The death of Jeffrey Epstein has ignited a firestorm of conspiracy theories – and added new fuel to one of the more bizarre fringe movements to have taken hold in Donald Trump’s America.
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory which alleges a secret “deep state” plot to take down President Trump and his supporters.
Since its first appearance in October 2017, it has achieved remarkable prominence and earlier this year the FBI said it could inspire domestic terrorists.
QAnon began with an anonymous post on the imageboard 4chan from someone claiming to have top level “Q” security clearance in the US government and making allegations against senior Democrats including Hillary Clinton.
Among those allegations – that big names from the worlds of politics and entertainment were involved in an international child sex trafficking ring.
Presidential retweets of conspiracy theories, as with Mr Trump’s over Epstein’s death, thrill the QAnon community.
In the summer of 2018, QAnon followers started to appear at Trump rallies and leading proponents have been photographed with the president and even attending a White House social media summit.
More darkly, in December 2016 a man opened fire with an assault rifle on a pizza restaurant in Washington DC which, Q alleged, was being used to harbour trafficked children.
“What seems novel about QAnon is that at least parts of its sprawling theories have been endorsed not only by the like of anti-government extremists but also media celebrities and politicians such as Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, or President Trump,” said Dr Joe Pierre, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of the Psych Unseen blog.
He says conspiracy theories are not confined to the right-wing of American politics but that they do have appeal within populist movements.
“The appeal of QAnon is that it parallels the more general populist and nationalist concerns that got President Trump elected, the idea, for example, that we need to ‘drain the swamp’ of corrupt Washington officials or that ‘elites’ and ‘globalists’ are trying to bring about the downfall of America’s greatness.
“QAnon is a byproduct of that larger political movement – one that started at the fringe but has become more entwined with American conservatism’s new centre.”
In a bulletin from the FBI’s Phoenix field office earlier this year, social media companies and websites were criticised for failing to “remove, regulate or counter potentially harmful conspiratorial content”.
Acts by extremists were likely to increase during the 2020 presidential election cycle, it warned.
But QAnon followers, who spread their message under the name The Storm in reference to a cryptic Trump comment about “the calm before the storm”, continue to openly display their “Q” logo in public.
“Once we mistrust official or authoritative accounts of events, we become vulnerable to filling the resulting informational void with other opposing claims that we encounter when falling down the mis-informational rabbit hole that is the internet,” said Dr Pierre.
“With QAnon, the conspiracy theories are fundamentally rooted in mistrust of US government. From that starting point, it’s easy to find counter-narratives that appeal to this mistrust and align with other political beliefs.”
Labelled a “deranged conspiracy cult” and “unhinged” by pundits, QAnon follows a long history of conspiracy theories in the US.
“I’m not particularly surprised that QAnon has breached mainstream awareness. Survey suggest that about half of the US population believes in at least one conspiracy theory,” says Dr Pierre.
Few have had such high-profile and powerful adherents as QAnon.
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