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Conspiracy Theorists Who’d First Popularized QAnon Now Accused of Financial Motives

In November 2017, a small-time YouTube video creator and two moderators of the 4chan website, one of the most extreme message boards on the internet, banded together and plucked out of obscurity an anonymous and cryptic post from the many conspiracy theories that populated the website’s message board. Over the next several months, they would create videos, a Reddit community, a business and an entire mythology based off the 4chan posts of “Q,” the pseudonym of a person claiming to be a high-ranking military officer. The theory they espoused would become Qanon, and it would eventually make its way from those message boards to national media stories and the rallies of President Donald Trump.

Now, the people behind that effort are at the center of a fractious debate among conspiracy enthusiasts, some of whom believe the three people who first popularized the Qanon theory are promoting it in order to make a living. Others suggest that these original followers actually wrote Q’s mysterious posts…

Qanon was just another unremarkable part of the “anon” genre until November 2017, when two moderators of the 4chan board where Q posted predictions, who went by the usernames Pamphlet Anon [real name: Coleman Rogers] and BaruchtheScribe, reached out to Tracy Diaz, according to Diaz’s blogs and YouTube videos. BaruchtheScribe, in reality a self-identified web programmer from South Africa named Paul Furber, confirmed that account to NBC News. “A bunch of us decided that the message needed to go wider so we contacted Youtubers who had been commenting on the Q drops,” Furber said in an email… As Diaz tells it in a blog post detailing her role in the early days of Qanon, she banded together with the two moderators. Their goal, according to Diaz, was to build a following for Qanon — which would mean bigger followings for them as well… Diaz followed with dozens more Q-themed videos, each containing a call for viewers to donate through links to her Patreon and PayPal accounts. Diaz’s YouTube channel now boasts more than 90,000 subscribers and her videos have been watched over 8 million times. More than 97,000 people follow her on Twitter.

Diaz, who emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, says in her YouTube videos that she now relies on donations from patrons funding her YouTube “research” as her sole source of income. Diaz declined to comment on this story. “Because I cover Q, I got an audience,” Diaz acknowledged in a video that NBC News reviewed last week before she deleted it.

To reach a more mainstream audience (older people and “normies,” who on their own would have trouble navigating the fringe message boards), Diaz said in her blog post she recommended they move to the more user-friendly Reddit. Archives listing the three as the original posters and moderators show they created a new Reddit community… Their move to Reddit was key to Qanon’s eventual spread. There, they were able to tap into a larger audience of conspiracy theorists, and drive discussion with their analysis of each Q post. From there, Qanon crept to Facebook where it found a new, older audience via dozens of public and private groups…

As Qanon picked up steam, growing skepticism over the motives of Diaz, Rogers, and the other early Qanon supporters led some in the internet’s conspiracy circles to turn their paranoia on the group. Recently, some Qanon followers have accused Diaz and Rogers of profiting from the movement by soliciting donations from their followers. Other pro-Trump online groups have questioned the roles that Diaz and Rogers have played in promoting Q, pointing to a series of slip-ups that they say show Rogers and Diaz may have been involved in the theory from the start.

Those accusations have led Diaz and Rogers to both deny that they are Q and say they don’t know who Q is.

New Age communities are driving QAnon conspiracy theories in Brazil

These spiritual, pseudoscientific groups are domesticating QAnon narratives for non-American audiences.

QAnon emerged in the US, but its plasticity makes it easily adaptable in a Brazilian context. President Bolsonaro — a Trump-worshipping, coronavirus-skeptic — rode to power on the promise of ridding Brazil of corruption, leftism, and other evils, and whose legion of highly-connected supporters vehemently distrust traditional media.

It isn’t surprising that QAnon terms would eventually be slapped onto protest signs at a pro-Bolsonaro gathering in Copacabana beach. What is perhaps somewhat surprising is the name of one YouTube channel, written on one of the signs amid a list of must-follow QAnon YouTubers: “Ensinamentos da era de Aquário,” or “Teachings of the age of Aquarius” in Portuguese.

Although that name doesn’t immediately signal QAnon lore, this is one of the largest YouTube channels that openly supports QAnon in Brazil. Its owner, Luciano Cesa, has amassed a legion of 200,000 subscribers in less than two years, and his success signals a growing interest — especially among Brazilian New Age groups — in the movement’s beliefs.

These spiritual and pseudoscientific communities, which encompasses a range of practices such as shamanism, crystal healing, reiki, yoga, and numerology, are playing a prominent role in introducing and domesticating QAnon narratives to non-American audiences.

New Age communities have a few things in common with QAnon members, who often describe themselves as “researchers” open to new truths. QAnon conspiracies are often presented in incomplete tidbits — collections of loose terms and concepts which potential adherents are invited to explore on their own, and which they decontextualize and remix as they share their findings.

