Twitter has announced a crackdown on the QAnon conspiracy theory, banning thousands of accounts and blocking web addresses linking to videos and websites spreading QAnon’s bizarre ideas.
It’s a fringe movement but one that has picked up a tremendous head of steam online, particularly in the United States.
So what is QAnon and who believes in it?
What is it?
At its heart, QAnon is a wide-ranging, unfounded conspiracy theory that says that Donald Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.
QAnon believers have speculated that this fight will lead to a day of reckoning where prominent people such as Hillary Clinton will be arrested and executed.
That’s the basic story, but there are so many offshoots, detours and internal debates that the total list of QAnon claims is enormous – and often contradictory. Adherents draw in news events, historical facts and numerology to develop their own far-fetched conclusions.
Where did it all start?
In October 2017, an anonymous user put a series of posts on the message board 4chan. The user signed off as “Q” and claimed to have a level of US security approval known as “Q clearance”.
These messages became known as “Q drops” or “breadcrumbs”, often written in cryptic language peppered with slogans, pledges and pro-Trump themes.
Nobody actually believes it, right?
Actually, thousands do. The amount of traffic to mainstream social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and YouTube has exploded since 2017, and indications are the numbers have gone up further during the coronavirus pandemic.
Judging by social media, there are hundreds of thousands of people who believe in at least some of the bizarre theories offered up by QAnon.
And its popularity hasn’t been diminished by events which would seem to debunk the whole thing. For instance, early Q drops focused on the investigation by special prosecutor Robert Mueller.
QAnon supporters claimed Mr Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 US election was really an elaborate cover story for an investigation into paedophiles. When it concluded with no such bombshell revelation, the attention of the conspiracy theorists drifted elsewhere.
True believers contend deliberate misinformation is sown into Q’s messages – in their minds making the conspiracy theory impossible to disprove.
What impact has it had?
QAnon supporters drive hashtags and co-ordinate abuse of perceived enemies – the politicians, celebrities and journalists who they believe are covering up for paedophiles.
It’s not just threatening messages online. Twitter says it took action against QAnon because of the potential for “offline harm”.
Several QAnon believers have been arrested after making threats or taking offline action.
In one notable case in 2018, a heavily armed man blocked a bridge over the Hoover Dam. Matthew Wright later pleaded guilty to a terrorism charge.
Could it have impact on the US election?
Studies indicate that most Americans haven’t heard of QAnon. But for many believers, it forms the foundation of their support for President Trump.
The president has, unwittingly or not, retweeted QAnon supporters, and last month his son Eric Trump posted a QAnon meme on Instagram.
Dozens of QAnon supporters are running for Congress in November. Many have little hope but some, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia – appear to have a good chance of winning a seat.
It’s quite likely that a QAnon supporter – or someone sympathetic to the conspiracy theory – will sit in the next US Congress.
With additional reporting by Jack Goodman and Shayan Sardarizadeh