Anne Speckhard, Molly Ellenberg, & Sheikh Ali Executive Summary: This article explores prison-based radicalization to…
Anne Speckhard, Wilson W. Warren, Kate Strezishar, & Molly Ellenberg
As published in Homeland Security Today
Throughout U.S. history, the Capitol in Washington, D.C., has been the target of violence more times than Americans care to remember; however, the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, marks the first time Americans led the attack, an act of violent insurrection that some went as far as to label domestic terrorism. The violent storming of the Capitol was fueled, as all terrorism is, by political intent, as American citizens whipped into a frenzy tried to overturn the votes indicating Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the 46th president of the United States. While most Americans were naive about the brewing domestic terrorism problem, the storming of the Capitol tragically resulted in the deaths of five individuals.
Those storming the Capitol came from various groups. The most violent were from the Oath Keepers and QAnon. Many after the fact claimed that they were acting patriotically, protecting our democracy and following President Trump, who had already signaled to the far-right group Proud Boys that he might need their support. The acts of violence at the Capitol were also fueled by conspiracy theories, at the forefront of which is the conspiracy group QAnon.
The Capitol Hill insurrection and the spread of QAnon-related riots and demonstrations elsewhere, not only in the U.S. but globally, served as a wake-up call to many Western governments regarding the ever-growing threat of white supremacist and conspiracy-driven violence. In the United States, despite FBI warnings that white supremacist and domestic terrorist groups were much more of an internal threat than foreign terrorist threats such as al-Qaeda or ISIS, the Trump administration downplayed the threat posed by many of these online groups in favor of playing to them, winning their support for carrying out his political will, including supporting his presidency. 
Out of the number of individuals who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 725 have been arrested, with over 220 now charged and 71 receiving criminal sentences. The groups represented by these individuals include the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, with QAnon adherents overlapping many of these. Based on a national survey released in May 2021, roughly 31 million people, an estimated 10 percent of Americans, show support for at least some of QAnon’s ideology, rivaling the most influential religious groups. Likewise, there is considerable overlap between QAnon followers and members of white supremacist groups.
Given the traction violent white supremacist and other conspiracy groups have been gaining in recent years, the authors designed a study to observe online forums populated and run by such groups, aiming to get a clearer understanding of not only what draws people to join them but also to understand how QAnon plays a part in their radicalization process.
QANON: A Rising Threat
QAnon is an umbrella-type conspiracy group started in October 2017 that claimed, among other things, that President Trump was waging a secret war against a cabal of elitist Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business, and the media who were trafficking children. QAnon spread rapidly over the Internet with followers who expected a day of reckoning where prominent people, such as former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and other liberals, would be arrested and executed.
As a result of QAnon’s claims, many ardent followers became highly invested in President Trump being re-elected; some felt their survival and that of the country depended upon it. Unlike most conspiracy theories, these people were not mere followers of some babbling mouthpiece. Instead, they were afforded what looked like presidential confirmation of their theories. For instance, on Oct. 5, 2017, Trump called the press corps back to the White House and brought them into the State Dining Room, which was full of uniformed military personnel of the highest ranks and, according to multiple reporters, asked the room, “You guys know what this represents?” When met with unanimous confusion, Trump responded, “Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.” This seemingly meaningless statement to everyone in the press corps was brushed off. However, to the 4chan boards and other “Anons,” this was undeniable proof for the QAnon claim of a “deep state” and that Trump was firing the opening salvos of a secret military operation. The QAnon movement took off.
QAnon developed with a gaming hype fueled by “Q drops” left by Q, someone who claimed to have a high-level security clearance and position close to those in power. Q and his adherents connected cryptic clues left and right to enable predictions about the claimed liberal-leaning sexually predatory cabal intent on disarming and destroying American values, with President Trump valiantly fighting them.
The gaming aspect of the conspiracy theory tapped into deep-seated fears of some and the need for a sense of purpose by others. Instead of keeping followers on the sidelines, Q made everyone feel that each individual was an important member. They could be directly involved. Q gave significance, dignity and purpose to an enormous group of disenfranchised people who felt cheated, abused, forgotten, ridiculed and humiliated, and he readied them for an impending conflict. His conferring significance and purpose upon those who felt utterly lost and forgotten – overwhelmed by societal upheavals, changing demographics, and later the COVID-19 pandemic – was central to the appeal of QAnon. When Trump began his random retweets of Q followers and referred later to them as good people, the groups promoting QAnon gained a further sense of validation that aided in strengthening their online presence, quickly changing them from being another unfounded conspiracy group to being seen as a legitimate community that deserves global recognition.
