how a conspiratorial hate campaign upended California politics

Photograph: Christian Monterrosa/EPA Catie Stewart was on her way home from a vacation in early

<span>Photograph: Christian Monterrosa/EPA</span>
Photograph: Christian Monterrosa/EPA

Catie Stewart was on her way home from a vacation in early August when her phone reconnected to cell service and she realized something was wrong. As the communications director for Scott Wiener, a California state senator, Stewart manages her boss’s Instagram account, a task that usually involves responding to a handful of messages each day. But while Stewart had been out of cellphone range, a bill authored by Wiener had become the target of a misinformation and harassment campaign by activists who oppose coronavirus public health measures and followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

“FUCKING FILTH. BLOW YOUR HEAD OFF,” read one representative message that accused Wiener of “creating a law to allow pedophiles to be charged on a lesser degree”. Others fantasized about dragging Wiener’s body behind a car until he died, accused him of worshipping “Moloch”, or declared an intention to find and kill him. One meme posted on Instagram featured an image of Wiener photoshopped to enlarge his nose and add sidelocks, a yarmulke and a Jewish prayer shawl. Over the next month, Stewart and Wiener were left to confront a constant digital onslaught of death threats, homophobia, antisemitism and baseless allegations of pedophilia.

“I didn’t know what QAnon was a month ago, and it’s totally changed my life,” Stewart said in an interview.

<span class="element-image__caption">Scott Wiener faced vicious antisemitic and homophobic attacks over the bill.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP</span>
Scott Wiener faced vicious antisemitic and homophobic attacks over the bill. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

The frenzied pile-on against Wiener may have begun in fringe internet communities, but it soon grew to include much of the rightwing press and major figures in both the state and national Republican party. In early September, the Texas senator Ted Cruz tweeted a photo of Wiener with the false allegation: “Today’s CA Dems believe we need more adults having sex with children, and when they do, they shouldn’t register as sex offenders.” The president’s adult son Donald Trump Jr joined in, tweeting, again falsely: “Why are Joe Biden Democrats working in California to pander to the wishes of pedophiles and child rapists?”

In some ways, what happened with SB145 is a local story about the politics involved in updating California’s outdated legal codes. But it also serves as a cautionary tale for the future of political debates in the US as the QAnon conspiracy movement grows and Republican party leaders do little or nothing to stop it.

QAnon followers believe, without evidence, that that the world is run by a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats and Hollywood celebrities who are engaged in wide-scale child trafficking, pedophilia and cannibalism. A national politics infected by QAnon is wholly incompatible with the evidence-based debate and compromises required to govern any society. Within QAnon there is no room for nuance or rationality; there is only good vs evil, and any disagreement with QAnon dogma is evidence of abject depravity in the form of child murder.

Related: QAnon explained: the antisemitic conspiracy theory gaining traction around the world

And yet, in recent weeks, Donald Trump has praised QAnon followers, a QAnon-backing candidate has all but assured her election to Congress in November, and the #SaveTheChildren hashtag campaign has introduced QAnon to millions of potential new recruits. On 15 September, Trump retweeted a statement that appeared to accuse Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, of pedophilia.

<span class="element-image__caption">Donald Trump blows a kiss to the crowd as he concludes a campaign rally in Nevada.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters</span>
Donald Trump blows a kiss to the crowd as he concludes a campaign rally in Nevada. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

“The Republican party has been deeply infected by QAnon,” Wiener told the Guardian. “We’ve seen this kind of mass political infection before, all the way back to the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism. Unfortunately, there are always going to be opportunistic politicians who sense that there are people who think this and jump at the chance to get political support. It’s shameful, but it’s reality, and that’s what’s happening with QAnon.

“We’re seeing it from the president. We’re seeing it from a couple of my Republican colleagues. We need to push back hard.”

Creating a false narrative

The battle over SB145 was always going to be politically tricky due to its sensitive subject matter: sex offender registries. But Wiener, a 50-year-old gay Democrat from San Francisco, says that representing the city renowned for its liberal politics and large LGBTQ+ community carries with it “an obligation to take on the hard progressive bills that not all members [of the legislature] can take on”. In 2017, he authored a bill that completely overhauled the sex offender registry, and in 2019, he took on another, more modest problem with the registries.

