Georgia Today: Into The Dark Heart Of QAnon
On this week's Georgia Today, Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigative reporter Chris Joyner untangles QAnon's dark web of conspiracy theories. QAnon's rapidly growing political movement has found fertile ground in Atlanta's far northern suburbs.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, September 25, 2020.
Stephanie Grohe: I made very clear directives in the group. I kicked somebody out of the group this morning because they were determined to bring their Q posters. And I told them, this is not about Q.
Chris Joyner: Right.
Steve Fennessy: Today, Chris Joyner, an investigative reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, takes us down the rabbit hole of QAnon, a vast and preposterous conspiracy theory and, now, rapidly growing political movement that's found fertile ground in Atlanta's far northern suburbs. But its beginnings go back at least four years ago to a pizza shop in Washington, D.C.. So, Chris, we're here today to talk about QAnon, but actually the story of QAnon begins before we even heard what QAnon is. I'm thinking of 2016 about something called Pizzagate or what became known as Pizzagate. What was that?
Chris Joyner: So Pizzagate was a conspiracy theory that involved a pizza restaurant in the metro D.C. area called Comet Ping Pong. And it developed, as many of these things do, online. And there was a belief that there was a hidden part of that pizza parlor where Democratic elites were using it to kidnap and torture children, sexually tortured them. And it’s a far — obviously, it's a far-fetched-sounding idea. But it gained a lot of traction, so much so that a man drove from North Carolina armed with an assault rifle and a pistol and broke in, in an attempt to liberate the children he believed were being held there.
Newscast: A North Carolina man was arrested Sunday in Washington, D.C., after a shooting that he says was motivated by an Internet conspiracy theory.
Newscast: An adult male, approximately in his late 20s, entered the Comet Pizza — with an assault rifle.
Chris Joyner: A lot of this developed from the leaked emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign, and they were dissected and misinterpreted online in various ways that sort of allowed the creation of this conspiracy theory….
Steve Fennessy: Comet Ping Pong was — was, as you said, a popular pizza joint —
Chris Joyner: Oh and a family place, too!
Steve Fennessy: And a family place where there were Democratic fundraisers. And so it was referenced often in the leaked emails.
Chris Joyner: Exactly.
Steve Fennessy: And at some point those things became twisted into something incomprehensible.
Chris Joyner: Yeah, it was a real case of people taking two and two and getting, you know, cheese pizza out of it. It was — they got a very strange result by putting all these — these elements together. And it became a big story and it was somewhat laughed off, even though it was dangerous. But in some ways, that's where people date the genesis of the QAnon conspiracy web. It actually predates the person or people that are known as Q — this anonymous online person who drops cryptic clues on various deep web message boards that are supposed to suggest to people that there is a deep state conspiracy of Hollywood and Washington elites who are engaged in trafficking children for sex purposes. And there's a part of the conspiracy that believes that they're harvesting a chemical from their blood to keep them young and that Donald Trump is attempting to reveal this elite cabal, is battling it and they're battling him. Because the belief here is that Q is a government insider who's working with Donald Trump or on behalf of Donald Trump.
Steve Fennessy: It sounds like you're — you're almost speaking in religious terms. It sounds almost like there are almost Biblical references being made.
Chris Joyner: Well, yeah. I mean, because it is — it's apocalyptic in its sort of tone that, you know, the forces of good are engaged in a battle against evil that in the end will result in a sort of new society, a sort of Second Coming sort of a language for people who are familiar with evangelical Christianity. So, yeah, I mean, in some ways it does take on a very religious tone; it’s also a very populist tone. The idea that there is an elite group that conspires against the rest of us.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Chris Joyner: And that we're in a constant struggle to reveal a secret society, whether it's the Illuminati or the Freemasons or this elite cabal of, you know, cannibalistic pedophiles that are supposed to be out there. There's nothing new about conspiracy theories. What is kind of unique about QAnon is how all-encompassing and limber it is as conspiracy theory. It is…. I — I've talked about it as the conspiracy theory that eats all the other conspiracy theories. A lot of what attracts people to QAnon are things that attract people to other sort of subterranean cultures, right? It’s this idea that they know something that other people don't know? You know, those folks who are, you know, kids of the '90s, remember how — how popular The X-Files were for the same reason. It touches all those buttons that you just love; that there's this secret world and only you're privy to it.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Chris Joyner: And, you know, this sort of like peeling of the onion to get to the truth. In the QAnon culture, it's “Do your own research.” That's what they encourage you to do. And they will say specifically, “Do your own research, but don't trust the mainstream media.” So that cuts off an entire avenue. And the same thing happens in white supremacist culture and a lot of other extremist groups.
