Or, at least, that’s how I’d describe it, having spoken to numerous adherents and tracked its spread. Others who do the same work describe it differently, highlighting different points or emphasizing separate issues. Given the lack of a simple way to describe what QAnon followers actually believe, I reached out to a half-dozen reporters who’ve been covering the movement to get their thoughts.
But since I was already taking their time, I figured I’d raise another question, too.
On Wednesday, President Trump was asked by a reporter for his views on QAnon and on common tenets of the conspiracy theory. In raising the subject, though, the reporter was running the risk of giving QAnon supporters exactly what they wanted: a chance to take Trump’s words and use them as a lattice to build out a claim that he approved of and was involved in their effort.
As it turned out, Trump made that easy, speaking approvingly of the movement’s adherents and describing core tenets with acceptance. It was, in short, almost exactly what QAnon supporters had been looking for.
It’s important to gauge the extent to which Trump understands what QAnon followers are doing, given that he’s a central part of the conspiracy theory, and the risk the movement poses (as articulated by the FBI). So I asked the reporters to whom I reached out how Trump and other elected officials should be asked about the movement without similarly introducing the opportunity to bolster it.
Here’s what I was told, via email. (Some answers have been lightly edited for clarity. I’ve spliced answers together at times as well for the sake of clarity.)
How would you describe the QAnon movement?
Ben Collins, NBC News: I try to preface conversations on this by saying something like “This might sound nuts, but this is what these people actually believe.” It’s important for people not to believe this is standard political wrangling.
Will Sommer, the Daily Beast: QAnon believers think that Donald Trump is engaged in a shadow war against a cabal of satanic cannibal-pedophiles in the Democratic Party, Hollywood, and global finance. They believe this cabal is responsible for all the problems in the world, but that Trump will soon order the mass arrests and executions of political opponents like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a massive purge called “The Storm.” QAnon believers base this idea on clues from “Q,” an anonymous figure who has been posting on online message boards since 2017 who QAnon fans think is a high-ranking Trump administration figure — or maybe Trump himself!
Obviously, QAnon is a lot bigger than that, and encompasses all sorts of factions and earlier conspiracy theories, but that’s the baseline most QAnon believers agree on.
Brandy Zadrozny, NBC News: These kinds of beliefs aren’t new; for instance, they borrow from an old anti-Semitic myth that Jews drank the blood of children and the satanic panic from the ’80s which falsely accused parents and day-care workers of widespread ritualistic child abuse. But the QAnon phenomenon is very of our time. Its exponential growth and mainstream adoption is a product of some small-time grifters who took an old anon trope and expertly fed it through a pipeline of social media (4chan -> Reddit -> YouTube -> Twitter and Facebook) for profit. Then the pandemic lit it all on fire and melded QAnon with anti-vaccination and other conspiracy theorists.
NBC’s Collins: It began as a series of ludicrously wrong predictions by a user who went by Q on 4chan in 2017, but it was elevated by 4chan’s moderators into a small economy that needed more posts to Q posts to sustain their YouTube channels and Patreons.
For example, the very first Q post claims that Hillary Clinton was about to be arrested the next day, her passport frozen, and the National Guard would be deployed to contain all of the riots. That was in October of 2017. None of that happened, and neither did all of the other bits of mythology about Satan and baby killing that came with it. But people seem to want a sense of order in a time of chaos, so they continue to believe in it and recruit others into their newfound religion — while ignoring the failed prophecies.
Abby Ohlheiser, MIT Technology Review: Those posts attributed to Q, which began in late 2017, are circulated and dissected like prophecies. Their predictions have repeatedly and unambiguously been false, but QAnon supporters seem to simply shift to a new interpretation or focus in response.
Jared Holt, Right Wing Watch: Claims advanced by QAnon believers offer an alternate reality in which all reporting on failures of Trump and his administration can be spun as positives. For example, followers claimed that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election was a front to mislead the public while Mueller and Trump worked in secret to take down a nefarious cabal. Trump is portrayed as a savior figure, and followers of the conspiracy theory have a religious-like faith in its version of the truth.
Isaac Stanley-Becker, The Washington Post: I think the most important element is its unwavering support for Trump, and the way that fixation has subsumed all these other classic conspiracy tropes, from the sinking of the Titanic to George Soros. That’s what I would emphasize in explaining it, in addition to the participatory nature of the movement, which is powerful because it involves everyday people in the construction of their own (highly skewed) universe.
MIT Technology Review’s Ohlheiser: QAnon has essentially become a distribution mechanism for a whole bunch of linked conspiracy theories. … During the pandemic, QAnon has become the brand name for a whole bunch of circulating conspiracy fueled misinformation.
As researchers like [Stanford Internet Observatory’s Renee] DiResta have documented, there’s been cross-pollination between QAnon/Pizzagate content and anti-vaccine Facebook groups for years. The pandemic has accelerated that connection, and now QAnon accounts and networks are also key distributors of health misinformation. More recently, they’ve also kind of laundered their secret pedophile ring content through a few more mainstream-friendly arguments: for instance, they’ve helped to propel an easily debunked conspiracy about Wayfair and child trafficking onto Twitter’s trending list, where it was then picked up on Instagram and TikTok and spread even further, and hijacked the #savethechildren hashtag across social media.
