Malinowski staffers immediately began fielding death threats.
QAnon — a dark phenomenon behind an election already marked by fear of a dystopic near future — is part conspiracy theory, part cult, and entirely behind President Trump, who is seen as a savior allied with Q, a supposed government insider. Its influence is popping up everywhere, from text chains, where it’s splitting up families, to political races, where it’s challenging the sanctity of truth and reason in government. There have also been a handful of violent incidents.
Malinowski drew Q’s attention, in part, because of a National Republican Congressional Committee ad that alleges he lobbied against the national sex offender registry when he worked at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch: “In every city in every neighborhood, around every corner, sex offenders are living among us. But Tom Malinowski tried to make it easier for predators to hide in the shadows.”
The Washington Post concluded the ad was false. Malinowski denied involvement in lobbying on the bill and said Republicans are airing the ad because it “deliberately plays to paranoia that has been spread by QAnon.”
“No question that they knew what they were doing,” Malinowski said in an interview. His campaign has sent at least two emails to supporters seeking to raise money off of the attack. “I want to send a message that you pull this crap in New Jersey, you are going to lose.”
Republicans stand by the substance of the ad and say it was an in-bounds criticism. Malinowski’s opponent, State Sen. Tom Kean Jr., didn’t fund the ad. And he has denounced QAnon and the death threats against Malinowski.
“Attempts by Congressman Malinowski to link Sen. Kean to hate groups and conspiracy theories are both disingenuous and insulting,” a Kean spokesman said in a statement. “Human Rights Watch broadly opposed a national sex offender registry and Malinowski signed the lobbying disclosure that said he worked on the issue.”
While Republicans may officially disavow QAnon, some are also amplifying Q’s theme that sexual deviancy involving children is a Democratic trait. This week, top Trump aide Stephen Miller made the preposterous allegation that Joe Biden, if elected, would “incentivize” child trafficking. And Donald Trump Jr. insinuated that Biden abuses children and said his son is involved in human trafficking.
Republicans may be seeing conspiracies that emanate from Q in their feeds without even realizing where the concepts came from. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll found half of all Trump supporters believe Democrats are involved in elite child sex trafficking rings.
Malinwoski sees QAnon as a step toward radicalization for otherwise average Americans by drawing them in with what is a legitimate concern — the sexual abuse of children — “and then increasingly sucks them into a world in which they’re taught to not believe anybody, the government, the media, any objective source of reality until they get to a point where…if nothing is true, everything is possible, and they are capable of actually becoming susceptible to the messaging of a more extreme and violent ideology.”
Followers have claimed everything from John F. Kennedy Jr., who was killed in a plane crash two decades ago, is secretly alive, pro-Trump, and living in Pittsburgh, to Oprah Winfrey is being held on house arrest. Malinowski says that’s why it’s so dangerous right now.
“It conditions people to believe in every possible conspiracy,” Malinowski said. “So anybody who wants to spread disinformation or conspiracy theories related to the election itself, the conduct of the election, the allegation that mail-in voting is massively fraudulent, for example, is facilitated by QAnon convincing millions of Americans not to trust the government.”
After Malinowski’s anti-QAnon resolution passed — despite 17 nay votes from Republicans — Facebook announced it would purge QAnon content from timelines. Not satisfied with that, Malinowski also introduced a bill to make social media companies liable for the algorithms that draw users to extremist content. A heated fight over that measure is expected next year.
But mainstream social media companies like Facebook aren’t the only way Americans get indoctrinated. Last month, online researchers at Logically.ai unmasked perhaps the leading purveyor of QAnon in the country — Jason Gelinas, a CitiGroup executive who happens to live in Malinowski’s congressional district, in Berkeley Heights. Gelinas ran a website that aggregated Q’s postings.
The site was quickly taken down, and CitiGroup fired Gelinas for failing to disclose outside employment. When a reporter for Bloomberg, William Turton, visited Gelinas’ suburban home, he didn’t deny running the site. “And then he went on to say that QAnon was a patriotic movement to save the country,” Turton told WNYC’S “All Of It.”
The FBI, though, sees QAnon as a potential terror threat. In April, a QAnon believer armed with knives was arrested near the USS Intrepid after threatening Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. Last year, a Q-obssessed man was charged with killing a mob boss in Staten Island he thought was part of the deep state.
