How QAnon and other dark forces are radicalizing Americans as the COVID-19 pandemic rages and election looms

The spread of conspiracy theories into the mainstream on social media channels like Facebook and YouTube is accelerating during the

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To be sure, QAnon remains a “fringe phenomenon in terms of public opinion,” because research shows that “most people don’t know what it is, let alone believe it,” said Nyhan, the Dartmouth professor. “But if the ideology that they’ve been exposed to inspires them to commit violence, that’s potentially dangerous,” he said. “I’m also worried about the way that ‘Q’ believers have become more visible and influential online and within the Republican Party base.

Emerson Brooking, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research LabMy fear is that, as the election approaches, these cycles of radicalization and violence will intensify. “For most people who wind up in these fringe, radical and dangerous communities, they don’t start out expecting that they’ll belong to a group that considers all their political opponents cannibals and part of a massive pedophilia ring, or they might not start out thinking they’re going to be advocates for a second American civil war,” said Brooking of the Atlantic Council.

Gallagher began tracking a “vast increase in QAnon conversation” in the middle of March when the pandemic was erupting in the U. S. and Americans were becoming increasingly isolated. “People’s lives were turned upside down, a lot of people have lost their jobs, lost their businesses, lost their livelihoods,” she said. “A lot of conspiracy theories appeal to vulnerable people and people that are looking for something else in their life.

Jensen, the University of Maryland expert on domestic radicalization, agreed that the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the spread of extremist groups in American life. “You have so many people that have a heightened sense of insecurity, whether it’s because of job loss or concerns about where the country is going or health,” Jensen said. “They are isolated like never before, so they are spending a ton of time online.

The reality is that QAnon is becoming a catchall movement for a variety of conspiracy theories, including aspects of other theories that began on their own, including the baseless assertions that 5G technology is dangerous to your health and that Gates is somehow wielding the pandemic, said Gallagher of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “We’ve seen QAnon transform into a vehicle for which loads of different kinds of disinformation can travel online,” she said.

Rather, it’s a gradual process toward radicalization. “It’s kind of like the frog in the slow boiling pot where typically via YouTube or via any number of social media platforms, you fall in with a group of people who generally think and feel as you do who you begin to consider friends, even though you have never met in many cases,” Brooking said. “And, as time goes on, these online friends and celebrities and extremist figures can begin to mean more to you than your friends in real life.

Brooking said QAnon has made inroads online into tight-knit communities such as Christian forums and discussion boards, capitalizing on our natural human tendency to trust our friends and family. “If you’re part of an internet community and someone else who is part of this community raises QAnon, you are much more liable to believe them and be swayed by the arguments of this belief system because it has already penetrated a network of people you trust,” he said.

Membership in 109 popular and publicly accessible QAnon Facebook groups more than quintupled from about 155,000 in February to 1. 12 million in June, according to a database maintained by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which tracks extremism around the world.  Interactions with QAnon content in those groups more than tripled from 2. 35 million in February to 7. 26 million in June. “I have just started describing QAnon as a digital cult instead of a conspiracy theory,” said Aoife Gallagher, a disinformation and extremism analyst at the institute. “I actually think it’s more accurate. What is QAnon?

For example, believers have recently been using the phrase “save the children” to promote their agenda – and that phrase is beginning to make its way into more mainstream conversations, Gallagher said. “If there’s one thing that we know about QAnon, it’s that, as bizarre as people like me and you might think that it is, there’s something very powerful about it, and there’s something that obviously resonates with people,” she said.

The core component is a sense of togetherness that the online community of believers provides to each other and to newcomers. “To belong to this canon of conspiracy theories is to feel like you have a place in the world,” Brooking said. “In a way, it’s a kind of religion or cult that can only exist in the social media age.

One survey, for example, found that more than 1 in 5 people, regardless of whether they’re Republicans and Democrats, view the other side as “evil. “If you think they’re evil and you don’t trust them at all, then it’s much easier to believe that they’re pedophiles,” said Josh Pasek, a University of Michigan professor and expert on political communication and misinformation.

That includes people from a wide range of political backgrounds. “I don’t think this is Republicans versus Democrats,” said Sara, a graphic artist who’s trying to keep a close family friend from plunging down the QAnon rabbit hole. “I think this is alt-right extremist groups versus everyone.

Their phone conversations are now dominated by wild conspiracy theories. “It’s gone from things that seem plausible when you explain it to somebody to something as wild as him thinking that Bill Gates is going to put microchips in people,” Weaver said.

Trump clearly “is more than willing to dabble in stuff that others used to keep the lid on,” the University of Michigan’s Pasek said. “We’re going to have a couple of QAnon people in Congress.

While the far-right movement’s most devoted followers have been active on extremist online platforms like 4chan and 8kun, the spread of their conspiracy theories and political opinions into mainstream social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is accelerating during the pandemic, with everyday Americans increasingly encountering and embracing bits and pieces of the radicalized ideology.

Michael Jensen,senior researcher at the University of Maryland who leads a domestic radicalization teamWe have absolutely seen a spike in not only people just engaging online and discussing it but now people who are acting on behalf of those beliefs. “We have absolutely seen a spike in not only people just engaging online and discussing it but now people who are acting on behalf of those beliefs,” Jensen said.

Sara, who asked that USA TODAY not use her last name out of fear of being targeted by QAnon, says being an anti-vaccine Trump supporter was her friend’s “gateway drug” to a movement filled with people who shared her fears about vaccines and helped her make sense of the world.

Now, with Twitter and Facebook, it’s really easy for these people to find each other,” Menczer said. “When you are in a group – a strongly, densely connected group – you are more likely to reject opinions that are not aligned with the group.

At a time when Americans distrust the government and distrust the institution of media, QAnon is stepping into the void to provide answers and consolation. “These people are scared," she said, "and I think they want something to believe in that isn’t the government.

The FBI declared QAnon a domestic terrorism threat in a May 2019 intelligence briefing first obtained by Yahoo! News. “The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts,” the document said.

Filippo Menczer, Indiana University computer science professorNow, with Twitter and Facebook, it’s really easy for these people to find each other. “If something is a fringe movement, there are a few people scattered around the world who believe this weird stuff.

The emergence of QAnon – which has promoted and capitalized on Donald Trump’s presidency, and received attention from him – comes at a volatile moment amid a raging pandemic and a coming election.  The movement, which holds Trump on a pedestal as a hero in a fight it portrays as being against evil liberals and the media, is rallying support for the president in his campaign against former Vice President Joe Biden, even though it doesn’t always follow the traditional contours of Republican-Democratic politics.

How QAnon and other dark forces are radicalizing Americans as the COVID-19 pandemic rages and election loomsThe spread of conspiracy theories into the mainstream on social media channels like Facebook and YouTube is accelerating during the coronavirus.

Billing itself as methodically rooting out a secret nationwide cabal of Democratic leaders who traffic children for sexual purposes – an accusation with no basis in reality – QAnon appeals to many ordinary Americans, including people on the political left and right, in a polarized age in which people often see those on the other side politically as despicable human beings.

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