What is QAnon? What we know about the conspiracy theory
Much like COVID-19, QAnon has dominated the headlines in 2020, most recently after President Trump was asked to denounce the once-fringe conspiracy movement at a town hall event in Miami.
QAnon started as just a baseless conspiracy theory spouted in online posts by a shadowy figure named “Q” but has since exploded into a cultish fringe-right movement that’s been linked to crimes — including at least one murder — and is now deemed a potential domestic terror threat by the FBI.
Here’s a look at how QAnon began and its ascent into the mainstream.
What is QAnon and how did it start?
In October 2017, an anonymous user named “Q Clearance Patriot” began posting conspiracy theories on seedy message board 4chan — with the messages now appearing on 8kun, a rebranded version of the shuttered 8chan message board.
“Q” claims to have insider knowledge of the Trump administration and touts the theory that the president is waging a secret war against a global cabal of pedophile elites that includes an array of Hollywood actors and Democratic politicians who allegedly worship Satan.
Disciples of QAnon believe that a day of reckoning called “The Storm” is coming — when Trump uncovers the cabal, leading to the arrest of thousands — and a so-called “Great Awakening” will bring salvation.
“The Storm” is a reference to a comment Trump made in 2017 while posing alongside military generals. “You guys know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm,” he said. Followers believe Trump was delivering a coded message.
QAnon began on the heels of the viral “pizzagate” conspiracy theory that falsely claimed Hillary and Bill Clinton ran a pedophile ring out of a Washington, DC, pizza shop.
The QAnon community — many of them Trump supporters who believe the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax — recently pushed a bogus theory that when the president fell ill with the bug, he was pretending to be sick as a plot to arrest Hillary Clinton, according to the Guardian.
“Q” periodically posts vague and cryptic updates known as “Q drops” or “breadcrumbs” about Trump’s alleged mission to take down the pedophile ring.
Who’s behind it and where is it based?
Two Americans are accused of being the brains behind QAnon — 8chan owner James Arthur Watkins and his son Ronald Watkins, the administrator of 8kun.
The elder Watkins has been living in the Philippines since 2001, according to records obtained by ABC News.
Fredrick Brennan, who hatched the idea for 8chan while high on psychedelic mushrooms, said James Arthur Watkins, his former business partner, could easily reveal the true identity of “Q” if he wanted to.
“If he’s not ‘Q’ himself, he can find out who ‘Q’ is at any time,” Brennan told ABC News in September.
“And he’s pretty much the only person in the world that can have private contact with ‘Q.’ He’s the only person that — through the board that ‘Q’ started on 8chan — can send ‘Q’ a direct message and get into private contact with basically the leader of this political cult that everybody wants to hear from right now.”
The father and son have denied being “Q.” Neither could be reached for comment.
Others have postulated that “Q” — which refers to Q-level clearance to access top-secret information at the US Department of Energy — could be former national security adviser Michael Flynn or White House aide Dan Scavino, CBS News said. Some believe John F. Kennedy staged his death and now posts as “Q.”
How did QAnon gain popularity?
The movement has exploded on social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube — with media investigations showing that social media recommendation algorithms drive more material to people who show interest in conspiracy theories.
Memberships of QAnon groups on Facebook soared 120 percent in March and related discussions on the platform and Twitter have also surged this year, according to a report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
Russian government-supported organizations are playing a small — but increasing — role in amplifying the conspiracy theories, according to researchers.
The QAnon community organized real-life protests against child trafficking in August.
What does WWG1WGA mean?
It’s the rallying call of QAnon that stands for “Where We Go One, We Go All.” The line is from the 1996 disaster survival film “White Squall” starring Jeff Bridges and is misattributed to Kennedy, according to CBS News.
What has Trump said about QAnon?
Asked about QAnon and its core tenet involving him taking down the pedophile cult, Trump said the group is “gaining popularity.”
“Is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?” the president responded when asked at an August press conference if he supported that theory. “If I can help save the world from problems, I am willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there.”
He also said at the time, “I’ve heard these are people that love our country. So I don’t know really anything about it other than they do supposedly like me.”
Trump also declined to denounce QAnon at his town hall in Miami 19 days before the election.
“I know nothing about it. I do know they are very much against pedophilia,” Trump told NBC host Savannah Guthrie, while pivoting to the topic of Antifa activists responsible for violent anti-police brutality protests.
The president has been known to push QAnon-backed conspiracy theories on Twitter. He retweeted two in the weeks before the election — one that claims the killing of Osama bin Laden was a hoax and another that claimed Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden worked with Iran to have bin Laden transferred to Pakistan as “Obama’s trophy kill.”
Trump also endorsed QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won the Republican nomination for Georgia’s 14th Congressional District.
How have social media platforms responded?
In October, Facebook and Instagram moved to ban all QAnon accounts, launching a Dangerous Organizations Operations team to sweep the sites for related content instead of relying on users flagging posts.
Facebook said it removed more than 790 groups, 100 pages and 1,500 ads linked to the conspiracy theorist movement.
YouTube announced a similar crackdown shortly after.
TikTok has also banned a number of QAnon hashtags and Reddit has also removed QAnon communities.
What crimes have been tied to QAnon supporters?
In 2019, the murder of Gambino crime family boss Francesco “Franky Boy” Cali on Staten Island took a bizarre turn when lawyers claimed that his suspected killer, Anthony Comello, believed he was rubbing out a “prominent member of the deep state.”
Comello turned up to court early on in the case bearing his full support of the QAnon movement — flashing a bold “Q” written in blue ink on the palm of his hand.
He is awaiting trial, though he was found mentally unfit in June, according to the Staten Island Advance.
Several kidnappings have also been linked to QAnon sympathizers, who believe Child Protective Services and other government agencies actually operate child trafficking rings.
In March, Kentucky mom Neely Blanchard was busted for abducting her two daughters from their grandmother, their legal guardian, the Daily Beast reported. Authorities later traced Blanchard’s phone to a group of anti-government extremists called sovereign citizens.
QAnon has influenced other criminal cases, according to the Guardian.
They include a stand-off near the Hoover Dam in 2018 staged by a heavily armed Arizona resident, Matthew Wright, who was unhappy that mass arrests of the cabal hadn’t happened yet, and the arrest of Jessica Prim, who’d ranted on Facebook about how Hillary Clinton and Biden needed to be “taken out in the name of Babylon.”
The Illinois stripper livestreamed her bust near the USS Intrepid in Manhattan, telling cops, “I was watching the press conferences with Donald Trump on TV. I felt like he was talking to me.”
Meanwhile, while there were no allegations of criminality, Citigroup canned Jason Gelinas, a senior vice president in its technology group, after it was revealed he was running QMap, a user-friendly website that collected and organized the various postings of “Q.”
Gelinas was reportedly earning more than $3,000 a month from the crowdfunding site Patreon to pay for QMap’s bills — a violation of Citi’s requirements to “disclose and obtain approvals for outside business activities.”
With Post wires