QAnon’s network of followers steadily swelled since its inception in 2017, promoted by Russian trolls as well as members themselves through social media posts known as “Q Drops” and endless analysis of such by Q’s followers. Q drops were structured in a way so that it was a seemingly inconspicuous call to action, mentioning something such as “POTUS took a call today with military officials,” followed by statements meant to instill a sense of elite, insider membership such as, “only the real ones will know.” QAnon also grew in popularity by manipulating forum algorithms to obtain the support of mothers by replacing the QAnon hashtags that were banned with new ones associated with preventing child sex trafficking, such as #savethechildren. This allowed them to gain global notice in a way that would show them in a positive light. Unfortunately, this hashtag takeover was for views rather than authentically advocating for child safety.
With ISIS perhaps being the most prominent example, extremist and terrorist groups have learned to use mainstream and specialized and encrypted social media platforms to spread their propaganda and conspiracy theory messages via the internet. They then recruited financial supporters, foreign fighters, and “homegrown” attackers from the ideological base they had created among their social media followers. ISIS was, and still is, adept at taking advantage of its fostered online milieu and creating more intimate connections with potential recruits via video and audio chat, texting, and posting on members-only interest groups on mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook. In the face of the more powerful platform’s efforts to delete them, ISIS recruiters also instructed potential recruits to migrate to encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram for one-on-one and group interactions. Though white supremacists have utilized online chatrooms and forums such as Stormfront for as long as the internet has existed, white supremacist groups and their recruiters have also learned to exploit social media more effectively in recent years, including dealing with takedowns by migrating to Telegram and other encrypted messaging apps most recently.
In the past, it was claimed to be nearly impossible that a person could be moved into terrorism or violent extremism without in-person interactions with a recruiter. However, online radicalization is a rapidly growing phenomenon, and online influences alone, albeit including online interactions with friends and family members, have now been shown to be sufficient on their own for terrorist and violent extremist recruitment. Indeed, an ICSVE study of 263 ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres found that 20 percent reported having been recruited to join ISIS from online interactions alone (occurring, of course, within the broader social grievance network which groups like ISIS try to manipulate) and 50 percent were recruited by a combination of online influence and face-to-face recruitment. Indeed, it is no longer necessary for an extremist recruiter to meet his potential recruit in person or spend hours face-to-face to indoctrinate them ideologically.
Internet capacity has also grown to allow for more intimate online connections between people worldwide, and those recruited into extremist and terrorist groups online attest to the power of these connections and the platforms on which they thrive. As has been written about by numerous researchers previously and recently also discussed by Amarnath Amarasingam, a professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, baseline ideological indoctrination is now often self-driven over the internet, with potential terrorist and extremist recruits funneled down the social media algorithms into echo chambers of extremism where they form extremely intimate virtual connections.
Law enforcement agencies, researchers, and policymakers alike have pursued investigations of how physical networks such as familial connections, friendships, and places of worship, work, and education can create a web of recruitment and radicalization for violent extremists. The understanding of recruitment has been face-to-face, followed by online interaction. With the evolution of technology and the ease of access to online forums, it is imperative that the online threat also be investigated alongside foreign and domestic threats that U.S. policymakers tend to focus on. It is crucial to understand how online groupings of white supremacists and QAnon supporters operate, cross-propagate and create an online culture to spread their propaganda messages, recruit, ideologically indoctrinate, and potentially move some members into violence.
This study focused on taking a participant-observer approach to white supremacist and QAnon forums by inserting a research fellow into selected member-only forums to observe and record the movements and patterns of discussion to learn more about what topics were being covered, the emotional valence and radicalizing factor of such, all to gain a better understanding of what fuels these communities as well as their goals.
The research method involved joining as many online QAnon forums as we could locate to monitor the content and interactions to learn how the forums were operating, who they were targeting for recruitment and how they were recruiting, as well as their topics of discussion, and ideological indoctrination, etc.
Our researcher (the second author) was able to identify and gain access to monitor 29 different groups influenced by QAnon, with specific focuses ranging from QAnon, Proud Boys, and Oath Keepers by frequenting popular discourse platforms to follow leads, then scraping them with a code to gather data on thread members and then back trace using social engineering. The tracked individuals were selected based on the engagement in the forum each presented, including their post-to-comment ratio, following, and noticeable influence amongst the general forum members. Once the chatrooms were identified, getting access was relatively easy.