Wiener’s proposed law dealt with people who are convicted of having non-forcible sex with minors above the age of 14 and who are themselves no more than 10 years older than the minor. Judges in such cases were able to exercise discretion when deciding whether or not to place a convicted offender on the registry if the sex act was penile-vaginal sex but not if it was anal or oral sex or non-penile sexual penetration. The bizarre status quo stemmed from a 2015 California supreme court ruling which reasoned that if the victim in such a case became pregnant, placing the offender on the registry would make it harder for them to provide for the child.

To Wiener, this inequity was part of the legacy of the criminalization of LGBTQ+ people. “It used to be much more explicit and obvious in terms of anti-sodomy laws,” he said. “This is one example where the judge can keep straight kids off the registry, but the gay kids have to go on the registry. It’s mortifying that in 2020, in California, this discrimination continues to exist in our penal code.”

SB145 was, essentially, a clean-up bill that would allow judges to exercise discretion in all such cases, regardless of the sex act involved. It did not change the criminality of sex with a minor (which remains illegal) nor did it change the criminal penalties for breaking the law. The bill was introduced in January 2019 and had the official support of LGBTQ+ groups, prosecutors, police chiefs, public defenders, civil liberties groups, and advocates for survivors of sexual assault.

Nevertheless, it quickly attracted some negative attention. A conservative online news outlet, the California Globe, began covering it closely, with headlines that cast it as a “bill to protect sex offenders who lure minors”. A factual article by actually tamped things down substantially by explaining the controversy and the true aim of the bill, Wiener recalled.

A bigger setback came when the Democratic assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, a staunch progressive, argued that the 10-year age gap in the bill was too large. She delayed a final vote on the bill, pushing it on to the 2020 legislative agenda.

The delay left the bill “hanging out there for a year”, Wiener said, where, like legislative fly paper, it continued to catch bad-faith attacks. One such attack came in January 2020, when the website Law Enforcement Today (LET) published an inflammatory article headlined: “California lawmakers introduce bill to protect pedophiles who sexually abuse innocent kids”. “If you’re a pedophile and want to rape sweet, innocent, young children, then California is the state for you,” the piece began, before blatantly mischaracterizing the provisions in the bill.

<span class="element-image__caption">A supporter holds a QAnon sign at a Trump rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 2018.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters</span>
A supporter holds a QAnon sign at a Trump rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 2018. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

The LET article performed well on the outlet’s Facebook page, garnering more than 10,000 shares in January. But it really took off in late July, when it was reposted by LET’s Facebook page, just as a highly effective rebranding campaign by QAnon evangelists was catching fire on Instagram and Facebook under the twin hashtags #SaveTheChildren and #SaveOurChildren.

While “classic” QAnon memes and content are aggressively pro-Trump, militaristic, and often include blatantly antisemitic tropes and references, #SaveOurChildren has provided QAnon with a decidedly softer aesthetic and rhetorical appeal.

Rather than enticing new recruits with the promise to unveil military intelligence secrets about the supposed evils of the Clintons and Obamas, #SaveOurChildren captures attention with exaggerated statistics about the prevalence of child sex trafficking, then draws susceptible readers down the rabbit hole of increasingly implausible falsehoods. It’s a softer, gentler “red pill” than traditional QAnon material, but the result – blatantly false beliefs about Democrats sexually abusing children in order to extract a life-extending chemical from their blood – remains the same.

The #SaveOurChildren version of QAnon has been particularly popular among a new coalition of anti-public-health activists who have been galvanized by the coronavirus pandemic. As the Guardian reported in June, Facebook’s recommendation algorithm helped facilitate cross-pollination between Facebook groups dedicated to anti-vaccine activism, anti-coronavirus lockdowns, and QAnon. (In Europe, it appears that a similar synergy occurred among anti-5G activists.) Membership in QAnon Facebook groups exploded throughout the summer, and QAnon infiltrated many online subcultures, including those formed around evangelical Christianity, New Age spiritualism, and alternative medicine or “wellness”.

SB145 landed like a lit rag amid all that dry social media tinder. On 31 July, the same day LET reposted its inflammatory article, the cause was picked up by Denise Aguilar, an anti-vaccine activist who was arrested at the California state capitol during a protest against the coronavirus lockdown measures in May. Aguilar misstated the facts of the bill in her Instagram post, to more than 70,000 followers, and referred to Democrats as “DEMONcrats”. The eight-month-old LET article quickly racked up more than 20,000 new shares, including across Facebook groups dedicated to QAnon and #SaveOurChildren.

