Followers of the conspiracy theory QAnon believe a lot of things: There’s never been chaos in Donald Trump’s White House. The stories are just cover to let Trump and, previously, special counsel Robert Mueller do their work to expose thousands of pedophiles hidden in plain sight — including Hillary Clinton … and Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and Tom Hanks, and Chrissy Teigen. They’ll soon be under arrest, or perhaps they are already on their way to Guantanamo Bay. Their crimes? Torturing and murdering children and then harvesting a chemical from their blood.

It’s an all-encompassing conspiracy theory that has one overarching — and, if you’re a Trump supporter, hopeful — message: Trump is in complete control. Of everything. And against true evil, he is standing up for all that is good and right.

QAnon swept social media over the past three years, pushed by some of the far right’s biggest voices, including Alex Jones and Sean Hannity. 20 current congressional candidates have expressed support for QAnon, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, the leading candidate in the race for Georgia’s 14th Congressional District seat. She said in 2017 that QAnon was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles out.”

And on August 19, the person at the center of the “storm,” a term of art among QAnon followers, seemingly endorsed it, telling the White House press corps, “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.”

Conspiracy theorists of all varieties tend to embrace them as a means to create order out of chaos, or to make sense of events that don’t make sense. Unfortunately, researchers have found that fact-based arguments against conspiracy theorists only serve to reinforce them in the minds of believers. That’s what makes QAnon or Sandy Hook trutherism or any other conspiracy theory so difficult to combat. Conspiracy theories aren’t based on facts; conspiracy theorists aren’t receptive to them, either.

So if the Trump administration has been enmeshed in confusion and chaos, QAnon is the conspiratorial response: Everything is fine. As a popular saying among Q adherents proclaims, believers must only “trust the plan.”

“God bless fellow patriots”

The beginnings of “the Storm” lie with Donald Trump himself.

On October 5, 2017, during a photo opportunity held before a military dinner, Trump said that the dinner was “Maybe the calm before the storm.” When a reporter asked, “What storm, Mr. President?” Trump responded, “You’ll find out.”

For non-conspiracy theorists, this was Trump-speak. He tends to just say things that have little to no relevance to anything either he or his administration will actually do — like that “maybe we should give” the Chinese style of one-man dictatorship “a shot.”

But for conspiracy theorists on Reddit, already primed to believe in code words and secrets and, well, conspiracies, his words took on new and apocalyptic meaning. As Travis View, a QAnon researcher and co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, told PBS Newshour earlier in August, “the Storm” has become a predicted “great mass arrest event, in which over 100,000 people from the highest levels of power and entertainment are arrested and face a great day of reckoning.”

When Republican congressional candidate and QAnon follower Angela Stanton King — who is running to replace the late Rep. John Lewis — was retweeted by President Trump on August 6, she tweeted, “THE STORM IS HERE.”

The Texas Republican Party is now even selling “We Are the Storm” merchandise.

The first post from an anonymous user claiming to be a high-level government informant came on October 28, on the 4chan message board /pol/. The user was nicknamed “Q” after Q-level security clearance, the Energy Department equivalent of “Top Secret.” (“NG” refers to the National Guard.)

HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M’s will conduct the operation while NG activated. Proof check: Locate a NG member and ask if activated for duty 10/30 across most major cities.

A few hours later, Q posted again, adding coded phrases that /pol/ users would interpret and argue over for months. In short, he or she appeared to state that Hillary Clinton had been “detained” by authorities and that Trump knew that “criminal rogue elements,” including Clinton, had to be arrested, while referencing billionaire philanthropist George Soros, himself the subject of a number of conspiracy theories.

These postings were thrilling for people steeped in far-right conspiracy theory lore — from the very real Operation Mockingbird, a CIA effort to blackmail journalists and give out false information to share propaganda, to the wild theory that Huma Abedin, a former Hillary Clinton staffer and ex-wife of Anthony Weiner, was secretly working for the Muslim Brotherhood. (She wasn’t.)

