An FBI document says online conspiracy theorists could play a role in the 2020 election season
Spend any amount of time in the comments or replies to just about any political post on the internet and you're bound to run into someone touting QAnon, a supposed insider detailing an ongoing, hidden war against the "deep state" being carried out by the Trump administration. In the eyes of the FBI, the true believers of the wild conspiracy aren't just an annoyance online. According to an internal document acquired by Yahoo News, the growing presence of conspiracy theorists online poses a threat to national security.
An intelligence bulletin published by the FBI's Phoenix field office on May 30, 2019, notes the ongoing rise of conspiracy groups online. In particular, the bureau focuses on two that have taken hold in far-right circles: QAnon and Pizzagate. The FBI refers to both as "fringe political" conspiracy theories with "anti-government" sentiments and warned that the schools of thought are "very likely" to motivate some domestic extremists "to commit criminal and sometimes violent activity." Later in the memo, the FBI defines the term "very likely" to mean there is a greater than 80 percent chance of it happening. The FBI believes there is a risk that this activity will play out during the 2020 presidential election cycle, which is sure to be rife with plenty of controversy to begin with.
QAnon and Pizzagate share similar origins, bubbling up from similar parts of the web — QAnon is even widely considered an offshoot of the debunked and discredited Pizzagate conspiracy. The thing that most people remember best about Pizzagate is the fact that it resulted in a man showing up at a pizza place with an AR-15, firing multiple shots inside the restaurant because he believed there was a child sex trafficking ring being operated in the basement of the business. What drove him to do that allegedly all started with a tweet from a white supremacist Twitter account run by someone claiming to be a New York-based attorney. The person operating the account claimed that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) discovered a pedophilia ring connected to high-ranking members of the Democratic Party. The unfounded conspiracy gained steam as members of 4chan and Reddit communities started digging through the leaked emails of John Podesta — the chairman of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign — that were published online by WikiLeaks. The conspiracy-minded picked up on mentions of pizza, claiming it to be a reference to child pornography, and connected Washington, D.C.-based pizza joint Comet Ping Pong to be ground zero of a sex trade operation. Right-wing sites started running with the conspiracy as well, giving it legitimacy and even advancing it by supposedly confirming details of the story.
Of course, none of the Pizzagate story turned out to be true. The theory resulted in a young man driving from South Carolina to Washington, D.C. with a gun to confront the owners of Comet Ping Pong and free child sex slaves from the basement of the restaurant, only to find that the building didn't even have a basement. While that man is serving four years in jail for his assault on the restaurant, which he believed at the time to be righteous and for a good cause, the propagators of the conspiracy have simply moved on to a new theory that has captured the minds of vulnerable people.
That has resulted in the sudden prominence of QAnon, a conspiracy that is considered to be a direct offshoot of Pizzagate. Unlike Pizzagate, which started on mainstream platforms like Twitter and Reddit, QAnon is believed to have started on the controversial image and message board 4chan. On October 28, 2017, nearly a full year after Pizzagate had boiled over, a user identifying as "Q Clearance Patriot" appeared on 4chan's politics board, commonly called "pol." Q Clearance Patriot, who is better known as just Q, claimed to have inside information about a supposed war between President Donald Trump and so-called "deep state" actors — powerful people involved in government who, according to the conspiracy, are trying to oust the president and maintain their own power. At this point, the conspiracy is a long and winding one that has its own ecosystem built around it. Q posts coded messages on occasion, and followers go to great lengths to decode them and try to figure out what is going to happen. It's worth noting that claims made by Q have been debunked on the regular and members of the movement regularly make claims with no basis in fact.
Despite all of that, the QAnon movement has managed to gain a significant following. It doesn't just encompass far-right people who hang out on 4chan, 8chan and Gab (basically Twitter for people so radical that they got banned from Twitter, a platform that has given blue checkmarks to members of white supremacy groups) — it also has reached other extremist groups who have taken the ball and run with it. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) noted earlier this year that QAnon has become popular among anti-government extremists and sovereign citizen groups who believe they are not subject to federal laws.
Like Pizzagate, some believers of the QAnon conspiracy have gone from being radicalized online to carrying out dangerous, illegal, and violent actions in real life. It was reported that a gun-toting militia run by QAnon believers captured 300 migrants at gunpoint on the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this year. Members of another right-wing militia with ties to the QAnon movement were arrested for allegedly firebombing a mosque in Minnesota and are similarly accused of attempting to similarly attack a women's health center in Illinois. Last year, an armed man drove an armored vehicle onto a bridge above the Hoover Dam and blocked traffic while demanding the release of a government document touted by QAnon as part of Trump's war against the "deep state."
These are simply the incidents that have been made public when it comes to QAnon. The FBI memo highlights a number of other arrests made by law enforcement in relation to these far-right conspiracy groups. The agency noted that it arrested a man with bomb-making materials who allegedly intended to blow up a "satanic temple monument" in the Illinois capitol in order to make Americans "aware of Pizzagate and the New World Order." Two other men were arrested after, according to the memo, it was discovered they were stockpiling weapons with the intent to attack the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) in Alaska, a government-funded facility that conspiracy theorists believe is linked to attempts to develop mind-control technology.
The behaviors of these conspiracy believers is certainly extreme and present the risk of bubbling over into violence. That is simply exacerbated by the fact that the President of the United States has made a habit of amplifying some of the voices who propel these theories. Trump has regularly retweeted members of the movement, recently retweeting a QAnon believer who has accused the Clintons of slowing their aging process by sacrificing children and drinking their fluids. He has also pointed out members of the QAnon movement at his rallies, further empowering the believers of the conspiracy and lending credence to the theory for those who adhere to it.
The reason the president does this is pretty simple: the people are fervent supporters of him, and he seemingly could not care less about the implications of enabling them. He simply likes the support and attention. However, as we enter the 2020 election cycle, this type of behavior could result in a significant amount of unrest and upheaval. During the 2016 campaign, Trump regularly called the electoral system rigged against him and claimed that if he lost, it was only because he was cheated.
It's bad enough when a major political party nominee is making those claims. During the next election cycle, though, they will be coming from the president. Trump's office lends legitimacy to those conspiracies for those who believe them. If anyone were to have the inside information to prove that elections are rigged, wouldn't it be the holder of the most powerful office in the world, the person with access to classified information from intelligence agencies that the public isn't privy to? Every time Trump raises an absurd claim for the sake of attention and his own self-interests, he increases the likelihood that one of his followers who subscribes to an extremist conspiracy theory like Pizzagate or QAnon will act on it. If only he'd listen to his own FBI rather than his most out-there supporters.