How QAnon and other dark forces are radicalizing Americans as the COVID-19 pandemic rages and election looms

The spread of conspiracy theories into the mainstream on social media channels like Facebook and YouTube is accelerating during the coronavirus.

USA Today/September 1, 2020

By Nathan Bomey, and Jessica Guynn

Harrison Hawkins has experienced firsthand the insidious spread of QAnon.

In early April, he fell in love with a college student he met on a dating app. She was spiritual and intelligent. She liked to meditate and take hikes. But within months, she began to express anxiety. His phone filled up with troubling links and articles concerning conspiracy theories about the "deep state" and child trafficking. Hawkins tried nudging aside his worry, hoping she would move away from the phase.

They had their first big fight in early July when she didn’t show up to dinner at his mother’s house because she was researching the chemical adrenochrome that followers of QAnon, a fringe online movement, erroneously believe is harvested from children’s blood. From that point forward, she avoided him, then cut him off. Hawkins said he still clings to “a tiny bit of hope” that QAnon will release its hold on her.

“Some media outlets have written it off as a kooky conspiracy,” he said. “The word 'conspiracy' discredits its power.”

Swept up in the culture wars over immigration and race, rattled by economic upheaval and desperate for companionship in an age of social isolation, an untold number of Americans are succumbing to radicalization in the form of fringe or extremist ideologies rooted in baseless conspiracy theories.

The emergence of QAnon – which has promoted and capitalized on Donald Trump’s presidency, and received attention from him – comes at a volatile moment amid a raging pandemic and a coming election. The movement, which holds Trump on a pedestal as a hero in a fight it portrays as being against evil liberals and the media, is rallying support for the president in his campaign against former Vice President Joe Biden, even though it doesn't always follow the traditional contours of Republican-Democratic politics.

Experts who study extremism say the radicalized patchwork of fringe conspiracy theories has gained currency in part because of its promise of easy answers to complex problems, such as COVID-19 and racial tensions, and the sense of community it creates at a time when many people feel terribly alone.

While the far-right movement’s most devoted followers have been active on extremist online platforms like 4chan and 8kun, the spread of their conspiracy theories and political opinions into mainstream social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is accelerating during the pandemic, with everyday Americans increasingly encountering and embracing bits and pieces of the radicalized ideology.

Membership in 109 popular and publicly accessible QAnon Facebook groups more than quintupled from about 155,000 in February to 1.12 million in June, according to a database maintained by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which tracks extremism around the world. Interactions with QAnon content in those groups more than tripled from 2.35 million in February to 7.26 million in June.

“I have just started describing QAnon as a digital cult instead of a conspiracy theory,” said Aoife Gallagher, a disinformation and extremism analyst at the institute. “I actually think it's more accurate.”

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Billing itself as methodically rooting out a secret nationwide cabal of Democratic leaders who traffic children for sexual purposes – an accusation with no basis in reality – QAnon appeals to many ordinary Americans, including people on the political left and right, in a polarized age in which people often see those on the other side politically as despicable human beings.

Political scientists call this “affective polarization” – the tendency to personally loathe people who believe the opposite of what you believe. One survey, for example, found that more than 1 in 5 people, regardless of whether they're Republicans and Democrats, view the other side as “evil.”

“If you think they’re evil and you don’t trust them at all, then it’s much easier to believe that they’re pedophiles,” said Josh Pasek, a University of Michigan professor and expert on political communication and misinformation.

The threat of violence

In the case of QAnon, however, the desire to root out evil is, in fact, threatening to inspire its own acts of evil. The FBI declared QAnon a domestic terrorism threat in a May 2019 intelligence briefing first obtained by Yahoo! News.

“The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts,” the document said.

Empowered by closed-to-the-public Facebook groups that promote take-back-America-themed militias using the language of violence, people like Kyle Rittenhouse are translating their fringe beliefs into action. Rittenhouse, a white 17-year-old, is accused of murdering two people during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man.

In April, an Illinois woman who immersed herself in QAnon theories was arrested in New York after traveling there with a stash of knives and weapons and threatening Biden and fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Those incidents came about four years after a North Carolina man traveled to a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. – where, conspiracists believed, the alleged child sex trafficking ring was being run – and fired his rifle. Now, despite being thoroughly debunked, “Pizzagate” is circulating again, appealing to new QAnon recruits.

Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland who leads a domestic radicalization team, has identified a sharp increase in “demonstration activity,” with fringe group members or militia group members turning out to rallies, whether to “save the children” or protest wearing masks. And those demonstrations are spilling over into “more deliberately violent actions.”

“We have absolutely seen a spike in not only people just engaging online and discussing it but now people who are acting on behalf of those beliefs,” Jensen said.

That action could translate into a get-out-the-vote effort at the polls this November or even attacks on the outcome of the race under the false premise that the results cannot be trusted if Trump loses, QAnon watchdogs said.

"The bigger concern is what happens when the election results roll in," Jensen said. "We are all geared up for some type of a contested election here. And these groups would be the ones that would mobilize these individuals to act if they disagree with the outcome of an election.”

Emerson Brooking, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab and co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media," said the election could be "a real tipping point" for extremism in America, potentially emboldening radicals to translate their fury into real-life action.

"My fear is that, as the election approaches, these cycles of radicalization and violence will intensify," he said. "And particularly if the outcome of the election is uncertain for a period of time, we have a lot of tinder that can get set alight. These groups have created a powder keg.”

Conspiracy theories gain currency

To be sure, conspiracy theories are nothing new. What’s new in the digital age is the ability to easily congregate with people of similar beliefs, share baseless ideas – or worse – and hatch plans to take action.

Before the internet, “you might be isolated in your town” but unable to spread your beliefs widely, limiting your ability to do harm, said Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth College who has studied the matter. “Now you can immediately plug in.”

Filippo Menczer, a computer science professor at Indiana University Bloomington and director of the Observatory on Social Media, said social media’s tendency to reinforce people’s beliefs in a digital group setting is particularly conducive to conspiracy theories.

“If something is a fringe movement, there are a few people scattered around the world who believe this weird stuff. Now, with Twitter and Facebook, it’s really easy for these people to find each other,” Menczer said. “When you are in a group – a strongly, densely connected group – you are more likely to reject opinions that are not aligned with the group.”

Facebook’s algorithms are particularly adept at helping people find groups they might be interested in, where users engage in conspiracy talk, Menczer said.

Last week, frustrated Facebook employees challenged CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a company-wide meeting over the company's handling of violent conspiracy theories and militia groups on Facebook and Instagram. Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook should have removed an event listing that encouraged armed civilians to defend the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and violated the company's policies. He called it an "operational mistake."

"We're going to continue to enforce our policies and we're going to continue to evolve the policies to be able to identify more potentially dangerous organizations and improve our execution," Zuckerberg said. "I think that this shows that there is a real risk and a continued increased risk through the election during this very sensitive and polarized and just highly charged time."

One smartphone, one laptop at a time

Researchers say internet-powered movements like QAnon are radicalizing people one smartphone or laptop at a time.

The dangerous cycle begins with a seemingly innocuous YouTube video or Instagram post, but link after link leads deeper into fringe ideologies and extremist content.

Followers, who come from all kinds of backgrounds, ages and political bents, are indoctrinated while spending hours a day watching videos and perusing social media posts.

Researchers say some people are more vulnerable than others to the pull of QAnon. Some may suffer from mental illness. Perhaps they’ve lost their job to the pandemic or have experienced another sort of traumatic loss. Still others are raging at the nation's fights over immigration and racial justice. And some already had a penchant for conspiracy theories.

The online feedback loop often alienates adherents from their families who can’t be converted. “We are your family now,” they are told.

Primed to believe that mainstream media cannot be trusted and that fact-checkers are part of the conspiracy, they reject anyone who disagrees with QAnon as a “sheep” unwilling to do their own research.

'I don't even recognize him'

Robert Weaver, 32, a Navy veteran, used to be close to his father. That’s who he’d consult before embarking on a home repair. Both were musicians, and they could talk for hours about music. And, whenever Weaver was feeling stressed, his dad was just a call away.

Not anymore. Their phone conversations are now dominated by wild conspiracy theories.