The idea of a secret government that rules everything from the shadows is also rife in New Age circles. “Those are communities that distrust institutions, such as conventional science and dogmatic religions,” Campanha says, “so, I can definitely see this culture easily transferring themselves to those conspiracy ideas, with politicians who portray themselves as “outsiders,” such as Trump and Bolsonaro, being seen as antagonists against this shadow government.”

New Age communities, international in scope, provide a safe avenue for QAnon theories to spread from the US and adapt to contexts such as Brazil, while tapping into an audience that may or may not be part of Bolsonaro’s main support base.

In fact, it is precisely communities who claim to be apolitical, such as New Agers, who are especially vulnerable to the influence of fascist movements.

On August 20, at a White House briefing, Donald Trump was asked directly about QAnon for the first time. “I don’t know much about them, except that they like me very much,” he said. When a reporter followed up with an explanation that the crux of the theory was that the US President was fighting a cabal elite of child abusers, he answered: “I don’t know about that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing?”

Trump’s clever reply — which simultaneously evaded the question while appearing to express support for the movement — highlighted the challenges that both reporters and society at large face when confronting conspiracy theorists.

Why Teens Are Falling for TikTok Conspiracy Theories

TikTok–the platform skews young—reportedly one-third of its daily users in the US are 14 or younger—and celebrity gossip has long been the lingua franca of social media for people of all ages. Right-wing conspiracy groups like QAnon have been spreading made up stories about those in power on networks like Facebook for years. Now those ideas have jumped to TikTok where they’re being metabolized by much younger consumers. Those things all scan. What doesn’t, however, is why teens believe them.

The short answer? TikTok is full of crazy ideas—conspiracies are no different. They’ve been normalized by the platform where many young people spend most of their time. “Many of these conspiracy sites and stories are entertaining. They are social gathering spots. They are exciting,” says Nancy Rosenblum, Senator Joseph S. Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University and co-author of A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. “It’s small wonder that teenagers who ‘live on the screen’ would be drawn to the drama.”

Easy access to social media’s redistribution tools worsens this problem. With every like, share, send, and retweet, teenagers are popularizing this content worldwide. “On social media, repetition substitutes for validation,” says Russel Muirhead, a professor of democracy and politics at Dartmouth College and Rosenblum’s co-author. “Repetition is what breathes air into conspiracy theories, and social media is all about repetition. But repeating something that’s false does not make it more true! Teenagers are just as vulnerable to this as grown ups.”

This wouldn’t be such a problem if teenagers weren’t so attached to social media. So fond, in fact, that some 54 percent of teens get the bulk of their news from it. If this sounds concerning, that’s because it is. With teenagers relying on TikTok as their sole source of information, it makes sense for my generation to become absorbed in webs of falsities and to live as largely uninformed citizens.

Citigroup Tech Executive Unmasked as Major QAnon ‘High Priest’

QAnon’s biggest news hub was run by a senior vice president at Citigroup, the American multinational investment bank and financial services company Citigroup. Jason Gelinas worked in the company’s technology department, where he led an AI project and oversaw a team of software developers, according to Bloomberg. [Alternate URL] He was married with kids and had a comfortable house in a New Jersey suburb. According to those who know him, Gelinas was a pleasant guy who was into normal stuff: Game of Thrones, recreational soccer, and so on. Things did get weird, though, when politics came up…

The movement had been contained mostly to the internet’s trollish fringes until around the time Gelinas came along. In 2018, while doing his job at Citi, he created, as an anonymous side project, a website dedicated to bringing QAnon to a wider audience — soccer moms, white-collar workers, and other “normies,” as he boasted. By mid-2020, the site was drawing 10 million visitors each month, according to the traffic-tracking firm SimilarWeb, and was credited by researchers with playing a key role in what might be the most unlikely political story in a year full of unlikely political stories: A Citigroup executive helped turn an obscure and incoherent cult into an incoherent cult with mainstream political implications…

The need to spread the word beyond core users led to the creation of aggregator sites, which would scrape the Q drops and repost them in friendlier environs after determining authenticity. (The ability to post as Q has repeatedly been compromised, and some posts have had to be culled from the canon.) This task, Gelinas once told a friend, could be his calling from God…. His intention, as he later explained on Patreon, the crowdfunding website widely used by musicians, podcasters, and other artists, was to make memes, which are harder to police than tweets or Facebook text posts. “Memes are awesome,” Gelinas wrote. “They also bypass big tech censorship.” (Social media companies are, at least in theory, opposed to disinformation, and QAnon posts sometimes get removed. On Oct. 6, Facebook banned QAnon-affiliated groups and pages from the service….) The site wasn’t just a repository of QAnon posts; Gelinas served as an active co-author in the movement’s growing mythology… Gelinas claimed he was the No. 2 figure in the movement, behind only Q, according to a friend, and began to dream about turning his QAnon hobby into his main gig…

By now, his site’s growth had attracted an enemy. Frederick Brennan, a 26-year-old polymath with a rare bone disease, had decided to unmask him. Brennan was a reformed troll. He’d created 8chan, but he had a change of heart after the man responsible for the 2019 mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, posted his manifesto on the forum in advance and inscribed 8chan memes on the weapons he used to kill 56 people… He referred to Gelinas’s site in a tweet as “the main vector for Q radicalization.”