The misinformation spread fast and furiously. One Facebook post that falsely declared pedophilia to be “now LEGAL in CALIFORNIA” was viewed more than 8m times. Rightwing news outlets jumped on the story, often using photographs of a semi-shirtless Wiener at the Folsom Street Fair, an annual celebration of the gay leather scene. PJ Media tried to tar the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, by association, with a headline noting her endorsement of the “California Lawmaker behind ‘Pro-Pedophile’ Bill SB145”.

<span class="element-image__caption">A demonstrator wears a T-shirt with a QAnon slogan in New York. The ‘Save Our Children’ version of the conspiracy theory offers a decidedly softer aesthetic and rhetorical appeal.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Reuters</span>
A demonstrator wears a T-shirt with a QAnon slogan in New York. The ‘Save Our Children’ version of the conspiracy theory offers a decidedly softer aesthetic and rhetorical appeal. Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Reuters

Political opportunists also swarmed in. Angela Stanton King, a Georgia congressional candidate who denies supporting QAnon despite frequently sharing QAnon content on social media, posted about the bill multiple times on Instagram. In one post, she used the hashtag #SaveOurChildren; in a second, she reshared a post by a popular QAnon and Pizzagate Instagram influencer. Major Williams, a Republican planning to run for California governor in 2022, began posting aggressively about #SaveOurChildren and SB145, racking up more than 90,000 likes on a post that stated, falsely, that SB145 would mean that “there will be no felonies for sex with a minor any longer in CA”. (Instagram appended a label noting that the post contained “partly false information”.)

Even some of Wiener’s colleagues in the state senate joined in. Melissa Melendez, a Republican state senator from Riverside County, tweeted that SB145 “allows adults who have ‘consensual’ sex with a 14 year old to not be charged as sex offenders”, which is false, and called it a “disgusting bill”. When Wiener responded with a fact check, she tweeted back: “I know exactly what the bill does. Because read it [sic]. You’re trying to normalize sex with children. And I’m not going to let you get away with it.” Melendez did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian.

Shannon Grove, the minority leader for the state senate, also posted against SB145, using the #SaveOurChildren hashtag on Twitter and Instagram. A spokesman for the Senate Republican Caucus, Hector Barajas, said that Grove’s use of #SaveOurChildren was not a reference to QAnon.

Related: ‘Mind-bogglingly irresponsible’: meet the Republican donors helping QAnon reach Congress

“Senator Grove does not believe in, support, or affiliate with QAnon,” he said in a statement. “Senator Grove believes in ‘Saving Our Children’ from human traffickers, child predators and her use of this hashtag is not an endorsement or affiliation with the actions of QAnon.”

‘An illness that afflicts people’s minds’

In the end, SB145 passed both the state assembly and state senate and was signed into law by the governor, Gavin Newsom, on the evening of 11 September.

“In 2017, when we passed the major restructuring of the sex offender registry, something like a third of Republican senators voted for it,” Wiener recalled. “This time we got zero … The difference between now and 2017 is the existence of QAnon. This sort of semi-organized structure on social media that just pumps out massive, orchestrated misinformation. It just flies across the internet, and if people see it on their timeline, they think it’s true.”

Wiener and Stewart, his communications manager, said they did their best to engage with people who were contacting him on social media, as long as their messages didn’t include overt threats, and found that many were open to hearing the facts. “You have a lot of people who are getting caught up in the QAnon craziness, who are not inherently QAnon people,” Wiener said. “They see things on their timeline and they’re convinced it’s true and they get very angry, but they’re QAnon-adjacent.”

For those true believers, however, Wiener sees QAnon as “an illness that afflicts people’s minds”. “It’s one of the scariest and most bizarre things I’ve seen,” he said.

Speaking to the Guardian a few days before Newsom signed SB145, Wiener appeared relatively assured that the death threats and harassment would die down eventually. “I feel for the people who don’t have the resources and privileges that I have as a public official,” he said. “Lives are being destroyed by QAnon and we’re not doing enough to push back against it.”

As for the continued dissemination of memes that attempt to portray him as a predator, he said: “I’m not going to change a thing about who I am or what I represent. I have thick skin.”

For the moment, it appears that Republican party leaders who have embraced QAnon have no intention of changing their behavior either. Throughout the day on Monday 14 September, Donald Trump Jr continued to tweet false information about the SB145. “They’re normalizing pedophilia,” he tweeted, falsely, alongside a link to an article about Newsom’s signing of the bill.

“It’s insanity and we must stop it.”

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