The ICSVE research fellow who undertook the research (the second author) strictly adhered to the ISCVE human subjects protocol for internet research. He did not build a fake persona or lie about his identity. He simply joined the forums as a legitimate member – white, male, and using a screen name with a historical reference that the various forums were likely to accept. Following ICSVE’s human subjects protocols for internet research, our research fellow took on an entirely observant role once inside the forums collecting shared documents and tracking interactions. There was no recording of anyone’s personal information.
The researcher spent one month data mining and keeping tabs on the tracked individuals, noting who would be the best members to learn from and lead them to sources from the various forums frequented. Once immersed in the online forums, ICSVE’s researcher refrained from initiating contact or prompting conversations per our ethics and human subjects protocol. The discussion board community was very active, often building on conversations and posing new ideas and questions.
Much like a hive mind, the researcher was able to observe that with one question posed by a new follower others were quick to give their own opinions, answers, or theories about that question, and an initial thread would often connect to other theories that may not have been previously discussed, with a clear hierarchy emerging indicating who in the collective has the authority to answer questions or provide an explanation. The chatrooms provided our researcher with valuable information regarding the functionality of the groups and how they interact within their communities, as well as the topics they feel passionate about. Our researcher then collected data by taking screenshots of conversations, keeping in mind to strike out any information that might be personally identifying. Many screenshots also included memes shared on threads following a Q drop.
QAnon has found a foothold in various topics that have led to their global recognition; however, one specific hashtag campaign changed the game for them, catapulting the conspiracy theory to new heights. This was the “Save the Children” hashtag movement which initially fundraised for a legitimate charity that focused on anti-trafficking, but then was hijacked by QAnon believers who used this same hashtag to propagate false claims regarding a conspiracy centered on social elites in the Democratic Party, as well as Hollywood, being involved in global child sex trafficking rings. The hijacking of the charity’s hashtag occurred around July 2020, which coincides with when the major social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook began their vetting of QAnon-related accounts. With their community facing censorship, QAnon avoided this by infiltrating chatrooms revolving around other topics, such as the charities fighting human trafficking. It dispersed their disinformation to portray themselves as saviors, gaining popularity and followers who were unaware of the hate Q would further cultivate.
QAnon’s activity with “Save the Children” has resonated with individuals worldwide who fear that children are being harmed. Some of these “believers” are likely child abuse survivors, triggered by post-traumatic recall when these topics are discussed. The “Save the Children” campaign also, in some extreme cases, led terrified parents who were separated from their children to take measures into their own hands. As reported by Henry Holloway from The Sun, parents worldwide have attempted to kidnap their own children under the impression that there is a cabal of satanic blood-drinking pedophiles consisting of government officials and Hollywood elites. Across the United States, as well as a case in France, parents who have lost custody of their children have been led to believe by QAnon that social services are not to be trusted and that these services will deliver their children as sacrifices. While aiming to protect their children, in all five reported instances of kidnap, the children were put at risk.
QAnon’s crusade against Democratic leaders and Hollywood elites was also evident in their internal communications. Upon searching through the chat rooms relating to QAnon, Proud Boys, and Oath Keepers, ICSVE was able to find that many conspiracy theorists posted about purported connections between the Clintons, Ghislaine Maxwell, and Jeffrey Epstein. Many posts by followers were what appear to be news articles trending on Twitter indicating that sealed documents in Maxwell’s possession uncovered Epstein’s relationship with the Clinton family. These articles reference the Clinton Global Initiative and the Clinton Foundation as sources of funding for Epstein’s sexually predatory actions and Maxwell’s TerraMar Project, a nonprofit working in environmental activism, which many theorized was a front for Maxwell’s involvement in illegal activities. Connecting an influential figure such as former President Bill Clinton to a known convicted sex offender solidified the belief that society’s elite, both in Hollywood and politics, were involved in sex trafficking rings involving children.
