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Journalist Enters The World Of QAnon: 'It's Almost Like A Bad Spy Novel'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Crowds at rallies for President Trump, when they happen, always include some people wearing T-shirts or holding placards featuring the letter Q. They're adherents of QAnon, a conspiracy theory that holds that a secret cabal of deep state actors connected to Democrats and celebrities are manipulating the government and controlling the media in pursuit of dark ends including child sex trafficking.

QAnon adherents regard Trump as their champion fighting the deep state, anticipating an apocalyptic victory in which there are mass arrests of Democrats. QAnon draws its name from Q, a self-professed government insider who posts messages on obscure Internet chat boards. President Trump has retweeted some pro-QAnon tweets. And he praised Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon believer who won a Republican congressional primary in Georgia last week and is expected to win a House seat in November.

After we recorded this interview yesterday, President Trump was asked during a White House press briefing what he thinks about QAnon and what he has to say to people who are following the movement. He replied, quote, "I don't know much about the movement other than that I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate." And he added, I've heard these are people that love our country. After his remarks, QAnon followers posted on Facebook and Twitter that Trump's comments were a validation of their movement. Our guest is Adrienne Lafrance, the executive editor of The Atlantic, where she wrote a lengthy article titled "The Prophecies Of Q" for the June issue of the magazine. She spoke to me from her home in Washington, D.C.

Adrienne LaFrance, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ADRIENNE LAFRANCE: Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: So who are the conspirators that QAnon believers believe are doing all this? Are they specified by Q or others?

LAFRANCE: There are some key figures that the Q crowd is pretty obsessed with, probably not surprisingly Hillary Clinton, basically anyone in Hollywood - just powerful Democrats or other sort of members of the elite. You see sort of, like, Anderson Cooper pop up in Q discourse - so anyone who's perceived as powerful or elite.

DAVIES: You know, I could imagine a secret cabal in the government that might want to raise our taxes or indoctrinate us or take our guns away, some policy goal. But this notion that they're sexually abusing children, where did this come from?

LAFRANCE: It's really an ancient preoccupation among conspiracy theorists going back even before we had a term for conspiracy theories. And so I mean, you can truly go back to the Crusades and find anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about this notion that the Jews were secretly abusing children. And you see this pop up again and again through history. And that's one of the notable things about Q is it - QAnon really borrows from earlier conspiracy theories and kind of eats lesser conspiracy theories as it goes. It has all sorts of narrative echoes of the past.

DAVIES: Right. People may remember Pizzagate, which was this set of beliefs that led to this really scary attack on a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., where this gentleman, Edgar Maddison Welch, came in armed thinking that the pizza parlor was a center for child sexual abuse involving Hillary Clinton. He came in, shot the lock off a door, found nothing, of course, and was arrested. What's interesting is that this happened months before Q made his first post, right? Did one connect to the other?

LAFRANCE: That's right. So Pizzagate came about after the WikiLeaks hack the last presidential election. And so WikiLeaks dumps a bunch of private emails on the Internet. People start obsessively combing through them, in particular, looking at John Podesta's emails. This is the, at the time, Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign chair.

And they find references to Comet Ping Pong, which is this beloved little pizza shop here in Washington, D.C. And, you know, who knows if it was just the unusual name of the place or what, but this Internet crowd, especially on the message board 4Chan and among some Trump supporters and high-profile conspiracy theorists, really seize on Comet and sort of develop the same narrative that we see with Q about this idea that there is a secret group of high-profile Democrats abusing children in this pizza shop, which, of course, is nonsense.

And so this happens in the fall of 2016 leading up to this moment where this armed gentleman goes into the pizza shop. And after that - that was sort of a flashpoint where some people sort of slowly backed away. You know, there was real-world potential harm associated with Pizzagate. And so it seemed like it was going to fall out of favor. And then, suddenly, in October 2017, Q comes roaring back with a lot of the same ideas attached to it.

DAVIES: So does Q in his or her or their posts - we don't know if it's one person or more - write explicitly about sex trafficking?

