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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

Go deeper

Jan 22, 2021 - Podcasts

Domestic extremism's next evolution

Whether it’s QAnon conspiracy theorists or far-right American groups turning to Russia, extremist movements aren’t going away.

  • Plus, understanding the new power dynamics in Congress.
  • And, the women breaking barriers this week.
13 mins ago - Health

CDC mask guidance sparks confusion, questions

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The CDC's surprise guidance last week freeing the fully vaccinated to go maskless sowed plenty of concerns across the country— even earning the Saturday Night Live treatment for all the questions it spurred.

Why it matters: With plenty of Americans still unvaccinated — and without any good way to confirm who has been vaccinated — some experts worry this could put many at increased risk.

Updated 2 hours ago - World

In photos: Israel-Hamas aerial bombardments enter second week

A ball of fire and a plume of smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City as Israeli forces shell the Palestinian enclave, early on May 17. Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images

Israel and Hamas continued aerial bombardments into Monday morning, as fighting entered a second week.

Why it matters: The worst violence in the region since 2014 has resulted in the deaths of 197 people in Gaza, ruled by Hamas, and 10 in Israel. 58 Palestinian children and two Israeli children are among those killed since the aerial exchanges began on May 10, Reuters notes.

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