How ‘the Storm’ Became the Biggest Fake News Story of 2018

Wild conspiracy theories have a way of seeping into public discourse these days, thanks in part to the divided nature of U.S. politics, the growth of websites that actively promote them, such as InfoWars, and the capacity for fake news to spread virally on social media without any fact-checking or oversight.

Enter “Q.”

In late October, just days before a different InfoWars-inflated conspiracy—about anti-fascist protesters plotting a civil war—was about to fizzle, a user identified as Q on the imageboard website 4chan started posting vague, portentous messages related to an approaching “storm.” The user claimed to be a high-level government operative, and the folks on /pol/, a subsection of 4chan with a history of spreading fake news, took notice—with some even believing it was President Donald Trump himself who was posting the messages on 4chan and on a similar website, 8chan.

Today, #Qanon (meaning Q, anonymous), also known as #TheStorm, is the web's fastest-spreading and most pervasive right-wing conspiracy theory. The ideas behind it are difficult for outsiders to understand—in part because it has come to be applied to almost anything by those who believe in its veracity—but here’s what you need to know about the biggest fake news story of 2018.

Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 11 A meme celebrating a fake news story called #TheStorm. Twitter

A Trump quip gave life to #TheStorm

The date was October 5, a Thursday in an exhausting week in the news cycle. The Las Vegas mass shooting had claimed the lives of scores of innocent people days earlier, and no motives had been attached—pumping a whiff of conspiracy into the air. Trump, while speaking to his press pool and surrounded by military leaders for a photo-op, made cryptic remarks that have never been fully explained by the White House.

“Maybe it's the calm before the storm,” he said to the gaggle of reporters. “Could be. The calm before the storm. We have the world's great military people in this room, I will tell you that. And we're going to have a great evening. Thank you all for coming.”

A reporter requested clarification about what Trump said: “What storm, Mr. President?”

“You'll find out. Thank you, everybody,” the president said.

Trump’s tone sounded confident: Perhaps he was secure in the knowledge of some future revelation he couldn’t quite name—possibly something that could damage his political enemies. (The remark also came in the context of a heated back and forth with North Korea over that country's buildup of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and it could have been read to refer to that.) In reality, however, the remark just as easily could have been a troll carried out by a man with a documented history of playing games with the press. Still, some of his supporters took notice, and it cultivated a sense of expectation: When would “the storm” hit? What would it reveal?

Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 11 A post on Twitter attempting to link rapper Jay Z to the debunked #Pizzagate conspiracy from 2016. Twitter

“The storm” has been falsely connected to everything from secret Democrat pedophilia clubs to Jay Z to a complete reversal of the Russia investigation

The “Q” internet posts began appearing three weeks after Trump’s cryptic remark about “the storm.” The anonymous user would ask questions referring to the idea that Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros could potentially be arrested or detained, and would make random claims such as: “This has nothing to do with Russia (yet),” apparently referring to his own internet writings. People started cobbling together the posts and reporting them to one another as clues in what they saw as a larger puzzle. One phrase that gets bandied about a lot on #Qanon threads is “Follow the white rabbit,” referring to the turn of phrase used in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and the 1999 film The Matrix, which has been mined for allusions by Trump supporters since he launched his campaign back in 2015.

If you search the hashtags #TheStorm and #Qanon on Twitter, you will find users connecting the prophesies of “Q” to—well, pretty much anything. Do you incorrectly believe that Clinton aide Huma Abedin was doing tacit work for the Sunni Islamic organization Muslim Brotherhood during Obama’s tenure as president? That will be revealed in the forthcoming "storm" of information, if you want. Do you imagine that the rapper Jay Z, who recently drew Trump’s ire for remarks he made about black unemployment, is in cahoots with Soros, the billionaire philanthropist? “The storm” will expose that nonexistent plot in time. Are you angry about special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged acts of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election? Then you’re free to imagine that “the storm” will one day reveal that investigation to be a front for the real Russian collusion, which the conspiracists say took place at the behest of perpetual far-right scapegoats like Clinton and Obama. (It did not, for what it’s worth.)

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 6 A post claiming that #Qanon ties Clinton aide Huma Abedin and the Clinton family to a false alarm regarding nuclear weapons that took place in Hawaii. Twitter

Also, if you liked #Pizzagate, the fake conspiracy that implied Democratic operatives were housing a child-trafficking ring in the basement of a D.C.-area pizzeria, it too has been incorporated into the broader universe of #TheStorm: As a conspiracy website called Disclosure News recently put it, “The last information coming from QAnon are [sic] pointing out potentially some very bad news for traders [sic] and pedophiles, not the least of which is an unprecedented number of flights to Guantanamo Bay,” the U.S. military prison in Cuba.

What about Seth Rich, the Democratic National Committee employee who was murdered in July 2016, spurring an avalanche of fake news? On cue, his tragedy has become fodder for the storm. Believers in the conspiracy claim that “Q” knows the truth about what happened to him, and imagine that Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the oft-maligned former chairwoman of the DNC, ordered the El Salvadorian gang MS-13 to carry out the killing. In addition to the theory not being true, Rich’s parents have expressed disgust with how their son’s murder has been turned into a fake news story—so much so that they filed a lawsuit against Fox News and other parties they believe were responsible for spreading it in 2017.

Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 11 A meme regarding the conspiracy #ReleaseTheMemo, which has been conflated with #Qanon and #TheStorm. Twitter

“The storm,” which is sometimes conflated in an unintelligible way on social media with #ReleaseTheMemo—a call by Trump supporters to make public a previously classified document detailing the origin of investigations into Trump's alleged involvement with Russia—is a conspiracy theory with legs in part because of the degree to which basically any and all made-up ideas can be slotted into it, according to Kyle Mantyla, a writer with Right Wing Watch, a nonprofit group that monitors internet trends such as this one.

“Anything they don’t like, anything they believe to be corrupt can easily fit into this conspiracy,” Mantyla told Newsweek of the conspiracy theorists.

Mantyla’s point of view is helpfully demonstrated by a blog post introducing the phenomenon on a pro-Trump conspiracy website called MAGA Pill, which employs opaque, open-ended language in describing the story:

“A Patriot has surfaced that is giving many hope and he goes by the name of Q,” the post explains. “Let me start off by saying that the Q Anon/Q Clearance Patriot posts are so vast in scope, to summarize ‘everything’ is nearly impossible. The posts paint a huge picture around the basis that everything is connected and everything has meaning.”

“The storm” represents a shift from tropes that have existed in conservative circles for years, according to Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida who is the author of a book about conspiracy theories in American culture. Fenster said the most striking change of the Trump era is the degree to which the integrity of U.S. law enforcement agencies is being questioned by conservatives and being defended by liberals, who have traditionally been more critical of the agencies. Fenster called it a "truly bizarre flip of circumstances." 

“The GOP has been captured to an extent by its base,” Fenster said, suggesting that the Republican politicians demanding the release of “the memo” were responding to an atmosphere of disinformation created by conspiracies like this one.

Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 11 Another meme conflating #ReleaseTheMemo with #Qanon. Twitter

The conspiracy is spreading rapidly, thanks largely to InfoWars

The intriguing thing about “the storm” conspiracy is the degree to which it has taken off without the help of some of the major players in 2016’s #Pizzagate debacle, which may have led to a North Carolina man firing off an AR-15 rifle in a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. Mike Cernovich, a pro-Trump social media figure who helped spread that fake news story, described “the storm" to Newsweek as being “amusing fan fiction.” Jack Posobiec, a friend of Cernovich’s who also promoted #Pizzagate, as well as several demonstrably false stories involving “antifa,” described “the storm” as being “theater” and said he doesn’t even bother reading the threads.

“The storm” conspiracy has actually been pumped up both by minor figures in pro-Trump social media circles, who are rewarded with “thousands of retweets” for espousing it, according to Mantyla of Right Wing Watch, and also by Alex Jones’s highly trafficked website InfoWars, which claims to have a reporter permanently assigned to the #Qanon “beat.” Due largely to InfoWars, the conspiracy appears to be growing. Media Matters, a liberal-leaning nonprofit site, noted that InfoWars has already managed to get the conspiracy trending on Facebook, where a massive audience can see it.

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 6 An InfoWars consumer praises Jerome Corsi, the InfoWars reporter covering the #Qanon "beat." Twitter

“You know, I've been told by five different Pentagon sources, high level, that that whole 8chan thing is real, and that they're basically forecasting what they'd like to see happen, and giving you information,” Jones, who has promulgated lies about everything from the Sandy Hook mass shooting to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, told his audience. “So, that's definitely real.”

“We're being told by the White House, ‘Please cover this,’” Jones boasted. “So, what does that tell you?”

Newsweek reached out to the White House for a comment about Jones’s claims, but has not received a response.

Jerome Corsi, the pundit for InfoWars who Jones said was assigned to cover the conspiracy, told Newsweek about his findings, and it was pretty much what one would expect from a conspiracist: He said he was first assigned by Jones to cover the story in a full-time capacity in December. The conspiracy represents an “eye-opener for the American people,” he said, calling the anonymous postings “very credible.” When asked what exactly made the random posts “credible,” Corsi suggested that they have been predictive of real-life events. When asked to name one instance in which something posted by “Q” came true, Corsi said he couldn’t do that without referring to his notes.

Jared Holt, also of Right Wing Watch, wrote Wednesday on Twitter that “the storm” conspiracy is “getting way out of hand and its almost entirely Jerome Corsi's doing.” On cue, when a train carrying members of Congress to a Republican retreat in West Virginia slammed into a dump truck on Wednesday, killing one person, Corsi attempted to tie it to his “beat.”

“YEAH, SURE. Trains w 200 GOP Members of Congress ALWAYS RUN INTO DUMP TRUCKS especially after #Qanon #Qanon8chan issues warnings FALSE FLAGS DEEP STATE COUNTERATTACKS,” Corsi posted on Twitter. The post was retweeted more than 1,000 times within a few hours of the accident. It was one of nine separate tweets Corsi posted attempting to tie the accident to the conspiracy.

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 6 Jerome Corsi of InfoWars attempts to link an Amtrak train accident to the #Qanon conspiracy on January 31. Twitter

Mantyla said the danger of stories that get promoted heavily by the folks at InfoWars is that they sometimes make it all the way to Congress. One example of that is when Representative Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, told Vice News in October that he believed Soros, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, funded the neo-Nazis that marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in August. The notion is fundamentally absurd, of course, but it was reported as true by Jones on InfoWars, and somehow made it to Gosar. The lawmaker declined an opportunity to comment to Newsweek at the time he made the false statement. Jones did not respond to a request for comment, and he has not responded to numerous previous Newsweek requests for comment about fake news stories linked to his programming. 

“It’s like the birther movement,” Mantyla said of the potential real-life danger that #Qanon and #TheStorm pose, referring to the idea that Obama was not born on American soil. “Next thing you know, and these things get repeated by people in Congress.”

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