Steve Fennessy: So the dogma that they embrace is — becomes irrefutable, almost by definition that there is nothing you can say —
Chris Joyner: Yeah, and QAnon especially so. You know, people walk away from white supremacy all the time. QAnon is so impervious to other bits of information that would, you know, clue a person in to say, "Hey, maybe this is a bunch of malarkey."
Steve Fennessy: So, Chris, I understand there are now almost 5,000 messages from Q. How frequently are his followers hearing from him or her or them?
Chris Joyner: There will be times where there are multiple in a day and then there will be times when there is sort of a drier period. There are a lot of them and you can pore over them like Nostradamus. You know, and a lot of them make less sense than Nostradamus.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah.
Chris Joyner: They're — they're so heavily coded and the language is weird. Some of it tries to take on a sort of military affect which goes towards, you know, the authenticity of Q in that community.
Steve Fennessy: At what point did QAnon get on your radar in a way that made you say to yourself: This is something we need to be writing about?
Chris Joyner: It got on my radar a little more than a year ago, maybe a year-and-a-half ago. As I noticed, it had picked up steam and it was really sort of flourishing. But as a local issue, it really wasn't until the pandemic that it started catching my eye a little more. It just began growing very rapidly, particularly on Facebook, particularly after the March shutdown.
Steve Fennessy: At the AJC, Chris Joyner covers fringe political movements, which often bring out just a handful of demonstrators. But at a march in August that attracted QAnon followers, he was in for a surprise. That's ahead. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. We're talking with Chris Joyner, an investigative reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, about the appeal and growth of QAnon in Georgia. In August, you attended a “Save the Children” march up in Woodstock. What was that all about?
Chris Joyner: Well, it was — it was interesting. I'd been in this Facebook group just sort of monitoring and trying to get a sense of the flavor of that group. And they began fairly quickly organizing towards a date in early August.
Steve Fennessy: So do these start — these groups — as honest, sort of saving the children groups or were they infiltrated and co-opted by QAnon? What — what came first?
Chris Joyner: From what I can tell from my reporting, these were created specifically as QAnon groups.
Steve Fennessy: Okay.
Chris Joyner: But with non-QAnon language. These were branded specifically, as you know, "You're concerned about sex trafficking in your state." They were moving towards a date where they would be a coordinated series of marches and there was one here in Woodstock in early August. I cover lots of, you know, fringe elements, and it is very rare to see a virtual community turn out in real life in those kind of numbers. In this case, when I got there and I saw, there were like three or four or five hundred people running out of cars.
Steve Fennessy: Were you surprised?
Chris Joyner: I was very surprised. And I think that is — that says something about their recruiting tactics, the issue they chose, and where they chose to do it.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Chris Joyner: You know, many of them had not been involved with this group for terribly long.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah.
Chris Joyner: They — they saw what they saw was — it was concerned about sex trafficking. They were politically aligned being, you know, conservative and suburban and largely pro-Trump. Pretty explicitly pro-Trump, actually. And so, I mean, it was, you know, come out into your community and march against sex trafficking is a pretty easy get for a lot of these people. But when I joined and walking along with the march I began to pick out on their signs hashtags that are specific to the Q community, you know, code words like Frazzledrip and Adrenochrome, that’s vocabulary specifically from QAnon. And then as they were marching, the back half of this large group was chanting, “We Go One, We Go All,” which is a popular slogan inside QAnon — in fact, it's probably the — you — you would describe it as probably the QAnon motto.
Steve Fennessy: What were the marchers’ reaction to you as a representative of the mainstream media, which, according to their beliefs, is actively involved in suppressing knowledge of this vast conspiracy?
