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A bizarre pro-Trump conspiracy theory group that brings together offbeat ideas about vaccines, satanism, child abuse and the end of the world is becoming increasingly influential as America gets closer to the most bitterly-fought election in its history.
The core of the QAnon theory is that Donald Trump is waging a secret war against a satanic, child-molesting conspiracy of leading Democrats and Hollywood stars.
And QAnon believers have been organising rallies and Facebook groups under the anti-paedophile Save the Children banner as a way to ease their theories into the mainstream.
The President's recent positive Covid-19 test will only serve to stir up more wild conspiracy theories among the group.
If he were to become severely ill, or even die from the illness, it would inevitably spark rumours that he had been deliberately infected by shadowy forces within government.
Many QAnon cultists are also members of armed militias threatening civil war if President Trump were to lose in November.
QAnon are distributed widely across the US, and would be very hard to contain or control.
QAnon has its roots in the Pizzagate conspiracy theory – the baseless and false claims that Democrats were at the core of a child abuse ring that had its headquarters in the basement of Comet Ping Pong – a popular Washington DC restaurant.
Pizzagate culminated in the arrest of Edgar Maddison Welch, a North Carolina man who believed that child slaves were being held in the basement of Comet Ping Pong and burst in with an assault rifle to “rescue” them.
Welch later admitted that he he had made an “incredibly ill-advised decision” to try to save children who had never been there. “The intel on this wasn’t 100%,” he said.
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But similar false claims are still being made, with assorted politicians and celebrities being cast as villains in a story drip-fed over internet message boards by an anonymous source known as Q.
Q’s posts contain myriad clues that cultists weave into theories about the “deep state,” which they see as a force inside government that is opposing their hero Donald Trump.
Thousands of anti-lockdown conspiracists cram into London's Trafalgar Square in protest
No-one knows who the mysterious "Q" is, or even how many members the group has. Estimates put the number of hardcore QAnon believers at about 150,000.
That may not be many, in a country the size of the USA, but the group is intensely active on social media, and its followers spread the rumours of children being held hostages for sexual purposes or bizarre experiments far and wide.
And the group’s political influence, especially within the US Republican party is growing.
Media Matters reports that as many as 79 candidates who have publicly expressed sympathy for QAnon beliefs are running for Congress in 2020 – 77 of them on the Republican ticket.
And just as Pizzagate stated as a set of improbable online rumours before turning violent, so QAnon is showing signs of turning violent.
Federal investigators in El Paso, Texas, said they were treating a mass-shooting in August last year as an act of domestic terrorism.
Patrick Wood Crusius – the 21-year-old gunman, from Allen, Texas, who killed 20 and wounded another 27 – had posted a “manifesto” on one of QAnon fans’ favourite internet forums 8Chan.
That widely-distributed manifesto contained a number of white nationalist and anti-immigrant themes that dovetail neatly with QAnon rhetoric.
Donald Trump has publicly said that QAnon devotees “appear to like him very much.”
The President claimed not to know much about the movement, but added that he'd heard that "these were people who love our country.”
His own son posted an apparent QAnon meme to Instagram just before a Trump campaign rally in Tulsa.
Joanne Miller, who studies the political psychology of conspiracy theories at the University of Delaware, told the Washington Post: “We have a current president who uses conspiracy rhetoric arguably more than any other president in modern history.”
Trump’s hints that he might try to hang on in the White House after being defeated in the polls – answering a question about whether he would accept the vote with a cryptic “get rid of the ballots…” – are consolidating groups like QAnon and the Proud Boys into a potential armed resistance against an incoming Democratic president.
It’s unlikely that conflict over November’s US election result will turn into open warfare.
But if it does, it’s a near-certainty that the shock troops of the rebellion will have received their instructions from QAnon.
- Donald Trump
- In the News
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