If you were watching President Donald Trump's rally in Tampa Bay, Florida, on Tuesday, you might have noticed members of the crowd wearing t-shirts bearing a large Q. Others waved signs with the slogan "We are Q" printed on them.
For many, the shirts and signs, which refer to a wide-ranging and long-running conspiracy theory known as QAnon, provoked curiosity and surprise. Twitter, fascinated by its sudden emergence into the mainstream, lit up with messages about Q.
QAnon is bizarre, even by the already-warped yardstick of conspiracy theories. It brings together Trump, special counsel Robert Mueller and, of course, the Clintons. Oh, and the Deep State. There's a lot about the Deep State.
If all of this is new to you, it's time to enter the world of QAnon. Because even if the shirts were worn ironically, the influence of the QAnon conspiracy theory has reached the real world.
Who or what is QAnon?
In October 2017, a user going by the name "Q" began posting to 4chan's /pol/ message board. You may know /pol/ as a far-right board, famous mostly as an online swap meet for Pepe memes. But /pol/ -- and related communities on 8chan, Reddit and Twitter -- can be incubators for the most extreme theories that reach conspiracy theorist sites . Those communities have long been launchpads for neo-Nazis, white nationalists, incels and other groups to share their messages.
Q claimed to possess insight into the inner workings of the American government, particularly agencies tied to the so-called Deep State. He or she warned of the "Calm Before the Storm." That message kicked off a conspiratorial hydra, which has since come to tie in everything from Trump, North Korea, Pizzagate, the Alabama Crimson Tide football team and Tom Hanks. The "anon" portion of QAnon is a reference to 4chan and 8chan users referring to anonymous users as "anon."
As to the actual identity of the individuals posting as Q, there's the possibility it's a prank that's been blown out of proportion. As highlighted by BuzzFeed News, there are several threads connecting QAnon and the contents of the book Q. The book, which was written by a group of left-leaning activists, is what several of the authors told BuzzFeed is a "playbook" for disrupting society. And elements of that playbook, especially a mysterious series of notes left by a mysterious Q, are strikingly similar to QAnon.
What is the QAnon conspiracy theory?
Broadly speaking, it's actually less of a conspiracy theory, and more of an environment that welcomes conspiratorial thinking. It provides prompts for conspiracy theorists, allowing them to paint the world as they see it. At its core, QAnon depicts Trump as a hero crusading against a malicious Deep State of entrenched bureaucrats who are the cause of what ails the world today.
The Muslim Brotherhood? Secretly backed by the Deep State. Child sex tracking? Used for both fundraising and sick pleasure by the Deep State. The very internet QAnon posts on? Secretly manipulated by the Deep State. And depending on the day, the Deep State is either committing a coup d'etat against Trump, or vice versa.
Pretty much any conspiracy theory that has ever popped up on forums like r/conspiracy can be tied into QAnon. But it started out as standard-fare posting on 4chan.
4chan is one thing, but how did it get to a Trump rally?
The same way anything travels these days: through any online platform out there. If you look, you can see the seeds of Q pretty much everywhere. For believers, Q moved from 4chan to the even more obscure 8chan. From there, Q -- or users pretending to be Q -- posted cryptic messages about shadowy forces and posited what they thought were the true stories behind real-world events. If you really want to follow along, this exhaustive guide covers the initial flurry of QAnon activity.
Believers look for what they interpret as continued "confirmations" of QAnon's exclusive knowledge. An example: A No. 17 Alabama Roll Tide jersey being displayed at the White House is cited as evidence of Q's knowledge because Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet. The number is actually a reference to the number of championships won by the team.
That drip feed of posts has led to QAnon speculation spreading across pretty much every online platform. Go to YouTube and, as NBC News reporter Ben Collins highlighted, you may be led to believe a multibillion-dollar cement company and Tom Hanks are involved in child sex trafficking and pedophelia.
Reddit is home to r/greatawakening, an adamantly pro-Q subreddit. Devotees of QAnon have set up Facebook groups. Alex Jones' InfoWars and other outlets have talked about QAnon as if it were fact, at least up to a point. Even Medium has QAnon believers. QAnon has received occasional mainstream media attention since its debut, but Tuesday's rally has brought it to the forefront of the conversation of radical speech online.
Of course, not everyone buys the theory. "This isn't a conspiracy, just two internet trolls bumping heads for who can get the most rubes to buy into their stupidity," said one commenter of Jones and QAnon in an r/conspiracy Reddit thread discussing the subject.
It's just a bunch of internet nonsense, right?
The theory is, but not its impact. Remember Pizzagate? It was another internet sideshow but it inspired a gunman to "investigate" a DC pizza restaurant that he believed was at the center of a child sex ring. QAnon is at that level.
In June, an armed man blockaded a bridge atop the Hoover Dam with an armored truck, demanding the government release an unredacted Justice Department inspector general report that QAnon followers believed would expose the Deep State. A series of posts on 8chan provide reason to believe QAnon has inspired followers to monitor Michael Avenatti, the attorney representing Stormy Daniels. Police are investigating.
Even the White House has had to address the QAnon phenomenon.
"The president condemns and denounces any group that would incite violence against another individual and certainly doesn't support groups that would promote that type of behavior," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Thursday in response to a question about the QAnon crowd at the rally.
Is anyone doing anything about QAnon?
Social networks haven't been actively removing posts about QAnon that don't explicitly violate their various community guidelines. But they have taken a more active role in removing some of the largest pages trumpeting QAnon or QAnon-adjacent theories, it's not hard to find standard conspiratorial fare like this video.. And though a search for QAnon on YouTube will get you a bunch of news outlets' coverage,
Early Monday, a rebuke to QAnon came from within 4chan. Profiles that have been tied to Anonymous in the past have announced a campaign to debunk the QAnon conspiracy theory.
"We will not sit idly by while you take advantage of the misinformed and poorly educated," their announcement said, offering little in terms of specific actions the group may take.
Like many online conspiracy theories, QAnon could just run out of steam and be relegated to a dusty page on KnowYourMeme, like the theorizing around self-proclaimed time traveler John Titor in the early 2000s. But for the time being, one of the strangest, most incomprehensible conspiracy theories yet has lodged itself into political discourse online.
First published Aug. 2 at 6:21 p.m. PT.
Update Aug. 6 at 11:09 a.m. PT: Adds Anonymous' announcement and additional QAnon theories.
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