“It’s gone from things that seem plausible when you explain it to somebody to something as wild as him thinking that Bill Gates is going to put microchips in people,” Weaver said.

With a heavy heart, he has watched as his dad, a lifelong liberal and blue-collar worker, has become increasingly isolated. Friends with whom he used to be close now keep their distance. And Weaver does, too.

“It contradicts a lifetime of past behavior and core values that I thought my dad had,” he said. “It’s weird because I don’t even recognize him.”

Weaver is among the thousands who have joined a Reddit community to share painful stories of how QAnon is tearing apart families and detonating personal relationships. They offer one another support and tips on how to debunk outlandish claims and deprogram their parents, siblings, spouses and children. Their message: QAnon is affecting more and more "normal" people, and this movement is now very much a part of mainstream America.

Jensen said Americans typically become radicalized one of two ways: entirely on the internet or a hybrid in which people are introduced to fringe, extremist ideas through face-to-face interactions with family members or friends and then go online and become more radicalized.

When someone is radicalized 100% online, it usually occurs very quickly. It’s a matter of weeks or a couple of months before they are fully immersed in the ideology, Jensen said. His University of Maryland group has tracked high rates of mental illness, unemployment rates and previous criminal histories among American extremists.

It’s a population that is fairly susceptible to the narrative, and they’re online a lot. That’s the combination that allows it to spread very quickly,” Jensen said. “So you have people for whom things in life are not working out exactly as they want. They’re dealing with challenges in their own life. They are looking for an answer. And they are spending a lot of time online. They are looking for someone to blame and they find it there.”

Providing connection amid isolation

Before the pandemic even began, the CDC was warning that loneliness and social isolation in older adults were "serious public health risks affecting a significant number of people in the United States.”

Now, with tens of millions of Americans suddenly unemployed amid the coronavirus pandemic and with racial tensions running high after several high-profile police killings, conspiracy theories seem to explain things in a way that makes sense to people who would rather avoid the uncomfortable truths of the world. The allure of a community of like-minded believers is enough for many people to buy in.

“For most people who wind up in these fringe, radical and dangerous communities, they don't start out expecting that they’ll belong to a group that considers all their political opponents cannibals and part of a massive pedophilia ring, or they might not start out thinking they’re going to be advocates for a second American civil war,” said Brooking of the Atlantic Council.

Rather, it’s a gradual process toward radicalization.

“It’s kind of like the frog in the slow boiling pot where typically via YouTube or via any number of social media platforms, you fall in with a group of people who generally think and feel as you do who you begin to consider friends, even though you have never met in many cases,” Brooking said.

“And, as time goes on, these online friends and celebrities and extremist figures can begin to mean more to you than your friends in real life. And as this tipping point approaches, then you begin to trust them more and more. And as they begin to tell you these things you once would have thought absurd, you begin to believe them. And then when you believe them strongly and passionately enough, you are ready to act on them.”

Brooking said QAnon has made inroads online into tight-knit communities such as Christian forums and discussion boards, capitalizing on our natural human tendency to trust our friends and family.

“If you’re part of an internet community and someone else who is part of this community raises QAnon, you are much more liable to believe them and be swayed by the arguments of this belief system because it has already penetrated a network of people you trust,” he said.

till, while QAnon is best described as an ideology, it’s not a consistent ideology. The reality is that QAnon is becoming a catchall movement for a variety of conspiracy theories, including aspects of other theories that began on their own, including the baseless assertions that 5G technology is dangerous to your health and that Gates is somehow wielding the pandemic, said Gallagher of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

“We've seen QAnon transform into a vehicle for which loads of different kinds of disinformation can travel online,” she said.

The core component is a sense of togetherness that the online community of believers provides to each other and to newcomers.

“To belong to this canon of conspiracy theories is to feel like you have a place in the world,” Brooking said. “In a way, it’s a kind of religion or cult that can only exist in the social media age.”

And it has taken off during the pandemic.

Gallagher began tracking a “vast increase in QAnon conversation” in the middle of March when the pandemic was erupting in the U.S. and Americans were becoming increasingly isolated.

