Substantial “foreign influence” has been identified in posts containing material peddling conspiracies fostered by the QAnon movement, according to a former U.S. counterterrorism official.
From January to December 2020, Russia accounted for 44 percent of the QAnon-categorized posts on Facebook attributed to foreign groups, Jason Blazakis told an online seminar sponsored last week by the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College.
Posts sponsored by China have sharply spiked since the beginning of this year, from 42 percent in 2020 to 58 percent of the QAnon material posted by foreign groups from Jan. 1 to Feb. 28, 2021, said Blazakis, who served as director of the Counterterrorism Finance and Designations Office in the Bureau of Counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State between 2008 and 2018.
Other foreign “sponsors” in 2020 included Iran (13 percent) and Saudi Arabia (1 percent).
When asked to explain the high foreign influence, Blazakis said the motive in China, Russia, and the other countries is to destabilize the U.S. Attacking the U.S. also distracts their populations from internal strains and challenges, he added.
The conspiracy theories appear to resonate with a solid core of believers in the U.S.
Blazakis, now a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, referred to a recent series of surveys of 15,000 Americans, in which about 22 percent of the respondents said they believed what QAnon was peddling, and another 30 percent said they were “fence sitting.”
The remainder rejected QAnon beliefs.
The surveys found the age groups most likely to believe QAnon theories stretched from 25 to 44, while those over 55 were least likely to subscribe to it.
QAnon’s potential as a feeding ground for right-wing extremist violence came into stark relief following the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. capitol, when many of the rioters caught on video cameras espoused some of the movement’s favorite conspiracy theories, as well as its hate rhetoric.
The movement’s growth has alarmed policymakers.
On Saturday, U.S. Rep Peter Meijer, a Michigan Republican, warned on CNN that his party’s base has become so infested with QAnon believers that it could eventually destroy the GOP.
“The fact that a significant plurality, if not potentially a majority, of our voters have been deceived into this creation of an alternate reality could very well be an existential threat to the party,” Meijer said.
The FBI identified QAnon as a threat in a May 2019 memo outlining how “fringe political conspiracy theories very likely motivate some domestic extremists to commit criminal, sometimes violent activity.”
In an op-ed published in February in the Los Angeles Times, Blazakis wrote: “The QAnon movement has successfully blended elements of religions and cult-like practices to harden QAnon individual belief systems of its most ardent supporters. Because of this, I remain highly concerned that the QAnon movement constitutes a significant national security threat.”
According to QAnon, which began in 2017 when someone claiming to have high security clearance with the government posted anonymous prophecies and predictions, a cabal of evil elites, led by politicians and celebrities, are kidnapping and torturing children.
While elite child trafficking is the group’s main fear―and has led the followers to hijack the hashtag #savethechildren―QAnon’s true believers claim that COVID-19 is an intentional attack engineered to depopulate the earth, and that the United Nations is attempting to disarm Americans.
Perhaps its most ominous aspect is the reference to “The Great Awakening,” an event when America will “wake up” to the truth of QAnon’s claims.
That will be accompanied by “The Storm”―a “pseudo-millenarian event that would culminate in the mass arrest and subsequent execution of the ‘evil Zionist cabal’ that allegedly runs the world,” said Blazakis, quoting some of the movement’s core literature.
The Storm takes its name from former President Donald Trump’s enigmatic comment in October 2018 about “the calm before the storm.”
In its “accelerationist rhetoric” seeking to bring on a violent event, QAnon is not dissimilar to ISIS, which calls for an apocalyptic clash, Blazakis said.
“But we can’t treat it like ISIS,” Blazakis said.
QAnon in the beginning targeted Hillary Clinton, continually hinting that she was about to be arrested. More recently, President Donald Trump emerged as a hero battling the evil Deep State cabal.
“Adherents of the conspiracy theory made former President Trump into a quasi-religious figure, and when he lost the November election it forced them to confront a reality that challenged the essence of their belief system,” Blazakis wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
“So they did what cults often do — and bent their narrative.”
After Trump did not retake the White House and no mass arrests took place in early 2021, the messaging changed to “dig deeper” and “trust the plan.”
Jake Angeli, the “QAnon Shaman” wearing a horned hat with a painted face, appeared at numerous protests and rallies in the past year in support of Trump and his photograph ran in much coverage of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
According to Blazakis’s research, social media was actively spreading the theories of QAnon, until Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube took some steps to reduce the spread.
As Buzzfeed reports, “Tech platforms have been slow to act to stop the spread of QAnon. Twitter banned QAnon accounts in July 2020, and only in October did Facebook announce it would start removing dangerous conspiracy content, and YouTube did a partial ban.”
CBS reported that some QAnon supporters believe that President John F. Kennedy was set to reveal the existence of the secret government when he was assassinated.
Some of the most mind-boggling theories are that John Kennedy Jr. did not die but is a Trump supporter living in Pittsburgh. Or that Kennedy Jr. is the president of the United States, wearing a Joe Biden mask.
“They also believe President Reagan was shot on the deep-state’s orders, and that all the presidents since he left office — with the exception of President Trump — have been deep state agents,” according to CBS.
Some of QAnon goes back to longstanding anti-Semitic claims about ownership of the world’s banks. The Rothschild family figure in some of the conspiracy theories, as does George Soros.
Facebook has been hiring Russian-language experts to prioritize scrubbing its platform of dangerous material. The media is similarly grappling with QAnon.
HBO, in its limited series “Q: Into the Storm,” investigates the identity of Q. The recent finale episode features an interview with Ron Watkins, the former administrator of the fringe message forum 8chan (also known as its rebranded version 8kun).
Alleged “Q drops” from the government insider found a home on that forum after other sites banned the content.
A leading theory is that the Q content has been written not by any high-clearance government insider but by Watkins, who is the son of Jim Watkins, the owner and operator of 8chan.
Jim Watkins founded the company N.T. Technology in the 1990s to support a Japanese pornography website he created while he was enlisted in the U.S. Army. He has been living in the Philippines for many years.
According to Poynter, “the [HBO] docuseries offers more evidence than what has previously been reported, but it’s still circumstantial. [Ron] Watkins doesn’t flat out admit he is Q, but he seemed to implicate himself in several slip-ups.”
Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.