Hundreds of thousands of President Trump's supporters are being duped by an anonymous source spreading a fake news conspiracy.
Someone called “QAnon,” also known as “Q” has been sending messages to internet forums such as 4chan, a popular incubator of sensational and false information. The sender of the “drops,” who claims to be a high-level government operative with security clearances, echoes Trump's claim that a “deep state” of liberals is in charge of the federal bureaucracy.
The messages repeat outlandish, widely debunked stories like the allegation that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-sex ring. Q recently proved his or her unreliability as a news source by reporting that the former secretary of state had been arrested.
Q makes the case that Robert Mueller is not really trying to prove Trump colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election. Recipients of the dubious messages are being told that the special counsel is conspiring with the president to further his interests.
Q argues that criticism of Mueller by Trump and Fox News are “false flags” intended to deceive the public about what is really happening. The anonymous entity predicts that in an operation dubbed “the Storm,” the investigator will go after the president's liberal antagonists.
When CNN asked Trump fans about Q at one of the president's recent rallies, they offered a variety of theories. Some said the mysterious “informant” represents the U.S. military, while others insisted that Trump is sending the messages. One seriously deluded supporter claimed that Q is John F. Kennedy Jr., who was killed in an airplane crash nearly 20 years ago.
Among those championing Q is actress Roseanne Barr, whose belief in conspiracy theories recently drove her to make comments culminating in her recently revived show canceled. She has praised the conspiracy theorist on Twitter, joining fellow right-wingers like Sean Hannity and Alex Jones.
Forbes noted that “manipulative charlatans on the right have been training stupid people to believe stupid things for decades, dating back to The John Birch Society and its insistence that former President Eisenhower, among others, was a conscious instrument of the 'Communist conspiracy.'”
BuzzFeed News has suggested that Q is a hoax that liberals created to make conservatives seem stupid.
The Washington Post offered some insight into why Trump supporters are gullible enough to believe the fake news. One of the main factors is the hatred of the news media that the president continues to stoke. He has persuaded many of his fans to reject everything they read and hear from mainstream reporters.
Trump's inflammatory rhetoric about news outlets has driven down the media's standing in national polls. Thirteen years ago, half of the respondents in a Gallup survey said they had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in establishment news sources. The figure dropped to 32 percent in 2016, and a recent poll showed that only 14 percent of Republicans trusted the media.
The country's increased reliance on the Internet for news is another reason Q is gaining traction, according to the Post. “The splintering of the media as an institution into a thousand outlets of varying intent and legitimacy has both blurred the line of what constitutes media and painted media outlets generally with the broad brush of inaccuracy,” the newspaper declared.
It continued: “Social media also allow examples of mistakes or bad arguments to spread rapidly, where they can be seized upon by those looking to disparage an outlet’s reporting as an example of why the outlet shouldn’t be trusted.”
Internet discussion boards give people with similar views an opportunity to insulate themselves from those who think differently. Entities like Q provide the “facts” that they want to hear, while fueling doubts about the legitimacy of other sources of information.
As a result, conspiracy theories spread quickly and have a significant effect on national affairs. Right-wing political websites such as Breitbart News and Gateway Pundit profit from disseminating fake news that originates in online chat rooms.
The Post pointed out that “rumors and untrue salacious stories are more interesting and get more attention on social media than the truth.” The newspaper accused Facebook of allowing “people (to) make a quick buck making up news stories.”
Since the rise of Trump, the false information has primarily benefitted extreme conservatives. During the 2016 White House race, the so-called “alt-right” movement and Russian hackers exploited opportunities on social media to foster confusion.
Untrue stories seemed to validate the claims Trump was making on the campaign trail about immigrants. The candidate's call for stricter border enforcement and a wall separating the United States from Mexico struck a chord with right-wing voters. Trump supporters were eager to believe the ridiculous notion that undocumented immigrants were allowed to vote for Clinton.
In such a climate, it is small wonder that Q has gained a foothold in the public debate.