Even the name Q seemed to imply that this person knew things others didn’t. The rapidly expanding group of people who follow Q’s postings — and believe them — became known as QAnon.

Q occasionally tried to offer “proof” that they had real intel. (They posted images that redditors believed confirmed Q was on Air Force One, and thus had real information from the president.) Some followers even believe that Trump is Q — though others think it’s John F. Kennedy Jr., who they believe faked his 1999 death. When Trump spoke at Mount Rushmore this past Fourth of July, some QAnon believers were convinced that the occasion would mark JFK Jr.’s return.

Q offered real hope to Trump supporters: Everything is fine, Trump has everything under control, and everyone who stands in his way will soon be sent to prison. Literally.

In a posting on November 1, 2017, Q said that on November 3 and 4, John Podesta, chair of Clinton’s 2016 campaign, would be arrested, military control would take hold, and “public riots would be organized in serious numbers to prevent the arrest and capture of more senior public officials”:

My fellow Americans, over the course of the next several days you will undoubtedly realize that we are taking back our great country (the land of the free) from the evil tyrants that wish to do us harm and destroy the last remaining refuge of shining light. On POTUS’ order, we have initiated certain fail-safes that shall safeguard the public from the primary fallout which is slated to occur 11.3 upon the arrest announcement of Mr. Podesta (actionable 11.4). … We will be initiating the Emergency Broadcast System (EMS) during this time in an effort to provide a direct message (avoiding the fake news) to all citizens. Organizations and/or people that wish to do us harm during this time will be met with swift fury – certain laws have been pre-lifted to provide our great military the necessary authority to handle and conduct these operations (at home and abroad).

Obviously, none of this happened. There were no public riots or mass arrests or the use of emergency broadcasts. (In fact, the Emergency Broadcast System went out of service in 1997, replaced by the Emergency Alert System.)

The overwhelming majority of Q’s assertions have been hilariously untrue: that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was placed in power by the CIA, that Seth Rich was murdered by MS13 under orders from former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (a viewpoint spread by congressional candidate Greene), that many prominent Democrats are currently wearing ankle monitors because they are secretly under arrest.

And really, QAnon’s base assertion — that Trump is in control of everything — was an inherently strange one to make when the Trump administration did actually control the entire federal government at the time the conspiracy theory seemingly began.

But that didn’t stop QAnon from percolating, first moving from 4chan to 8chan (4chan’s weirder equivalent), and then pushing outward on the internet, to Twitter and YouTube and Instagram and elsewhere, with believers making “explainer” videos about QAnon that get millions of views. And as it did, QAnon became about far more than specific predictions of dire consequences for Nancy Pelosi or assorted celebrities. And that has made it far easier to spread.

QAnon is now about everything — and it’s in the real world

QAnon is now an all-encompassing conspiracy theory, one with dozens of offshoots and side plots. QAnon adherents helped spread the conspiratorial documentary “Plandemic” online, and anti-mask conspiracy theories have been popular among QAnon fans on Instagram who argue that masks are helping child traffickers get away with their crimes.

One acolyte might assert that Bill and Hillary Clinton have been executed; another might argue that actor Tom Hanks is a pedophile and “would be the first big name unsealed indictment,” arrested for his alleged involvement in satanic pedophilic rituals, because Q used the word “big” in several posts and Tom Hanks starred in the 1988 film Big.

It’s those accusations of pedophilia, baselessly aimed at celebrities, companies, and politicians, that are at the very center of QAnon. Thousands of QAnon acolytes have taken over hashtags like #SaveTheChildren and bombarded hotlines intended for victims of human trafficking, attempting to divert attention from real victims of predation and abuse to the elites who are supposedly heading up cabals of pedophiles. And they believe that Trump is taking real action against these alleged criminals, crediting him for a purported increase in arrests of sex traffickers.

For the record, there was not an “unprecedented” increase in sex trafficking arrests back in 2018, there isn’t one taking place now, and arrests are a terrible metric for determining the success of anti-sex trafficking efforts.

