Disinformation

Pepe the Frog, human trafficking and secret cabals — QAnon’s take on the RNC

The Republican National Convention was a gift for online conspiracists

Throughout its four-day run, the Republican National Convention provided catnip for QAnon supporters.

Online conspiracy theorists were quick to interpret what they believed to be hidden messages as Vice President Mike Pence took to the stage on the third night, counting 17 flags flanking him on either side. This number is significant in the QAnon mindset, Q being the 17th letter of the alphabet. Facebook groups and Twitter communities went into overdrive, of course.

Activist Mary Ann Mendoza was pulled from the RNC roster on Tuesday, after she shared a thread of messages from a Twitter account linked to QAnon. 

But two of Wednesday night’s speakers also had ties to the movement. The first was veteran civil rights activist Clarence Henderson, who gave a pre-recorded speech. In May 2019, he appeared on the little-known QAnon podcast A Diary of the Great Awakening. The other was Burgess Owens, a former NFL star and Utah congressional candidate. He was a guest on the QAnon YouTube broadcast The Common Sense Show in May. Owens’ communications team has told reporters that he is not a follower of the conspiracy theory. In a three-minute speech, he kept things brief, telling voters: “This November we have an opportunity to reject the mob mentality.”

On Thursday night, Ivanka Trump delivered an address in which she said that “America needs four more years of a warrior in the White House,” a choice of words that was bound to appeal to a sprawling conspiracy movement that believes her father is locked in battle with a shadowy “deep state.” She also spoke of her father signing nine pieces of legislation to “combat the evil of human trafficking”  — a key issue for QAnoners, who are convinced that a powerful network of Satan-worshipping pedophiles is secretly controlling the United States.

Her words proved popular with conspiracy theorists. “I bet they try to run Ivanka after Trump finishes his second term,” wrote Twitter user Storm Crow, posting a photograph. “Can you imagine this as the leader of the free world?”

Earlier, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes had also characterized President Trump as “a warrior against human trafficking.” Last week, Reyes’ office postponed a “Freedom for the Children” rally in Salt Lake City, after concerns were raised that the event’s organizer had links to QAnon.

“The one thing that Trump has always really done well digitally is being tapped into right wing communities. Knowing how to communicate with them,” said Melissa Ryan, chief executive of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches disinformation. “If there’s an emphasis on human trafficking or child trafficking at all during the convention – which is something that the Trump administration has done things on recently – I feel like that’s signaling to Q.”

The highlight of the convention – for QAnoners and for Trump’s base – was the president’s 70-minute speech on the south lawn of the White House on Thursday. It was attended by a largely mask-free crowd that included the Republican candidate for Georgia’s 14th congressional district, Marjorie Taylor Greene — a QAnon supporter known for her conspiracy-filled blog. Trump has praised Greene on Twitter as “a future Republican star.”

Speaking in a more subdued tone than he deploys at his rallies, the president still made a point of mentioning how his administration “took down human traffickers who prey on women and children.” He told the audience, “The far left wants to coerce you into saying what you know to be false and scare you out of saying what you know to be true.” In one Facebook group, this clip was posted with the question, “Did he just talk to Q?” Dozens of people replied “Yes.”

QAnon adherents interpret these lines — whether aimed at the Q community or not — as affirmations of its cause.  

“The danger, I think, is to plant seeds in the heads of QAnon supporters and adherents that somehow their views are political-mainstream-supported views,” said Jason Blazakis, former director of the State Department’s Counterterrorism Finance and Designations Office. 

Overall, the RNC has proved a bonanza for conspiracists, but one gift just kept on giving: fan favorite Melania Trump’s wardrobe. After much talk about the meaning of her military-style olive dress on Tuesday, the first lady opted  for a much brighter shade of green for the closing night, paired with a red belt. Naturally, QAnoners saw this sartorial choice as a sign — a coded reference to the alt-right symbol Pepe the Frog. As one supporter wrote on Twitter, “Message received.” 

Caitlin Thompson contributed reporting. 

Photo by Bloomberg / Getty Images

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Isobel Cockerell

Isobel Cockerell is a reporter with Coda Story. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she has also reported for WIRED, USA Today, Rappler, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post and others.

Get in touch via [email protected] Follow @isocockerell