Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection as president to Joe Biden more than a year ago, but that hasn’t stopped QAnon, a pro-Trump conspiracy theory. People following the far-right fringe movement gathered in Dallas on Nov. 2 for group’s latest outlandish claim: that John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999, will show up and usher in the return of Trump. Even though the deceased president’s son didn’t rise from his grave, Q believers are still waiting in Dallas and now believe Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richard is actually JFK Jr. in disguise.
That, like most of what the QAnon conspiracy predicts, is totally bogus.
The belief that JFK Jr. is still alive and acting as a secret confidant for Trump started in 2018, according to Travis View, the pseudonym for the QAnon expert. Like many of what the Q followers believe, it started with a post on the anonymous imageboard 4Chan. A person who called themselves “R” posted a picture of JFK Jr. with Trump. Since then, QAnon believers not only expected the son of President John F. Kennedy to miraculously be alive, but they also claimed he would be Trump’s running mate. There are even some people in the movement claiming they themselves are JFK Jr.
QAnon believers camped out at Dealey Plaza — the site where Kennedy was assassinated — on Nov. 2. The conspiracy claimed that JFK Jr. would return sometime in the evening. From there, he would become president of the United States or somehow have the power to turn over the office to Trump. Even days later, on Nov. 6, people were still lined up at the plaza, still waiting.
There is no truth to this claim whatsoever, but that hasn’t stopped QAnon believers before.
QAnon believes Trump was leading a holy war against a cabal of Democratic leaders and Hollywood celebrities who they claimed were pedophiles and Satanists. Understanding QAnon requires looking at how it began and what its followers believe. The hoax has already provoked violence in the real world as numerous Q followers were participants in the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol.
If you have questions about QAnon, we have answers.
QAnon sounds crazy. What can you tell me about it?
QAnon is an online conspiracy theory that claims Trump is waging a secret war against a deep state of Democratic elites and Hollywood stars who are pedophiles and Satan worshipers. Cannibalism is in there someplace too. Really, that’s what they believe.
The conspiracy theory dates back to October 2017, when an anonymous post on a message board said extradition agreements had been struck with several countries “in case of cross border run” by Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival for the White House in 2016. (That run still hasn’t happened.) The person or group behind the post eventually came to be known as “Q,” which is where the conspiracy theory’s name comes from.
Since then, the conspiracy theory has gotten wider and weirder. It’s now folded in former President Barack Obama and billionaire philanthropist George Soros, both of whom, among other well-known figures, are frequent subjects of online conspiracy theories.
By the way, Q is a reference to the highest security level clearance at the Department of Energy. That’s the department that oversees nuclear weapons. Q claims to have worked in close proximity to Trump and the inner circle of his administration.
Didn’t Joe Biden’s win stop this conspiracy theory?
QAnon believers tuned in to Biden’s inauguration expecting a last-minute military takeover or an order for martial law from Trump before the noontime transfer of power. That, obviously, didn’t happen, and many followers took to various social media platforms such as Gab and Telegram to share in their confusion.
The more prominent names within the movement continue expressing their faith that something will change to remove Biden from office. 8kun, the anonymous message board where Q posts, saw a brief meltdown by one of the moderators who deleted all the content from its “Q research” forum shortly after the inauguration. Some hours later it returned back to “normal” with posts from users who continue to believe and from others who mock them.
A survey taken in January from the American Enterprise Institute shows 29% of Republicans completely or mostly agree that Trump was “secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.”
Who is Q?
Other than Q, we can’t say for sure.
Of course, more than one person has claimed to be Q, with one theory saying the mysterious figure is a time traveler. (Even some QAnon followers, who’ve proved they’ll believe just about anything, think that’s a bit too crazy.)
Paul Furber, a conspiracy theorist from Johannesburg, South Africa, has been identified as possibly being the original Q poster because of an appearance he made on the Alex Jones-hosted InfoWars TV show a few months after the first post. The appearance on the conspiracy-minded program, which has a following among Trump supporters, was key to bringing QAnon from online message boards to a more mainstream audience.
Jim Watkins, the owner of the 8kun message board, is another person often speculated to be the mysterious figure because Q’s posts migrated to his site not long after they first appeared. Fredrick Brennan, who created the predecessor of 8kun, says the message board’s authentication system, known as secure tripcodes, could prove who’s using the handle. In the case of 8chan and 8kun, a secure tripcode is verified by the site’s server and can identify a user via a specific number within a post, even though the message boards let users stay anonymous. Jim Watkins has administrative privileges at 8kun and could use the Q-specific tripcode at any time.
