An internal FBI memo classified QAnon and other conspiracy theories as a threat — and the move could make them stronger
QAnon believers have had a rough summer. Trump’s July 4th rally, when many believed the late John F. Kennedy Jr. would emerge from hiding to claim his rightful role as Trump’s running mate, came and went. So did July 31st, the projected date of “declas,” or the moment when the community believed that declassified documents pointing to deep state corruption would finally be dropped. Now, in what is perhaps the ultimate example of kicking someone while they’re down, Yahoo News has published a 15-page internal memo from the FBI declaring conspiracy theories a domestic terrorism threat.
Distributed on May 30th, the memo from the bureau’s Phoenix office notes that it is the first report of its kind to take aim at “conspiracy-driven domestic terrorism,” citing a number of violent incidents the bureau believes were linked to conspiracy theories. “The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts,” the document says.
Although the memo lists a number of such theories, including Pizzagate and the conspiracy surrounding the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, it pays particular notice to QAnon, the wide-ranging (and extremely non-evidence-based) theory suggesting that Hillary Clinton and other high-ranking Democratic officials are engaged in a child sex trafficking ring, and that President Trump will one day arrest them and send them to Guantanamo Bay. QAnon followers also believe that the Mueller report was a smokescreen for Mueller and Trump’s secret investigation into the Democratic officials and other “global elites.” While originating from the smaller corners of the internet, such as anonymous message boards and sites like 4chan, the theory has since gained traction in the mainstream thanks to proponents like Roseanne Barr publicly endorsing it, as well as President Trump himself retweeting a QAnon-related account earlier this week. (The account was subsequently suspended by Twitter.)
The FBI memo cites at least two violent incidents or attempts purportedly linked to QAnon: An Arizona man harassed and doxed locals he suspected of participating in the child sex trafficking ring at the heart of the conspiracy theory; and a Nevada man at the Hoover Dam whose truck was found to contain rifles and other ammunition, who was later discovered to have sent letters to President Trump containing references to the movement. (It does not cite the case of QAnon believer Anthony Comello, a Staten Island man who allegedly fatally shot Mafia boss Frank Cali because he believed he was a member of the deep state.)
And unlike much media coverage of conspiracy theorists, which largely dismisses them as harmless cranks, the FBI memo is significant in that it makes painstakingly clear that conspiracy theories like QAnon pose a threat to national safety, and that the purpose of the document is to “inform discussions within law enforcement as they relate to potentially harmful conspiracy theories and domestic extremism.” “This is sort of our first confirmation that federal law enforcement is taking this issue seriously, which is something that was totally unknown to us,” says Travis View, cohost of the podcast QAnon Anonymous, who has been closely following the movement since its nascence in 2017.
But while the memo was explicitly intended to flag conspiracy theorists as a potential security threat, it’s unclear whether the conspiracy theorists themselves feel the same way — or if it just added fuel to the fire of their beliefs.
There are still many questions surrounding the memo, such as why it was disseminated when it was, or how Yahoo acquired it. Considering that the FBI has long attracted criticism for failing to adequately address the scourge of white nationalists and far-right extremist hate groups, it is unclear what precisely may have prompted the FBI to consider conspiracy theorists a domestic terrorism threat. View believes that it may have been prompted by the bureau readying itself for tensions sparked by the upcoming 2020 election, or that it may have been leaked to address criticism that the bureau was doing little to combat domestic terrorist threats from far-right extremists. Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communication at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, speculates that it may have been spurred by the April release of the Mueller report, essentially the lynchpin of the entire QAnon conspiracy theory. The report details the role social media played in the 2016 election in propagating such theories, making it “extremely hard” for the government to dismiss conspiracy theories, says Grygiel. “Given the report that there is an information threat through conspiracy theories, and these theories are recruiting tools and radicalization tools that could be leading to the formation of groups that might be engaging in real-world protests demonstrations or acts of violence, the FBI is engaging in due diligence,” they say.
Of course, conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon, but the FBI memo notes (in typically stodgy, technophobic, government bureau fashion) that the advent of social media has played a crucial role in propagating them. Dr. Kathleen Stansberry, an assistant professor of media analytics at Elon University and director of research for its Imagining the Internet Center, calls out two platforms in particular: Twitter and YouTube. The former, she says, differs from other platforms in that it allows “topic-based ideas to gain traction” for an audience beyond your immediate social circle; in terms of gaining access to information, she says, Twitter is “like drinking from a firehose” (it also has done little to prevent verifiably inaccurate conspiracy theories from trending, as we saw with the reemergence of the #ClintonBodyCount hashtag last week). YouTube’s recommended videos algorithm, which offers content similar to what you’re currently watching, has also been identified as a radicalizing force for many who harbor extremist views, easily allowing users to go down a rabbit hole of misinformation by “slowly introducing you to ideas that are outside the norm.”
