President Donald Trump on Thursday refused to condemn QAnon, saying he knows "nothing" about the growing, yet baseless, conspiracy theory that falsely alleges the existence of a satanic "deep state" apparatus that supports a child sex trafficking ring.
“I know nothing about it,” Trump told town hall moderator Savannah Guthrie, pivoting to violence among groups on the left. After Guthrie asked Trump to disavow QAnon, he said he believes its followers are "very much against pedophilia," affirming one of its central tenants, but repeatedly said he was unfamiliar with the beliefs.
Trump has retweeted some Twitter accounts tied to the conspiracy theory and has previously said he didn't know much about it while offering praise for its believers.
QAnon followers have spread misinformation about COVID-19 and a variety of other topics. While social media accounts spreading falsehoods connected to QAnon beliefs have faced crackdowns from tech platforms in recent months, the theory continues to flourish on mainstream and "dark web" sites.
After Trump's announcement of his positive COVID-19 test, believers in QAnon sought to decode the wording of his tweet as a sign that the president was poised to arrest former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for her role in the made-up scandal of the sex trafficking ring. They suggested, without evidence, that Trump actually doesn't have the virus at all but was sending a message that he's about to go on a mission to root out the "evil cabal." Trump's role in rooting out the fabricated cabal is a central theme of the theory.
Social media teems with conspiracy theories from QAnon and Trump critics after president's positive COVID-19 test
As QAnon has spread in recent months, experts who study the beliefs and growing movement behind it say it has trickled into mainstream politics and conversation.
"It has grown very rapidly, and .... there are really no indications that it is going to slow down," Travis View, who has been researching QAnon for the past two years and co-hosts the QAnon Anonymous podcast, told USA TODAY in July.
Here's a look at QAnon, where it originated and what its followers believe:
What is QAnon and where did it come from?
The QAnon conspiracy theory baselessly claims that there is a "deep state" apparatus run by political elites, business leaders and Hollywood celebrities who are also pedophiles and actively working against Trump.
View described it as a meta conspiracy theory that provides an underlying narrative for other baseless theories. According to View, its followers believe that this "worldwide cabal of satanic pedophiles" run "all the major levers of power," including government, media, business and Hollywood.
QAnon theorists believe that were it not for Trump's election in 2016, the cabal would stay in power, View says. But Trump, working with the military, is actively putting an end to it, according to the theory.
An anonymous poster named Q shares cryptic tips that followers then decode to learn the ways in which the "deep state" controls the world, how Trump is battling and marching orders to join in, said Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters for America, a nonprofit that researches misinformation in the United States.
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View said the first of these tips, dubbed Q drops, was posted on 4chan on Oct. 28, 2017, by a poster claiming to have insider information about the government. Q drops are "usually nonsense," View said, but followers believe they are decoding these messages.
Carusone described it like an activity or "a choose your own adventure" for followers.
Part of what makes the QAnon theory so powerful is the trust that the original poster built in followers, Carusone said.
The platforms where the Q drops occur have changed over time, Carusone said. And followers of the theory share QAnon content on all major social media platforms.
What do QAnon supporters believe?
There are a wide range of conspiracy theories that QAnon supporters believe, View said.
Many falsely believe that mainstream U.S. media outlets receive an email at 4 a.m. every morning dictating what to cover. Others bizarrely say adrenochrome, a chemical compound, is the drug of the elite, and the only way to get the substance is to torture and kill children.
Others falsely say that John F. Kennedy Jr., didn't die in a plane crash. The furniture retailer Wayfair was recently the target of an unsubstantiated QAnon belief that the company was trafficking children through listings of products with inflated prices.
"It sounds completely nutty, and it is," Carusone said.
For many, these theories become obsessive and can take over a person's life, View said. "We often see QAnon followers alienate family members because they believe they have been granted a key to the universe," he said.
Many continue to adhere to the belief system, however, because they see themselves as evangelizing Q's message, Carusone said.