But that hasn’t stopped some of the biggest proponents of QAnon from arguing that not only are celebrities taking part in Satanic pedophilic rituals, they are doing so to obtain the chemical adrenochrome, which they believe famous actors and celebrities harvest from the pituitary glands of children in order to maintain their youthful appearances. That specific conspiracy theory has gained traction, as Wired’s Brian Friedberg wrote in July of 2020:

A favorite topic of interconnected QAnon and Pizzagate conspiracy communities, so-called “adrenochrome harvesting” long predates these groups. It has, however, resurrected during the Covid-19 pandemic. Google Trends shows significant spikes in searches for adrenochrome in March and June of 2020. It’s prevalent on TikTok, Youtube, and Instagram. Reddit removed a dedicated adrenochrome subreddit on July 30. On Friday, July 31, conspiracy theorists plan to hold the first “Child Lives Matter” protest in Hollywood to “expose” child trafficking, advertising the event with references to #adrenochrome.

For the record, there is no evidence that adrenochrome — a chemical largely made famous not by scientists, but by Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — does anything of note (Thompson even told the director of the film adaptation of his book that he made up the chemical’s effects.) But of course, that didn’t stop conspiracy theorists.

Adrenochrome conspiracy theories even made their way to a December 2018 House Judiciary Committee hearing with Google CEO Sundar Pichai, when Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) asked Pichai about how YouTube’s algorithm was pushing a conspiracy theory known as “Frazzledrip,” which argues the following: Hillary Clinton and former Clinton aide Huma Abedin were filmed ripping off a child’s face and wearing it as a mask before drinking the child’s blood in a satanic ritual sacrifice in order to obtain adrenochrome, and that video was then found on the hard drive of Abedin’s former husband, Anthony Weiner, under the code name “Frazzledrip.” (Absolutely none of this is true.)

And during the Covid-19 pandemic, QAnon adherents have come to believe that celebrities looking tired or acting strangely on Instagram was the result not of the same shutdown millions of Americans were experiencing, but of losing access to the chemical.

There’s a reason for the focus on pedophilia in QAnon: As Slate’s Christina Cauterucci wrote in July 2018, accusations of pedophilia are the easiest and most effective way to tarnish someone’s reputation with no proof necessary, as pedophilia is universally considered a horrific and horrendous affront.

And since perhaps the only thing even more horrendous is the murder of children, it’s no wonder, then, that one of the main proponents of QAnon posted on YouTube that Americans would be forced to comprehend “films of innocent children pleading for their lives while people are butchering them” once “the Storm” came to pass. QAnon isn’t about protecting Trump, in their view. It’s about saving children from rape and murder — and who could oppose that?

As Marc-André Argentino, a doctoral student at Concordia University who studies QAnon, told the New York Times, “Everyone agrees that child trafficking is very bad, and the argument QAnon makes is, ‘If you’re against us talking about this, you’re in favor of child trafficking.’” And with real-life wealthy sex predators like Jeffrey Epstein seemingly given cover by powerful people of all political stripes, a movement focused on unmasking them and bringing them to justice seems deeply appealing.

But the open-source nature of QAnon, where Q posts something for thousands of other people to interpret as they see fit, means other conspiracy theories fit neatly within QAnon — like ones about false flag shootings, Jewish bankers controlling the world, or the Illuminati. As the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer wrote in 2019:

While the Storm is at the center of the QAnon narrative, it’s also flexible enough to fold in just anything that makes the news. Q is fond of hinting that each mass shooting is a false-flag attack organized by the cabal, and he used a blurry webcam picture of a flash of light near the Puget Sound to claim that the deep state had tried to shoot down Trump’s plane.

One example: When NBC’s Ben Collins went on the Today show in 2018 to attempt to explain QAnon, one poster alleged that his script had been “written by Jacob Rothschild.” The Rothschild family has been the center of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories for centuries, and for the record, Jacob Rothschild is 84 years old, lives in England, and is not writing “scripts” for the Today show.

The open source nature of the conspiracy theory also makes it easier to sell to newcomers, interested in fighting human trafficking or child abuse and with YouTube algorithms and Facebook groups all too willing to drive them down the rabbit hole of conspiracy.

