New York(CNN Business) A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
QAnon is a virtual cult that celebrates President Trump and casts Democratic politicians and other elites as evil child abusers. Aspects of the cult are downright delusional. Last year an FBI office warned that Q adherents are a domestic terrorism threat.
Despite all of that, or maybe because of all that, this dangerous nonsense seems to be spreading. It is cropping up in congressional races and national news coverage.
In recent weeks many observers of the online information ecosystem have written, with growing concern, about the mainstreaming of QAnon. Reporters like Kevin Roose of The New York Times and Ben Collins of NBC have said that the conspiracy theory is in much wider circulation than polite society wants to admit.
On Thursday the Wall Street Journal's Deepa Seetharaman wrote that Q-aligned groups have "exploded in popularity" on Facebook and Instagram "since the start of the coronavirus pandemic." Some of the spread is attributable to sheer boredom, it would seem.
Much of the conspiracy conversation happens in the social media shadows, in private groups. Earlier this week NBC's Ari Sen and Brandy Zadrozny reported that "an internal investigation by Facebook has uncovered thousands of groups and pages, with millions of members and followers, that support the QAnon conspiracy theory." The source? Internal Facebook documents. The company is weighing taking action against its QAnon community. Twitter recently made similar moves.
In media circles, there is considerable debate about how to cover this phenomenon. On Thursday Roose responded to some commenters who criticized him for giving the cult a platform by saying "Friends, I'm afraid that horse has left the barn, bought a laptop, gone to 8kun, posted a drop in a 200,000-member Facebook group, laundered it onto cable news, and filed papers to run for Congress."
Numerous Republican congressional candidates "have embraced" QAnon, as CNN's Veronica Stracqualursi reported earlier this week.
At the top of the list is Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is all but certain to win her House race in Georgia this fall. Trump praised Greene for winning her primary. As Stracqualursi wrote, candidates like Greene are "espousing and promoting QAnon theories and phrases as they seek political office on a major party ticket."
For that reason, Roose's newest column for the The Times asked if QAnon is the new Tea Party. He said "there are more parallels than you'd think, especially when it comes to how the political establishments of their times reacted to each group's rise."
On Twitter Thursday morning, disinformation researcher Molly McKew argued that TV news "is not doing a good job covering this corrosive conspiracy or explaining it. You can't just call it insane. That doesn't explain why it is cognitive cancer."
So I asked her to elaborate. Here's what she wrote to me: "QAnon offers its adherents an addictive alternative reality that requires their participation and, through this participation, draws them into the elaborate architecture of the conspiracy. It exploits the sense that something is broken in our society. But rather than focus on understanding these social fractures and healing them, QAnon instead fixates on the pursuit of enemies and villains described in such extreme terms that any action — either by adherents or by identified champions like President Trump —becomes justifiable. By drawing on the culture and value system, Q adherents have justified violent attacks."
McKew said "the power of the QAnon phenomenon is that it is widespread but invisible unless you are a believer or seek it out — it could be sitting right next you and you have no idea unless you are an adherent. Regular conservatives dismiss it as nothing, and regular people in general have no idea what it is at all. And yet, a significant percentage of Americans — at a rate that seems to be accelerating under coronavirus — believe at least some part of Q is real. These beliefs are driving the organization of armed movements and attacks, hampering coronavirus response, interacting with us already in so many ways we don't want to believe. It is a dangerous, fully immersive alternative reality that is inspiring its followers to plan domestic terrorist attacks. It is, in other words, a system of radicalization. QAnon has been supported, amplified, and winked at enough by far-right Republicans — the president and his sons, Michael Flynn, the freedom caucus — that dozens of candidates for office are using it to reach potential voters."
McKew made the case to me that when Q is "just labeled 'a conspiracy' — which is usually correct in categorizing the quality of its content — this in effect diminishes the scope and scale of the danger." She said "it is important to talk about how it is an extremist ideology linked to violent attacks. It is important to talk about not just the cartoonish-seeming beliefs about cannibalism and fighting super-pedophiles, but to explain that it glorifies the military and militant actors as a means of recruiting believers; that it is also intertwined with incredibly extreme interpretations of Christian beliefs — so much so that some Christian preachers have issued warnings about QAnon. 'Conspiracist' conjures images of Alex Jones-like hysteria paired with the hawking of vitamin supplements and doomsday equipment. 'Extremist ideology' and 'radicalized followers' are more accurate terms to express the danger of QAnon. No, we don't want to inflate its importance. But when it will have a caucus in Congress, potentially, the horse will be out of the barn there."
For a primer about QAnon, read Paul P. Murphy's story for CNN from earlier this summer. He explained that "QAnon began as a single conspiracy theory. But its followers now act more like a virtual cult, largely adoring and believing whatever disinformation the conspiracy community spins up."
There are storytelling components to this virtual cult, as Adrienne LaFrance explained so thoroughly in this article for The Atlantic.
"QAnon is emblematic of modern America's susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and its enthusiasm for them," she wrote. "But it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end. The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging. The way it breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times is also radically new. To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion."
LaFrance said on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" earlier this week that "facts do not matter to these conspiracy theorists."
"It's one of those sort of more mind-melting aspects of the QAnon universe," she said: "As you can present them with evidence, you can demonstrate how the predictions have gone wrong, and they don't seem to care."
-- Max Boot's latest column is titled "Republicans are becoming the QAnon Party:" He says "Democrats have the far left under control, while Republicans are being controlled by the far right." (Washington Post)
-- Rich Lowry says the spread of the Q theory "shows that the Trump-era GOP has weakened antibodies against kookery." (Politico Magazine)
-- Earlier this summer Susan Benkelman wrote that journalists need "to be aware of the conspiracy theorists' manipulation tactics and look for ways to cover the issues without amplifying their messages." (American Press Institute)
-- Sean Hannity evidently needs to read those articles. When asked about Q, in this interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, he said "I have no earthly idea what it's about at all. One person tried to explain to me. It's what? Who's that?" (AJC)