilled the community; one QAnon influencer wrote that it meant Trump had "absorbed Q into MAGA." Trump would again go on to defend QAnon on other occassions, saying QAnon supporters "are very much against pedophilia" and "basically believe in good government." Throughout the year Trump also continued to amplify QAnon-promoting accounts on Twitter, doing so hundreds of times.

QAnon's reach during the year extended beyond Trump to others in his orbit and campaign. Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, posted video of himself in July taking the QAnon oath; months later he went on QAnon shows and thanked the "digital soldiers" for their support.

Two former Trump advisers, Roger Stone and Steve Bannon, also gave QAnon credence, and Trump social media guru Dan Scavino repeatedly posted QAnon or QAnon-related content. And a number of Trump campaign officials and family members posted QAnon content, shared content from QAnon influencers, or even appeared on QAnon shows.

Eric Trump QAnon

QAnon And The Presidential Election

QAnon's impact during the presidential campaign and its aftermath were significant as well. QAnon accounts and "Q" played major roles in spreading false claims about then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, including a manipulated video that Trump amplified.

QAnon's claim that Democrats — including Biden — are pedophiles also gained traction and was even embraced by Trump's campaign, along with Trump himself via a QAnon-linked hashtag. Trump adviser Stephen Miller also claimed that Biden would "incentivize child smuggling and child trafficking on an epic, global scale," and QAnon supporters also played a major role in spreading false trafficking and pedophilia claims about Biden's son, Hunter Biden.

QAnon's influence may have aided Trump's campaign: One post-election study found a correlation between state polls that underestimated Trump's chances and a "higher-than-average volume of QAnon activity in those states."

But perhaps QAnon's most influential role was in spreading false claims about voter fraud. In the months before the election, a report found that at one point more than 1 in 50 tweets about voting and 2 in 25 tweets with "#voterfraud" came from QAnon accounts. That rate has increased following Trump's loss to Biden, with QAnon accounts at one point making up 1 in 7 tweets pushing a false conspiracy theory that voting machine company Dominion Voting Systems created and stole votes for Biden. Onetime 8kun administrator Ron Watkins pushed the conspiracy theory, spurring harassment including death threats against a Dominion employee, and Trump amplified some of his remarks.

Ron Watkins Trump tweet

Meanwhile, Sidney Powell, Michael Flynn's attorney who had worked with the Trump campaign's legal effort and has QAnon connections of her own, started to cite Watkins and other QAnon-connected figures and claims in her lawsuits to overturn the election results in certain states. In early December, Powell thanked Flynn's "digital soldiers" for bringing people "the truth." Trump had floated at one point making Powell a special counsel on election fraud.

Powell is not the only figure connected to Trump's campaign who has relied on QAnon to help push false claims of voter fraud. Lin Wood, a QAnon-supporting attorney who had been aiding Trump's campaign, tweeted a conspiracy theory circulating among QAnon supporters about Powell's voter fraud claims; Trump later retweeted Wood. And Mellissa Carone, a witness brought forth by the Trump campaign to prove the Dominion conspiracy theory, went on multiple QAnon shows to push her claims.

Beyond helping spread these claims, some QAnon supporters also appeared ready to carry out violence over these false voter fraud allegations: Two armed men whose car contained QAnon paraphernalia were arrested in Philadelphia near a voting center while ballots were still being counted.

Implications Of QAnon's Spread

As QAnon became an increasingly obvious force in American politics, specifically within the Republican Party, many seemed unconcerned. Multiple prominent Republican organizations and figures, including Trump and state Republican Party chapters, backed the campaigns of Greene and Boebert, the QAnon-embracing congressional candidates. The California Republican Party alone endorsed four of the QAnon-connected candidates. (That said, most House Republicans voted for a resolution in October denouncing QAnon.)

And more Republican and conservatives entities and figures actually started to embrace the conspiracy theory: Multiple state and county Republican Party chapters and their leadership shared explicit QAnon material on social media, and even a spokesperson for the major conservative legal organization Judicial Crisis Network tweeted the QAnon slogan.

Gayle Trotter QAnon

And by October, Republican operatives told Business Insider that they "view QAnon believers and the movement not as a liability or as a scourge to be extinguished, but as a useful band of fired-up supporters" and said they would avoid alienating "what has become a key part of the Republican coalition." Some polling has indicated that QAnon has increasingly gained support among Republican voters.

Meanwhile, QAnon grew support among those who may not have embraced it before. A QAnon influencer in June started a false conspiracy theory that the company Wayfair was involved with human trafficking; the claim subsequently exploded on social media.

Soon after, QAnon supporters began to rally behind the hashtags "#SaveTheChildren" and "#SaveOurChildren" and used Facebook to organize rallies that were really a front to push QAnon. Although some Republicans embraced it, the campaign also pulled in some who may not otherwise have adopted QAnon, such as Democrats and moms (QAnon's growth with mom-related groups has been called "pastel QAnon").

Additionally, some other peddlers of misinformation and extremism began to embrace QAnon as a means to help with their own aims. For instance, the CEO of Gab, a social media platform known as a haven for white nationalists, encouraged QAnon supporters to join the platform and began to post QAnon content. The Proud Boys, a far-right gang, began to post about adrenochrome and "#SaveTheChildren." And multiple anti-vaxxers increasingly promoted QAnon to their followers.

Social Media Platforms Respond

By mid-2020, nearly three years after the conspiracy theory began, QAnon's harm finally became too much for the social media platforms to ignore. One by one the platforms announced content crackdowns and bans on QAnon: Twitter and TikTok in July (with a further crackdown by the latter in October), Facebook in August (and a further crackdown in October), and YouTube also in October.

Although it is a positive step that the platforms finally addressed the problem of rampant QAnon content and organizing, in practice, many of these efforts have been lacking. Twitter has repeatedly failed to track QAnon accounts set up to evade their bans; TikTok did not catch multiple QAnon hashtags; a QAnon YouTube channel spread Dominion voting conspiracy theories; and QAnon content continues to filter around Facebook and other platforms.

QAnon's Future

It is unclear exactly what is next for QAnon. There are still many followers despite the election results, and many supporters have been in denial about Biden's victory. Some supporters have even suggested violence as an option to stop Biden from taking office.

Others might abandon QAnon but carry tenets of its beliefs with them and perhaps join other extremist communities. And others still may take Biden's presidency as just another development of the conspiracy theory and continue to uncritically consume further QAnon content.

And given QAnon supporters' role in spreading conspiracy theories about the pandemic, their potential role in hindering the coronavirus vaccination effort could be immense.

Meanwhile, multiple people who have embraced QAnon will now be shaping policy at both the federal and state level (and more may come). QAnon is also going international, causing problems this year in countries including Germany and the United Kingdom and alarming European intelligence agencies.

What happened this year showed the harm the fringes of the internet can have in our society when allowed to gain mainstream purchase and why they cannot be ignored. And a key factor in the conditions for the creation of that offline harm has been a lack of action from social media platforms regarding QAnon, a conspiracy theory which they knew about and yet effectively helped spread and in some cases even profited from rather than addressing. Now all of us -- our friends and families, our governments, our public health -- are paying the price.

Where we go one, we go all, indeed.

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