“I can’t really spend any time with my mother because all she’ll want to talk about is Q”

Beginning in early 2018, QAnon adherents made their way to the world outside the internet, marching in Washington and demanding the release of secret memos that would expose the truth of QAnon and herald “the Storm.” In 2018, one man, Matthew Wright, took a rifle and a handgun and barricaded himself in his car on the Hoover Dam, holding a sign reading “RELEASE THE OIG MEMO,” referring to that supposed second report.

Since then, there have been dozens of instances of people arrested in QAnon-related plots: the Denver woman who allegedly tried to kidnap her child from a foster care facility with the help of other QAnon believers; the Texas woman who believed that Trump was “literally taking down the cabal and the pedophile ring” who was arrested for ramming her car into other vehicles, intending to rescue children she believed were being trafficked; the murder suspect who told his lawyers he was trying to help Trump and stop the “deep state” by killing a high-ranking member of the Gambino crime family.

A QAnon supporter who planned to attack Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was arrested in May 2020, a month after a man with QAnon ties was arrested for intentionally derailing a train with the intention of aiming it at a hospital ship in San Pedro, California.

Many of these people were and are experiencing issues with existing mental illnesses. Rein Lively, a former QAnon acolyte who was captured in a viral video attacking a display of face masks at Target in July 2020, told Ben Collins, the NBC reporter, that she was living with bipolar disorder, and after weeks of following QAnon related groups on Facebook and Instagram, came to believe that she was part of the “Great Awakening,” and had to act in order to help Trump and save the world.

One woman whose mother has become deeply enmeshed in QAnon told Vice in 2019 that her mother deals with mental health issues, and that the conspiracy theory has made them worse. “She had a hard time anyway dealing with the real world, and now the world is so much worse for her because of all the horrible things the cult deals with: devil worship, sex trafficking, children being tortured and eaten or used as sex slaves.”

She added, “I can’t really spend any time with my mother because all she’ll want to talk about is Q, and I refuse.” And she’s not alone — there are dozens of Reddit threads and posts across the internet from people struggling with how to reach loved ones who have become enamored of QAnon.

And the coronavirus pandemic has only increased QAnon’s reach as more people do more online than ever before. As Axios reporters Stef W. Kight and Sara Fischer noted, Google search interest in QAnon increased 10 fold from January to July, and the use of the hashtag has increased as well.

And despite efforts by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media giants to stop the spread of QAnon content, Trump and members of his family have furthered the conspiracy theory, retweeting and sharing QAnon-related content hundreds of times. Eric Trump even shared a “Q” message on Instagram, using the popular QAnon hashtag #WWG1WGA, which stands for “Where We Go One, We Go All.” (He later deleted it.)

What Trump knows about QAnon is that it is about how great Trump is

It’s worth noting that there is no indication that Trump, the epicenter of this entire conspiracy theory, has any idea what QAnon actually asserts — that Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, and George W. Bush are part of an elite pedophile ring, hell-bent on consuming the blood of children.

When questioned during a press conference on Wednesday, Trump appeared to believe the conspiracy theory was focused on supporting his efforts to tamp down urban unrest, saying QAnon adherents are “people who don’t like seeing what is going on in places like Portland, and in places like Chicago and New York and other cities — and states. And I’ve heard these are people who love our country, and they just don’t like seeing it.”

When he was then asked, “What about the theory, this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this titanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals? Does that sound like something you are behind?” Trump responds:

I have not heard that. Is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, you know. If I can help save the world from problems, I am willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there. and we are actually! We are saving the world from a radical left philosophy that will destroy this country, and when this country is gone, the rest of the world would follow.

None of this indicates that he has any indication that he understands the basis of the conspiracy theory. Rather, it indicates that all he knows of the conspiracy theory is that it’s about how important and special he is. As’s Allahpundit wrote on Wednesday:

Trump is incapable psychologically of rejecting someone who idolizes him. His narcissistic understanding of morality is this simple: If you love him then you’re good, whatever your faults, and if you hate him then you’re bad, whatever your virtues. QAnoners love him. They think he’s quite literally saving the world, by the reporter’s own description.