The conspiracy surrounding pedophilia is not solely based within the United States, and these forums referenced many international connections. There were posts released in the summer of 2021 claiming that the president of Haiti, who was assassinated in July 2021, had evidence that the Clintons, along with the Central Intelligence Agency, had conducted transfers of hundreds of thousands of trafficked children from across the world. In one post, former Haitian President Jovenel Moise was also mentioned for claims of having collected four years’ worth of evidence on “Mother Teresa human trafficking networks” that were alleged to be funded by the Clinton Foundation as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and these payments were allegedly allocated to the Vatican, who headed the operation. The posts by fellow theorists also claimed that the Central Intelligence Agency used weather modification and “tectonic weapons” to cause earthquakes and floods to cover up the missing children. These allegations have many comments on the thread; however, upon inspection there are no links to provide further reading that validates their outlandish claims. The threads on the forums are conjecture; however, there is a sense of trust amongst the community that if it is being said then it is true. There is little to no doubt expressed amongst each other, and QAnon followers are not in the habit of fact-checking allegations, in part due to the belief of many that the media itself could be part of the cabal.
Q posts have not accused government members solely but Hollywood elites as well. The aftermath of Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes has paved the way for theorists to sift through other A-list Hollywood figures to further their followers’ awareness of the dangers that lie with those who have power and influence. For example, Dr. Anthony Kidman, the father of actress Nichole Kidman, became a point of interest. Dr. Kidman died under what Q threads thought were suspicious circumstances – reportedly, in their posts, from a heart attack amidst child abuse allegations connected to an elite pedophile ring in Sydney, Australia.
Many individuals saw QAnon’s campaign against human trafficking and the exposure of corruption as a call to action. Many felt personally responsible in joining the fight to protect children and bring down those who appeared to be above the law. This support of a seemingly positive and altruistic movement gave QAnon and other conspiracy groups the ground it needed to shift gears by showing the world that there is a threat to their safety, specifically the safety of their children, and it gave them the perfect opportunity to lay blame. By taking control of the narrative, Q and their followers have effectively shadowed their movements as the aggressors and instead painted themselves as modern-day knights and saviors.
The Cabal: The Deep State Security Threat Living Among Us
With angry followers looking for justice, Q set the scene to place blame and direct anger and fear toward any target. Instead of going after one or another target, Q and its followers were able to weave a web that interconnected all their targets. By rallying individuals against pedophiles, QAnon and other conspiracy extremist groups could pinpoint these crimes onto a secret cabal. A constant theme throughout the posts referred to the cabal hidden in the shadows, a deep state that was manipulating the media and citizens to do its bidding. The participants in these groups, influenced by QAnon, thus became increasingly hesitant to trust politicians, especially those in the Democratic Party.
The sense of unease associated with the Republican-based claimed scandals and corruption linked to the Clintons has left them open to criticism and attack from the conspiracy groups and the Democratic Party itself. Circling back to the threads relating to the Clinton family and their actions, a recurring theme was a longstanding conspiracy that the Clinton family was steadily murdering all individuals close to them or who had worked for them at one time another. The series of scandals surrounding the Clinton family, such as Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, Bill and Hillary’s alleged association to Jeffrey Epstein, and Hillary’s alleged inactions as the secretary of State regarding the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, led to many individuals following Q drops stating that the Clintons were at the root of all evil and corruption within the U.S. government. The belief that the Clinton family was a key part of an organization meaning to destroy the U.S. as we know it gained popularity with the conservative Q followers, the posts evolving from dislike and opposition of their political actions to theories that the Clintons were corrupt and murdering anyone linked to them who “tried to speak out.” A meme of a web graph circulating in these forums that depicts the Clinton family connected to former associates and employees who have died under what these groups claim as “suspicious circumstances” is shown here.
Thread after thread were investigating the Clinton Foundation’s actions. They allege that these deaths, reported as natural causes, accidents, or suicide, were at the hands of a powerful family deeply involved in U.S. politics. One post was circulated across the community about a young woman reported to have committed suicide in Haiti in 2016; however, the post claims that she was investigating child trafficking linked to the Clinton Foundation and that the family has received no answers. While this could be a legitimate cause for concern if true, as like all other posts circulated within the community there was no name given of the woman or a link to her death, nor were there any sources cited.
The notion that the Democratic Party is complicit in an underground cabal aiming to tear down America sparked a shift in attitudes within Q posts, revealing the communities’ fears and the true intentions of those leading them. Once the Democratic Party became the focus of Q and their followers, the threads transitioned from protecting a vulnerable group (trafficked children) to an attack on many demographics. QAnon followers are often conservatives supporting Republican agendas within the United States. They also recruited moderate sympathizers or those uninvolved in politics by using fearmongering and hate speech. Threads blamed the Democratic Party for ruining the country by claims of promoting financial disparity within the country and prioritizing foreign hires while leaving Americans jobless – claims also common among white supremacist groups who oppose immigration and often claim that Jews are trying to carry out “white genocide” or white replacement by social engineering minorities into jobs traditionally held by whites.
