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From Fringe To Congress: QAnon Backers Are On The Ballot In November

Marjorie Taylor Greene (right) is likely to bring a far-right conspiracy theory to the House of Representatives next year.
Marjorie Taylor Greene (right) is likely to bring a far-right conspiracy theory to the House of Representatives next year.

Marjorie Taylor Greene's path to Congress has been strewn with controversy. Politico dug up her history of disparaging Black people and Muslims. She's unapologetic about the anti-Semitic tropes she has used to describe George Soros.

But it's another kind of extremism that drew the spotlight to Greene's victoryTuesday in the Republican primary runoff in Georgia: She has promoted the conspiracy theory QAnon, or Q.

The baseless QAnon conspiracy sprang from right-wing message boards in 2017. Those who buy into it think President Trump is leading a secret war against Satan-worshiping pedophiles in the deep state. They believe a figure known only as Q is helping – and leaving encrypted messages for "digital soldiers" of the movement to decode.

The watchdog group Media Matters for America counts 19 congressional candidates with links to QAnon who will be on the ballot in November. Many are long shots. But not Greene, whose primary win in a deep red House district means she's all but assured a seat in Congress. Greene has embraced the QAnon conspiracy in a series of social media posts in recent years.

"Now there's the potential to have someone in political office that believes in QAnon," said Aoife Gallagher, a researcher at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue who co-wrote a new report on QAnon. "To me, that is just a slippery slope."

Greene's far-right stances have made her anathema to many establishment Republicans. Trump, however, tweeted his congratulations, praising Greene as a "future Republican Star."

"The GOP establishment, the media, & the radical left, spent months & millions of dollars attacking me. Tonight the people of Georgia stood up & said that we will not be intimidated or believe those lies," Greene tweeted after her win.

Greene is no longer making videos about Q, but she hasn't disavowed the conspiracy theory, either.

In another tweet Wednesday, Greene dismissed criticism of her statements that Sharia law is "bad" and that Black communities are held back by gangs, as well as her support for a conspiracy theory that Soros, who is Jewish, collaborated with the Nazis. She didn't address QAnon.

Local journalists have tried repeatedly to pin Greene down on Q. They haven't gotten a clear answer; she simply repeats that she's "concerned about a deep state," like "millions" of people around the world. Greene declined an interview request from NPR.

Marc-André Argentino, a researcher in Canada who recently co-wrote a paper on QAnon for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, said Q-linked candidates generally fall into two categories: die-hard believers and those who see the movement as a valuable voting bloc.

"I think Marjorie Taylor Greene started in the bucket where she truly believed in QAnon, but now she's probably drifting more toward the political constituency," Argentino said.

Like others in his field, Argentino is concerned about the meteoric rise of QAnon, especially since the pandemic. On Facebook alone, he said, "You're seeing almost a doubling of groups and eight times the amount of members."

Authorities also worry about QAnon becoming intertwined with other, more violent forms of extremism. Last year, an FBI memocalled it a potential domestic terrorism threat. Several Q supporters have been linked to serious crimes; one pleaded guiltyto a terrorism charge.

Social media platforms are taking steps to curb the spread of Q. Facebook removed a popular QAnon group with 200,000 members, and Twitter has banned or restricted tens of thousands of accounts. TikTok and YouTube also havetaken stepsto make it harder to find QAnon content.

Critics call it too little, too late. The conspiracy's spread is outpacing efforts to contain it, finding new audiences overseas and in New Age and anti-vaccination factions. Online support groups are springing up for people who are concerned about a relative's obsession with Q.

"I'm looking at these groups, and I'm seeing friends that I went to school with or colleagues, in QAnon groups," Argentino said. "And for me, they don't meet the profile of what I traditionally think of as a conspiracy theorist."

QAnon is so far-fetched and ridiculous that federal authorities and tech companies didn't take it seriously until recently despite its rapid spread, said Travis View, co-host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous. The show offers a skeptical, in-depth look inside the world of Q.

View said it's good that tech companies and other gatekeepers are paying closer to attention to QAnon now, even if he considers it "two years too late."

"When things go sort of viral online, even if they're dangerous extremist movements, they might be dismissed as fringe," View said. "But once they start entering the halls of Congress, that makes people sit up and pay attention."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.