Oct 21, 2020 - Politics & Policy

QAnon conspiracy theory explodes ahead of the election

Illustration of a bear trap shaped like a "Q" with a glowing red phone in the middle

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The QAnon conspiracy theory is growing — and being weaponized to boost President Trump ahead of the election.

Why it matters: What began as a single conspiracy theory linking Hillary Clinton to child trafficking four years ago is now part of a convoluted web of falsehoods being spread to undermine Joe Biden.

The big picture: In a year of unrest and expected election turmoil, experts are concerned that belief in QAnon could be another instigator of violence in some communities if Trump loses in November.

  • "That's the question that keeps me up at night," said Bryce Webster-Jacobsen of the cyber threat intelligence firm GroupSense, which specializes in disinformation.
  • Tracking these kind of local, potentially militant groups is difficult, he said, because recruitment is often both online — where most of the QAnon community lives — and offline.

By the numbers: New polling provided exclusively to Axios by HOPE not hate, a U.K.-based anti-extremism nonprofit, found more than a third of Americans saying that they believe it's at least probably true that elites "are secretly engaging in large scale child trafficking and abuse."

  • 10% said they are at least “soft” supporters of QAnon, specifically.
  • The QAnon theory is based on a sprawling online network that analyzes cryptic messages in remote online forums by an anonymous figure “Q," who claims, without evidence, to be a Trump administration official with high-level clearance.

Driving the news: Recent reports about what was purported to be Hunter Biden's computer hard drive have sparked renewed activity from Q, with more concrete ideas to latch onto.

The backstory: In 2016, the Pizzagate conspiracy theory claimed that elites and Hillary Clinton's campaign manager were involved in a child sex trafficking ring being operated out of a popular pizza place. It was a niche conspiracy theory, but it led someone to show up to a pizzeria in Washington DC with guns.

Trump has winked at QAnon followers on multiple occasions — most notably with his refusal to condemn the conspiracy theory when asked directly.

  • Earlier this year, Donald Trump Jr. jokingly insinuated that Biden was a pedophile, a nod to QAnon lore that many Democrats use their political power to hide widespread pedophilia.
  • Some Republicans politicians' adoption of aspects of the theory has helped bring it more mainstream, Webster-Jacobsen said.

What we're watching: Nearly a dozen QAnon supporters are running for Congress. And of Republicans who know about QAnon, 41% said it is a somewhat or very good thing for the country, according to Pew Research Center.

What's next: Tech companies are desperately trying to ban QAnon from their platforms before the conspiracy can spread any further.

  • On Monday, Spotify removed QAnon podcasts and TikTok officially banned all QAnon content. YouTube and Peloton announced QAnon crackdowns last week. 
  • Facebook and Triller both banned QAnon earlier this month. Etsy banned QAnon products two weeks ago. And Twitter shut down QAnon accounts in July.

Yes, but: Despite these bans, QAnon followers still find other places online to congregate, like Parler, a far-right social media app.

Go deeper ... Poll: One-third of Americans are open to QAnon conspiracy theories

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