QAnon emerged in 2017 with a series of posts on the internet forum 4chan, known for hosting neo-Nazis and violent misogynists. They were written under the moniker Q Clearance Patriot.
QAnon posits that critics of US President Donald Trump — from Democratic lawmakers and Hollywood celebrities, to journalists and athletes — are part of a massive Satanic child-trafficking ring that dominates global culture and politics. Adherents claim the president's adversaries eat children in order to stay healthy and maintain monopolistic control over almost all forms of media — their aim being to brainwash the public into also opposing the president.
The FBI warns that QAnon has the potential to be a domestic terrorist threat, and that its theory has motivated people to commit serious crimes. They include an armed takeover of the Hoover Dam, kidnappings, a bomb plot, and at least two murders. QAnon is undeniably anti-Semitic, singling out prominent Jews such as billionaire financier George Soros as leaders of the alleged cabal. It also echoes the false centuries-old "blood libel" claim about Jews supposedly killing children.
Travis View, a journalist who specializes in covering QAnon, says it is hard to tell how many Americans believe the conspiracy theory, but they likely run into the millions.
"There is one poll that revealed that seven percent of Americans have a favorable view of QAnon, so it is quite substantial," he said. "There is evidence to suggest that the QAnon community is growing, especially as a consequence of the pandemic, because the pandemic caused people to spend a lot more time indoors reading these posts."
At the same time, QAnon conspiracy theorists have endeavored to disguise their true beliefs, partially in response to a string of social-media restrictions and bans on its content. In recent months, many "QAnoners" have rebranded under slogans such as "Save the Children" or "Save Our Children." They claim to represent the anti-sex-trafficking cause — a move that has caused considerable difficulties for legitimate groups.
The organizer of a series of large QAnon/Save Our Children rallies in Hollywood, who identified himself only as "Scotty the Kid," claimed to be agnostic toward QAnon while also admitting to believing in a bizarre conspiracy theory about Netflix and other major Hollywood studios.
"If they have it their way, in 10 years, the Constitution will be rewritten and a 12-year-old can legally have sex," he said.
QAnon is gaining increasing prominence inside the Republican Party. A Yahoo/YouGov poll released on 19 October found that a staggering 50 percent of Trump's supports believe in the conspiracy theory. Media Matters for America, an NPO research and information center, says at least 27 candidates for Congress and the Senate have also professed their belief in QAnon.
Its rise within the Republican Party and among the American public is unquestionably being helped by the president himself. Trump has twice praised QAnon on national television, and also retweeted related content hundreds of times.
He has also partly built his reelection campaign on conspiracy theories, for example claiming his opponent Joe Biden is controlled by "people who are in the dark shadows," and accusing the Bidens of being an "organized crime family."
View says QAnon followers "believe that there is a secret plan to essentially change the world and make all the revolutionary changes that they want to happen."
He also points to the potential for post-election violence. Trump has repeatedly attempted to undermine his supporters' confidence in the upcoming vote, and recently called on right-wing extremists to "stand by" in case of instability.
"The danger there is that, what happens when QAnon followers stop trusting the plan? If they stopped trusting the plan, there is a risk that they might take matters into their own hands," View warns.