WASHINGTON - Until recently, the fringe conspiracy theory known as QAnon was largely an American phenomenon - a fringe belief that U.S. President Donald Trump is secretly battling a "deep state" cabal of pedophiles that control the world.
The far-right theory has gained adherents throughout the United States as the 2020 presidential and congressional campaigns heat up. Trump has repeatedly retweeted messages from accounts that promote QAnon while more than a dozen Republican candidates running for Congress have embraced some of its tenets.
All this has sparked concerns about conspiracy-theory-driven domestic extremists that the FBI has identified as a potential domestic terror threat. But QAnon is no longer exclusively focused on U.S. politics.
Fueled by worldwide anxiety over the coronavirus pandemic, the unsubstantiated conspiracy theory has gone global, with adherents popping up in at least 71 countries, according to QAnon researcher Marc-Andre Argentino.
"There has been massive growth," said Marc-Andre Argentino, a Ph.D. candidate at Canada's Concordia University and an associate at the Global Network on Extremism & Technology.
Conspiracy theories thrive in times of crisis, experts say. With anxious people around the world trying to make sense of the killer pandemic as leaders struggle to deal with it, QAnon has found an enthusiastic audience with the promise of salvation from tyranny at the end of a struggle dubbed "The Storm."
Outside the U.S., Germany, though spared the worst of the pandemic, has become home to the largest number of QAnon followers overseas, according to Argentino. One German QAnon channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram boasts 120,000 members.
In the past month, the biggest growth in QAnon's international followers has come from Brazil, a pandemic hotspot where the virus has killed more than 100,000 people.
Here is a primer on QAnon:
What does Q stand for?
"Q" is an online persona claiming to be a government insider with Q-level top security clearance and knowledge of the deep state's inner workings. The anonymous poster first appeared online in October 2017 when he went to the 4chan image board with a wild premonition: Former secretary of state and Trump Democratic rival Hillary Clinton would soon be arrested and riots would ensue.
The prediction, needless to say, proved false, as did many others that followed, including the forecast of mass indictments of other Democrats. But that did not stop Q from continuing to post about Trump's "secret war" against a deep state cabal of pedophiles, with his cryptic online "drops" parsed and amplified by a growing ecosystem of believers.
Thus was born a new conspiracy theory movement, with Q taking off where earlier "anons" such as "FBIAnon" and "CIAAnon" had petered out. What made QAnon stick was that it came on the heels of Pizzagate, a 2016 conspiracy theory that claimed the Democrats were running a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of a Washington pizza shop.
No such thing was ever uncovered. While Q's latest ramblings are focused on the deep state's efforts to thwart Trump's reelection, child abuse and sex trafficking remain a constant in its belief system.
In his last, long-winded "drop" on July 31, Q ranted that the coronavirus pandemic was partly designed to help "shelter" presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden from appearing in public and participating in debates and to "eliminate" or delay Trump rallies.
"At the core of the current interpretation of this ideology, QAnon believes President Trump is the person who will save the world from this network of bad actors and he will uncover the Deep State that exist in the United States and overseas," said Kevin Grisham, associate director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino.
QAnon promoters say the deep state is all real, and they reject the notion that they "worship" Trump or "Q."
"Qanon is a worldwide group of non-violent truthers/patriots dedicated to God, saving our children from trafficking, and removing the Satanic DS (Deep State)," prominent QAnon promoter Joe Stroh, who goes by "Obiwan Qenobi" on social media, recently tweeted.
Who exactly is Q?
Despite rampant speculation, no one has unraveled the mystery person behind Q. Outside QAnon circles, few take him as a real insider. Many experts believe more than one person may have been behind the Q account over the years.
Who are QAnon adherents?
While Q has hopped from one fringe imageboard to another, his followers have thrived on mainstream platforms: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Telegram. On any given day, an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people post about QAnon on Facebook, Twitter and Telegram, according to Argentino, who says that it would be a mistake to dismiss them as "lunatics with tin foil hats living in their parents' basement."
Georgia businesswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who promotes the QAnon conspiracy theory, won a Republican primary race Tuesday for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. She is expected to win the seat in November in her heavily Republican congressional district.
Former national security advisor Michael Flynn appeared in a July 4 video reciting a popular QAnon slogan: "Where we go one, we go all." While Trump has not explicitly endorsed the movement, he enjoys broad support from QAnon followers who have attended his rallies wearing QAnon T-shirts.
A Trump campaign spokeswoman did not respond to a question about whether Trump welcomes their support.
How has the pandemic impacted QAnon?
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, QAnon following has rapidly climbed. The number of QAnon Facebook group members has jumped 800% to 1.7 million while Twitter accounts that post on QAnon related hashtags have increased 85% to 400,000, according to Argentino's research.
In recent weeks, both Facebook and Twitter have taken down QAnon accounts for running afoul of their policies and standards. Further actions are expected.
But experts doubt the disciplinary measures will banish the movement. For one, the conspiracy theory is protected speech and social media companies can't simply label QAnon under their "dangerous group" category. Second, banning QAnon followers from Facebook and Twitter would only reinforce their belief that they're engaged in an information war against media elites and others in the deep state, according to experts.
"The crackdown only plays into their conspiratorial beliefs," Grisham said.
How popular is QAnon overseas?
The vast majority of the recent growth in QAnon following has taken place overseas.
"You're starting to see these sort of groups popping up everywhere," Grisham said.
Among countries that have seen the largest increases in QAnon activity: Germany, Britain, Australia and Canada, followed by France, Italy and New Zealand.
"The fact that we're seeing it spread all around the world shows its significance for a global audience," Grisham said.
While in some locales QAnon followers see Trump as their savior, in others, adherents believe local leaders will emerge to destroy their own deep states, Argentino said.