Chris Joyner: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, the short answer is they were deeply, deeply suspicious. And in some cases, hostile to my being there.
Steve Fennessy: But how so? And what kind of reactions did you get?
Chris Joyner: Well, because a lot of the QAnon culture believes that members of the mainstream media are either incompetently failing to report on the cabal or are in league with the cabal and covering it up, I — you know — I'm seen as really there, you know, on the evil side of the Good versus Evil battle. OK. So I was a little, you know, prepared for that.
Chris Joyner: Could you tell me about your signs? Tell me about — what is Frazzledrip?
Chris Joyner: So when I was at the rally in Woodstock last month, I was interviewing a man who had brought a sign that read “Frazzledrip,” which is a code word for a QAnon conspiracy theory involving an alleged video on former Congressman Anthony Weiner's laptop that is supposed to be of Hillary Clinton and her aide, Huma Abedin, sacrificing a child and drinking its blood. But while I was talking to him about his sign, I was interrupted by another person in the march who wanted to interrogate me as to why I was talking to him.
Woman: I heard you’re with the AJC.
Chris Joyner: I am.
Woman: Have you spoken with the leader of the group or the organizer —
Chris Joyner: Stephanie?
Chris Joyner: Yes, I spoke to her on the phone earlier.
Woman: Okay. I was just curious how many more people of the group that you’ve interviewed.
Chris Joyner: Well I interviewed them…
Chris Joyner: So I asked her what to make of the crowd, at the end of the protests, it was chanting: “We Go One We Go All.” And she essentially denied it.
Chris Joyner: … The back half of this group. I think probably a couple hundred, were chanting “We Go One We Go All.”
Woman: I understand that. But that was one small section. If you look, if you were to really look at the signs, at what the people are wearing on their shirts, what they were chanting —
Chris Joyner: No, I totally get your point.
Woman: Right. And so I know when I go and read the newspaper tomorrow and I see what maybe little bit news coverage we get on TV, it's going to be to try to totally discredit and tie this to things that are wackadoo, that —
Chris Joyner: They really wanted to portray this march as a, you know, solely sex trafficking, apolitical awareness event and fundraiser, even. And I brought up the “We Go One We Go All” chants to one of the organizers of the protests, Stephanie Grohe, and she told me that they had been forbidden from saying that.
Stephanie Grohe: So I made very clear directives in the group. I kicked somebody out of the group this morning because they were determined to bring their Q posters. And I told them that this is not about Q.
Chris Joyner: Right.
Stephanie Grohe: This is about — these — these fundraisers. It's about the children. It's about trafficking….
Chris Joyner: But having been a part of that community on that Facebook group for a number of weeks, I knew that there was this large element of QAnon culture inside this group.
Steve Fennessy: So let's talk a little bit about social media, because it's certainly been the medium by which the word of this has spread and new adherents have come on board. Primarily, we're talking about Twitter and Facebook. And then there's also, of course, these sort of deeper sites, message boards like 4chan. So to what degree are — are — is social media responsible for the spread of these ideas?
Chris Joyner: Well, I mean, there were conspiracy theories before social media, obviously.
Steve Fennessy: Sure, sure.
Chris Joyner: In the spread of this particular web of conspiracy theories, you know, it is the secret sauce that has caused it to spread. Social media companies developed around an idea that they were going to be content neutral. It wouldn't be about whether what you said was right or wrong. They weren't going to make those calls. We've seen moves by social media companies to de-platform extremist right groups. And that's had an impact in, you know, sort of stemming the spread of some of these really, really harmful ideologies. In another way, it has also caused them to become more extreme and violent as they are forced into darker and darker areas of the Internet.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Chris Joyner: So, I mean, I could see — I could see, you know, a de-platforming effort stemming the spread of QAnon but QAnon becoming maybe even more militant.
Newscast: President Trump Tweeting congratulations today to QAnon conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene after she won a seat in the House. Now, Greene is known for some extreme and racist views. She's warned of a, quote, “Islamic invasion.” She did that after two Muslims won office. She has described Black people as, quote, “slaves” to Democrats.
