It was a distinction Wray was careful to highlight while testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday, where he was again pressed on whether the FBI is investigating elements of QAnon and asked to explain the threat it poses given its connection to the US Capitol attack earlier this year.
But despite characterizing QAnon as an online “movement” that in some instances “may be an inspiration for violent attacks,” Wray reiterated that the FBI’s investigative efforts regarding the conspiracy theory have been limited to instances where there are links to a federal crime.
“We’re not investigating the theory in its own right,” Wray told the House panel, echoing remarks he had made the day prior during a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In both cases, Wray’s comments underscore the complex challenge QAnon and other online conspiracy theories pose for the FBI as it investigates the January 6 attack and works with other federal agencies to address the threat of domestic extremism more broadly.
Both tasks are complicated by social media’s role in spreading potentially dangerous conspiracy theories and domestic extremist messaging, Wray said Thursday.
“Social media has become, in many ways, the key amplifier to domestic violent extremism just as it has for malign foreign influence,” Wray he told House lawmakers. “The same things that attract people to it for good reasons are also capable of causing all kinds of harms that we are entrusted with trying to protect the American people against.”
Lawmaker reveals existence of QAnon threat assessment
On Wednesday, Sen. Martin Heinrich revealed that the FBI has provided lawmakers with an assessment of the threat posed by QAnon, the existence of which was not previously known until the New Mexico Democrat pressed Wray to explain why the details of that report have not yet been made public.
Heinrich, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, requested a threat assessment on QAnon late last year and received a response from the FBI in February, he said Wednesday before asking Wray why he “cannot or won’t tell the American people directly about the threat.”
Wray committed to providing an assessment that could be released publicly but his testimony offered little clarity about the FBI’s investigative work, or lack there of, as it relates to QAnon.
“We focus on the violence and the federal criminal activity regardless of the inspiration. We understand QAnon to be more of a reference to a complex conspiracy theory or set of complex conspiracy theories, largely promoted online, which has sort of morphed into more of a movement,” Wray said during Wednesday’s worldwide threats hearing.
“Like a lot of other conspiracy theories, the effects of Covid, anxiety social, social isolation, financial hardship … all exacerbate people’s vulnerability to those theories, and we are concerned about the potential that those things can lead to violence, and where it is an inspiration for federal crime, we’re going to aggressively pursue it,” he added.
Wray also noted that the FBI has arrested “at least five self-identified QAnon adherents related to the January 6 attacks specifically,” acknowledging a clear link between the conspiracy theory and the insurrection.
Is the FBI working to identify ‘Q’?
Frequently described as a virtual cult, QAnon is a sprawling far-right conspiracy theory that promotes the absurd and false claim that former President Donald Trump has been locked in a battle against a shadowy cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles made up of prominent Democratic politicians and liberal celebrities.
Members of the violent pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol had ties to QAnon, and the conspiracy theory has made its way from online message boards into the political mainstream in recent years.
But what steps the FBI has taken to address the threat posed by QAnon, and potentially identify those behind it, remain unclear.
Specifically, questions continue to swirl around whether the FBI is working to confirm the origins of QAnon or the identity of its mysterious standard-bearer, known to adherents as simply “Q.”
The threat assessment provided to lawmakers does not delve into the identity of “Q,” an anonymous figure whose baseless claim that they are someone with access to the nation’s most closely held secrets has often been used to validate Q’s cryptic and prophetic social media posts.
Heinrich told CNN on Wednesday that the assessment he was given does not cover Q’s identity — for a simple reason, he believes, which is that if the bureau does know, it would have been uncovered by an investigation into the matter. So revealing to lawmakers that the FBI has identified the individual or individuals would expose the existence of the investigation, which of course the FBI does not do, he said.
Still, Heinrich asked Wray about the public speculation around two individuals who have been suspected of posting as “Q.”
“You’re no doubt familiar with some of the public speculation that Q is really Ron Watkins, the administrator of the internet message board 8con, formerly known as 8chan,” Heinrich said Wednesday while questioning Wray on the issue.
“Whether or not Watkins is Q, he and his father, clearly, are responsible for hosting the sites and co-opted further in the QAnon conspiracy phenomenon … given the prominent role that QAnon did play in the January 6 attack on the Capitol, what are the potential legal repercussions for those who might be primarily responsible for propagating these sorts of dangerous, and in some cases, violent messages in these forums?” he asked.
Watkins and his father, Jim, were featured heavily in the recent HBO docuseries “Q: Into the Storm,” in which both men deny being Q and posting from the account.
Wray declined to address Heinrich’s question about Ron and Jim Watkins directly but did offer some insight into how the FBI views its role in investigating those behind QAnon or other potentially dangerous conspiracy theories.
“From the FBI’s perspective, from a law enforcement perspective, we try to be very careful to focus on violence, threats of violence and associated federal criminal activity,” Wray said.
“There may be certain instances where language becomes part of a conspiracy, for example, and there are instances where there are other federal statutes which may be violated, but again, those are complicated questions which I would refer to the lawyers over at the Justice Department,” he added.
Court documents clearly indicate that QAnon has fueled beliefs of defendants who took part in the insurrection, but whether the conspiracy theory’s origins merit criminal investigation has proved to be a difficult jump to make, and there is no indication to date that law enforcement officials are working to determine the identity of the person behind the original message or other similar anonymous social media posts that have emerged in recent years.
“Q is a problem, no question. But FBI has come a long way from Edgar Hoover days — they’d need a compelling investigative reason to care, and it’s not clear there would be one here beyond gratification. That said, they are very much examining extent to which this content is being amplified (at a minimum) by foreign powers,” a source familiar with the effort told CNN.
“But it’s pretty clear that QAnon originated domestically, and the bar for examining Americans who haven’t committed an actual crime is a little higher (and sharing conspiracies isn’t usually a crime),” they added. “Obviously, the bar is lowered when it instigates real-life violence, but again there’s not a clear line here between QAnon and the violence on Jan 6 — just a lot of dotted lines, maybe. But that could change, certainly.”
While Wray’s comments once again show the FBI’s limited investigative bandwidth when it comes to online conspiracy theories like QAnon, other federal agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security, are taking steps to address the issue within the context of a broader push to confront the problem of domestic extremism in the US.
“Domestic violent extremism poses the most lethal, persistent terrorism-related threat to the homeland today. In collaboration with our partners across every level of government and in the private sector, DHS is working to combat the spread of conspiracy theories and other false narratives on social media and other online platforms that can radicalize people to violence and fuel domestic violent extremism,” a DHS spokesperson told CNN.
“DHS is also working with its partners to increase public awareness about and resilience to disinformation,” the spokesperson added.