Curiously, the FBI memo does not hold social media platforms to task. Grygiel speculates that it may have something to do with social media platforms collaborating with the FBI to conduct surveillance on those who share such conspiracy theories, which might also play into why the FBI did not publicly release the report. “I would be in shock if, in implementing this monitoring, [the FBI] did not include the platforms,” they say. (Representatives for Facebook, Twitter, and Google, which owns YouTube, did not return requests for comment at press time.)
The FBI memo also raises questions about what gets classified as a conspiracy theory, or what is considered dangerous and radicalizing in the eyes of the government, and what does not. The fact that groups like QAnon have now been officially deemed threats may prompt some on the right — already wary of social media platforms restricting free speech — to fret about whether the memo creates a “grey area” in terms of what crosses the line from harmless theorizing into actual violence, says Grygiel. But as both Grygiel and View note, QAnon undoubtedly does not fall into this category. In addition to the violent incidents cited in the FBI memo, the movement has a history of violent rhetoric, with Reddit notoriously banning many QAnon-related groups due to a high incidence of violent threats. “If you believe the world is being controlled by people who are killing and eating children, violence would arguably be an acceptable remedy to this horrifying state of affairs,” says View. “This is a movement that is already leading to criminal acts and its growing and it feels like it’s going to get worse.”
But a bigger reason why the FBI may have chosen not to release the report — or even publicly reference it while discussing domestic terrorism threats, as FBI Director Christopher Wray has done multiple times in recent weeks — is because of the effect it may have had on QAnon itself. “I think Qanon will pat themselves on the back. This [classification] will also attract more people and legitimize it” in the eyes of many, says Grygiel, comparing being put on a watch list to “unlocking a badge” for conspiracy theorists. After all, if the central premise of QAnon is a far-reaching government cover-up, what could serve as more of a confirmation of your worldview than the government deeming those calling for the exposure of said cover-up a threat to national security?
And this, says Stansberry, is precisely what makes conspiracy theories so dangerous: because they are impossible to disprove, any outsider attempt to poke holes in them is always viewed as just another sign, just another breadcrumb, just another reason for you to keep fighting to get the real story out into the world. “You’re trying to share the truth as you see it, and there’s some reason why that truth is being hidden,” she explains. “If you truly believe in the conspiracy theory, then you’re David against Goliath.” She suggests that the memo “could certainly have stoked some of the desire for people to push what they see as their truth out.”
Indeed, judging by the response on social media, this appears to be exactly what has happened. While some appeared to have been genuinely wounded by the FBI memo, expressing deep feelings of outrage and betrayal toward Q, who had repeatedly assured followers in various posts that Wray was to be trusted, others appeared to double down. One theory that gained some traction was that deep state agents had infiltrated the FBI to write the memo; others, that the document wasn’t real, due to the fact that it had cited Wikipedia and Snopes as sources. Perhaps most terrifyingly, many felt validated by the memo, taking it as yet another sign that everything was going according to plan. Some interpreted it as a way to force the mainstream media’s hand and get them to ask Trump directly about QAnon, one of the major goals of the community; others cheered the fact that Wikipedia editors had noted the memo in the QAnon page, giving the movement what View describes as “bad boy mystique.”
Ultimately, QAnon’s reaction to the FBI memo arguably belies what makes it such a threat in the first place: when your worldview is predicated on a system of beliefs that can neither be proven or disproven, nothing, not even being deemed an internal terrorism threat by the FBI, can do much to change that. Which is why the majority of true believers will continue to speculate, to theorize, to look for breadcrumbs; to view the world as a dark, shadowy place, where powerful people pull all the strings as a network of vigilante heroes lie in wait to snip them.
“Every sort of event within QAnon has the same effect: something happens, and it feels very validating to them,” says View, citing the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire known for his ties to QAnon figures like the Clintons, as an example. “And if something happens like the arrest of Anthony Comello, that also caused them to double down, because they thought, ‘Oh, they’re out to get us.’ Every event, good or bad, energizes them.”
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