So far, not much has come true for believers of QAnon, the wild conspiracy theory that has captured hearts and minds among President Donald Trump’s most ardent MAGA fans.
That is, until last weekend, when federal authorities arrested billionaire investor Jeffrey Epstein, accused of trafficking and abusing young girls.
The case contains all the ingredients necessary to titillate the imaginations of the QAnon community, which revolves around the baseless theory that deep-state liberal elites are running a global child sex trafficking ring.
Epstein, a powerful billionaire, has numerous high-profile celebrity and political connections. He cut a plea deal in 2008 for abusing minors, which leaves room to speculate on possible backdoor dealings. He also owns a private island in the Caribbean, which, according to the indictment, was dubbed “Orgy Island” or the “Island of Sin” — and young girls were brought there on his jet, known as the “Lolita Express.”
And most importantly of all for the QAnon community: Their mysterious leader “Q” had posted about Epstein and his island nearly a year prior to his arrest. After so many crushing disappointments (for example, Trump’s political opponents were not, in fact, arrested en masse and sent to Guantanamo on December 5, as predicted by Q), the QAnon community has gleefully seized upon the Epstein case to argue that they were right all along.
“The broadest grievances of the QAnon community revolve around corrupt elites who are untouched by the justice system, covered-up child abuse, and sex trafficking,” said Travis View, a researcher who hosts a podcast about QAnon. “Part of the promise of the QAnon is that these injustices will be corrected soon. You can see how the credible allegations and arrest of Jeffrey Epstein ticks all these boxes.”
One person wrote on the alternative social media site Voat: “Patriots, it’s up to us to make sure that justice is brought forth in the epstein case. This is it, and Q has posted everything we needed to see today to justify that. Timely. If this one gets away, they all do.”
But QAnon’s preoccupation with the case stretches beyond the allegations at hand. In the past they’ve shared “leaked images” from his private Caribbean island, which they claimed showed enslaved children trapped in underground rooms. QAnon posted on the imageboard site 8chan in April 2018 with a bird's-eye view image of Epstein’s island and cryptic text about sacrifice, conspiracy, and evil.
In other posts, they baselessly claimed that a female celebrity, described as a former sex slave turned “recruiter/ handler of underage children for Epstein’s island” is at the center of the operation. For example, this post on April 6, 2018:
Who is she?
Friends lead to others.
But there’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest that she’s connected.
“The problem, which is typical of QAnon, is that they make outlandish claims that unnecessarily go beyond the evidence,” said View. “In the case of Epstein, they absurdly claim that Epstein Island contains secret underground tunnels in which children were abused and sacrificed. This is an echo of the satanic panic of the 80s, in which preschools were baselessly accused of containing tunnels used for hiding child abuse.”
The QAnon community largely congregate on alternative social media platforms (after they were excommunicated from Reddit) such as Voat, 8chan and 4chan, where they eagerly await semi-regular “Q Drops,” which are mysterious messages signed by Q.
There have been 73 “Q Drops” since the beginning of May and there was a significant lull in June, leading some to speculate that the release of the Mueller report had been the final nail in the coffin for the movement, whose slogan is “trust the plan.” But Epstein’s arrest seems to have reenergized QAnon: Since Epstein’s arrest over the weekend, there have been 52 Q Drops.
“Q is BACK!!!” one person wrote on Voat on Monday. “Nice to see you Q. MISSED YOU LOTS!!!”
“So, Q was probably involved with investigators at some level with nvixm and or Epstein?” another opined. “Does that narrow down the identity?”
One message posted at 11 p.m. Tuesday contains a link to a YouTube video showing aerial drone footage of Epstein’s island, along with the text:
“Welcome to Epstein island
Ask yourself, is this normal?
What does a ‘Temple’ typically symbolize?
What does an ‘OWL’ symbolize (dark religion)?
How many channels captured on RC’s pic?
Rooms indicate size.
Symbolism will be their downfall.
These people are EVIL.
A website dedicated to the QAnon community compiles the “Q Drops” and graphics created by hardcore fans. It also features a “key players” page, which shows images of high-ranking officials and celebrities, who are labeled as either: “patriot,” “traitor/ pawn”, “neutral/ unknown,” “flipped/freed,” or “evil.” Epstein isn’t on the list, but the female celebrity is. “Q” dug up photos of the woman posing with former President Bill Clinton, Paris Hilton, British Prince Andrew, and the Rothschilds. However, the woman has not been named by federal prosecutors as one of Epstein’s four alleged female co-conspirators.
In addition to the child sex trafficking conspiracy, QAnon posits that the Russia investigation was actually a front — and Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller are in cahoots to bring down the sex ring. Any day now, they believe, Mueller will unseal thousands of pending federal indictments against celebrities and high-ranking officials.
QAnon began in October 2017 when “Q” (in reference to the highest government security clearance available) posted a cryptic message on 4chan, referencing equally cryptic remarks by Trump at a photo op with military personnel. At the appearance, the president warned about an impending “calm before the storm” — which has since become a slogan associated with Q.
It’s often been described as a spinoff from the Pizzagate conspiracy, which posited that then-candidate Hillary Clinton and Democrat officials were running a child trafficking ring below the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in D.C. The Pizzagate theory, which spread quickly via social media, inspired a man to drive six hours from North Carolina, armed with an AR-15, which he fired upon arrival. Nobody was hurt, but the incident was a tangible reminder that fake news and conspiracy theories can inspire real-world violence.
Since that first post by “Q,” the movement has ballooned. View estimates there are at least tens of thousands of adherents. QAnon T-shirts and signs are now mainstays of Trump events, and believers are easily identified on Twitter through their signature “three star” emojis added to their handle. A bookseller in Florida who believes in QAnon is running for Congress. A prominent conservative politician in Canada shared YouTube videos promoting QAnon. Even Trump’s pastry chef at Mar-A-Lago is said to be a believer. Last December, an outgoing city council member in California said “God Bless Q” during her farewell address, before reading a QAnon post aloud. And a book about QAnon, which claims that Democrats eat children, made it to No. 2 on Amazon’s best-seller list.
Like the Pizzagate incident, QAnon hysteria has at times manifested in real-world harassment and potential violence. For example, in June 2018, a man in Nevada with an AR-15 and a handgun was arrested after he drove an armored vehicle to the Hoover Dam and blocked traffic for 90 minutes while he demanded the release of a second, secret report into the FBI’s conduct during the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server (the idea of a “second report” is a popular theory in QAnon world). He later wrote a letter from jail that was filled with QAnon references. Another man that month occupied an old cement plant in Tuscon because he believed it was being used as a base for Democrats’ sex trafficking ring.
Cover: Supporters of President Donald Trump wearing "QAnon" T-shirts wait in line before a campaign rally at Freedom Hall on October 1, 2018, in Johnson City, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)