'The possibility of real-world harm is high': Experts warn of violence from QAnon around the election

Caitlin Dickson
·Reporter

On Oct. 17, roughly 100 people reportedly gathered in a conference room at a resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., for Q Con Live, an all-day event featuring speeches from some of the most prominent disciples of the QAnon movement.

Among the conference’s “all-star lineup” of speakers was Alan Hostetter, a retired police officer turned yoga instructor who has become a key figure in California’s anti-lockdown movement, which emerged this spring in opposition to state and local “stay-at-home” orders designed to combat the spread of COVID-19.

According to an audio recording of his speech obtained by hosts of the “QAnon Anonymous” podcast, which has been tracking the growing conspiracy movement since its early days, Hostetter, who claims the coronavirus pandemic has been exaggerated by the media and that masks are part of a tyrannical effort to control the public, can be heard describing the U.S. as on the brink of civil war and suggesting that President Trump must be reelected in order to prevent the country from descending into violent conflict.

This kind of “second civil war” rhetoric is more commonly associated with far-right extremist movements like the “boogaloo” and antigovernment militia groups (who’ve also seized on anti-lockdown protests) than with QAnon. But experts who study QAnon say they’ve observed an increase in calls for offline action among the movement’s followers, adding to the growing risk of postelection violence posed by a variety of extremist groups.

A person wears a QAnon sweatshirt during a pro-Trump rally on October 3, 2020 in the borough of Staten Island in New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
A person wears a QAnon sweatshirt during a pro-Trump rally on Oct. 3 in the New York City borough of Staten Island. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Just two days before the event in Arizona, disinformation experts highlighted concerns about the risks presented by the rapid recent expansion of QAnon during a virtual hearing with members of the House Intelligence Committee on combating the spread of false information online.

Melanie Smith, head of analysis at the research firm Graphika, told members of the committee that she now considers QAnon to be “the most pressing threat to trusting government, public institutions and democratic processes.”

“I believe QAnon poses a threat to the election in two main ways,” Smith told Yahoo News. “The first lies in its ability to fit any event in the news cycle into an overarching conspiracy framework. The sheer size of this community and its capacity to shape the political conversation, particularly on the right wing of the political spectrum, cannot be underestimated.”

Beyond the messages coming directly from the anonymous “Q” himself (or herself, or themselves), who, Smith noted, “has consistently posted about issues like ballot harvesting and rigging since April,” she said, “we have already seen the QAnon movement broadly support narratives that undermine the integrity of this election and aim to delegitimize the results in advance.”

Second, Smith pointed to the “marked increase in the offline mobilization of this community in the past few months.” Combined with the “numerous violent acts committed by individuals who identify as QAnon supporters,” Smith said that “in this context I believe QAnon represents a threat to fair participation in the election in terms of voter suppression and intimidation.”

Cindy Otis, a former CIA officer and vice president of analysis for the Alethea Group, a disinformation investigations and remediation firm, said many QAnon followers “have shown us time and time again that they are willing to take action in actual physical fashion based on their beliefs.”

Otis told Yahoo News, “The possibility of actual real-world harm coming as a result of all of this, I think, is high.”

Donald Trump Jr speaks during a rain shower to an audience wearing ponchos at a Fighters Against Socialism campaign rally in support of his father, U.S. President Donald Trump. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Donald Trump Jr. at a Fighters Against Socialism campaign rally in support of his father. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In a militaristic-sounding video posted to Facebook last month, Trump’s son Don Jr. declared, “We need every able-bodied man and woman to join the army for Trump’s election security operation.” (Emphasis added.)

Hostetter told the Q Con meeting: “We are conditioned from the time we are children in this country to always think that violence is a horrible, horrible thing, until we go back and reflect on our Revolutionary War; they picked up guns at some point and said ‘enough’; until we reflect on the Civil War, we ended slavery by picking up guns and dealing with it that way.

“We don’t want that to have to happen, but it always has to be something in the back of your mind. We’ve never been as close to it as we are today since the Civil War, and you have to be thinking like that.”

“It comes at a time when people end up picking up guns,” Hostetter continued, adding, “I’m not advocating that. I think through the ballot box on Nov. 3, it’s going to be such a huge victory that we will avoid violence by a landslide election.”

Despite his insistence that “nobody wants violence,” Hostetter’s comments, along with those made by several other speakers at Q Con, seem to underscore what some disinformation experts see as a threat to election integrity posed by QAnon — a cultlike movement founded on the belief that Trump is secretly working to dismantle an international child trafficking ring run by a satanic cabal of global “elites” including high-profile Democrats and celebrities.

