Qanon devo­tees cel­e­brate Trump’s com­ments on con­spir­acy move­ment

The Washington Post - - ELECTION 2020 - BY CRAIG TIM­BERG craig.tim­berg@wash­ Isaac Stan­ley-becker con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­fusal to dis­avow the base­less Qanon con­spir­acy the­ory in Thurs­day night’s na­tion­ally tele­vised town hall event cheered mem­bers of the far­right com­mu­nity, who re­garded his com­ments as an en­dorse­ment of their move­ment.

“This was the big­gest pitch for QANON I’ve ever seen,” an anony­mous mem­ber of the com­mu­nity said on the fringe so­cial me­dia site 4chan af­ter Trump’s ap­pear­ance on NBC’S prime-time event.

But Trump’s re­sponse to a ques­tion from mod­er­a­tor Sa­van­nah Guthrie of­fered a shot of val­i­da­tion from the cen­tral fig­ure in the Qanon cos­mol­ogy, which por­trays the pres­i­dent a sav­ior wag­ing a se­cret war against a ca­bal of sa­tanic pe­dophiles, sup­pos­edly in­clud­ing prom­i­nent Democrats and Hol­ly­wood celebri­ties.

When Guthrie asked the pres­i­dent to dis­avow the con­spir­acy the­ory as “com­pletely not true,” Trump replied, “I know noth­ing about it. I do know they are very much against pe­dophilia. They fight it very hard, but I know noth­ing about it.”

A Qanon sup­porter on 8kun, an­other fringe site, ap­proved: “I thought he had the per­fect an­swer.”

An­other 8kun user said of Trump’s re­ply, “mas­ter­fully done by POTUS” — us­ing an acro­nym for pres­i­dent of the United States.

Trump’s com­ments — and the re­ac­tion gen­er­ated by them — echoed his call in last month’s pres­i­den­tial de­bate for the Proud Boys, an­other far-right group to “stand back and stand by.” That line, from which Trump later sought to dis­tance him­self, set off cel­e­bra­tions across so­cial me­dia among sup­port­ers of the all-male fringe group that of­ten en­gages in street vi­o­lence.

Qanon, born in Oc­to­ber 2017, has grown sharply in re­cent months, buoyed by con­spir­a­cies re­lated to vac­cines and the coron­avirus pan­demic and has sharp­ened its fo­cus on Trump’s re­elec­tion. The elec­tion has in­creas­ingly be­come the fo­cal point of the move­ment, which had seen its pop­u­lar­ity sky­rocket on the en­crypted mes­sag­ing app Tele­gram and Face­book, ac­cord­ing to re­search by the SITE In­tel­li­gence Group, which tracks po­lit­i­cal ex­trem­ism.

“It’s be­yond words how much Don­ald Trump has el­e­vated the do­mes­tic threat that is Qanon,” said Rita Katz, the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of SITE. “I’ve never been more wor­ried for U.S. democ­racy than I am now, and it’s dis­turb­ing how much of this fear is com­ing from the pres­i­dent him­self.”

Al­though Face­book an­nounced re­stric­tions on Qanon in Au­gust, SITE’S re­search doc­u­mented sharp growth in the num­ber of groups de­voted to the con­spir­acy the­ory on Face­book and the num­bers of mem­bers of those groups. Face­book tough­ened its re­stric­tions Oct. 6, im­pos­ing a near-to­tal ban that should make it much harder for the Qanon to or­ga­nize and re­cruit on the site.

Qanon’s re­sponse to Trump’s com­ments also could be found on In­sta­gram, the photo-shar­ing sub­sidiary of Face­book, af­ter the NBC event. One widely cir­cu­lated meme, ac­com­pa­nied by hash­tags af­fil­i­ated with the con­spir­acy the­ory, showed an im­age of Guthrie al­tered to ap­pear de­monic, with red eyes, and called her a “Prac­tic­ing Sa­tanic Witch.”

The Coali­tion for a Safer Web, a non­profit group that ad­vo­cates for tech­nolo­gies and poli­cies to re­move ex­trem­ist con­tent from so­cial me­dia, found that and other Qanon so­cial me­dia posts cel­e­brat­ing Trump’s com­ments.

“They love it,” said the coali­tion’s pres­i­dent, for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Morocco Marc Gins­berg. “It’s ric­o­chet­ing around all over the place.”

Much of the Qanon cel­e­bra­tion of Trump’s com­ments was on Tele­gram chan­nels based in Ger­many, one of sev­eral na­tions where the con­spir­acy the­ory, born in the United States, has in­creas­ingly taken root.

Trump’s prime-time com­ments were in line with mount­ing off­line sig­nals of the con­spir­acy the­ory’s grow­ing hold among the pres­i­dent’s sup­port­ers.

In Au­gust, the pres­i­dent’s re­elec­tion cam­paign ac­cepted more than $1 mil­lion from a cou­ple whose planned Septem­ber fundraiser — which they were to host for Vice Pres­i­dent Pence — was canceled af­ter the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported that they were vo­cal sup­port­ers of Qanon.

The con­tri­bu­tions, from Caryn and Michael Bor­land of south­ern Cal­i­for­nia, were re­flected in cam­paign fi­nance dis­clo­sures made pub­lic on Thurs­day. Each of the re­tirees con­trib­uted around half a mil­lion dol­lars, and their son, who lists his oc­cu­pa­tion as “stu­dent,” con­trib­uted a sim­i­lar amount, the fil­ings show. The cou­ple did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to an email seek­ing com­ment.

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