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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The strange realities of 2020 have perfectly played to the kind of fear QAnon thrives on, driving record online interest in the conspiracy theory.

Why it matters: QAnon is not just one fringe conspiracy theory — it's a sprawling network of falsehoods that's seeping into the mainstream. Its growing influence is sowing fear and confusion around some of today's most important issues, such as election integrity and the coronavirus pandemic.

Catch up quick: QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory that alleges the "deep state" is engaged in a global fight to take down President Trump.

  • QAnon rose out of the 2016 Pizzagate conspiracy theory and has grown into a decentralized network that analyzes cryptic prophecies dropped in remote online forums by "Q," who claims, without ever offering evidence, to be a Trump administration official with high-level clearance.
  • Q maintains President Trump is secretly fighting a child-selling cabal in the U.S., though the conspiracy has spiraled to cover a vast array of claims, from JFK Jr. having faked his death to help Trump behind the scenes to the coronavirus being a hoax or a biological weapon engineered in either case by sinister elites.

By the numbers: Conspiracy theories tied to QAnon are growing more popular.

  • There was more than 10 times as much Google search interest in QAnon in mid-July than in mid-January, according to Google Trends data.
  • QAnon pages and groups on Facebook had nearly 10 times more likes at the end of last month than they did last July, according to data tracked by the Atlantic Council and shared with Axios.
  • There has been a 190% increase in the daily average number of tweets with popular QAnon hashtags since March as compared to the seven months prior, according to data from GroupSense provided to Axios.

Parts of the mainstream Republican party have latched on, helping drive its conspiracy theories mainstream.

Between the lines: For all its twisty logic and branching details, Qanon is premised on a simple narrative of the good working to vanquish the evil, who are responsible for all the world's ills. There are very real concerns that may be driving more people to that narrative.

  • 2020's battered economy has spurred wide-ranging anxiety and uncertainty.
  • Child trafficking, central to QAnon, has seen greater visibility, with the Jeffrey Epstein saga working as "gasoline poured onto QAnon embers, springing the theory back to life at a moment when some believers were suffering doubts," said Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT's Center for Civic Media.
  • Coronavirus has funneled what might otherwise be disparate conspiracy theories about cover-ups and global vaccine schemes into the grand unified theory offered by QAnon.

QAnon could pose real-world danger as it grows, scholars and analysts worry.

  • Experts are particularly concerned it could undermine faith in democracy, with recent Q posts questioning vote-by-mail and election integrity.
  • The web of misinformation expanding from within QAnon "definitely has real teeth," said Bryce Webster-Jacobsen of cyber intelligence firm GroupSense.

What to watch: Tech giants are starting to crack down on QAnon, but policies around it are inconsistent and may in some cases be easily dodged.

Yes, but: Studies have shown that users are more likely to seek out bad information when a Big Tech platform flags it as false.

  • "There's sort of this censorship backfire that happens, and people start becoming outraged that [a video is] being taken down and then sharing it more and more and more," said Zarine Kharazian, assistant editor at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Meanwhile: New platforms such as Parler and TheDonald.win are giving the conspiracy theory places to spread unchecked.

  • On Parler, which has attracted conservatives, Webster-Jacobsen said there are 10,000 to 15,000 new posts every day with the hashtags #QAnon or #WWG1WGA — which stands for the Q catchphrase "where we go one, we go all."

The bottom line: Trust in U.S. institutions is dangerously low, which creates a ripe environment for big-tent conspiracies such as QAnon.

  • "In some senses, the QAnon conspiracy is a deeply comfortable one: the idea that pedophile alien lizard people led by Hillary Clinton are running everything is more comfortable than the truth that no one has their hand firmly on the tiller,” Zuckerman says.

Go deeper

Nov 6, 2020 - Technology

Facebook confirms new steps to curb election misinformation

Photo illustration: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook is temporarily demoting posts containing election-related misinformation on its platforms and limiting the distribution of livestreams that may relate to the election, the company confirmed Thursday.

Why it matters: Facebook is turning on emergency measures like those used in countries where democracy is under threat as it looks to contain the spread of false claims and conspiracy theories about ballot counting.

Lincoln Project Founder: We need to reform American democracy

Axios' Politics and White House editor Margaret Talev (left) and Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt.

Trumpism is a “noxious weed” and America needs to root it out, Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt said Friday at a virtual Axios event.

Why it matters: Schmidt views Trumpism as an attempt to subvert American democracy, and he co-founded the Lincoln Project with other Republicans to prevent Trump from winning a second term.

Ina Fried, author of Login
Nov 6, 2020 - Technology

Election misinformation tests Big Tech platforms

Tweets from President Trump masked with warnings imposed by Twitter stating that they may be incorrect. Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

This week's election count is already giving the large tech platforms a taste of their future content-moderation challenges.

The state of play: Each day is proving harder than the last for internet gatekeepers amid swirling conspiracy theories, misinformation from elected leaders and growing violent speech from pockets of the far right.