In the HBO docuseries Q: Into the Storm, director Cullen Hoback claims Ron Watkins, Jim Watkins’ son and former admin for 8chan/8kun, is the person behind Q. Hoback covered both Watkins and Brennan over the course of three years since they were the core people who ran 8chan back in 2018 where Q began posting messages. In his final interview with Ron Watkins, Hoback believes Watkins revealed a bit too much.
“Yeah, so thinking back on it, like, it was basically … three years of intelligence training teaching normies how to do intelligence work. It was basically what I was doing anonymously but before, never as Q,” Ron Watkins said in the video call, before breaking into a big grin. Hoback goes on to say that this is when Watkins slipped up, and they both knew it.
The last Q drop was on Dec. 8, 2020, and consisted of a YouTube link to a pro-Trump video featuring the song We’re Not Gonna Take It from ’80s heavy metal band Twisted Sister. It’s since been removed but then uploaded to BitChute.
Around the same time of the final Q drop, Ron Watkins began appearing on right-wing news programs and spreading conspiracy theories about the presidential election while also tweeting misinformation similar to Q. Twitter banned his account after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Since the show’s premiere, he has posted denials of his involvement with Q on his Telegram account.
Neither Furber nor either of the Watkins responded to requests for comment.
What happened on March 4, 2020?
Apple added the option to transfer iCloud photos to Google Photos, Square purchased a stake in Tidal, and the PS5 was in stock for a few minutes at Walmart. Aside from that, there was no insurrection on March 4.
As for why March 4: It was the day when the Constitution was made effective in 1789 and the original inauguration date for presidents from 1793 until the adoption of the 20th Amendment. The goal of the amendment was to reduce the length of the “lame duck” period after an election.
Taking a page from the sovereign citizen movement, a group with its own interpretation of US laws and viewed as domestic terrorists by the FBI, QAnon followers believe the amendment isn’t law. (The explanation for this belief is long, tortured and wrong. It has to do with a bogus interpretation of the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871. Feel free to read it if you have that kind of time.) In their interpretation, there hasn’t been a real president of the US since Ulysses S. Grant.
Law enforcement was aware of conspiracies surrounding the date and took precautions. The Capitol Police said it was upgrading security around the Capitol in preparation for a possible attack similar to the Jan. 6 insurrection. The Department of Homeland Security and FBI also sent out a report about extremists planning attacks on the date.
QAnon followers will now focus their attention on the next date when they believe Trump will return to office: March 20.
Q believers who think Trump still has control over the military by virtue of the Presidential Transition Enhancement Act of 2019. There’s no shred of truth to this.
The Presidential Transition Enhancement Act of 2019 made changes to how the General Services Administration handles the transfer of power between administrations. Many of the adjustments focus on preparation before the election, but there’s a 60-day period after the inauguration when the GSA will provide support to the new administration. QAnon followers mistakenly believe this meant Trump would retain his powers over the military during this time and he’d use the armed forces to become president again. Once more: This isn’t true.
How did QAnon jump from online to the real world?
Since Furber appeared on InfoWars, Q followers have taken to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even TikTok to generate huge followings with their attempts to decipher the arcane messages. Q followers, who refer to themselves as “anons,” are regulars at Trump rallies, even though they get turned away by security. They’ve also formed their own rallies with the message of “#SaveTheChildren,” co-opting a hashtag used by legitimate organizations combating child trafficking. A poll from Yahoo News/YouGov published Oct. 20 showed 50% of Trump supporters believe top members of the Democratic party are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings.
The fanaticism over QAnon has also fostered criminal acts. In June 2018, a Q follower blocked traffic on the Hoover Dam with an armored vehicle before being apprehended by police. He pleaded guilty to terrorism charges this past February. A man accused of killing a New York mob boss in March 2019 identified himself as a follower, appeared in court with the letter Q drawn on his palm. His lawyer said he was fascinated with QAnon and other far-right conspiracy theories, and he was later found unfit to stand trial. Multiple women who identify as Q followers face charges of kidnapping their own children, believing that they’re saving the youngsters from trafficking.
The riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 put QAnon in the spotlight again, with the death of Ashli Babbitt, a 14-year Air Force veteran who had posted on social media about her belief in the conspiracy theory. Babbitt was in Washington as part of the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol building while Congress was counting electoral votes, and she died after being shot by law enforcement near the barricaded door to the Speaker’s Lobby. Four other people died during the riot, including a Capitol police officer. Approximately one in 10 arrested from the riot had a connection to QAnon, according to a 60 Minutes report on Feb. 21.