LAFRANCE: There are references to it. I mean, one of the odd aspects of QAnon is the language of these what they're called Q drops, these clues left on the message boards by this figure or these people, are very broad and very cryptic. And so there are in-group references to, you know - references to child abuse that come from Pizzagate lexicon. And so it's really - for the people who follow it, you kind of have to develop a whole understanding of the language and the code words and the taglines. But, yes, it is definitely one of the preoccupations.

DAVIES: And let's just talk a little about Q himself, herself, theirself - we don't know. What kind of language does the writer use?

LAFRANCE: It's - again, it's very cryptic. It's sort of like - almost like a bad spy novel. Like, there's a lot of cliches like, you know, instructing people to look for clues in the castle. And then you have to know that the castle means the White House and sort of just, you know - it's reads like fan fiction, honestly.

DAVIES: Right. Well, you know, you reprinted Q's first two posts in your story. (Laughter) And I found them kind of inscrutable, really. There's this sort of language that sort of suggests it's military or intelligence jargon. Have people looked at this and concluded whether this person actually seems to know military intelligence? Or is this somebody's kind of spy-novel version of it?

LAFRANCE: There is no evidence that this person or the people behind the account have any connection to actual military intelligence. There are explicit references to - you know, they want to be perceived as being very connected to high levels of military intelligence. But, really, the writing style is, like, there's a lot of brackets and code words and acronyms. And part of the appeal for people who follow this is that you develop sort of the knowledge over time for how to interpret these posts. But to the ordinary reader, you'd see it. And you might even think it was, like, algorithmically generated text (laughter).

DAVIES: Right. So what are theories within the movement about who Q is? People must speculate about this all the time.

LAFRANCE: I wish I could tell you who Q is. This is something that I wanted to figure out. It was sort of the main goal of my story. And I didn't figure it out yet (laughter). But the interesting thing is that the people who are true believers don't seem to care. And I found this really perplexing. I asked every single person I talked to, who do you think Q is? And they were almost uninterested in the question. That being said, there are all kinds of people out there who are preoccupied by this. And, you know, there are theories about it being a prominent influencer. There are a lot of questions about the owner of 8kun, where Q drops appear. You know, he's someone who went to testify before Congress and wore a Q pin on his lapel and has been very pro-Q, even started a political action committee that sort of positioned as an anti-deep state group that very much borrows from Q. So there are questions there.

DAVIES: And his name is - it's one of the Watkins, right?

LAFRANCE: His name is Jim Watkins, and I should say that he has explicitly said he doesn't know who Q is. And his son, who's the administrator of the site, has also said he doesn't know who Q is. I occasionally check in with him and sort of ask (laughter), and so far, I haven't gotten anywhere.

There's also, you know, any number of theories. One woman I talked to thought that Donald Trump himself is Q. And others say that it's a sort of open source form of military intelligence, and it is a group of 10 people who are passing the account between them. There are other people who obsess over the continuity of Q's identity and say that there's a clear point at which the original Q was compromised, and now it's sort of a impersonator. And so you can get really deep into the different theories. But I never got to the point where I was confident enough in Q's identity to say with certainty who it is.

DAVIES: So apart from sex trafficking, what are some of the other core beliefs of QAnon followers?

LAFRANCE: Well, the core beliefs are really Trumpist (ph), Trumpism (ph) beliefs. Anything that Donald Trump says you can find echoed in what Q posts about. And so it's this anti-establishment, anti-democratic, very violent rhetoric, certainly anti-free press, anti-media. It really reads like, you know, the note cards from a Trump rally.

DAVIES: OK, what does the storm refer to among QAnon followers?

LAFRANCE: So the storm is sort of this pivotal event that the Q crowd has been waiting for all along. One of the first posts that Q made reference the calm before the storm, and that in turn was a reference to a strange press conference that Donald Trump held a couple of weeks before the first Q post appeared in early October 2017 with members of the military and their spouses. And reporters were invited to take photos and sort of be there for this moment. And he starts talking about how this is the calm before the storm in a strange and sort of grandiose but cryptic way.