Days after Gelinas was outed as the man running the site, Citigroup “had put him on administrative leave and his name was removed from the company’s internal directory. He was later terminated.”

Study: US Adults Who Mostly Rely On Social Media For News Are Less Informed, Exposed To More Conspiracy Theories

According to a new report from Pew Research, U.S. adults who get their news largely from social media platforms tend to follow the news less closely and end up less informed on several key subjects when compared to those who use other sources, like TV, radio, and news publications.

The firm first asked people how they most commonly get their news. About one-in-five (18%) said they mostly use social media to stay current. That’s close the percentages of those who say they use local TV (16%) or cable TV (16%) news, but fewer than those who say they go directly to a news website or app (25%). Another 13% said they use network TV and only 3% said they read a newspaper. To be clear, any study that asks users to self-report how they do something isn’t going to be as useful as those that collect hard data on what the consumers actually do. In other words, people who think they’re getting most of their news from TV may be, in reality, undercounting the time they spent on social media â” or vice versa.

That said, among this group of “primarily” social media news consumers, only 8% said they were following the key news story of the 2020 U.S. election “every closely,” compared with 37% of cable TV viewers who said the same, or the 33% of print users who also said this. The social media group, on this topic, was closer to the local TV group (11%). On the topic of the Coronavirus outbreak, only around a quarter (23%) of the primarily social media news consumers said they were following news of COVID-19 “very closely.” All other groups again reported a higher percentage, including those who primarily used cable TV (50%), national network TV (50%), news websites and apps (44%), and local TV (32%) for news.

Related to this finding, the survey respondents were also asked 29 different fact-based questions about news topics from recent days, including those on Trump’s impeachment, the COVID-19 outbreak, and others. Those who scored the lowest on these topics were the consumers who said they primarily used social media to get their news. Across 9 questions related to foundational political knowledge, only 17% of primarily social media news consumers scored “high political knowledge,” meaning they got 8 to 9 of the questions right. 27% scored “middle political knowledge” (6-7 right) and 57% scored “low political knowledge” (5 or fewer right.) The only group that did worse were those who primarily relied on local TV. 45% of who got their news from news primarily via websites and apps, meanwhile, had “high political knowledge,” compared with 42% for radio, 41% for print, 35% for cable TV, and 29% for network TV. The social media group of news consumers was also more exposed to fringe conspiracies, like the idea that the pandemic was intentionally planned.

40% of Anti-Vaccine Group’s Funding Came From Wealthy ‘Alternative Health’ Vendor

The nation’s oldest anti-vaccine advocacy group often emphasizes that it is supported primarily by small donations and concerned parents, describing its founder as the leader of a “national, grass roots movement.” But over the past decade a single donor has contributed more than $2.9 million to the National Vaccine Information Center, accounting for about 40 percent of the organization’s funding, according to the most recent available tax records.

That donor, osteopathic physician Joseph Mercola, has amassed a fortune selling natural health products, court records show, including vitamin supplements, some of which he claims are alternatives to vaccines.

In recent years, the center has been at the forefront of a movement that has led some parents to forgo or delay immunizing their children against vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles. Health officials say falling vaccination rates contributed to the infectious virus sickening more than 1,200 people in the United States this year, the largest number in more than 25 years. Measles outbreaks are surging worldwide, including in Samoa — where nearly 80 people have died since mid-October, the great majority of them young children and infants… The group claimed credit this year for helping to defeat legislation in a dozen states that would have made it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinating their children…

Mercola, whose claims about other products have drawn warnings from regulators, has also given at least $4 million to several groups that echo the anti-vaccine message. His net worth, derived largely from his network of private companies, has grown to “in excess of $100 million,” he said in a 2017 affidavit.

In 2010 Mercola’s site and the anti-vaccination group “launched a website that tracks vaccine-related legislation in every state. The site provides activists with detailed information, including how to sign up for public comment to support or oppose legislation in their state, where to park to attend a public hearing and what color T-shirt to wear to rallies…”

“In 2016, in response to a complaint from the Federal Trade Commission, Mercola refunded nearly $2.6 million to more than 1,300 people who bought tanning beds that he claimed could reduce the risk of skin cancer.”

Renée DiResta: The Lunatics are Running the Asylum