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Trump rally shows popularity of fringe group

A fringe conspiracy group called QAnon has become increasingly popular with supporters at Trump rallies. CNN's Gary Tuchman reports.

Posted: Aug 4, 2018 6:05 PM
Updated: Aug 4, 2018 6:07 PM

Among the attendees of President Trump's rally in Florida were people holding up signs promoting an online right-wing conspiracy persona -- who's been targeting movie stars and the Democratic Party alike.

The signs "We are Q" and "Q" appeared near the front of the crowd during Trump's speech in Tampa, as many live-streams showed.

It was an apparent reference to QAnon, a group that originated on the 4chan messaging board around an anonymous user, "Q," who claims to be a member of the US military intelligence.

People wearing QAnon shirts and flashing similar signs were also pictured while lining up for the rally.

The group's theory, among other things, alleges that several A-list figures in the entertainment industry and the government are involved in child sex crimes and a "deep state" effort to annihilate Trump.

With the appearance of supporters at the Tampa rally, the movement appears to be moving beyond cyberspace.

Presidential Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders addressed their presence at the rally.

"The President condemns and denounces any group that would incite violence against any individual, and certainly doesn't support groups that would promote that type of behavior," she said.

Users on 4chan, Reddit and the more fringe 8chan devote their time to decoding the supposedly top-secret clues -- nicknamed "breadcrumbs" -- that "Q" routinely leaves on those channels. Then, they take action -- online but also offline -- based on a free interpretation of those clues.

One real-life example emerged a couple of days ago, when Stormy Daniels' lawyer Michael Avenatti called police to investigate a man who appeared near his office in Newport Beach after "Q" flagged the location in an online post.

On Monday, Avenatti tweeted a picture of a man, who is holding a cellphone in one hand and another object in another, standing outside his office saying: "We are trying to identify the man in this picture, which was taken outside my office yesterday (Sun) afternoon. Please contact @NewportBeachPD if you have any details or observed him. We will NOT be intimidated into stopping or changing our course. #Basta"

Avenatti told CNN he doesn't know whether or not the man in question is related to QAnon. "I am focused on who he is and why he was there that day," he said in an email.

The same building had been previously mentioned on an online forum by "Q" on Sunday. The anonymous poster dropped on 8chan two pictures of Avenatti's office in Newport Beach, saying "buckle up!"

Then, he posted a picture of the man saying a message "had been sent."

Avenatti said he's proud to be targeted by the conspiracy theorists on Twitter. "I wear it as a badge because it shows that Trump's supporters are very concerned about me, as they should be," he told CNN.

It's not known if the two incidents are tied, but police are involved.

A spokesperson for the Newport Beach Police Department told CNN: "We received a call about the photo on Monday at about 12:30 pm. We responded and took a suspicious circumstances report, which was forwarded to investigators for follow-up. At this point, there has been no indications of criminal activity (such as vandalism, threats, etc.)"

In a series of videos posted online, QAnon has targeted Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Cemex, a Mexican cement company, who were all baselessly accused of pedophilia.

Despite YouTube's efforts to fight misinformation and fake news, the videos appeared among the top search results on YouTube on Monday morning in searches for Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Cemex, according to media reports. One of the videos gathered more than 300,000 views.

Following these media reports, YouTube de-ranked the conspiracy videos.

However, as of Wednesday afternoon, the videos were still among the top results when filtered by ratings.

A conspiracy video entitled "#Qanon breaking: Hollywood actor Isaac Kappy exposes Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg as pedophiles" was still ranked third on the search by ratings, and autocomplete results for Cemex showed "Cemex child trafficking" when a user searched for the Mexican company.

"We're continuously working to better surface and promote news and authoritative sources to make the best possible information available to YouTube viewers," a YouTube spokesperson told CNN.

YouTube fixed the autocomplete feature for Cemex after CNN's inquiry.

Cemex, a Mexican construction materials company, is being targeted because it reportedly owns an abandoned camp in Arizona which conspiracy theorists erroneously believe is the location of a human trafficking site.

CNN has reached out to Cemex and representatives for Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg but has not received a response yet.

It is not the first time that YouTube has come under scrutiny for its perceived inaction towards conspiracy theory videos.

Less than an hour after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on February 14, videos falsely claiming that survivors and eyewitnesses including 17-year-old David Hogg were "crisis actors" were among the top trending on the video portal. Hogg has since been mentioned hundreds of times on 4chan's political archive.

A location for the account claims its geotag is a city in Russia, but CNN cannot verify that.

CNN reached out to 4chan for comment twice about these false posts about Hogg, but has not yet received a response.

Conspiracy theorists appear to be focusing on Hogg and his fellow students because they have been so outspoken about gun safety issues since the shooting.

As recently as last week, YouTube deleted four videos posted by InfoWars founder Alex Jones and gave him a strike -- meaning he cannot livestream content for 3 months. Jones and Infowars regularly peddle conspiracy theories, including the claim that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax.

InfoWars has not yet responded to CNNMoney's request for comment. However, Jones tweeted an acknowledgment of the YouTube action with a link to the InfoWars website -- where he said the videos are still available.

YouTube is not the only tech company who had to deal with QAnon. Apple was forced to remove an app promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory after a media inquiry.

Fascination with QAnon conspiracy theories has also reached high-profile conservative figures and organizations. In March, before being fired from her sitcom, Roseanne Barr tweeted about the conspiracy theory, alluding to the baseless claim that President Trump "has broken up trafficking rings in high places everywhere." She later deleted the tweet after an online backlash.

Back in Florida, the official account for the Hillsborough County Republican executive committee recently tweeted, then deleted, a YouTube video explaining in detail the QAnon conspiracy theory, as first reported by the Tampa Bay Times.

Hillsborough County GOP chairman Jim Waurishuk told CNN the tweet was posted on July 4 for informational reasons with the intent of the Hillsborough County GOP followers keeping an eye out for what it means and any derogatory information that could cause problems.

After the Tampa Bay Times published a story on the tweet on July 16, Waurishuk says the Hillsborough GOP office started getting death threats in direct phone calls and emails to the Hillsborough GOP office. That is when the party deleted the tweet due to security concerns, according to Waurishuk.

Waurishuk says conspiracy theories are "an unfortunate aspect of politics."

"It's not beneficial," he told CNN. "We do not espouse that, we do not follow that, it's not part of our ideology. We don't stand by anything in QAnon."

Waurishuk added that he does not believe their tweet from July 4 is the reason why people were wearing QAnon T-shirts at Trump's rally in Tampa.

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