And so the basic idea is that we are in the calm before the storm. The storm is the moment where Trump will, as a sort of savior figure, come in and initiate mass arrests or otherwise sort of comeuppance for this evil cabal and that on the other side of the storm is a great awakening for society and to sort of put the country back on track in Q's terms.

DAVIES: Right. And he does a - he makes a little gesture with his hands referring to the semicircle of people in the press event, right?

LAFRANCE: Right. So this YouTube video of this event has become something of folklore for QAnon followers because, you know, the president does gesture frequently with his hands. But if you're a conspiracy theorist who is picking apart every last thing that he does, a sort of gesture to an assembled crowd could, in their minds, look like a secret gesture of the letter Q. And that's what a lot of QAnon folks have claimed.

DAVIES: Going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. Adrienne LaFrance is the executive editor of The Atlantic. We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS SCLAVIS' "FETE FORAINE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're talking about QAnon, the conspiracy theory embraced by some supporters of President Trump. Its adherents follow the online posts of an anonymous self-described high-ranking government insider called Q. The theory holds that President Trump is battling a cabal of deep state conspirators who engage in actions as sinister as child sex trafficking. Our guest is the executive editor of The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance. She wrote an in-depth analysis of the movement in June called "The Prophecies Of Q."

There are also ideas about the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., whose plane went down - right? - in a twilight journey.

LAFRANCE: In 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed in a plane crash. And for whatever reason, the QAnon crowd has become obsessed with him. And there's a couple of different theories here - again, theories upon theories within theories. But one idea is that he didn't actually die in a plane crash but rather that Hillary Clinton had him killed because she was a political opponent. Another idea is that he faked his own death and is actually alive and a secret Trump supporter. For a while, people were saying that he was going to reveal himself as Trump's running mate in this presidential election, which obviously raises all kinds of questions. And there's clearly no evidence to support any of this.

DAVIES: I read that when the coronavirus really became an issue earlier this spring that hashtags including QAnon grew dramatically, that it seemed that the profile of this group really increased. What's their view of the coronavirus?

LAFRANCE: Well, it's been really interesting to track, actually, because it has mirrored Trump's response to the virus very closely. And I paid close attention to this in early March because it seems like a global pandemic would be absolute catnip to conspiracy theorists. I mean, if you're preoccupied with the end times, what better actual circumstances to support your worldview?

And yet in the very beginning, at the time when President Trump was really downplaying the threat that the virus posed, Q remained relatively silent. And I think this is important because it shows how QAnon is fundamentally a pro-Trump conspiracy theory. Sometimes people describe it as far-right, but it really isn't; it's really a pro-Trump conspiracy theory. And so then as President Trump starts to acknowledge that it is, in fact, a problem, that the virus is, in fact, posing a threat to people, that's when Q starts sort of getting in power to post about it. And this is where you see sort of the Venn diagram overlap of, you know, anti-vax conspiracy theories crashing into QAnon conspiracy theories crashing into Deep State conspiracy theories.

You know, the QAnon crowd became sort of obsessed with Anthony Fauci as - they perceived - a political opponent to Trump because there was this press conference where he could be seen sort of suppressing laughter when President Trump referred to the, quote-unquote, "deep state." And so there was this moment where, all of the sudden, a bunch of conspiracy theories collided and, again, all kind of came under the umbrella of QAnon.

DAVIES: Right. So do QAnon adherents believe that the coronavirus is real or fake or what?

LAFRANCE: There are so many theories within theories here. So you'll hear QAnon people argue that the coronavirus is actually a bioweapon that was secretly unleashed on the world by China and the deep state working together. That's a really popular one. There's a whole contingency that believe it's completely fake and not even an actual virus, that the deaths have been a fabrication by the media. I mean, the deeper you go into this, the more bizarre levels of conspiracy theorizing you'll get. But there are, you know, just loops upon loops of fabrications related to the coronavirus and QAnon.

DAVIES: And people made a big deal of the fact that Trump wore a yellow tie to some of these briefings.