Right Wing Watch’s Holt: The movement has inspired criminal action among some of its followers, including kidnapping, violence and murder. The FBI considers it a threat to national security.
How can reporters ask about QAnon without amplifying its false claims?
MIT Technology Review’s Ohlheiser: I mean, this is the central question to any misinformation reporting, to which I personally feel there is no perfect answer. It’s clear at this point that QAnon is newsworthy, and there will probably be Republican members of Congress who support the conspiracy theory after the November elections. So it makes sense that journalists want to ask the president about it, and likely should ask him about this now.
Right Wing Watch’s Holt: The time for questioning the role in elevating QAnon has passed us, in my opinion. QAnon is not just another conspiracy theory or piece of disinformation littering the Internet, it is an organized political movement that carries inherent dangers. It should be scrutinized and interrogated as such. We simply cannot afford to dismiss this threat any longer, especially as it has spread at alarming rates during the coronavirus pandemic. The movement has piggybacked on rampant health disinformation online, attempting to turn Trump-supporting coronavirus skeptics into QAnon believers.
MIT Technology Review’s Ohlheiser: QAnon supporters literally have been asking journalists to “ask the question” to Trump for years, so, any version of this will embolden QAnon supporters to some degree.
Right Wing Watch’s Holt: It is true that media coverage excites QAnon believers, but at this point, the public’s need to know about its dangers outweighs the risk of emboldening its adherents.
Daily Beast’s Sommer: I think any questions to Trump about QAnon need to be couched in the real world damage QAnon does. The FBI considers it a domestic terror threat, it’s inspired two murders, [and] two child abductions. … It’s estranged believers from their families and friends.
So I think rather than ask Trump “what do you think of QAnon?” — which, based on how Trump generally talks, is just about guaranteed to have him give some sort of validation for the conspiracy theory — reporters should press him on why he’s elevating it. I’d ask something like: “The FBI considers QAnon a domestic terror threat, and its adherents have committed murders and terrorism. Why do you continue to promote them by inviting their promoters to the White House, retweeting them, and praising its believers?”
NBC's Collins: Brandy and I always try to talk about how this plays out in the real world. There are two pivotal questions that we always ask: Who is profiting or benefiting from the rise of violence and hate? And how is this affecting people in real life? There are now countless victims of QAnon.
The Post’s Stanley-Becker: Probably the best way is to avoid getting too into the weeds on the belief system and the various claims, and instead tracing the real-world consequences, as well as the financial and political motives of those amplifying it.
MIT Technology Review’s Ohlheiser: You can frame the question in ways that highlight QAnon’s potential for harm, rather than, say, just asking the president what he thinks about a group of people who support him and show up at his rallies. You could frame questions around the anti-Semitism of QAnon, its long and extreme history of driving coordinated harassment and abuse campaigns against its targets, or the FBI’s 2019 identification of it and other extreme conspiracy theories, for their potential for violence, or the multiple existing real-life incidents that show the harm caused when QAnon believers take their views beyond Facebook.
NBC’s Zadrozny: I think the most responsible way to frame questions or stories is to report on the folks profiting [off] this conspiracy theory — whether they’re a billion-dollar social media company, hucksters selling books or fueling their fake news sites, or politicians relying on QAnon believers as a political base. We should also report on the victims of the conspiracy theory: people who’ve lost their lives or their loved ones to this thing should be at the forefront of coverage, not the insane sideshow of just what exactly they believe.
NBC’s Collins: It’s easy for a lot of people to view this as a harmless game. For a lot of QAnon adherents, that’s what this is: a way to solve a puzzle on the Internet. Every post of a kid or a piece of pizza on a celebrity’s Instagram, to Q followers, is a potential clue that could unravel the baby eating operation overnight. (In Q’s world, by the way, every celebrity’s mention of pizza is proof they’re in on the cabal.)
Say you lost your job during the pandemic, or lost a family member. Your world is upside down. You’re vulnerable. You have a ton of time on your hands. TV is full-up with reruns. Maybe you’re going down [the] YouTube rabbit hole for the first time. Searching the Internet all day looking for pieces of pizza everywhere you look doesn’t just provide you something to do — it allows you to feel like you’re saving the world. Ex-QAnon believers tell us just that.
Remember that a lot of these people are victims of an information war. The people selling QAnon merch and asking for donations to keep their YouTube channels afloat? They’re not. That money trail needs to be better exposed, so we try to tell those stories, too.
And, at the end of the day, social media platforms incentivize extreme behavior. They have taken steps in recent days to shut off the floodgates that drove people from wellness communities to QAnon communities in just a couple of clicks. But this will not end with QAnon. Engagement-obsessed algorithms will inherently promote radicalization without radicalization. This is a systemic problem, an issue with the pipes.
QAnon evolved from Pizzagate. Its followers learned its mistakes. We’re mostly focused on telling the stories of how the bad guys are so good at manipulating our social media platforms, why they’re doing it, and the havoc it can wreak on whoever they decide to target.
Right Wing Watch’s Holt: QAnon is not going away any time soon, and things are going to get worse before they get better. Dozens of congressional candidates have engaged with the conspiracy theory, and Georgia voters will likely elect a QAnon believer to represent them in Congress this year.
It is more urgent than ever to get Republicans on the record about this movement growing in their base, and imperative that reporters educate themselves thoroughly on the movement so they can better question the president and explain to their audiences the extent of the extremism at play.