Facebook removed a group on Friday that was related to the QAnon conspiracy theory. The group, which had over 200,000 members, was called Official Q/QAnon. It was dedicated to sharing content and discussions about the popular human trafficking conspiracy theory that began on 4Chan in 2017 and has only gained traction amid the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell and the 2020 Presidential Election. Though proponents of QAnon have been around for years, the rapid unfolding of news and dismantling of the Epstein trafficking case this year has only brought its allegations into the mainstream, where elements of QAnon’s often ludicrous accusations are seeping into American politics.
In short, QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory that targets members of Hollywood and the political elite. The theory implies that they’re conspiring together in a massive sex trafficking ring fueled by an underground “deep state” (both literally when it comes to #Pizzagate, a one-off conspiracy that ties into QAnon, and figuratively as the group has only bits of information that tie people to the ring).
The theory’s far-reaching accusations range from the implication that celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres worked alongside the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, to the theory that the Pixar film Monster’s Inc. was actually a documentary that attempted to expose the “deep state” for the torture and murder of children. The latter theory suggests that the world’s wealthiest people are trafficking, torturing and killing children as young as six months old in order to harvest their adrenaline and inject it into their own bodies after using it as an ingredient in a drug called adrenocrhome.
Elements of the conspiracy theory have infiltrated the mainstream, making their way into everyday conversations about ending human trafficking and exposing the world’s elite pedophiles. After a one-off conspiracy theory about the e-commerce platform Wayfair went viral last month, just days after Ghislaine Maxwell’s arrest, QAnon only gained more traction. The theory suggested that Wayfair is trafficking kidnapped children by selling them online as expensive pieces of furniture. One cabinet, which had a title that also matched the name of a girl that recently went missing, was being sold for over ten thousand dollars on the website. The company denied the allegations, but another false viral story that claimed that the company’s CEO, Niraj Shah, stepped down amid the allegations spread through social media like wildfire.
While the Wayfair conspiracy may only be heresy, many saw it as an opportunity to go viral amid the hashtags and related trending topics. Tim Ballard, the founder and leader of an organization called Operation Underground Railroad, quickly took to social media to clarify that children are often trafficked exactly how it was described in the Wayfair conspiracy. The organization, popular among American women, quickly went viral and sparked a massive online movement to raise awareness over human trafficking.
But at its core, the recent human trafficking awareness movement serves as a reiteration of the QAnon ethos, one that aims to spark political distrust during a time of major uncertainty in the months leading up to the 2020 election. “QAnon takes advantage of the full relationship between conspiracy theory and truth,” says Duncan Stewart, a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah that has studied the theory at length. “The public entertains it because any charge of sex trafficking, let alone within the walls of our democratic institutions, should at least be heard,” Stewart says.
As human trafficking becomes synonymous with QAnon on social media(posts on the former subject often contain hashtags related to the latter), any skepticism toward either movement is automatically viewed as siding with the oppressor—or in this case, the “deep state.” “Digital media allows for a crowd sourcing effect wherein Q followers post, comment, and shape the evolution of theory as they use global events to interpret the cryptic Qdrops,” says Stewart. Each new iteration of the news cycle surrounding human trafficking or celebrity scandal only serves to add to QAnon’s seemingly endless list of “proofs,” from Tom Hanks’ decision to become a citizen of Greece, to the recent internal investigation on Ellen DeGeneres over alleged racial discrimination. Memes about the two topics serve as news headlines, wherein the independent fact checkers hired by the social media companies are often unable to keep up with the posts before they go viral.
“If disinformation is defined as intentional or unverified claims to truth (falsehood) presented in a documentary format to advance a political goal then QAnon is deeply related to this dynamic” Stewart says. “Attempts at fact checking QAnon information become part of the cabal plot, or at least evidence of its presence. It is important to note that it doesn’t matter how credible, verifiable, or objective the criticism is either,” says Stewart.
QAnon, much like Cambridge Analytica’s use of data to target and change political opinion on social media, has co-opted the anti-human trafficking movement on social networks like Facebook and Instagram and used it to plant the seed of distrust toward any powerful figure but Donald Trump. Sensational hashtags like #EndModernSlavery and #SaveTheChildren spark emotion in social media users as they scroll, but many of the posts serve as the tip of the iceberg into QAnon conspiracies that push right wing propaganda.
This is how QAnon quickly radicalizes those with the best intentions. Everyone wants to save the children, and few are repudiating the claim that hundreds of thousands of children are kidnapped and trafficked each year—but to point out the movement’s ties to QAnon often means, in the eyes of the supporters, to be part of the problem.
“What QAnon and some members of the Republican party promote today is a coming event that they refer to as ‘the storm’ which will mark the beginning of mass arrests and executions of people involved in the deep state,” Stewart says. Several Republican leaders have been linked to the conspiracy theory, which the FBI categorized in 2019 as a domestic terror threat after its followers were linked to two murders in the United States.
Republican support for the conspiracy theory has only fueled its fire, as millions of supporters use the support from those in power as a sign that it must be true. If those in power are supporting it, then they must know something that we don’t. Several iterations of the theory suggest that Trump is working to “take down the cabal,” a reference to the “deep state” that QAnon believes is the biggest threat.
“QAnon lays the ground work for an authoritarian state run by Donald Trump,” says Stewart. “Because he is in a war with the deep state, he is immune to criticism. Any public statement or action taken on his part has a hidden meaning that is impossible to know. This is why supporters of Trump will argue he is playing 5-dimensional chess when they can’t rationalize his actions in the face of critique. Anti-democratic take overs, fascism, turns their leader into a savior. QAnon states that only Donald Trump can defeat the deep state, and because he is in a secret war, he should do whatever it takes to win. America is being set up to accept extralegal breaches of the constitution and every democratic we have left in the name of defeating the deep state,” Stewart says.