On Tuesday, followers of QAnon sent a barrage of death threats and hatred to Democratic New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski and his family after their leader, the anonymous figure Q, attacked the congressman in one of their missives. QAnon is a conspiracy theory with a huge following that contends that a powerful syndicate of pedophiles controls the world’s major institutions and is trying to bring down President Donald Trump. Dozens of candidates for state legislatures and the House and Senate this election cycle have given credence to QAnon, and Trump himself has praised its supporters. Republican House candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, who’s endorsed QAnon in the past before distancing herself from it somewhat, is almost certain to win the seat for Georgia’s 14th District.
Q targeted Malinowski partly due to a House resolution he co-authored that would formally condemn QAnon. The post, or “drop,” on the imageboard 8kun included a screenshot of the resolution along with a press release from the National Republican Congressional Committee falsely alleging that Malinowski “lobbied to protect sexual predators.”* (This claim has been roundly debunked by local and national media outlets, though the NRCC has declined to back down even after Malinowski was threatened.) BuzzFeed News was the first to report the threats, one of which Malinowski received via voicemail: “If you’re not rotting in a prison cell somewhere, you’ll never be safe on the streets, mark my words. You will have a target on your ass for the rest of your life and there’s nothing you can do about it. Fuck you, die, rot in hell. We cannot wait to destroy you. Fuck you and your families. Fuck you.”
I spoke with Malinowski to get a sense for how he has been handling the threats, what he plans to do about QAnon going forward, and whether he worries about QAnon’s influence in the next Congress. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Aaron Mak: Can you give me some background on how you first became aware of QAnon?
Rep. Tom Malinowski: Since my election, I’ve been focused on what can be done to counter growing extremism in our country on all sides. My first awareness of what became QAnon came after the Pizzagate attack [in 2016], at which point it seemed to me to be just a crazy fringe phenomenon, not something that would become a significant threat to our democracy. Over the course of this year in particular, my concern about QAnon specifically has grown exponentially. There are plenty of radical extremist groups and ideologies in our country. There is nothing that compares to QAnon in terms of scale or impact on our social fabric.
Can you walk me through what happened on Tuesday? How did you discover that Q had targeted you, and what was the fallout?
I learned from my staff during the course of the day, and then my day continued as normal, although it’s not every day that the fake and likely nonexistent guru of a conspiracy-mongering cult personally attacks you. As I thought about it, I wasn’t surprised. The combination of my resolution condemning QAnon and the Republican press releases falsely accusing me of the very things that QAnon suspects we’re all up to in Washington were bound to trigger the paranoia of QAnon followers. Whoever’s running this thing saw an opportunity and took it.
You’ve alleged that the NRCC has abetted Q’s attacks on you. Can you elaborate on that?
For at least a couple of weeks they were amplifying QAnon-style paranoia in the form of their discredited ad—not just the attack on me personally, but the language in the ad suggesting that sex offenders are literally everywhere, on every street, around every corner. This week, QAnon started amplifying it, actually posting an NRCC press release to generate hate directed at me. I think it’s very much akin to al-Qaida or ISIS posting a Republican Party press release to inspire threats against a sitting congressman. Except in that case, I don’t think even the NRCC would’ve been brazen enough to say that the congressman is responsible for whatever happens to him.
Can you talk about the impact of the death threats? How are you and your staffers and anyone else in your orbit dealing with this?
I haven’t changed anything. We’re consulting with Capitol Police and others to determine what the best course of action is. I certainly don’t dismiss it, because people motivated by QAnon beliefs have committed numerous acts of violence in the last couple of years. It’s not going to stop me from doing my job. In fact, I’m highly motivated to double down on this work.
Beyond the House resolution, how do you think the country can address something like QAnon? How much can the government really do here?
I have no illusions that a statement by Congress is going to cause members of a cult to see the error of their ways. But given President Trump’s apparent support for, or at least tolerance of, QAnon, I do think it’s helpful to send a message that a solid bipartisan majority in Congress thoroughly rejects this. I don’t want anybody following QAnon to think that they’re making inroads.
In addition to this, the most important thing we can do is to challenge the social media companies to fundamentally change the way they deliver information to their users. If conspiracy theories are a virus, Facebook and Google are the wind. Their algorithms know everything about us: what we search for, what our biases are. They feed us more and more extreme versions of what they think we want so that we stay glued to our screens longer and buy more stuff. That is the most important explanation for what’s been happening to our country—the polarization, the driving of people to political extremes. I think we do need to consider legislation that holds online companies, particularly social media companies, more accountable for the algorithmic promotion of content that leads to violence and hate crimes.
You’d focus on the algorithms?
Much of the pressure on social media companies thus far has focused on getting them to take down bad content. That’s a game of whack-a-mole in my view, in addition to raising free expression concerns among some people. What’s more important is looking under the hood at how the engine of social media works. It is designed to spread content that makes us angry and frightened, because that’s the kind of content that results in the most engagement with the platforms. That’s got to change.
There are dozens of candidates for state legislatures and both chambers of Congress in this election cycle who have expressed admiration for QAnon. Are you worried about this conspiracy theory influencing the U.S. legislative bodies?
We all see that coming. I want to nip it in the bud. I want to make sure that it’s crystal clear that there’s no place in either party for QAnon or anything like it. I expect a strong bipartisan vote on the resolution, which will help send that message, but the resolution isn’t enough. We need consistent leadership, particularly from responsible people in the Republican Party, because this particular extremist movement did arise on the right. I don’t want to see any Republicans voting against fire on the House floor this week and then continuing to play with fire next week by running these kinds of ads against Democratic candidates.
Do you think that President Trump disavowing QAnon would actually have an impact on the movement?
Yes, if he did it consistently. It can’t be like wearing a mask for two days and then not wearing a mask.
Correction, Oct. 1, 2020: This piece originally misidentified the National Republican Congressional Committee as the National Republican Campaign Committee.
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