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How QAnon and other dark forces are radicalizing Americans as the COVID-19 pandemic rages and election looms

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Harrison Hawkins has experienced firsthand the insidious spread of QAnon.

In early April, he fell in love with a college student he met on a dating app. She was spiritual and intelligent. She liked to meditate and take hikes. But within months, she began to express anxiety. His phone filled up with troubling links and articles concerning conspiracy theories about the “deep state” and child trafficking. Hawkins tried nudging aside his worry, hoping she would move away from the phase.

They had their first big fight in early July when she didn’t show up to dinner at his mother’s house because she was researching the chemical adrenochrome that followers of QAnon, a fringe online movement, erroneously believe is harvested from children’s blood. From that point forward, she avoided him, then cut him off. Hawkins said he still clings to “a tiny bit of hope” that QAnon will release its hold on her.

“Some media outlets have written it off as a kooky conspiracy,” he said. “The word ‘conspiracy’ discredits its power.”

Swept up in the culture wars over immigration and race, rattled by economic upheaval and desperate for companionship in an age of social isolation, an untold number of Americans are succumbing to radicalization in the form of fringe or extremist ideologies rooted in baseless conspiracy theories.

The emergence of QAnon – which has promoted and capitalized on Donald Trump’s presidency, and received attention from him – comes at a volatile moment amid a raging pandemic and a coming election. The movement, which holds Trump on a pedestal as a hero in a fight it portrays as being against evil liberals and the media, is rallying support for the president in his campaign against former Vice President Joe Biden, even though it doesn’t always follow the traditional contours of Republican-Democratic politics.

Experts who study extremism say the radicalized patchwork of fringe conspiracy theories has gained currency in part because of its promise of easy answers to complex problems, such as COVID-19 and racial tensions, and the sense of community it creates at a time when many people feel terribly alone.

While the far-right movement’s most devoted followers have been active on extremist online platforms like 4chan and 8kun, the spread of their conspiracy theories and political opinions into mainstream social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is accelerating during the pandemic, with everyday Americans increasingly encountering and embracing bits and pieces of the radicalized ideology.

Membership in 109 popular and publicly accessible QAnon Facebook groups more than quintupled from about 155,000 in February to 1.12 million in June, according to a database maintained by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which tracks extremism around the world. Interactions with QAnon content in those groups more than tripled from 2.35 million in February to 7.26 million in June.

“I have just started describing QAnon as a digital cult instead of a conspiracy theory,” said Aoife Gallagher, a disinformation and extremism analyst at the institute. “I actually think it’s more accurate.”