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QAnon 101: What you need to know about the conspiracy theory

Experts say a 'healthy amount of skepticism' is a good way to avoid falling for conspiracy theories.
/ Source: TODAY

The main thing to know about QAnon is that it's a wide-ranging conspiracy theory with no basis in reality.

If you have noticed a sudden increase in social media posts with the #SaveTheChildren or #SaveOurChildren hashtags, it may be related to QAnon's spread on social media. To be clear, QAnon is NOT related in any way to the 101-year-old, highly respected humanitarian organization Save The Children.

Recently QAnon has gained more attention because some mainstream politicians, including a Georgia congressional candidate, Marjorie Taylor Green, support it. Several "Save the Children" rallies have been held in real life, such as one in Spokane, Washington in August and another in July in Hollywood, according to NBC News.

But what is QAnon? How is child trafficking involved? Is there a Q?

What is QAnon?

QAnon followers believe that a secret “cabal” of powerful people control the world, according to Jared Holt, an investigative reporter with Right Wing Watch. While this shadow network might influence wars, terrorism and even the spread of COVID-19, followers are particularly worried about its role in child trafficking.

QAnon followers believe that President Donald Trump is engaged in a secret war against a cabal of Satanist child abusers in government, entertainment and the media.

“The fantasy here is a violent one,” Holt said. “Believers think that President Trump is going to send (the cabal) to (Guantanamo Bay detention camp) or execute them publicly.”

Many hear QAnon’s predictions and theories and think they’re ridiculous.

“The claims of Q, ultimately, they don’t make any sense,” Holt said. “They’re not based in reality.”

What does Save the Children have to do with it?

The #SavetheChildren hashtag is new compared to the humanitarian agency, Save the Children, founded in 1919, that provides aid to children all over the world. Some uses of #SavetheChildren could actually refer to the agency or something else entirely.

The 101-year-old Save the Children organization has nothing to do with QAnon.

“Not every instance of the Save the Children hashtag is necessarily QAnon propaganda, but QAnon believers see the Save the Children hashtag on social media as fertile recruiting ground,” Holt explained. “Save the Children is this watered-down soft front that they can (use to) reasonably convince people who otherwise might not believe in QAnon that this is legitimate and worth supporting.”

Child sexual abuse is a real problem, but stranger abduction and abuse are very rare: 93% of children know their abuser, and fewer than 10% of children are sexually abused by a stranger, according the the YWCA.

Where did QAnon come from?

Remember "Pizzagate"?

“(QAnon is) an online conspiracy theory that began in October 2017 on the heels of Pizzagate,” Holt said. “QAnon references a lot of the same information that Pizzagate would.”

Keeping track of what QAnon and Pizzagate are can be overwhelming. Pizzagate refers to a conspiracy theory that started on the sites Reddit and 4Chan; people believed that a child sex ring was operating in a pizza store basement, according to NBC News. In December 2016, a gunman tried forcing himself into a Washington, D.C., pizza shop’s basement (there was no basement) to protect the children allegedly involved in the sex ring.

Then in October 2017, someone called “Q” started posting conspiratorial predictions. NBC News reporters traced the origins of Q to three conspiracy theorists who first pushed the ideas of QAnon -- and reaped financial donations for their "research."

Why is QAnon spreading?

QAnon theories are ever evolving and connect to other conspiracies, which attracts some people who believe “they’re uncovering some sort of proof that somebody missed," conspiracy theory expert Brian Keeley says.

“It now seems to have brought in Pizzagate from a couple of years ago and people have made connections between it and issues around 5G,” Keeley, a professor of philosophy at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, told TODAY Parents. “Part of the reason it’s bubbling to the top is because it now seems to be tying in lots of other things as well as its connections to contemporary politics.”

Keeley says conspiracy theories often evolve. Social media and media coverage of QAnon just makes it easier for people to see this theory changing in real time. QAnon theories have been spreading on Facebook in private groups, and have also started showing up on popular Instagram influencers' accounts.

“Maybe this conspiracy theory is evolving in a more public way or we’re more aware of it,” Keeley said.

A 2018 NBC News story notes: "Part of the Qanon appeal lies in its game-like quality. Followers wait for clues left by 'Q' on the message board. When the clues appear, believers dissect the riddle-like posts alongside Trump’s speeches and tweets and news articles in an effort to validate the main narrative that Trump is winning a war against evil."

One of the “interesting” things about Q, Keeley says, is that many followers of the conspiracy don’t care who Q is.

“At least in some news reports, people are uninterested in who Q is and who the messenger is seems to be irrelevant and that seems a little odd,” Keeley said. “We don't know who Q is. Does Q have our best interest in mind? Is he an agent provocateur either within our society or from outside of our society … Knowing who this person is would seem to be relevant.”

What's the harm in all this?

While disregard for the person behind the conspiracy can lead people to be misled, some experts also worry that followers of Q might take matters into their own hands, especially if it seems like no one else is acting.

“Someone is led to believe there is a network of pedophiles that are abusing children — which is one of the most horrific crimes a lot of people can imagine — and then is led to believe that President Trump is going to do something about it. As time passes on and this does not come true, people may feel like they need to step up and carry out some of that justice themselves,” Holt said.

Already, QAnon has been linked to several violent crimes, and was last year labeled a potential domestic terror threat by the F.B.I.

"In some cases these conspiracy theories very likely encourage the targeting of specific people, places, and organizations, thereby increasing the likelihood of violence against these targets,” says a 2019 F.B.I. local field office document.

How can people resist QAnon conspiracy theories?

Holt says thinking critically about social media and the source of information can help people avoid falling for conspiracy theories.

“If you’re coming across claims online... it is always in your own best interest to try to find corroborating sources or to have a healthy amount of skepticism,” he said. “People need to be aware that there are groups, individuals and movements that exist online that want to manipulate them.”