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With the absence of a leader, the movement has transformed into more of a “choose your own adventure” conspiracy theory.
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By Davey Alba
On Dec. 8, 2020, a few weeks after Joseph R. Biden was elected president, “Q” — the anonymous online account that set off the QAnon conspiracy movement — posted a link to a video with scenes of cars burning on the streets, fighter jets over a stadium and Donald J. Trump with his hand on a Bible, being sworn in as president. The images played over a song by Twisted Sister, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
The Q account has not posted since, and its major predictions have not come to pass.
But the QAnon movement — initially based on a pro-Trump conspiracy theory, that a group of global liberal elites run a child sex ring that Mr. Trump would stop — has continued to flourish. In some ways, it is now woven even deeper into the country’s political and social fabric than it was 12 months ago.
Over 40 candidates who have publicly stated some support of QAnon are running for national office in 2022, according to a tally by the liberal advocacy group Media Matters. They include Luis Miguel, a Republican from Florida who has tweeted the QAnon slogan, and Omar Navarro, a Republican from California who has publicly stated his belief in some of the movement’s conspiracy theories, including the lie that Hollywood is running a child trafficking scheme.
Followers of QAnon also regularly show up at events and successfully spread new fallacious claims. Last month, hundreds of people turned up in Dallas expecting to see John F. Kennedy Jr. — the former U.S. president’s son, who died in a plane crash in 1999 — announce his intentions to be Mr. Trump’s running mate in 2024. Many QAnon followers pushed the theory that the recent Astroworld Festival in Houston, in which 10 people died and hundreds more were injured, was a front for a satanic ritual sacrifice.
Conspiracy theories often evolve far beyond their initial notions, whether it be about the moon landing or what really happened on Sept. 11, once they reach a large audience. But QAnon — a conspiracy theory born online, and spread online — stands out because its longevity has depended on that same large community to crowdsource the movement’s new direction.
QAnon’s survival means that the falsehoods embraced by its supporters are likely to influence American elections in 2022, just as they did in 2020, when they helped drive enthusiasm for conservative Republicans. And it will happen even though many of the major social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, have banned explicit promotion of the bogus claims.
“The evolution of Q is that it is leaving behind the iconography of the Trump era and becoming a conspiracy of everything,” said Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher and the author of “The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult and Conspiracy Theory of Everything.”
With the absence of “Q” leading the way, some of QAnon’s followers have turned the movement into more of a “choose your own adventure” conspiracy theory, Mr. Rothschild said.
Mr. Miguel did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Navarro said he had stopped posting about QAnon to avoid being barred from the platforms.
“I’m not dumb,” Mr. Navarro said in an interview. “You have to be politically correct in today’s world to survive on social media.”
He added: “I’m running a campaign for Congress. So I need to focus on issues that matter more, like the economy or business other than” focusing on QAnon.
The QAnon movement dates to October 2017, when the first post attributed to “Q” appeared on 4chan, the notoriously toxic message board. An anonymous account calling itself Q Clearance Patriot claimed to be a high-ranking government insider with access to classified information about Mr. Trump’s war to break up the global cabal. By August 2018, adherents of the movement had begun to appear at re-election rallies for Mr. Trump with “Q” signs and T-shirts.
In 2020, the number of followers skyrocketed, and the movement branched out into a number of other conspiracy theories, including casting doubt on medical advice for dealing with Covid-19, like wearing masks. Other parts of the movement sought to co-opt health and wellness groups as well as discussions about child safety.
By July last year, the public backlash to the falsehoods spread by QAnon movement was so pronounced that Twitter banned thousands of accounts promoting the conspiracy from its platform, and Facebook and YouTube soon followed suit.
But at that point, the ideas of the “big tent” conspiracy — all pointing to the prophecy that Mr. Trump would return as president — were well established. QAnon followers could post about the conspiracy theory without using catchphrases that set off the tech companies’ moderation software. They also turned to platforms that had not banned discussion of the movement, such as the chat app Telegram.
New leaders and ideas began popping up. One prominent leader is a demolition contractor from Washington State, Michael Protzman, known online as “Negative48.”
On Mr. Protzman’s Telegram channel, which grew from 1,700 members in March to nearly 100,000 in December, he held live streams and chats that heavily promoted the falsehood that Kennedy would be resurrected, and urged his followers to witness the event in Dealey Plaza, the site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
Kennedy figures in QAnon lore because Q once pushed a falsehood that Hillary Clinton had him killed so that she could run for a Senate seat in New York.
On the morning of Nov. 2, hundreds of QAnon followers from California, New York, Florida and other states converged at the location. They stayed for weeks.
Mr. Protzman did not respond to a request for comment.
Another Telegram channel pushed the unfounded narrative about the Astroworld tragedy, in which people died at the rapper Travis Scott’s show. The channel claimed that Mr. Scott (born Jacques B. Webster) sought to deliberately kill young teenagers in a satanic ritual. “LIVING HELL. A HUMAN SACRIFICE,” one post said. “DEMONIC.” The post collected 83,100 views. Subsequent posts with the same message generated tens of thousands more views.
By Nov. 8, these posts reached mainstream social media. “Anyone else notice that the stage is an inverted cross leading to a portal to Hell?” a TikTok user asked in a video that racked up more than a million views. Others shared a YouTube video with more than 44,100 views, titled “Satanic Ritual at Travis Scott Concert Exposed.”
And on Facebook, an Indianapolis pastor published a post that generated more than 160,000 likes, comments and shares. “What a blatant invitation for Satanic ritual!” the pastor, Jeffrey Pitts, said. “This is right in our face and people still follow trends and have no clue this generation is setup for the slaughter.”
The false rumor generated more than 303,000 interactions before the first fact-checks of the claims were published, according to an analysis of data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned social media analytics tool.
“I don’t know anything about QAnon, I don’t understand anything that they do,” Mr. Pitts said when asked about his viral post. “I am a pastor exposing the demonic realm. The stuff that went on at Astroworld, and that spirit, was demonic.”
Whatever QAnon followers are “using my post to do is their business,” Mr. Pitts added.
Some politicians have claimed that Satan worshipers hide among the Democratic Party, pulling in elements of the conspiracy in their posts without making an explicit mention of QAnon.
“America is a Christian nation,” Mr. Miguel, the Republican from Florida, said in a Twitter post on Nov. 19. “I will never stop fighting against the satanic-globo-communists. #AmericaFirst.”
Some of the political candidates who have shown support for QAnon have focused more on the pandemic, arguing that the Omicron coronavirus variant is not real and is being used as a way to guarantee that mail-in ballots in the November 2022 election hand Democrats another win.
Bobby Jeffries, a Senate candidate from Pennsylvania who repeatedly posted about QAnon in 2018, shared one such post on Nov. 27. “The Midterm Variant came earlier than expected,” the tweet said.
Logan Strain, a conspiracy researcher and co-host of the podcast “QAnon Anonymous,” said that if Republicans “gain control of one or both chambers of Congress in 2022, that may further energize” followers of the movement.
“QAnon can be refreshed every time there’s an election,” said Mr. Strain, who goes by Travis View on his podcast. “Likely, every two years, you’ll see QAnon followers interpreting news events in the light of Q and the movement’s beliefs.”
This represents the true malleability of such a big-tent conspiracy, Mr. Strain added.
“The way I’ve seen Q grow in spite of all the social media bans and in spite of all the failed predictions,” he said, “I am pretty confident that this is something that we’re just going to have to live with in the general political world in the United States, for at least a generation.”
Jacob Silver contributed research.
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