LAFRANCE: Right. So this is within the group of people who were denying that the virus existed. And this one post that got widely sort of shared and remixed and reshared on Facebook in particular was this post that claimed that there was a press conference - one of President Trump's daily briefings in the spring at a time when the death toll was really spiking, President Trump wears a yellow tie. And people seize on this in the Q crowd and say that yellow is a color that, in maritime flags, signifies an all-clear. And therefore, the yellow tie is a signal that everything is OK and the virus isn't real.

DAVIES: Let's just talk about some QAnon terms. When you see Q+, what does that mean?

LAFRANCE: Well, Q+ refers to President Trump himself.

DAVIES: All right, so if you're reading, look for that. What's a black hat?

LAFRANCE: A black hat is the term for someone who's in on the evil cabal that Q warns about.

DAVIES: OK, and then we see this phrase WWG1WGA, which is short for what?

LAFRANCE: This is everywhere. And it's short for where we go one, we go all. It's sort of a expression of solidarity among Q folks.

DAVIES: You know, I wonder if - you spend an awful lot of time, you know, looking at Q's writings, looking at the writings of his followers - his, her or their followers. And I wonder, did you ever at some point start to take any of it more seriously or think, well, you know, there's something here that hadn't occurred to me that maybe is worth considering?

LAFRANCE: I really didn't. You know, I'm a skeptical empiricist and journalist. And facts just really, really (laughter) matter to me. That being said, there were moments where I was just deeply immersed in - whether it was some weird corner of the Internet or someone's extensive, bizarre theory related to QAnon, where I could feel why it would be fun. I can see why it's entertaining, and that's scary, too.

DAVIES: You know, as I read about this, it struck me that QAnon in some respects resembles a religious faith, right? People interpret the writings of Q and study them the way some people study scripture. There are a lot of sweeping, big, mythical-sounding stories. Is faith in God a tenant among QAnon followers?

LAFRANCE: It absolutely is. And this was one of the biggest sort of reveals to me over the course of my reporting is I went in wondering, who could possibly believe this stuff? To the point that I assumed that there would be a large group of people who knew in their heart of hearts that it was nonsense but found it interesting or strange or entertaining or almost like a form of roleplaying or fan fiction. And what I found was actually the opposite, that there is this huge group of what I came to think of as true believers who really have this blind faith in Q, that - this foundational text that they interpret through these Q drops, you know, this community that's developed and a savior figure, both in Q and in Donald Trump. And so, to me, what we're looking at is not just a conspiracy theory but really a religious movement.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We're going to take a break here. Adrienne LaFrance is the executive editor of The Atlantic. Her investigative story about QAnon is titled "The Prophecies Of Q." She'll be back to talk more about the movement after a break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest is Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic. And we're talking about QAnon, the conspiracy theory that holds that President Trump is battling a secret cabal of deep state actors who control the media and engage in actions as sinister as child sex trafficking. Its adherents follow the online posts of Q, an anonymous self-described government insider who claims to have high-level security clearances. Adrienne LaFrance wrote an in-depth analysis of the movement in the June issue called "The Prophecies Of Q." Since we recorded our interview yesterday, President Trump was asked about QAnon at a White House press briefing. He said he didn't know much about it but appreciated the fact that its adherents like him very much. And he added he's heard they're people that love our country.

Adrienne LaFrance, you write that for QAnon, every contradiction can be explained away. No form of argument can prevail against it. What do you mean?

LAFRANCE: This was one of the more mind-melting aspects of my reporting - is in talking to Q believers, it didn't matter. Facts just don't matter. It's sort of this blind faith where, you know, I would ask, well, Q predicted this. You know, Q predicted, for example, that Hillary Clinton would be arrested in November of 2017, but it didn't happen. So why would you still trust Q? And every time, every person I asked, the answer would be either, well, it didn't happen yet, but there is a reason why Q predicted it then, or, the predictions that didn't come true are clues themselves.

And I even asked people, what if tomorrow Q reveals him or herself to be, you know, a prankster or a con artist and says, you know, I'm so sorry; I made all of this up? Even then, time and time again, with total consistency, people told me it wouldn't matter. This is so much bigger than Q.