One belief commonly held amongst the members of these groups was that the Democratic Party itself was responsible for modern-day slavery and, by electing Democratic leaders, voters chose to remain racially and economically disadvantaged. Q posts cited specific instances of Democrats having historically been members of the KKK or other hate groups within the past century, sparking within their cohorts a sense of anger that their Republican Party’s involvement was currently condemned instead. This was supported by the meme of the “Dems got away with it.” Given the overlap between QAnon and white supremacists, it was not surprising to see that vocabulary used in the posts was often derogatory toward Black people, referring to them as though they lacked the intelligence to see that they were being used and needed to be enlightened.
Racial Supremacy and Antisemitism
Black people were not the only minority group to be the fixation of extremist groups such as QAnon. As is the norm with white supremacists, the Jewish American population also suffered heavy fire as being the masterminds behind trying to harm white people. Recurring memes depicting Adolf Hitler as entering heaven and “having the right idea” were also circulated within the various chat rooms. One specific meme depicted Adolf Hitler amongst angels and Jesus Christ at the gates of Paradise with the caption, “You sure I killed six million Jews? They ain’t up here.” According to the Q posts and subsequent threads, the cabal itself is claimed to be associated with Jewish people; therefore, it is up to the followers of Q to “take down the Jews,” with posts commonly referring to the Jewish population with derogative terms. There is an overarching theme of distrust toward the Jewish American population, the belief that they are members of the deep state responsible for our country’s downfall and degrading way of life.
While no hard evidence was found of violent actions perpetrated by QAnon followers against Jews in our research, there were many posts threatening the Jewish community, with vague messages referring to a cleansing of the population and that Jews would “get what’s coming to them.” One post referenced the need for ethnic cleansing as occurring at the behest of God. This post was in response to a piece of scripture that another individual posted, with the remarks that Moses was not sent to set the Jews free, but rather humanity. The post also claimed that it was God’s will that the Jewish population be cleansed to “save them from spiritual corruption” during the 40 years in the desert, which was a test run for the modern-day when the Jewish population once again needs to be “cleansed.” There were varying degrees of support toward the antisemitic messages. Some members felt that the others were diverting the focus of the group and should instead focus on the danger of the elite cabal, not the everyday citizen.
The Christian Call to Fight a Holy War Against Evil
The intolerance toward religions other than Christianity has also been an inherent part of QAnon’s rhetoric and a key factor used in their recruitment of fellow Anons. Conservative politicians often invoke Christian values to gain support in populations such as these. One example of how religious extremism has paved the way for QAnon to rise through more conservative demographics is the belief that the dangerous cabal consists of pedophilic child eaters who worship Satan, this harkening back to Old Testament accounts of Baal worshippers who sacrificed infants and, in later centuries, blood libel propaganda claims of Jews using the blood of Christian children in their rituals. By using Q drops that invoke biblical scripture or religious symbolism, Q was able to monopolize individuals who use Christianity as a way not only to view the world and condemn others but also to absolve their violent inclinations and actions and to move them into action.
Most concerning is the number of threads from individuals who claim their fight is a holy war against the wrongdoers. In this case, the wrongdoers are anyone of a different ethnicity or religion or who holds a different political view. Q and its followers instilled a renewed sense of religious indignation and fear by claiming instances of “big government” involvement in satanic actions. One example is a thread posted by one Anon indicating that Microsoft has created a patent for a modified human being. The number is 060606, which the Anons believe means “666,” a number representing end times and invoking expectations of the antichrist arising among Christian fundamentalists. The fear of the devil intertwined with the government’s claimed ability to make and modify human beings without general knowledge has set many on edge and furthered the paranoia that many followers feel.
