QAnon Goes Mainstream

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S1: Thank you very much.

S2: Before I provide an update, last week, President Trump held a press conference at the White House. He prepared comments on a broad array of topics, the sanctions against Iran, the protests happening around the country and the coronavirus.

S1: I want to thank you all for being here and we’ll take some questions.

S3: The president may have been surprised by the first question he was asked during the pandemic of Kuhnen movement has been appears to be gaining a lot of followers. Can you talk about what you think about that and what you have to say to people who are following this movement right now?

S1: Well, I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.

S4: It was really eerie to finally see it happened after people have been begging for it for years.

S2: Ali Braylon, a reporter for Mother Jones, was watching the press conference.

S4: This is something that for a long time a lot of us were actually really resistant to because we knew that it would elevate the conspiracy theory and give it a lot of oxygen at a time prior to to what it is now, where I think it’s fairly safe to say that it’s it’s mainstream.

S2: When Ali says us here, he means reporters who cover disinformation, fringe groups and conspiracy theories, including the increasingly popular group Kuhnen. Over the years, Ali has watched Kuhnen grow from some weird posts on one forum into a worldwide phenomenon. He says when he interviews people who believe in Q they often make the same request.

S4: They would say, Just ask the president about. Q Ask, ask him about it. Like, see what happens.

S2: The motivation behind the request is twofold. One, to draw attention to the movement, to give it a bigger platform, the other a challenge. Put the conspiracy in front of the president and see if he denies it.

S3: That’s the thrust of the theory. And it’s this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals. Does that sound like something you are behind?

S1: I haven’t I haven’t heard that. But is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, you know, if if I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to.

S5: Kuhnen may have begun as a laughable conspiracy theory, but with people like former Trump national security adviser General Michael Flynn signaling his support and cue believer’s winning political races, terrorism experts don’t find it funny anymore. Today on the show, how Kuhnen moved from the fringes of the Internet to the White House press room. I’m Celeste Headlee, filling in for Lizzie O’Leary. And you’re listening to What Next TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

S2: So I’m going to try to give an explanation of what Kuhnen is, and then I want you to correct me, please. OK. OK, so Kuhnen at heart, even though it seems like if you get to Kuhnen supporters in the same room, they’re like economists, you’ll get two different descriptions of what the beliefs are. But at heart, this is about a cabal, a deep state conspiracy of child trafficking and pedophilia hidden in tunnels.

S6: Yeah, yeah. For the most part, like you said, there’s like a bunch of nuance and disagreement. Even within that. I’ve talked to Cuban unbelievers who don’t even believe that, which seemingly is a core tenet of it. But then I’ve talked to some who that’s only the tip of the iceberg and they believe all sorts of bizarre things that go way beyond that.

S2: How often do you talk to a Kuhnen supporter and find that they have very different views from, say, that the Kuhnen forums online?

S7: They’re really easy to find it Trump rallies. And so I went to a couple to report out a story that I was doing, unlike what in real life Kuhnen supporters actually believe. And yeah, there was there was a contingent of people who believed it to a tee. And they were explaining to me, like these extreme theories that like even I who spend a lot of time in these spaces, just like I hadn’t heard of before. But then there were other guys who were wearing vogueing on shirts who had like signs. And then you go up and talk to them and they would just be like, I don’t know, I don’t know about these pedophile rings and underground tunnels. But I do know that Trump is a good guy and that is he stopping corruption.

S2: So back in March, you recorded this explainer video and you ended by saying that Q is becoming both a mainstay and also fading from relevance months later. Do you still see it that way?

S6: No, no, I don’t. That was a really interesting period. In Q And on it looked like it was in Stacie’s Twitter mentions for it were down its main platform H and had been taken down. But I think that pretty much as soon as the coronavirus lockdown started, it came back in full force. If you look at things like Google Trends, Wikipedia page views, mentions of like even unrelated terms on Twitter and Facebook groups pretty much around March 13th to 16th when the lockdown’s kind of hit the United States, there was this massive explosion of interest in Q online that really hasn’t subsided since the coronavirus started.