DAVIES: You know, it occurred to me at some point reading about this that, you know, the self-contained world of conspiracists are in some ways like the self-contained world of fantasy video games - you know, that people get in these big mass-player games. And it's fun because they get - it's this all-encompassing world, and you look for clues to solve mysteries or that lead to other clues. And there are clues online, and there are clues offline among friends. Is there something to this?

LAFRANCE: There's definitely a sense of gamification. And that was one of the things that inspired my interest in it in the first place - was this question of, is everyone just playing along? But where video games - I mean, I think most players of video games know that it's a game. And with QAnon, I don't think that's the case.

DAVIES: Right. Well, and I guess the other thing that helps it is that you feel this enormous sense of attachment. I mean, if you understand or think you understand things that people don't, that's a very tight bond with people that share that.

LAFRANCE: There's definitely a sense of camaraderie. And I heard again and again this sense of people feeling like they finally had found those who would say the things that they thought all the time - you know, a sort of safe space almost for a shared worldview.

DAVIES: So you can see Q supporters at Trump rallies. Is - what evidence is there that President Trump himself believes in or supports the QAnon movement?

LAFRANCE: Well, President Trump has frequently retweeted pro-Q accounts and even memes with explicit in-group references to Q taglines. But he does this thing, which he does so masterfully, where he sort of edges right up to the line of plausible deniability. One example that comes to mind for me is in March he retweeted a QAnon meme that had a picture of him playing a violin. It was sort of a photoshopped image. And the words atop the picture were, nothing can stop what is coming, which is one of the favorite phrases of the QAnon community. And President Trump retweets this with his own language, saying, who knows what this means? But it sounds good to me. So it's very much this sort of wink and nod but never explicit enough to say, you know exactly what you're doing.

DAVIES: We did have Michael Flynn, who was, you know, originally President Trump's national security adviser who resigned and then was - I believe he pled guilty - right? - to lying about his contacts with a Russian diplomat, who posted a video of himself taking the QAnon oath, right?

LAFRANCE: Right. So this was over the 4 of July. We saw a bunch of videos online in which QAnon followers started saying that they were taking the oath. And what that meant is sort of promising to be part of Q's army. And so, I mean, the fact that Michael Flynn participated in this clearly - I mean, this is a crowd that - because it's pro-Trump, it is also pro-Flynn. But for him to so explicitly engage is rather shocking.

DAVIES: Right. And I guess we should note that the QAnon oath itself is actually pretty much the same oath that you use to swear in people who hold public office, with the tag at the end, where we go one, where we go all. It's not filled with wild ideas.

LAFRANCE: Right. And it speaks, too, to this sort of co-option of patriotism as part of the QAnon universe, that the people who follow QAnon consider themselves the true patriots and, to some extent, revolutionaries.

DAVIES: What do we know about how the reach of QAnon - do we have any idea how many adherents there are?

LAFRANCE: This is a hard thing to track because of the geographically disaggregated nature of it and because so much of the movement is taking place online, where you can't be sure whether, you know, someone tweeting all about Q could be a bot or could be someone who doesn't believe in it but just wants to sow chaos. And so getting a sense of the true reach of the true believers is hard.

That being said, there are plenty of signals to suggest that the movement is growing. You could look to, for example, the number of congressional candidates who follow Q or, in some cases, have even made Q part of their policy. That number is in the dozens now. There are, you know, signals from various social media platforms where you see the most influential interpreters of QAnon. They have huge and growing audiences. That's true across basically every social platform out there. And so any sort of measure we can use to track whether it's trending upward or downward in terms of engagement and reach shows growth.

DAVIES: And you mentioned congressional candidates. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is pretty much a QAnon adherent, has won a primary and is very likely to occupy a Republican seat in Congress. There's another candidate in Colorado, Lauren Boebert - right? - who has said positive things about QAnon. How do mainstream Republicans regard these folks that are saying nice things about QAnon?

LAFRANCE: I think they regard them both with some degree of horror but also with a sense of political opportunism. And we certainly saw that play out with the Marjorie Taylor Greene race in Georgia, where she is in such a solidly red district that a lot of Republicans just chose to leave it alone. You know, they need to focus on the places where they risk losing to a Democrat. This wasn't one of them.