An End Times Narrative with the Reckoning Upon the U.S. Evildoers
Many Q followers believe they are seeing signs of the prophesized biblical End Times and the second coming found in the book of Revelations in the Bible. In biblical prophesies, it is foretold that the end times will be a period during which God will send forth trials in the form of extreme weather, pestilence, and wars, and it will be a time when sinners will be brought to a final judgment or “reckoning”. For those fearing an apocalypse, Q offers them salvation; those who promote living godly lives and take up the fight against evil will be absolved, and the way to reach absolution is through Q. With their community telling them that they are safe so long as they keep to the path, it further incentivizes individuals to condemn those around them. When it comes to taking action against the evildoers, some begin to justify what they would do to the “sinners” is nothing like what God will do to them, and it is their way of trying to save those who have lost their way. Looking forward to the American “reckoning,” Anons cheer on their hope that Hillary Clinton and other liberals will be rounded up and hung for their claimed infamy during this period.
As QAnon controls the narrative of who is, or is not, worthy of being saved on this day of reckoning, a champion comes to light: former President Donald Trump. Across the message boards and chat rooms amongst the different subgroups within this community is one common theme: Donald Trump is the answer to our country’s problems, and he is under attack. Many in these forums have interpreted the Democratic Party as being synonymous with evil, sin, corruption, greed, and danger, and Donald Trump, then, is the antithesis to such, arising as the embodiment of the values that many Q followers believe are in their code: integrity, valor, work ethic, and national pride. While some individuals see Donald Trump as a politician of the people, some believe that God sent him, that 2020 was the beginning of the reckoning, and that this has all been foretold in the Bible. They also believe that they are part of the angelic army that will be led by the archangel Michael to fight in the name of Donald Trump against traitors, sinners, and corruption. The more religiously extreme members of QAnon posted threads relating their claims of Democrats stealing the 2020 election as proof that we are in the End Times and that they are called into the prophetic fight of good versus evil.
While Donald Trump’s role as the current-day leader in this seemingly religious battle is not a unanimous agreement amongst the Q communities, many using Christianity to find solace and inner strength agree that Donald Trump deserves to be president of the United States. Circling back to the year leading to the 2020 election, the activity on the chatrooms and message boards, which previously had ebbed and flowed in a natural trend, exploded with activity. Threads poured in about the claimed injustices Trump faced. He was being outnumbered by corrupt government officials in the deep state. All the government agencies were part of the cabal, colluding with the Democratic Party to remove Donald Trump. Esteemed followers of Q would post leading threads using only half-formed sentences for “security reasons,” stating that they would be soon called to action. They were the real military as it was also debated whether President Trump could rely on the legitimate U.S. armed forces, or if they too were being manipulated and controlled by the evil deep state forces. Donald Trump did nothing to dissuade these rising protective feelings of groups such as QAnon, Oath Keepers, and Proud Boys; instead, he celebrated them and publicly condoned their behavior and claims.
The COVID-19 Pandemic
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world, the lack of stability and fear of the unknown took even deeper root among the Q communities. Threads came pouring in regarding stories about how the pandemic was a politically motivated hoax, that there was no illness, and when vaccines were developed that they were going to be used to control and harm the citizenry. As the pandemic progressed into months, the statements shifted from being a make-believe illness to being a manufactured form of biochemical warfare that was unleashed onto Americans from China. Many posts referred to COVID-19 as “the China virus,” and hatred for Asian communities and the Democratic Party grew. Propaganda against Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the government’s spokesman on the issue, covered the web. Followers of the conspiracy groups were calling for Dr. Fauci’s death. A meme of his face encircled with the caption “Anti-Faucist” circulated as a play-off of the antifascist movement from the left. When President Donald Trump was unsure of the credibility of the disease, frequently downplaying it for the media, his doubts fueled the online fires for his extreme followers. As vaccines came into effect, manufactured stories of vaccinated individuals dying went viral amongst these communities. The stories were often screenshots from Facebook, with grieving families believing their loved ones died from the vaccine or that it caused life-altering medical issues such as miscarriages and muscular disease. The communities banded together to warn their members against it, stating that it was one more way for the government to control its population and that it couldn’t be trusted.
A Stolen Election
The pandemic became a bargaining chip with the election on the horizon. Within QAnon, members saw the pandemic as another confirmation of the End Times, which reiterated the sentiments of Donald Trump being the savior. Threads were highly political, calling for solidarity among “brothers in arms” to protect and serve Trump and help him get any obstacles out of his way. When it became public that Joe Biden won the election, the conspiracy community was outraged. Posts were pouring through about the election being stolen. Followers posted alleged legal documents and confidential correspondence between lawyers and members of Congress about the misplacement and fabrication of ballots. Anons around the nation came to Trump’s defense, posting evidence that specific counties in key states were stolen, with no attached documents nor links to their proof. It also led many to vent their frustrations about how the country and its people in “the outside world” lack political awareness and are only now coming to see the truth – as the QAnons claim it to be.
