Following Falsehoods: A Reporter’s Approach on QAnon

We’ve tracked the rise of QAnon-affiliated political candidates, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican who is currently on track to be elected to Congress in November. And we’ve tried to debunk QAnon’s most outrageous and dangerous claims — like the obviously false allegation that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats were literally killing and eating children in order to harvest a life-extending chemical from their blood. In the lead-up to the election, The Times has rolled out a feature called “Daily Distortions” aimed partly at debunking misinformation that has gone viral or caused harm offline.

QAnon is clearly a political story, and a story about how internet platforms have amplified dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories. At the same time, I’m a former religion reporter, and I’m fascinated by the culture of QAnon. It’s not just a conspiracy theory — it’s a real-time, interactive media-making collaboration that gives people community, alleviates their sense of helplessness and unites them in a shared mission. I believe that mission is dangerous and detached from reality, but I also try to be empathetic and understand the forces that might be leading people to participate.

There are lots of other great reporters covering QAnon, both at The Times and other publications, and one particular challenge we face is that the movement is constantly evolving, expanding and narrowing its boundaries to pass itself off as more mainstream. QAnon followers are holding “Save the Children” rallies without mentioning their QAnon ties. QAnon activists are infiltrating communities of yoga moms and natural health fans and seeding ideas about a global cabal, while downplaying the more extreme parts of their belief system. And they’re getting good at laundering ideas into more mainstream conversations.

(A good example is the Trump administration’s recent focus on human trafficking, which, because it feeds into the QAnon movement’s belief about Mr. Trump breaking up a global pedophile cabal, has been eagerly embraced by its supporters.)

Covering QAnon — whose adherents falsely believe that the mainstream media, including The Times, is in on the global cabal — is not always fun. My colleagues and I have been harassed, threatened and taunted for doing this work. As I write this, my inbox is full of people calling me a pedophile, because I wrote about a group of yoga teachers who are trying to ward off QAnon’s influence in the wellness community.

But it’s important to track this stuff, because QAnon is not a self-contained, inward-pointing phenomenon. It’s a growing, shape-shifting community that is constantly incorporating new beliefs, attaching itself to new platforms and hijacking new narratives. Many of the most viral mistruths about Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests, for example, have been pushed by QAnon groups — which is one reason I refer to QAnon as a “misinformation super-spreader.”

And it’s a good reminder that not every fringe movement stays on the fringes. Some of them, in fact, end up changing our culture.

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