Yes, she is saying crazy and dangerous things. But, you know, they're focused on the party overall, perhaps, in a way that led them to ignore her race. You could obviously argue that that's a miscalculation on their part and, ultimately, damaging to the party. But you do see, I mean, where some folks really spoke out. The House minority leader notably raised really vocal concern about her candidacy. Plenty of others are, I think, more comfortable just ignoring it.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We're going to take a break here. Adrienne Lafrance is the executive editor of The Atlantic. We will continue our conversation after the short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET SONG, "STAY THE NIGHT")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're talking about QAnon, the conspiracy theory embraced by some supporters of President Trump. Its adherents follow the online posts of an anonymous self-described high-ranking government insider called Q. The theory holds that President Trump is battling a cabal of deep state conspirators who engage in actions as sinister as child sex trafficking. Our guest is The Atlantic's executive editor Adrienne Lafrance. She wrote an in-depth analysis of the movement in June. It's called "The Prophecies Of Q."

You know, it seems a little strange to think that people would find comfort in this set of beliefs that include, you know, violent deaths for people that we know. I guess there are so many different beliefs and sub-beliefs that you can kind of focus on what you want?

LAFRANCE: Well, there are also so many contradictions within Q. But I think you have to remember, too, that this all goes back to this belief that Donald Trump is going to save the children. And so this fixation with the idea that children are in danger and that on the other side of this storm, even if it's violent, is going to be children are saved, you can use that framework to justify all kinds of beliefs.

DAVIES: So that really is the central idea, that thousands of children are being abused, killed?

LAFRANCE: Tortured - yes. I mean, you name it. It's very dark.

DAVIES: It's probably not worth asking this question. But if that were happening, wouldn't we have parents going public about the abduction and loss of their children? I mean, doesn't that raise a question in anybody's mind?

LAFRANCE: Well, and there is also a question of we know that child abuse actually is a real problem. And so why focus on pretend child abuse when one's energies could be devoted to addressing real child abuse?

DAVIES: At some point, when a movement gets big enough, there are commercial drivers of it, right? There are people who write and publish stuff on YouTube that actually makes money, right?

LAFRANCE: There's a whole universe of people trying to make a buck from QAnon. You have Etsy stores where people are selling Q jewelry and bumper stickers and T-shirts and, you know, you name it - just anything with the letter Q on it. Certainly, at Trump rallies you'll encounter people selling Q merchandise. And funny enough, one of the people I encountered at the Trump rally in Toledo in January, I asked him if he had any Q merchandise. And he didn't and was sort of like, oh, I forgot to bring it, and went on to say, you know, like, I'm a turncoat. I go from the Women's March one day to the Trump rally the next. And I'll sell anything.

So I think that's also something to keep in mind, that a lot of people selling Q merchandise don't have any allegiance to the movement. And then there's this whole category of people who are sort of what I think of as the Q influencers, and so people who are making huge - people who are developing huge YouTube audiences where they make videos that interpret Q clues. And they stand to profit there. So any way that people make money off of anything is certainly being applied to QAnon.

DAVIES: You write about a guy named David Hayes, who goes by the name PrayingMedic. He's kind of a superstar. What do his videos say? Have you watched them?

LAFRANCE: I have watched (laughter) many of them. He is an interesting guy because he, for a long time, was trying to develop an audience around more explicitly Christian content. So it was a lot of, like, prayer warrior-type stuff and just sort of, you know, almost an online ministry of sorts, where he'd try to make videos to give people advice about how to get in touch with the spiritual part of their lives. And then in December of 2017 - so really just a couple of months after Q first appears - he goes all out in terms of his focus on Q and even posts on Facebook that he's going to start devoting himself to this cause and, eventually, says that he quits his full-time job for this purpose.

And his videos are - you know, he is an interpreter. So he'll post whatever Q has just published. And then he'll sort of walk people through it and help them understand the code words and point them in one direction versus the other. Sometimes he'll say, you know, some people are interpreting it as this. When, actually, we should be thinking about it this way. So he's really one of the QAnon community's most trusted guides in terms of understanding this thing. And he's positioned himself as someone who's sort of, like, if you just heard about QAnon, come with me. I'll help you get up to speed.