In another congressional race in New Jersey, Republican nominee Billy Prempeh is facing an uphill battle against the incumbent Democrat, Congressman Bill Pascrell. Several months ago, Prempeh posted a picture with supporters and a QAnon flag. In a brief interview, which Prempeh recorded and then mockingly posted online, he indicated he kept the picture up to troll reporters who didn’t want to otherwise speak to him about his platform.
But much of QAnon’s effect on this election plays out privately over texts and on Facebook, between loved ones. This has been the case for New Jersey software engineer, William Steele, and his dad.
Steele said he has no problem debating politics with those more conservative than him. But his father turned from casual Trump fan to QAnon obsessive over the last year; common concerns about the “deep state” seemed to be a bridging factor. His father seemed to learn about the conspiracies via Facebook, and the more he posted about Q, the more friend requests he received — hundreds a day, mostly young women, whom Steele believes were trolls amplifying the falsehoods under the pretense of community.
“It devolved into him calling me a traitor — that he thinks all traitors should be shot,” Steele said. “So I’m like, ‘So you think I should be shot?’ He’s like, ‘That’s not what I said, that’s not what I said!’”
Ultimately Steele says his dad called him names, blocked his calls, unfriended him on Facebook, and vowed not to speak to him for two years. “In his mind I’m just an elitist, left-wing sheep brainwashed by the media,” he said. “It just became increasingly impossible to find any common ground.”
Not just Republicans are getting hooked. Beth, a Brooklyn mom who didn’t want to use her last name, said she went to the West Coast with her daughter to wait out the quarantine at her sister’s home. The women grew up in a liberal family, but her sister was never all that engaged in politics. Then her sister lost her job during the pandemic and began spending more time online, where she was exposed to QAnon through online wellness gurus, who are an increasing source of such misinformation.
Suddenly her sister began talking about missing children held underground, masks being unhealthy, and Bill Gates implanting microchips in Americans’ bodies. “I mostly just listened and I kept my mouth shut,” Beth said. But before she returned to New York, Beth confronted her. “I told her I felt like she was getting fed a lot of propaganda,” Beth said. “And she got very upset with me, sort of lumped me into the group of left-leaning Democrats who feel like they’re better than everybody else.”
American families are tearing apart over Q. Sara Aniano, a master’s student in communications at Monmouth University, began studying QAnon after her boyfriend’s mother got hooked on an early QAnon-related conspiracy known as Pizzagate. She started collecting Q memes, and she believes that the pandemic — which Q followers believe is a hoax — may have helped to spread these ideas as Americans are stuck at home, looking for answers in front of screens and consuming more and more content.
“We all have this idea that when our loved ones share different political beliefs, that the greater good is to preserve our relationship,” Aniano said. “But I think that lately and in the last four years especially, my greater good is more and more becoming, What is the truth? And what are we actually putting out into the world that can be really dangerous? And I don’t think that anybody even subscribing to a little bit of this stuff is permissible.”
Rutgers Professor Jack Bratich, author of “Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture,” has said QAnon is a “social movement with religious underpinnings,” and 2020, with the election and the pandemic lockdown, was ripe for its expansion. “People are feeling this heightened uncertainty and seeking a stable future. QAnon gives them clear enemies, a secure future based on an unfolding ‘plan,’ a meaningful story of triumphing over evil and a way to participate in its implementation,” he said.
Trump himself may not be a subscriber, but he has retweeted QAnon accounts and repeatedly refused to condemn the movement. He called followers “people that love our country.”
The movement is so widespread that Aniano said it’s become a catch-all for every falsehood both old (anti-Semitic elements that Jewish philanthropist George Soros controls governments) and new (CNN’s Anderson Cooper engages in human sacrifice). In that way, Americans, including the president, can choose which part they like, as if it is a choose-your-own-conspiracy game.
“It doesn’t have to be endorsed or even approved by Q. You don’t submit something to the library of Q,” Aniano said. “If you have a hashtag and a theory and it’s kind of adjacent to what the other theories are, then congratulations, you have now submitted to this kind of fan fiction.”
It’s fan fiction, but also the real world. At least one QAnon adherent from Georgia is expected to win a seat in Congress. And Q rallies are being held under the misleading moniker “Save The Children,” including one in Manhattan. A recent rally in Westfield, New Jersey, was led by the president of the local rescue squad, who told a reporter that the elite drink blood from their victims. He has since resigned as president, but continues to post QAnon-type theories on Facebook.
The looming question now is what happens next week, after the election, and how QAnon followers react to the results.
Matt Katz reports on air at WNYC about immigration, refugees, hate, and national security. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattkatz00.