A wacky conspiracy theory about devil-worshipping cannibals running a child-sex ring has hitherto been confined to the dark fringes of the web. But new research from an anti-racism group shows that it is becoming worryingly mainstream.
A survey by HOPE not Hate, a UK-based campaign group, has found that as many as 1 in 10 Americans at least in part subscribe to the so-called "QAnon" theory – a big enough group to impact voting in the November 3 presidential election.
This vexes many in the United States, as QAnon fans often back President Donald Trump and include folks who distrust the political system enough to launch deadly attacks on perceived enemies.
"The conspiracy theories of the movement, and its support for Trump against a shadow government, have already inspired individuals to commit acts of violence, including murder," Don Haider-Markel, an expert on QAnon at Kansas University, told The National.
"The beliefs of QAnon followers are likely to lead some to engage in voter intimidation, disruption at the polls, and perhaps violence. The threat will be heightened if the outcome of the election is not clear within a few days of November 3."
Using 8chan and other web forums, QAnon fans discuss how Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, other Democrats and Hollywood and business chiefs are running a global child sex trafficking ring and plotting Mr Trump's downfall.
The theory centres on "Q", a supposed government insider with high-level security access who started posting elusive clues online in 2017. Enthusiasts study these "Q drops" as a roadmap for busting the "deep state" masterminds.
In QAnon posts, Mr Trump is presented as a hero against the child-traffickers, who will be rounded up and sent to Guantanamo Bay in an event called "The Storm". Posts are often tagged with #SaveTheChildren or #WWG1WGA, meaning "Where We Go One, We Go All".
An FBI bulletin in May 2019 mentioned QAnon and said conspiracy theory-driven extremists had become a domestic terrorism threat and were "very likely" to commit violent crimes. QAnon was already linked to real-world violence, including the killing of a reputed crime family boss.
The group made headlines after a campaign event in Florida on October 15, when Mr Trump was quizzed about QAnon and asked to disavow the belief that he is a "saviour" against liberals running a "satanic paedophile ring".
Mr Trump initially dodged the question, saying he did not know about the group. Then, he added: "What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against paedophilia. I agree with that. I do agree with that."
Mr Trump's purported lack of awareness has been queried, as folks wearing QAnon shirts and hats are commonplace at his rallies in Pennsylvania, Florida and other battleground states he must win to keep the White House.
The apocalyptic conspiracy theory is gaining traction in Republican circles. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican candidate for a congressional seat in Georgia, promotes QAnon, as does Jo Rae Perkins, a long-shot Republican Senate candidate in Oregon.
Some 59 per cent of firm QAnon believers back Mr Trump, compared to 29 per cent who support his Democratic rival Joe Biden, according to HOPE not Hate's survey of 15,000 people, which involved statistical adjustments.
QAnon followers are prone to violence, support authoritarian rule and often believe the US is headed for another civil war. A quarter of adherents say it would be "perfectly acceptable" for Mr Trump to reject the results of a close-call election on November 3, the study says.
"The fact that one in 10 Americans – roughly equating to 30 million adults – identify with a conspiracy that the FBI has identified as a domestic terrorist threat is pretty amazing," said the study's author Nick Lowles.
"The fact that they perceive Trump as their leader and saviour means some might resort to violence if he is ousted and contests the election's legitimacy."
QAnon believers can be found across the US, though they are more prevalent in southern states such as Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Virginia than in places like Hawaii, New Hampshire and New Mexico, the study says.
Fans are not a monolith. Counter-intuitively, blacks are bigger believers in QAnon than whites, and college-educated professionals are more likely to subscribe to the theory than those who left school lacking qualifications, researchers said.
In recent months, QAnon has faced setbacks with the shuttering of accounts and pages on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. In response, QAnon spreaders have shifted to posts about Covid-19 and "Save the Children" that slip under the radar.
Vegas Tenold, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-Semitism watchdog, and author of Everything You Love Will Burn, a book about far-right groups, said QAnon has started staging "public, real-world events" and forging ties to the Proud Boys and other neo-fascist gangs.
"There's crossover with the anti-lockdown and reopen protests that have brought thousands of people onto the streets," Mr Tenold told The National.
"Ahead of this election, we see groups that never worked together joining forces. They all care very deeply about what's going on right now. It's concerning."
For some, QAnon is a flashy repackaging of old ideas. It followed the 2016 "Pizzagate" theory about Democrats trafficking children at a Washington pizzeria, and the decades-old New World Order theory about global puppet-masters.
For others, the QAnon-bashing of Jewish philanthropist George Soros is plain old anti-Semitism. Its roots can also be traced to the conservative Tea Party movement, the "Satanic panic" of the 1980s and anti-communist paranoia in the McCarthyist 1950s.