Not only do such comments demonstrate a receptivity by some Q followers to the idea of political violence, but they show how the fringe QAnon conspiracy has evolved into an increasingly popular worldview in which everything from the coronavirus pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement — and potentially the outcome of the election — can be explained away as part of a plot by Democrats and their allies.

During the past three years, QAnon’s core myth, which is steeped in anti-Semitic tropes about “global elites,” has spread from the fringes of the internet to more mainstream social media platforms, inspiring a number of real-world acts of violence, including at least one murder. Last year the FBI identified conspiracy-driven extremists, including QAnon, as a domestic terrorist threat, which it predicted would likely increase during the 2020 presidential election cycle.

The movement has sped up its growth since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, infiltrating new audiences by adapting in response both to the news cycle and to increased oversight from social media companies.

People, including one person holding a "Save Our Children" sign that refers to a QAnon conspiracy theory, participate in a protest against racial injustice in Portland, Oregon, U.S., August 22, 2020. (Maranie Staab/Reuters)
People, including one person holding a "Save Our Children" sign that refers to a QAnon conspiracy theory, in a protest against racial injustice in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 22. (Maranie Staab/Reuters)

Otis, the former CIA officer, told Yahoo News that in order to understand the threat QAnon poses to the integrity of the election, “it’s important to realize the extent to which QAnon has spread as a belief system in just the last three years.”

In addition to promoting misinformation about child trafficking and the coronavirus, adherents of that belief system during the past several months have served as a particularly receptive audience for Trump’s efforts to sow distrust in the outcome of the November election by preemptively accusing Democrats of rigging the election against him.

Otis pointed to the Trump campaign’s solicitation for supporters to register as poll watchers, which she said quickly circulated throughout QAnon groups and pages across social media and was even “part of a Q drop” by the anonymous “Q” as a potential catalyst for violence at the polls.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on October 27, 2020 in Omaha, Nebraska.  With the presidential election one week away, candidates of both parties are attempting to secure their standings in important swing states. (Steve Pope/Getty Images)
President Trump at a campaign rally on Tuesday in Omaha, Neb. (Steve Pope/Getty Images)

Beyond potential Election Day violence, Otis warned that the widely held belief that Democrats will interfere in the election stands to undermine trust among QAnon followers in the legitimacy of the results — setting the stage for further potential violence if Trump loses.

“I think Q believers are one of those groups that will not in any way be convinced if the election results are anything [other] than Trump wins,” she said. “The evidence shows us that we should be concerned about whether or not they believe in the results of the election.”

Though Otis said she thinks the threat of violence by QAnon believers will be greatest if Trump loses, she noted that “broadly, we’ve seen on forums and in their groups that they think Trump not only knows exactly who they are but is a huge supporter and is encouraging them to take action to continue in this belief system.”

“I think if he does win they will feel emboldened, essentially, to take action,” she said.

A supporter of President Donald Trump holds an U.S. flag with a reference to QAnon during a Trump 2020 Labor Day cruise rally in honor of Patriot Prayer supporter Aaron J. Danielson, who was shot dead in Portland, Oregon, after street clashes between supporters of President Donald Trump and counter-demonstrators, in Oregon city, Oregon, U.S. September 7, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
A Trump supporter holds a U.S. flag with a reference to QAnon during a Sept. 7 rally. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Daniel Rogers, chief technology officer of the Global Disinformation Index, emphasized that the proliferation of QAnon and its assorted conspiracy theories are part of a “much larger problem of the warping of reality” which, he said, “captures the state of the election.”

“This will be a referendum on reality,” said Rogers, who also teaches a course on disinformation and narrative warfare at the New York University Center for Global Affairs. “Reality is on the ballot.”

Also at risk in this election, Rogers said, is the health of our democratic systems.

“Once you buy into one conspiracy theory, once you no longer trust the ‘system,’ every part of the system is under threat,” he said. “At the end of the day, what’s written in the Constitution and in the law books is only valuable if enough people believe in it. Otherwise it’s just ink on a page.”

Rogers said the erosion of trust in our political system is in large part the result of the degradation of our information environment due to the nature of the internet economy,” in which “whether or not QAnon has any basis in reality is far secondary to whether or not QAnon gets a lot of engagement on social media.”

Though he said the trajectory from widespread belief in conspiracy theories to the collapse of democracy is “very predictable,” Rogers emphasized that it’s “not inevitable,” noting that lawmakers and tech companies have already become increasingly aware of the dangers created by this business model and taken steps to try to fix it.

That said, “when the establishment in power benefits from it, then nothing will get done.”

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