Concern about QAnon has grown so great that the FBI said in 2019 that the movement represents a domestic terrorist threat. The agency is looking for suspects who participated in the Jan. 6 raid on Capitol Hill. A US Defense Department internal threat assessment dated Dec. 21 mentioned QAnon as part of a post-election increase in “the potential for civil disturbance activity” and “level of civil disturbance activity,” as reported by The Intercept on Jan. 13. The National Counterterrorism Center, the Justice and Homeland Security Departments sent a bulletin to law enforcement agencies warning of domestic violent extremists who took part in the Jan. 6 insurrection and were QAnon believers,
The House of Representatives has also condemned the unhinged theory, though a handful of lawmakers voted against the resolution.
Nonetheless, the popularity and influence of the conspiracy theory continue to grow. Dozens of self-identified QAnon believers ran for office in the November election. Of the numerous candidates, two were successful.
Lauren Boerbert, a Republican from Colorado, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, took their oath at the House of Representatives on Jan. 3 after winning their respective races.
Are social media and tech companies doing anything about QAnon?
Like a lot of fringe ideologies, QAnon spreads quickest on social media. The YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok platforms have all played an important role in expanding the number of QAnon followers.
Social media companies are aware and have begun to take action.
In August, Facebook removed or demoted thousands of QAnon groups and pages after an internal investigation found they were violating its policies. The company also removed thousands of QAnon accounts from its photo-based social network, Instagram. Facebook ramped up its response on Oct. 6, saying it will remove all Facebook pages, groups and Instagram accounts representing QAnon. Facebook said that it removed 3,300 pages, 10,500 groups, 510 events, 18,300 profiles and 27,300 Instagram accounts as of Jan. 12 for violating its policies on QAnon.
Twitter began cracking down on QAnon accounts in July. It removed thousands of accounts that tweeted about the movement, though some have since restarted under different names. That same month, TikTok began banning QAnon-related hashtags, making videos harder to find on the platform.
And YouTube said moderation policies implemented in early 2020 have reduced the views of QAnon videos by 70%. The video platform stepped up enforcement of its policies as it began banning videos featuring the conspiracy theory on Oct. 15.
A group of banned users filed a complaint against YouTube and its parent company, Google, on Oct. 26. The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court in the Northern District of California, alleges that the video platform is in breach of contract and in violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.
A spokesperson for YouTube said in an emailed statement that the company’s policies are updated regularly to meet new challenges, like harmful conspiracy theories that have been used to justify real-world violence.
Reddit has also taken steps to curb the reach of QAnon posts and subreddits.
LinkedIn, the social media platform focused on professional networking, isn’t a stranger to QAnon. Users began posting misinformation and filling their profiles with QAnon slogans, which led to a crackdown by the site.
Pinterest began its crackdown on QAnon content in August 2018. A spokesperson for the company says it also disabled search results for anything related to the conspiracy theory.
Triller is a TikTok alternative growing in popularity, and it’s started banning QAnon-related videos.
“In light of the recent addition by the FBI of QAnon to its list of terrorist activity, we have initiated a ban of QAnon content,” company CEO Mike Lu said in an emailed statement on Oct. 14. “We are a platform that believes in freedom of speech, expression, open discussion and freedom of opinion, however when the government classifies something as a terrorist threat, we must take action to protect our community.”
The e-commerce site Etsy cracked down on QAnon, according to a report from Business Insider on Oct. 7. The company says it’ll remove any merchandise related to the fringe movement.
Even the fitness-tech company Peloton intervened when customers began using QAnon-related hashtags, according to a report by Busines Insider. Tags such as #SaveTheChildren, #Q and #WWGOnePelotonWGA showed up on Peloton machines, allowing users to find other Q followers.
“We have a zero tolerance policy against hateful content. We actively moderate our channels and remove anything that violates our policy or does not reflect our company’s values of inclusiveness and unity or maintain a respectful environment,” a Peloton spokesperson told CNET in an email. The QAnon hashtags have since been removed from the platform.
The crowdfunding platform Patreon, though not a social media company, has been important for some of the more prominent QAnon members. The company said it’s taking action against creators who spread the conspiracy theory, by closing their accounts.
OK, I have to ask: What are some of the other wacky ideas QAnon followers believe?
Are you sure you want to know? Keep in mind these ideas are completely baseless.
The core belief is that Trump is working to remove Satanic criminals inside the government, the Democratic Party and Hollywood.
Followers believe notable members of the Democratic party and the Hollywood elite operate pedophile rings. Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Degeneres are baselessly named as being participants. (CNET didn’t contact any of these celebrities for comment because the accusations are bogus.)
QAnon ropes in a host of other popular conspiracy theories, including flat Earth and anti-vax. Believers have been at the forefront of misinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Among their wild and unfounded notions: The Chinese government created the virus, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates will use the pandemic to microchip Americans, and the pandemic is a hoax designed to sink Trump’s reelection. They’ve also been vehemently against the COVID vaccine by constantly sharing misinformation about it.