DAVIES: Right. And you write that his YouTube videos at the time that you wrote the piece had 33 million viewings, right?

LAFRANCE: They're very, very popular.

DAVIES: And the deal is that if your videos get a lot of traffic, YouTube will share some of the ad revenue with you, right?

LAFRANCE: Right. And I was seeing ads for big companies like Vrbo, the vacation home rental site, as a pre-roll ad in front of his videos, meaning that people are - advertisers are seizing on these videos as a way to get audience for their ads.

I should point out that YouTube has demonetized some Q channels, including - at least for a time after my piece was published - Praying Medic's. And I don't know that it's been remonetized yet. And so there's a little bit of a whack-a-mole going on on social media in terms of how people can profit off of these conspiracy theories.

DAVIES: Talk about some of the other steps that social media companies have taken to limit the reach of Q and what they're saying about why.

LAFRANCE: So just being totally blunt, they really haven't done much. They like to say they are cracking down. But it's, first of all, a really hard problem to solve for a number of reasons. What they've done in many cases is try to go after QAnon content using existing policies. So I think probably the most famous example - or the first most famous example was a couple of years ago when Reddit banned the largest QAnon subreddit, or sort of message board. And in that case, they cited that the board was inciting violence, which it was. It was really gruesome stuff. And so they permanently banned that group from their platform.

And you're seeing something similar now with Twitter, which has done the same in terms of saying, OK, this is our existing policy. This QAnon account is going against it. So they're not specifically going after Q. They're seeing how these accounts break their rules, basically.

DAVIES: Twitter said that they removed 7,000 QAnon-related accounts. Do you think this is not so impressive? What's wrong with their approach?

LAFRANCE: Yeah, and Facebook just recently announced a similar crackdown - although I have to say, because I spent so much time in these Facebook groups for my reporting, the Facebook algorithm is aware of my interest in QAnon. And within the days after Facebook announced having really gone after some of the bigger Q groups, I was still getting dozens of recommendations sent to me by Facebook suggesting that I join QAnon accounts.

I think that while it's encouraging that social platforms are acknowledging the need to survey their platforms for dangerous material, there's a much bigger problem here that the sort of whack-a-mole approach won't fix. So in the smallest terms, you can look at it as, it's actually really easy to outsmart these platforms, especially with regard to QAnon, because there is such a robust in-group lexicon that you see people creating groups that don't refer to Q but instead refer to 17 because 17 is - Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet. And anyone who follows Q knows that 17 has meaning. And so there are lots of ways to outsmart the moderators or, you know, whatever sort of program is written to try to track potentially dangerous content.

But the bigger - the much bigger, arguably sort of, like, existential question is just in the way that the Internet is built. So you look at the social Web, and it's architected for emotional snap responses, for speed - so the ability to publish without thinking and without barriers - and for rapid amplification of whatever the message is, all positioned within this informational ecosystem where the people who control the platforms treat facts, fiction, propaganda, hoaxes as entirely neutral and deliberately stay away from being arbiters of truth.

And so we have an Internet that's designed for the spread of conspiracy theories. I mean, you couldn't build a better system to do this. And so you know, you look at the scale of these platforms - you have 2 billion Facebook users - solving this kind of problem is genuinely complex at a scale that we've never encountered in human history. It's an entirely new informational environment for all of us. And you know, I honestly think that the way we fix it is by building a new kind of Internet.

DAVIES: Adrienne LaFrance is the executive editor of The Atlantic. Since we recorded our interview, The New York Times reported that Facebook has removed 790 QAnon groups from its site and was restricting another 1,950 groups, 440 pages and more than 10,000 Instagram accounts related to QAnon. We'll hear more of our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with Adrienne LaFrance, the executive editor of The Atlantic. Her piece in June about the conspiracy theory known as QAnon is titled "The Prophecies Of Q."