One example of how frustrated the election left the QAnon community is a post, like many others starting in 2017, by one member who called for martial law. There was an overwhelming cry throughout QAnon’s formation for President Trump to exercise sole power over the country and its policies. This sentiment invigorated those who felt cheated out of the 2020 election. President Donald Trump encouraged the outcry against the election, using the pretense that the First Amendment protected what lawmakers deemed to be incitement. As the days passed after the election, QAnon and other conspiracy groups banded together to devise a plan of action: If they want the presidency, they’ll have to take it from us. Threads were being posted at an exponential rate with plans to interfere and come to Donald Trump’s call, and those desires to help evolved into legitimate plots with the January 6 riots being one culmination of them, gallows erected outside the Capitol and all.
Conversations about what could and couldn’t be done were vague, with our researcher finding an increase in posts relating to weapons, such as whether a cannon was legally obtainable. Time and time again, posts indicated that something needed to be done and that these communities were confident they would be victorious. The call to action in protest of the election was also tied with religious sentiments, quotes regarding the antichrist, and the biblical scripture from 1 John 2:18 being broadcast. The posted misquote of the scripture reads, “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore, we know that it is the last hour.” A group of individuals who yearned for a greater purpose and to fill the role of the brave knight found their fight, and they were eager to engage in the righteous battle against evil.
With the world constantly shifting, it can become an overwhelming environment for many. When we face a situation where there is uncertainty, be it political, economic, or medical, the protection that comes with belonging becomes extremely important and fear is a driving factor evoking intense emotions with hatred and mistrust often becoming a unifying force creating a much-needed sense of safety with the in-group. In the case of white supremacists influenced by QAnon, Christianity is invoked, with Jews being seen as the ultimate master manipulators of evil and minorities seen as stupid enough to do their bidding. QAnon also took advantage of people who feared for the safety of children by planting seeds of doubt and spreading conspiracies that fit the narrative enough to engage a sense of truth. The claims of sexual predation fed into enduring memories for legitimate sex abuse survivors who were incited to embrace violent action.
QAnon has spread hate and distrust regarding every aspect of American life, creating a feeling that nothing outside the group’s version of reality is any longer sacred. According to QAnon, an evil faceless entity controls the government that feasts on children while worshiping Satan and our votes are stolen or tossed aside. While these sentiments may sound as though they are out of a science fiction novel, the master manipulators behind the anonymous Q symbol have not only fabricated evidence of their own but have told half-truths and omitted the whole story to make these scary thoughts sound to the untrained ear as though it is a fact. Once Q and other conspiracy groups effectively isolated individuals, funneling them into a QAnon information vortex, they gave them a range of targets to direct their hatred at in hopes of finding a sense of power and belonging. ICSVE’s excursion into the QAnon-influenced white supremacist side of the internet has left us with a more secure understanding of this evolving danger to the world. However, it must be noted that there wouldn’t be a QAnon, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, etc., if there weren’t a group of followers who have unmet needs that make them resonate with such groups’ claims and feel validated by their rhetoric. In our research, we have continually found that those who join white supremacist groups initially seek a sense of belonging, significance, and purpose and go through a process we call Directed Hate, where a part of the initiation process into the group is to be indoctrinated into hate. Thus, while belonging to an insider elite group and purpose were definitely conveyed by these forums and their rhetoric, instead of gaining a sense of real importance, actively contributing to a ‘more just society’ and protecting others, instead of being guided toward self-discovery and outreach to their fellow man, they were enticed by promises riddled with violence and hate.
The siege on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021 is a reminder that malignant forces, sometimes even promoted by our top government officials, are inciting violent extremism within our country, and a solid leading force among them is QAnon. The needed response is empathy and curiosity rather than condemnation and punitive methods, alongside addressing the real needs and vulnerabilities that make so many vulnerable to QAnon claims as well as active disinformation measures. Those who have broken laws should face the consequences of their crimes; however, for those sucked down the vortex of hate, a compassionate stance gives us the necessary opportunity to engage with these individuals, understand what prompted them to resonate with and propagate hatred, religious intolerance, and racial violence, and turn them back from conspiracy theory beliefs. Understanding is the first step in aiding the process of disengagement and deradicalization. White supremacy and extremism have afflicted the United States for centuries. The way to counteract this is to educate those around us, accept our differences and address the real social injustices and broken systems that lead individuals to fall into the QAnon trap. Historically, we have only discussed these deep-rooted prejudices and hatreds superficially; it is time for us to go to the sources and work with these groups and help them see that there is no honor in being feared and no good purpose in believing or propagating lies. They are not protecting their neighbors but rather persecuting them, and their religion should be one of love, not damnation.
Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne, Warren, Wilson W., Strezishar, Kate, and Ellenberg, Molly (April 5, 2022). PERSPECTIVE: A Summer Inside QAnon and White Supremacist Online Forums. Homeland Security Today.
About the Authors:
Dr. Anne Speckhard is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past five years years, she has in-depth psychologically interviewed over 250 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres (and also interviewed their family members as well as ideologues) studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 250 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 150 Facebook and Instagram campaigns globally. Since 2020 she has also launched the ICSVE Escape Hate Counter Narrative Project interviewing 25 white supremacists and members of hate groups developing counternarratives from their interviews as well. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals, both locally and internationally, on the psychology of terrorism, the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS. Dr. Speckhard has given consultations and police trainings to U.S., German, UK, Dutch, Austrian, Swiss, Belgian, Danish, Iraqi, Jordanian and Thai national police and security officials, among others, as well as trainings to elite hostage negotiation teams. She also consults to foreign governments on issues of terrorist prevention and interventions and repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, CBC and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times, Voice of America, and many other publications. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today and speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her research has also been published in Global Security: Health, Science and Policy, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, Journal of African Security, Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human Security, Bidhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, Journal for Deradicalization, Perspectives on Terrorism and the International Studies Journal to name a few. Her academic publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard
Wilson W. Warren is working at ICSVE as a Junior Research Fellow, researching issues of white supremacism, inceldom and militant jihadism. Wilson is new to this field, having worked in the entertainment industry from 2006 to 2018. In this arena, he worked as an executive assistant, label executive, concert producer and promoter, recruiter(A&R), and manager of writers, producers, and top artists. The entertainers he worked with include Three 6 Mafia, T.I., G-Eazy, Outkast, Dallas Austin, Tricky Stewart, Southside, Usher, Lil Baby, Waka, Akon, Polow Da Don, Leona Lewis, Jake and Logan Paul, and Justin Bieber. In the technology domain, Wilson consulted for the social media platform PHEED, which sold to Mobli, facilitated partnerships
between top entertainers and the App — Music Messenger, which was acquired by Yahoo, and co-founded an event App called YOPIMA, where he brought on T.I. as the investor/partner — this also resulted in a co-patent position. Wilson also served as a Social Media Consultant for a successful U.S. Senate campaign. He is now a partner at a 501(c)3, called Soldier For Wildlife, where he actively assists with intelligence designed to combat poaching and engage the local community on a 309 square mile reserve in Zambia. Wilson is currently working towards a degree in International Relations with a minor in Arabic and hopes to also pursue graduate studies. He also has a volunteer position as a Research Fellow at the Alive and Well Foundation, headquartered in Atlanta, GA.
Kate Strezishar is a Junior Research Fellow with ICSVE. Kate graduated from George Mason University with a B.A in Conflict Analysis and Resolution, with a concentration on Global Engagement. Kate is familiar with Latin American conflicts, as well as researching the social implications terrorism has on a community. Kate has worked to research and implement a methodology to reintegrate former extremists back into the European Union, as well as develop better community relations between the Muslim population in Hungary and non-Muslim citizens. Currently, Kate is working on a project for ICSVE that focuses on the repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters and their families who were associated with ISIS.
Molly Ellenberg is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE]. Molly is a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Maryland. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. Her research focuses on radicalization to and deradicalization from militant jihadist and white supremacist violent extremism, the quest for significance, and intolerance of uncertainty. Molly has presented original research at NATO Advanced Research Workshops and Advanced Training Courses, the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma, the GCTC International Counter Terrorism Conference, UC San Diego Research Conferences, and for security professionals in the European Union. She is also an inaugural member of the UNAOC’s first youth consultation for preventing violent extremism through sport. Her research has been cited over 100 times and has been published in Psychological Inquiry, Global Security: Health, Science and Policy, AJOB Neuroscience, Frontiers in Psychology, Motivation and Emotion, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, Women & Criminal Justice, the Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human Security, Bidhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, and the International Studies Journal. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.
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