Another central tenant of the QAnon theory is that there will be a "storm" during which 100,000 politicians, celebrities and business leaders involved in the "deep state" ring will be rounded up and held accountable, View said.
The QAnon theory connected to Trump's positive COVID-19 test being a sign of the coming "storm" is not the first time followers have spread coronavirus misinformation, either.
For example, a misleading and inaccurate conclusion spread on social media tied to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. The false claim said that only 6% of reported COVID-19 deaths were the result of the coronavirus.
Trump retweeted the claim from QAnon supporter "Mel Q," which was removed by Twitter as a violation of its rules.
The CDC report actually read, “For 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned. For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death.”
Epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz explained on Medium that the figure cited in the CDC report means "that in 94% of cases people who had COVID-19 also developed other issues, or had other problems at the same time."
The CDC defines a comorbidity as when “more than one disease or condition is present in the same person at the same time.” A comorbidity is often a chronic condition that a person can live with, such as arthritis, diabetes or obesity.
Another false QAnon claim tied to the COVID-19 pandemic said Dr. Anthony Fauci had been arrested. Doctored and out of context photos were used to spread the myth.
What's the tie between Trump, other politicians and QAnon?
"Well I don't know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate," Trump told reporters during a White House briefing. "These are people that don't like seeing what's going on in places like Portland, Chicago and New York and other cities and states. ... I've heard these are people that love our country."
Trump has also retweeted accounts that promote the QAnon conspiracy theory more than 200 times, according to Media Matters for America.
According to the group, Trump family members, including Donald Trump Jr., have amplified QAnon accounts on social media, too.
Carusone said many of Trump's QAnon retweets have come in recent months, fueling the theory's growth and leading to more politicians openly supporting it.
Media Matters for America has also tracked 75 current or former 2020 congressional candidates who are tied to QAnon in some way. The group says that at least 24 candidates that will be on voters' ballots in November have endorsed, given credence to or promoted QAnon beliefs.
"There are going to be Q members of Congress," Carusone said. While some may distance themselves from messages explicitly tied QAnon and its symbols, the underlying beliefs are here to stay in U.S. politics, Carusone added.
"The core critique that Q is dabbling into gets at something that a lot of people believe and feel, especially right now: That there is this elite that has impunity, that gets away with anything that it wants," Carusone said.
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Is QAnon dangerous?
A Yahoo News report from August 2019 says that the FBI identified fringe conspiracy theories as a domestic extremist threat, and it specifically mentions QAnon.
The majority of QAnon supporters say they are peaceful and most of their activities remain online, View said.
"The danger is essentially that there have been multiple instances where QAnon followers have taken their beliefs offline in violent or dangerous ways," he added.
View cited multiple cases of violence connected to QAnon believers.
In June 2018, Matthew Wright, motivated by his belief in QAnon, blocked the bridge near the Hoover Dam with a homemade armored vehicle. He later pleaded guilty to making a terrorist threat.
Anthony Comello, accused of killing Frank Cali, the alleged boss of the Gambino crime family, was influenced by right-wing hate speech and conspiracy theories, his lawyer said. He appeared in court with the letter "Q" written on his hand.
The Pizzagate conspiracy theory, a sort of precursor to the QAnon theory, culminated in a man driving from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., where he started firing an assault-style rifle at Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. No one was killed, but the event brought the fringe theory – in this case that there was a child sex trafficking ring operating in the basement of the pizzeria – into the national spotlight.
View said the Pizzagate theory was based on a distorted attempt at decoding emails from John Podesta published by Wikileaks, and it plays on many similar themes of QAnon.
View said that posters believed to be Q have never openly advocated for violence – though they have organized target harassment of people.
"There's this whole 'the ends justify the means' idea," Carusone said of QAnon followers. "You have to be willing to rise up to save these children."
Contributing: Joel Shannon, John Fritze, Nathan Bomey and Courtney Subramanian, USA TODAY; Richard Ruelas, Arizona Republic; Courtney Marabella, Asbury Park Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: QAnon conspiracy theory: What is it, how connected to Trump, COVID