The reporter did not note that the FBI labeled QAnon and other conspiracy theories as a domestic terror threat in 2019, nor did they mention the attacks and violence that have been credited to QAnon believers.

Conspiracy theories are hard to fight because they’re about what we want to believe

Other conspiracy theorists have attempted to throw cold water on QAnon, like this blogger who wrote that he too had been a believer but, after reviewing the evidence, concluded that he had “been tricked” by a LARPer (live-action role player) creating a fantastical story for their own entertainment. But true believers remain deeply committed. And with Trump’s seeming support, they have every reason to be.

Conspiracy theories like QAnon are “self-sealing” — meaning that evidence against them can become evidence of their validity in the minds of believers, according to Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor at the University of Bristol who studies conspiracy theories and conspiracists. Trying to disprove a conspiracy theory thus usually only serves to reinforce it.

“For example, if scientists are accused of creating a ‘hoax,’ such as climate change, but they are then exonerated by multiple enquiries, then a conspiracy theorist will not accept that as evidence of their innocence, but as evidence of a broad conspiracy (to create a world government or whatever) that involves the government, judiciary, Soros, and anyone else who once shared a supermarket checkout line with Al Gore in the 1970s,” Lewandowsky said.

And here’s the really important point: Conspiracy theories aren’t created by evidence, but by belief, or by the desire to believe, that there must be something more to the events that shape our lives, culture, and politics than accident or happenstance.

Where there is confusion, or even pain and tragedy, QAnon, or shootings termed “false flags,” or 9/11 trutherism brings some semblance of order and security. The 9/11 attacks were so horrific that they can’t possibly have happened without President George W. Bush being behind it somehow, orchestrating things behind the scenes. A mass shooting at an elementary school that killed so many small children is so terrible that it can’t possibly have really happened. And the Trump administration must only seem to be enmeshed in constant chaos.

As Lewandowsky told me:

Conspiracy theories often serve an ironic function of providing a sense of order in chaos. People would rather believe that there are evil masterminds out there that pull strings on cataclysmic events than accept the occurrence of random events.

Conspiracy theories also serve to elevate events to be less banal: For example, it is easier to conceive of Princess Diana having been killed by some elaborate evil conspiracy than being the victim of a rather banal drunk-driving accident.

So whenever there is a tragic or cataclysmic event, some people will find a conspiracy theory more acceptable than the—often—more uninteresting official account.

Let’s be clear: Most people have never heard of QAnon, or Q — and that includes most of Trump’s supporters. Those who have heard of it tend to rate it unfavorably. As detailed by the Washington Post in August, when asked to rate their feelings for QAnon on a 1-100 scale (1 being least positive, 100 being most positive), a sample group of Floridians rated it about a 21, with Democrats and Republicans rating it similarly.

But there are those who do believe in QAnon, who believe that Trump is a “light worker” trying to save the world from elite pedophiles. And as the Spectator’s Ben Sixsmith argued in May 2020, those followers have been egged on by a president who promised them vengeance against their enemies and never followed through, making QAnon a respite against reality:

The presidency of Donald Trump has added a radical edge to the QAnoners. This is not due to extremism in his administration’s actions — but because of their moderation. He egged on chants of ‘lock her up’, but Hillary Clinton is still on Twitter insulting his policies. He encouraged ‘build that wall’ but the wall does not exist. A truly radical administration would contain radical followers. The increasingly dramatic and esoteric fantasies of Trump’s militant fringe are an attempt to rationalize the mundane reality.

QAnon provides a soothing balm, telling believers that the only people who really know what’s going on are the believers — and the president. There is no fact-check that can dissuade them, no circumstance that would drive them away from the movement. And while some Republicans have begun to speak out against the conspiracy theory, it’s far too late, because the person at the center of it is winking and nodding along.

Correction: A photo caption previously misidentified the website 4chan as part of Reddit.

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