Steve Fennessy: I'd like to talk a little bit about Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is going to be the next Congresswoman from the 14th District even though she hasn't been elected yet. She won the Republican primary and her Democratic opponent, who is not favored anyway, recently dropped out. She is a — a vocal adherent of QAnon, no?
Chris Joyner: She has been. She has tried to distance herself from QAnon. Or she did during her campaign, in particular when she was in a primary runoff. She seems to be less concerned, doesn’t really address the issue at all. Certainly she is and has been a personality in QAnon through her own social media presence. The videos that she has recorded and interviews she's given over the past several years have been heavily indebted to the QAnon conspiracy web.
Marjorie Taylor Greene: Q is a patriot. We know that for sure, but we do not know who Q is, OK? So, now….
Chris Joyner: I think it's probably fair to say that she was the better candidate in terms of how she ran her campaign.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Chris Joyner: She ran as an outsider. She ran against the media. These are not problems for voters in that area that — that went for Trump in — in a very big way in 2016. And he ran on those same themes.
President Donald Trump: Well, I don't know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate. But I don't know much about the movement.
Steve Fennessy: Also interesting is that they're — they're disavowed among some mainstream political figures, but not all mainstream political figures, including, most notably the President of the United States. To what degree has — has President Trump's refusal to disavow them or to speak out against them really in any way lit a fire under them?
Chris Joyner: You know, the president's handling of questions about QAnon has been very encouraging for people inside the QAnon movement. You know, they see this as real evidence of the truth of what they believe, right? That he is actively fighting this deep state cabal. What is amazing is he didn't even have to do that, really. I mean, because they were taking all sorts of cues from his public appearances. You know, how he held his hands and moved his hands, to what tie he wore as all being secret coded messages to them. So he didn't even have to say anything but his decision to not, you know, to not say that it's absurd and ridiculous and no one should listen to these people — as some high-ranking Republicans have said — has been very encouraging to them.
Steve Fennessy: Does its prevalence and popularity concern you?
Chris Joyner: The growth concerns me because, as I said, it's — it is impervious to facts and it is hard for people to — to draw themselves out of because it is so affirming to be a part of it. And so that rapid growth bothers me. The other thing that bothers me is that it's now an international movement.
Newscast: QAnon conspiracy theories are spreading overseas, popping up in Berlin at a protest against coronavirus restrictions.
Reporter: They're chanting “Lugenpresse,” which means basically “fake news.”
Newscast: Most European QAnon believers are new to this conspiracy theory. Their skepticism of the coronavirus acted as a kind of gateway to QAnon.
Steve Fennessy: So, Chris, where’s all this going? Coming up on a presidential election. What happens if President Trump is reelected? What happens if Joe Biden is our next president? How — how do either of these outcomes affect the trajectory of QAnon?
Chris Joyner: I really think that in some ways, QAnon — it will be unaffected by the election.
Steve Fennessy: Either way?
Chris Joyner: Either way. I mean, if — if the president wins a second term, they will factor that into the — you know, the running web of conspiracies. If the president is defeated and leaves office, he could still very well be considered to be running a campaign against this cabal. Just as an outsider, you know. That I'm trying to imagine an area where it would peter out in the short term. But I'm not sure how that would happen. Now, I think there are ways that, technologically, it can be disrupted, and I imagine that we'll see some of that.
Steve Fennessy: So is QAnon like COVID, in a way? Is it something that we're just gonna have to live with for an indefinite period of time?
Chris Joyner: Hmm, well, that's kind of a depressing thought. You mean until we develop a vaccine?
Steve Fennessy: Well, I mean, kinda like — like, what is the cure for mass delusion?
Chris Joyner: It's tough to say. We're all, we're — we are attracted, as a culture, to conspiracy theories. And, you know, QAnon being such a buffet of conspiracy theories, it would be hard to imagine that we’ll get shed of it here in the short term.
Steve Fennessy: Our thanks to Chris Joyner, an investigative reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show GPB.org/GeorgiaToday or anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcast. Have a story idea? Connect with us at GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. Our producers are Sean Powers and Pria Mahadevan. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.
Transcript by Eva Rothenberg