It started with a Tweet from a QAnon supporter at 2:09 in the morning: #SubpoenaObama.
Though devoid of context, the cryptic message made sense to anyone in tune with the groundless conspiracy theory that the Obama administration -- prior to leaving office in 2017 -- had taken active measures to undermine the incoming Trump presidency.
Within a minute, the same Twitter account sent another tweet encouraging others to push the hashtag, adding that if they do, "good things will happen."
Dozens of QAnon enthusiasts obliged, and before long the hashtag was on fire, at times racking up roughly 4,000 tweets per hour, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), which tracks misinformation across social media channels. Along the way #SubpoenaObama was tweeted by conservative influencers such as Glenn Beck and former Fox Nation personalities Diamond and Silk.
By the next day, May 14, the hashtag had apparently caught the eye of President Trump, who used Twitter to urge Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- to call Obama to testify.
"He knew EVERYTHING," Trump tweeted, referring to Obama. "Just do it."
Later that day, Graham announced a probe into the matter -- although he begged off Trump's request to subpoena Obama himself.
The example highlights a little-known facet of QAnon, experts at the NCRI said.
Rather than being a nebulous group that amplifies messages organically at the grassroots level, QAnon appears to also be an occasional architect of messages that, through coordinated behavior, make their way to the most powerful factions of the Republican Party.
"QAnon is a disinformation network (that) has grown like a virus to attack the pillars of our democracy -- systematically with specific forms of disinformation that are strategic," said Joel Finkelstein, cofounder of the NCRI, which has produced a newly released report -- which it provided to CNN -- about QAnon that includes the finding about the #SubpoenaObama hashtag.
"Working with the highest levels of power in our country, they've found ways to hijack our national conversation," Finkelstein added.
The influence of QAnon swelled this year despite the ludicrous -- some would say cult-like -- contention at its core: that Trump is fighting a cabal of Satan-worshiping elites that engages in pedophilia and child sacrifice.
So substantial is QAnon's following that many Republican elected officials have been loath to condemn it. The most vocal Republican critic of the group, Rep. Denver Riggleman of Virginia -- who is an adviser to the NCRI -- is serving the final days of his term. This week, as one of his last acts, he plans to deliver a rebuke of the movement on the floor of the House.
"A lot of people scoff at QAnon -- think it's just a bunch of, let's face it, a bunch of idiots who believe anything on the internet," Riggleman told CNN. "But there is something sinister. It's something much more dangerous going on here."
From fringe to mainstream
Three years after its birth on the fringes of the internet, QAnon appears to have gone mainstream.
Several celebrities and influencers have at various times shared QAnon-related rhetoric and content, including Congresswoman-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn and retired Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. A smattering of entertainers like James Woods and Larry the Cable Guy have retweeted QAnon followers.
A September report by a researcher at Tufts University found that about 1 in 6 American adults trust QAnon as a reliable source at least some of the time. Still, the same poll -- led by Brian Schaffner, a professor of civic studies -- found that most Americans haven't heard of QAnon, and that even among those who view QAnon favorably, only 38% buy into the core belief that a global network tortures and sexually abuses children in Satanic rituals.
"Just saying you like QAnon is not akin to basically being a believer in all QAnon conspiracy theories -- or even knowing about all of them," Schaffner told CNN. "I think some people just sort of say they like QAnon, because, 'Oh, I think Trump likes QAnon, and I like Trump. So I probably like QAnon, even though I don't really know much about it and I don't pay attention to it.'"
Cynthia Miller-Idriss, an education and sociology professor at American University in Washington, DC, said the QAnon movement expanded rapidly over the summer, and intersects with other conspiracy ideas.
"It's mobilized some violence and really troubling ways on the extreme fringe," she said. "But I think it's also just amplifying a lot of content that undermines people's faith in the election, in the integrity of election results, (and) that undermines people's faith in the vaccine" for the coronavirus.
Rooted in old anti-Semitic tropes of conspiring cabals of elites, QAnon is distinct from other online extremist groups in that it tends to attract middle-aged adults, Miller-Idriss said.
"You have 15-year-olds at home feeling like, 'What do I do? My mom thinks she's going to go fight child trafficking rings ... she's spending all her time online doing that and has lost touch with reality,'" said Miller-Idriss, whose team partnered with the NCRI on the report. "QAnon believers can get radicalized very quickly, sometimes in a matter of weeks."
The NCRI report stresses that QAnon takes advantage of well-meaning people by exploiting fears of existential threats.
"We must focus on the humanity of people caught up in QAnon," it says. "The QAnon conspiracy movement thrives on dehumanization. Through compassion and patience, people may be drawn out."
Much of the group's mystique stems from the anonymity of its "leader," a figure who goes by "Q" and initially began periodically dropping encrypted messages into an online message board called 4chan before switching to 8chan, which is now known as 8kun. The clues are then voraciously decoded by followers.
These so-called "bread crumbs" led Q followers to some bizarre falsehoods: Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden's body double in 2011 and the terrorist is still alive (a claim that was retweeted by Trump); a ring of Hollywood stars are pedophiles; the death of George Floyd in police custody was staged; Trump is plotting a mass arrest of officials and celebrities; the Mueller investigation was actually looking into a child-trafficking ring.