S2: To what do you attribute the change in the popularity of? Q And on? A lot of people are saying it’s because of the pandemic and people are sitting at home and spending too much time on their computers. What do you make of that theory?

S6: I think that that does explain some parts of it pretty well, Internet traffic is way up. People are spending a lot of time on platforms where they can be exposed and led down different kuhnen rabbit holes. People are more atomizing than ever been because they’re stuck in their homes and they feel alienated.

S7: But I also think to and on has a bunch of different appealing points to it, to different types of people that explain the current political moment for them.

S2: Really well, it also makes Kuhnen a very diverse crowd. I mean, you’ve got successful people, an African-American like Isaiah Washington who has his own show on Fox is a Kuhnen supporter, correct?

S7: Yeah. So that’s that’s one of the new scarier developments is that this is pretty isolated. First, it started with like an extreme online. Right. Then it sort of blossomed out through Facebook and then YouTube to sort of baby boomers who were less tech literate and more prone to these things. But, yeah, now you have people like Isaiah Washington, even online. You can see that it’s catching steam and all these different areas like wellness and tiebacks, people are getting really into it. Hippie New Age people are getting are getting really into it. It’s bringing in more and more people to the fold every day. And that’s really concerning.

S2: There are a number of not only organizations, but experts who study this very thing, conspiracy theories and extremism. You refer in your reporting to some of them, like one researcher at Concordia University who says that the membership in Kuhnen has gone from 200, just over 200000 members in March to almost one and a half million as of last month. But you also spoke with people who who think this is being overblown. And I want to read back a quote from your reporting, a political science professor at the University of Miami who says, quote, I’m reading headlines from reporters on the tech beat that well are well intentioned, aren’t tethered to reality. What is your response to this idea that this is just being blown out of proportion?

S6: I don’t I don’t want to, like, overstate the sort of anecdotal evidence that we can look to like. I don’t want to say that that overrides data, but like there’s just so many things that are showing that Tehran is clearly having an uptick. And even if that uptick is not that large and it is like pretty close to the polling results, it’s still showing more that it has more and more power and more and more impact. They’re getting elected to Congress in small numbers. They’re going out and committing acts of violence. They’re influencing political discourse. They’re harassing people. Like I talked to a lawmaker in California who is trying to introduce pro LGBTQ legislation. He got accused of being a pedophile. He was absolutely harassed like this. Family members are drug into the mix. I mean, you know, try telling him that it’s just a small movement like this guy’s life was like in thumbhole four days after this.

S2: And this is why you’ve said that we kind of need to separate the size of this group from the damage that it causes, right?

S6: Yeah, I think that both are important, but like the sort of real world impact that is happening more and more and more and the influence on not explicitly like and on really big spaces, the Q and on followers are having the potential impact that it could have on the Republican Party and conservatives. It’s like something that people are going to have to deal with that shouldn’t be underestimated at all.

S8: Q And on jump from Internet conspiracy theory to real world threat happened quickly last year. A follower of the conspiracy shot and killed a New York mob boss on Staten Island. His defense, Kuhnen, had led him to believe that his victim was part of the deep state. In May, the FBI labeled Kuhnen and conspiracies like it domestic terrorism threats. The fight against Q might become more complicated as Kuhnen supporters win political office. In August, a Kuhnen fan named Marjorie Taylor Green became the Republican nominee for Georgia’s 14th Congressional District.

S2: For the forces propelling Kyuss, rise in popularity aren’t new, but the way the theory spreads is so. I want to talk about some of the ways that social media platforms especially are beginning to clamp down. But before we do that, can can you put this in historical context for me? I know at one point you sort of compared it to the satanic panic of the 1980s. But since then, I have to imagine that any sort of fringe conspiracy theory group is different simply because of the tech involved. Is that accurate?

