On Thursday, Yahoo! News published an exclusive story detailing a May 2019 FBI assessment that online conspiracy theories “very likely” result in domestic extremists committing violent crimes. The report notes that it is “the first FBI product examining the threat from conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists and provides a baseline for future intelligence products,” and predicts an increased risk of violent outcomes as the United States enters “major election cycles such as the 2020 presidential election.”
If that happens, it may be in no small part due to President Donald Trump’s endorsement and amplification of conspiracy theories and theorists such as QAnon. A few hours after the FBI assessment leaked, the President held a campaign rally in Cincinnati, where the pre-rally speaker Brandon Straka called out the phrase, “Where we go one, we go all,” a rallying cry of QAnon believers. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I. QAnon and Its Effects
One of the conspiracy theories specifically described in the report, the QAnon narrative posits that “an anonymous government official known as ‘Q’ posts classified information online to reveal a covert effort, led by President Trump, to dismantle a conspiracy involving ‘deep state’ actors and global elites allegedly engaged in an international child sex trafficking ring,” according to the FBI. Researchers at Media Matters have tracked multiple violent incidents and threats of violence linked to QAnon adherents, including:
● A Washington man who murdered his brother with a sword;
● An Oregon man who threatened to kill YouTube employees over what he believed were acts of censorship;
● A man accused of murdering an alleged crime boss;
● An armed Nevada man who blocked the Hoover Dam with an armored vehicle;
● An Oklahoma man who threatened to assassinate Trump.
II. Trump’s Support for QAnon
As preposterous as it might seem, the Trump administration has helped to prop up this conspiracy theory by endorsing its proponents and amplifying their messages.
The President has retweeted QAnon supporters, perhaps unwittingly, dozens of times. On one such recent occasion, he shared a video critical of the Transportation Security Administration that originated from a Twitter account called Deep State Exposed that is operated by a QAnon follower. More recently, the President retweeted two accounts that promote the conspiracy theory in order to share allegations against Democrats related to election security and voter fraud. The Washington Post’s headline itself blared, “Trump shares Twitter accounts linked to conspiracy theory QAnon.” QAnon supporters are “overjoyed when Trump does retweet, believing it’s evidence he supports their movement,” according to responses reviewed by the Post.
Perhaps more significant is the President’s eagerness to engage personally with individuals who advance the conspiracy theory. For instance, right wing media personality Bill Mitchell “has regularly used his radio show and Twitter account to boost and legitimize ‘Q,’ the central figure of the QAnon conspiracy theory, sometimes hosting major QAnon believers,” according to Alex Kaplan at Media Matters. Mitchell was among the extremists invited to the White House for its recent Social Media Summit. Another QAnon supporter and conspiracy theorist, Michael Lebron, was photographed with Donald Trump in the Oval Office last summer, according to CNN. The news outlet headline also amplified the encounter, “QAnon-believing ‘conspiracy analyst’ meets Trump in the White House.” Occasionally appearing on RT, Lebron is a YouTube and social media personality. Other individuals associated with the President occasionally rub shoulders with QAnon supporters, whether on purpose or not. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted and then later deleted a photograph of himself with a Q supporter recently, and former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will join a conference with a prominent Q proponent and a variety of other fringe personalities this fall.
The President has also welcomed QAnon supporters at his rallies. Believers sometimes travel long distances to join others who espouse the conspiracy theory. Gaggles of Q supporters wearing QAnon paraphernalia (there are over 1,000 items for sale on Amazon) have been photographed and appeared in the frame during the broadcast of Trump rallies, including one in Cincinnati this week. Q has “been talking to all of us,” noted a rally goer last summer, “letting us know the covert battles that are waging between the Deep State and President Trump.”
All of the attention from the President helps QAnon proponents and other fringe figures build reach. After attending Trump’s social media summit, “15 of the event’s invitees have seen their Twitter audiences grow by a combined 197,000 followers — a 75 percent jump over the number of followers they’d gained in the same time span before the event,” according to an analysis for the Washington Post. There is a documented affinity between Trump supporters and QAnon believers. Before the main QAnon subreddit was banned for inciting violence, Vox’s Alvin Chang analyzed the behaviour of Reddit users that engaged with the page and found a substantial overlap with pro-Trump subbreddits.
Of course, Trump is not the only factor in the growth of the QAnon conspiracy. The FBI notes that other phenomena help to drive such conspiracies, such as “the uncovering of real conspiracies or cover-ups involving illegal, harmful or unconstitutional activities by government officials or leading political figures.” From the Mueller investigation to the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein, QAnon adherents do not want for new “clues” to enliven their theories. As the many intrigues of the 2020 election cycle- real or concocted- unfold, QAnon supporters are primed to incorporate new information into their theories.
III. The Way Forward
What can be done? One step, of course, would be for those close to the President to try to prevail upon him to lay off the promotion of QAnon. Members of the media should also press the President on where he stands. This is the time for him to disavow if not condemn QAnon.
There’s also an important role here for social media companies, and better public understanding of how they work. The FBI memo suggests “significant efforts by major social media companies and websites to remove, regulate or counter potentially harmful conspiratorial content” could change the dynamic. But that approach is at odds with the President and other conservatives, who have invested a lot of effort in claims that conservative voices are censored by the tech giants. These largely unsubstantiated claims have in turn spawned new conspiracy theories, while arbitrary or confusing content moderation policies and sometimes nontransparent decisions to remove bad actors by the social media giants don’t help matters. Those concerned that sensible protections for speech slide toward providing a platform for potentially dangerous conspiracy theories to spread have some legitimate arguments. Violence may force us to test those arguments under more urgent conditions.