We should note, we talked about the possibility of violence. And we should note that there was a memo issued by the FBI's field office in Phoenix. Tell us about that.

LAFRANCE: Right. So last year, the FBI classified QAnon as a domestic terror threat - and not just QAnon, but these extremists conspiracy theories more broadly. They reference a California man who was arrested with bomb-making materials. This was someone who, according to the FBI, had planned to attack the Illinois Capitol to make Americans aware of Pizzagate and what this person referred to as the new world order.

DAVIES: He was going to attack the capitol of Illinois in Springfield?

LAFRANCE: Mmm hmm.

DAVIES: OK.

LAFRANCE: And they were able to stop this plot, thankfully. The memo also references the man in Nevada who was arrested on the Hoover Dam in an armored truck, heavily armed and demanding Hillary Clinton's emails. And so really, it's about looking at conspiracy theories through the lens of this threat of extremist violence.

DAVIES: You know, when you get immersed into something - studying something like this, it can assume, you know, a larger place than it maybe really has in reality. What's your sense of how much we should be concerned about the growth or influence of QAnon?

LAFRANCE: I've thought about this a lot and also in the context of giving it oxygen. I mean, I really worried about the right way to approach this, knowing that it's an important story and knowing that people deserve to understand this swelling movement but also wanting to treat it responsibly and with proper sophistication and depth and calibrating the sense of the risk and all the rest.

And so - I mean, one thing that guided me was thinking back to birtherism. And in - I think it was must have been 2011 was when Donald Trump was then not even a presidential candidate yet but flirting with a 2012 run and starts claiming that Barack Obama is not really a U.S. citizen and therefore is not really eligible for the presidency. And at the time, I was living in Honolulu, working in a newsroom there as a city hall reporter. And I remember watching the national media sort of fall all over themselves covering this because, like, it was absurd, and it's Donald Trump, and people pay attention to him, and he's saying outlandish things. And at the time I thought that we should all just ignore this and it will go away and the truth will prevail and the fever will break. And it's just - it doesn't deserve our attention as journalists as we have more important things to cover. And I look back on that now and realize how deeply wrong I was to assume that the truth can prevail without journalists advancing it.

And so I don't know if that totally answers your question, but it's certainly a growing movement. It's certainly a threat to civil society to watch sort of a mass rejection of reason take shape, a mass rejection of Enlightenment values. And the idea that we might ignore that or fear covering it because it might help it grow, I think, ignores the power that it has to grow on its own.

DAVIES: You know, when you look at Q's posts and the way they are studied and interpreted - and sometimes they're cryptic and confusing - the whole thing kind of reminds me of "Life Of Brian," the Monty Python movie where people are determined to find meaning in something that maybe doesn't have as much. As you've looked at all of these posts, do you think that there's - I don't know. Is there a method to this? Is it artfully done? Is he skillfully leaving messages, or is he just throwing stuff out there which people can take in a dozen directions and maybe have nothing to do with what he intended?

LAFRANCE: I mean, I think yes to all of the above probably. I think it's - you know, reading these boards, you do get a sense of the, like, you know, someone furiously connecting a bulletin board of pushpins with red string or something. And it's, you know, it's not cohesive, per se. That being said, if repetition is a powerful way to persuade people, then certainly Q is taking advantage of that dynamic. I mean, I do think that the sort of lexicon that this person has established is part of what makes people feel like they are in on it and get it. And learning the sort of references to the different words used to refer to different things and then repeating them over time, I think, is clever. I mean, it's clearly appealing to people, so it's working.

DAVIES: Hmm. All right. Well, I hope you score the first interview with Q.

LAFRANCE: (Laughter) Me, too.

DAVIES: Adrienne LaFrance, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LAFRANCE: Thank you so much for having me.

DAVIES: Adrienne LaFrance is executive editor of The Atlantic. Her investigative story about QAnon is titled "The Prophecies Of Q."

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you've missed, like our interview with Miami Herald columnist and author Carl Hiaasen about the pandemic and politics in Florida or our interview with documentary filmmakers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau about their new Netflix series "Immigration Nation," check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Joel Wolfram and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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