S6: It is. I do think that there are a lot of interesting parallels between this and the satanic panic. The. There are different structures historically, though, they do resemble one another, that these sort of fantastic claims about how children are being hurt, that on their surface look like they’re about saving children, but it actually guises for different types of politics. So one thing that was like really big in satanic panic was conspiracies about children being harmed in daycare centers were being used to sort of fight back against gains that women and feminism were making at the time. Women were increasingly entering the workplace and daycare centers were a vehicle to help women who didn’t have time for childcare during the day. And new jobs, she went on, sort of resembles that. And that when you do, you not get explicitly political. They are also targeting social gains. A lot of Cuban supporters really, truly believe in this sort of like evangelical notion of a nuclear family. When they speak out against politics, they speak out against people who champion LGBTQ beliefs, who champion these policies. But like you said, it’s different in that this is a very online movement. A lot of people forget it. But the satanic panic was exacerbated by the media taking these claims credulously and sort of whole heartedly buying into them at the time. And now, I guess the Internet has replaced the media as the sort of primary vector that people receive information about, like what’s going on in the world.

S2: One of the ways that tech has changed this is in the way that people get pulled into Kuhnen. I found it interesting that members of this group co-opt kind of safe hashtags, hashtags like Save the Children. How does this work?

S4: Yeah, they’ve they’ve sort of realized parts of the movement have realized that just going up to someone and asking them to buy into a satanic cabal, eating your children and these people are also like liberal politicians is a pretty big ask to go right off the bat. But if you start with, like a smaller ask, like you spread the hashtag Save the Children, but you tie that to your movement and you get people in that way, and then instead of them actually going down the paths of real issues of human trafficking about and like real issues of sexual abuse, you guide them down the path of Kunhardt instead. And that’s how it’s been able to really find its footing at a moment where it was already increasing from coronavirus than they figured out this way in to the mainstream that a lot of people could buy into this is difficult.

S2: And this brings us to the efforts to clamp down this hashtag cooption, because one of the things that Facebook has done in Facebook and Instagram, obviously, they go together, is they’ve tried to restrict hashtags that are connected to Kuhnen. But that hasn’t stopped Kuhnen because they can just co-opt other hashtags. What are some of the efforts that Facebook and other places are are pursuing right now?

S4: Yeah, Facebook just announced really recently that one that they did two really large takedowns. One was, I think, of the largest community group on Facebook and something like one hundred thousand members in it. That was a one off. And then last week they went up there to that action and said that they were going to more broadly start to take down Q And on groups that sort of advocated for violence or talked about it in a celebratory manner. And so they brought down hundreds of groups in that case and other pages. And then they also said that they would stop introducing Cuneen groups and pages and to Facebook’s recommendation algorithm so that people wouldn’t be automatically served these things up as they were browsing, even if they weren’t looking for it.

S2: I did want to understand this new Facebook policy because it sounds like I don’t fully understand it. I don’t think anyone I they say that people are allowed to post stuff as long as they don’t violate policies, but they will Facebook and Instagram will restrict their ability to organize. Can you can you explain this to me?

S4: I’m not sure if I can and I’m not sure if Facebook can. To be honest. There’s all these rules that seem to contradict one another and sort of gave Facebook just extreme, plausible deniability to the point where anything could both violate and not violate these things. At the same time, it’s totally of Facebook’s discretion. It always is. But these policies don’t clear up anything or provide a particularly clear framework. It is important to note, though, I think any time you talk about what companies are doing now, that it is just laughably late for them to be trying to address this at this moment, they’ve already created a massive hydra. When Cuno was originally posting, it was almost nothing. It was just like another anonymous poster that kind of gained some notoriety but the people didn’t care about. But YouTube made it a big deal, a set of YouTube. Grifter’s started posting about it and that blew it up. And then it went to Facebook, where a whole constellation of groups are created because that’s where most people are, either on Facebook, they’re on YouTube. It can’t be understated how much these platforms contributed to its growth and how it’s it’s just years too late to. This.

S9: Ali, thank you so much. Yeah, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

S2: Ali Braylon is a reporter for Mother Jones. That’s it for today’s show. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and edited by Allison Benedikt and Torie Bosch.

S10: TBD as part of the larger What Next family TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. I’m Celeste Headlee. Thanks for listening and have a great weekend. A new episode of What Next will be in your feed on Monday.