A separate analysis by Advance Democracy, Inc., a nonpartisan governance watchdog, shows that QAnon accounts also played a role in popularizing an incendiary and baseless hashtag about President-elect Joe Biden. The first apparent use of #PedoBiden on Twitter came in 2016 from an account now associated with QAnon, according to Advance Democracy's analysis. About 10% of tweets with that hashtag came from QAnon-related accounts until September of this year, when Trump retweeted the hashtag, it found.
Where QAnon first made an appearance
The QAnon-associated account that first used the #PedoBiden hashtag was replying to a tweet with the caption "Pedo Joe?" which was posted by Mike Cernovich, a central figure behind the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory that culminated in December of 2016 with a man firing an assault rifle inside a DC pizza parlor because he was searching for a pedophile ring he'd read about online. After finding no evidence of such a ring, he surrendered to authorities. But that conspiracy theory laid the groundwork for QAnon.
QAnon also amplified the falsehood that Dominion Voting Systems, an election-software company, switched millions of votes from President Trump to President-elect Joe Biden. The Advance Democracy report found that 14% of the nearly 110,000 tweets using the hashtag #dominion between November 2 and November 12 came from QAnon-affiliated accounts.
Some of QAnon's activity has spilled into the real world.
A QAnon adherent is accused of murdering a crime boss in New York last year, believing him to be a member of the "deep state."
In February, a man in Arizona pleaded guilty to a terrorism charge after blocking a bridge near the Hoover Dam with an armored vehicle in 2018, echoing demands by QAnon followers that the federal government release a report.
Trump himself has amplified accounts affiliated with QAnon more than 265 times, according to a comprehensive and widely cited analysis by Media Matters, a left-leaning media monitoring group.
Tuesday morning, Trump retweeted an influential supporter of QAnon: Ron Watkins, a former administrator of 8kun, which is owned by his father, Jim Watkins. It has been widely speculated -- without evidence -- that one or both of the Watkins men could be Q, or know who Q is; they have denied they are Q or help craft Q's posts, according to The Washington Post.
In an apparent attempt to insinuate election fraud, Ron Watkins tweeted Monday that incoming Acting U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen -- who will replace William Barr in the final weeks of the Trump administration -- had recently wrote an essay about foreign influence in US election. Watkins' tweet was tagged by Twitter as a disputed claim; Trump retweeted it anyway.
The NCRI report included one other example that appears to show how a QAnon hashtag bubbled into the mainstream.
#Obamagate, which is shorthand for the groundless theory that the Obama administration sought to undermine Trump's presidency, was first used by a QAnon-affiliated Twitter account, according to Media Matters. A hashtag analysis by the NCRI found that a majority of the hashtags used in conjunction with #Obamagate are QAnon-related, such as #QAnon, #WWG1WGA and #TheGreatAwakening -- a reference to how, according to the QAnon prophecy, the day will come in which large numbers of people finally realize the truth of the conspiracy.
The co-mingling of #Obamagate with the Q-related hashtags "suggests the (QAnon) movement played a key role in spreading the conspiracy theory" of ObamaGate, says the NCRI report.
In the #SubpoenaObama example, after Trump called on Graham to "just do it," the originator of the hashtag -- who went by E., and whose account has been suspended -- took a moment to gloat.
Hours after Trump tagged Graham on May 14, E. -- whose handle, @followthe17, is a reference to how Q is the 17th letter in the alphabet -- retweeted Trump's admonition, along with a screen grab of E.'s original promise to his or her 20,500 followers from the day before: "Hey #QAnons -- If you make #SubpoenaObama trend; good things will happen." E. topped the retweet and the screen grab with a simple message: an emoji wink.
Trump followed up on the evening of May 14 with what appeared to be a winking Tweet of his own.
"Thank you to all of my great Keyboard Warriors. You are better, and far more brilliant, than anyone on Madison Avenue (Ad Agencies). There is nobody like you!"
Trump refuses to condemn QAnon
It's unclear how aware Trump is of QAnon's coordinated efforts, but he has refused to condemn the group, and has even praised it.
"I've heard these are people that love our country," he said in August, in the White House briefing room.
During a tense town hall interview with NBC News' Savannah Guthrie in mid-October, Trump refused to denounce QAnon before pivoting to a critique of antifa.
"I know nothing about it," Trump said. "I do know they are very much against pedophilia -- they fight it very hard. ... I'll tell you about what I do know about. I know about antifa and I know about the radical left."
Earlier this month, it was revealed that Trump in a recent meeting said QAnon consists of people who "basically believe in good government," according to a source familiar with the matter.
Many Republican lawmakers have also been reluctant to denounce the organization. In September, Riggleman -- the outgoing GOP Congressman from Virginia -- and Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced a bipartisan measure condemning QAnon. It passed handily, but 17 Republicans and one Libertarian voted no. Thirty-four Republicans and six Democrats didn't vote on the non-binding resolution.
Riggleman lost his seat during the primary season in June, when Virginia's 5th Congressional District Republican Committee nominated his opponent, Bob Good, nearly a year after Riggleman sparked controversy by officiating a same-sex wedding between two of his friends. (Good beat his Democratic challenger, Cameron Webb, on November 3.)
Riggleman, a former Air Force intelligence officer who has worked as a contractor for the National Security Administration in computer-network operations, told CNN that he recognizes in QAnon messaging the distinct "language of radicalization."
"This is very dangerous," he said. "I think we're on a bit of a knife's edge right now."