“People's lives were turned upside down, a lot of people have lost their jobs, lost their businesses, lost their livelihoods,” she said. “A lot of conspiracy theories appeal to vulnerable people and people that are looking for something else in their life. That is really where the danger of it is.”

COVID-19 accelerates spread of extremist movements

Jensen, the University of Maryland expert on domestic radicalization, agreed that the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the spread of extremist groups in American life.

“You have so many people that have a heightened sense of insecurity, whether it’s because of job loss or concerns about where the country is going or health,” Jensen said. “They are isolated like never before, so they are spending a ton of time online. And because there’s an election coming up, they are being presented with really divisive rhetoric, much of which now is appealing to these conspiracy theories and things that are really not grounded in reality. It’s a pretty powerful recipe for some bad things happening, especially to the folks who are vulnerable to radicalizing.”

While the theories may start on the fringes of social media, they often eventually make their way into more mainstream circles. For example, believers have recently been using the phrase “save the children” to promote their agenda – and that phrase is beginning to make its way into more mainstream conversations, Gallagher said.

“If there's one thing that we know about QAnon, it’s that, as bizarre as people like me and you might think that it is, there's something very powerful about it, and there's something that obviously resonates with people,” she said.

Often when a social media user proclaims that they’ve “done their own research” and exposed the truth, that’s a red flag, experts said. QAnon posts tend to be “cryptic, they're riddles, they're full of clues. It's almost like a game” to be “decoded,” Gallagher said.

“That ‘do your own research’ line is not exactly too specific, but it's very much associated with the movement,” she said.

From fringe to mainstream

To be sure, QAnon remains a “fringe phenomenon in terms of public opinion,” because research shows that “most people don’t know what it is, let alone believe it,” said Nyhan, the Dartmouth professor.

“But if the ideology that they’ve been exposed to inspires them to commit violence, that’s potentially dangerous,” he said. “I’m also worried about the way that ‘Q’ believers have become more visible and influential online and within the Republican Party base.”

Earlier this month, far-right GOP congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has expressed support for QAnon theories, won a Republican primary runoff election in Georgia. Since her district is solidly Republican, she is expected to win her general election race and join the House in January. Trump, in a tweet, called her a “future Republican Star.”

Trump himself has also given credence to the movement. When asked about it earlier this month, he claimed he didn't know much about it but then went on to praise its believers.

When a reporter explained part of the movement’s premise – that Trump himself is saving the world from a satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals – the president responded: "Is that supposed to be a bad thing? If I can help save the world from problems I'm willing to do it, I'm willing to put myself out there."

He added, "And we are actually, we're saving the world from radical left philosophy that will destroy this country.”

Trump clearly “is more than willing to dabble in stuff that others used to keep the lid on,” the University of Michigan’s Pasek said. “We’re going to have a couple of QAnon people in Congress. Fortunately, it’s not all that widely believed. But the fact that it is not something that’s so far out of the mainstream to be laughable is alarming.”

That Trump did not take the opportunity to caution Americans against wading into the dangerous current of conspiracy-mongering illustrates how he has repeatedly flouted typical political conventions, Pasek said. But politicians in many circles have taken to using extreme language to describe their opponents, which lends credence to the most off-the-wall theories out there, Pasek said.

“We used to have an elite consensus that certain things were out of bounds politically,” he said. “You didn’t step into calling them evil, you didn’t try to demonize them, these weren’t things you did – and we’re willing to do that now. When elites are willing to endorse it, that legitimizes it for ordinary people.”

That includes people from a wide range of political backgrounds.

“I don’t think this is Republicans versus Democrats,” said Sara, a graphic artist who’s trying to keep a close family friend from plunging down the QAnon rabbit hole. “I think this is alt-right extremist groups versus everyone.”

Sara, who asked that USA TODAY not use her last name out of fear of being targeted by QAnon, says being an anti-vaccine Trump supporter was her friend’s “gateway drug” to a movement filled with people who shared her fears about vaccines and helped her make sense of the world. Her friend, whose autistic son died last year, blamed his suffering on vaccines.

At a time when Americans distrust the government and distrust the institution of media, QAnon is stepping into the void to provide answers and consolation.

“These people are scared," she said, "and I think they want something to believe in that isn’t the government.”

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