More women being lured in to extremist groups like QAnon during pandemic, educators say

CHICAGO (WLS) -- COVID-19 created a year of uncertainty, fear and change. According to investigators who study fringe groups, a growing number of women are being drawn in to various extremist groups such as QAnon.

"I just did feel very vulnerable at that moment and kind of, it was an eye opener because I never thought I would ever be a Q follower in any way, and even this, I wasn't necessarily following them but I was intrigued by their beliefs and I think that's kind of how people don't always realize that they're following Q," said Phoebe Keliikupakako, a junior at Boston University.

Isolation and excessive screen time during the past year created opportunities for QAnon and other extremist groups to lure in more people, according to educators.

"QAnon really went after a wide range of people. They did something very clever, what they did last summer is they basically hijacked the save the children movement in order to attract people who might otherwise not be drawn in," said Jessica Stern, Boston University professor.

"I think that definitely played a role," Keliikupakako said. I think if I wasn't on my phone constantly I wouldn't have seen stuff like that."

QAnon promotes groundless theories that former President Donald Trump is fighting a Satan-worshipping network of cannibalistic pedophiles that includes Democratic politicians and Hollywood actors. After the 2020 election, the Justice Department says many QAnon followers pushed false claims of massive voter fraud and claimed the election had been stolen from Trump.

Keliikupakako said her interest in the movement was triggered on the app TikTok.

"I think it was the aesthetic of the videos themselves, they were beautifully done," she said.

She said the "save the children" slogan and claims of high profile politicians trafficking children upset her. At the time, she didn't know those accusations were false.

"It was playing on my emotions," said Keliikupakako.

A January FBI bulletin said some rioters at the Capitol on Jan. 6 were wearing "Q" clothing and chanting slogans associated with the movement. A Department of Justice webpage lists those who were arrested, including at least 35 women. Court documents show many of these women are members of movements such as QAnon or Proud Boys.

"There were a lot more women there than you usually see at, at violent events like this, including women who were clearly in leadership roles, who are live streaming or helping coordinate the attacks. And then we see images of women right in their chambers, and clearly participating in the violence, and that is a change. Part of it is that there are a lot more women involved in QAnon and QAnon was well represented," said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University.

The Biden administration is exploring a new domestic terrorism law to address homegrown violent extremism.

"We have to be thinking about what it means to have women radicalized into these movements and and potentially what risks that poses to communities," Miller-Idriss said.

Two women who died during the Jan. 6 attack were supporters of QAnon, according to family and the FBI. One was trampled in the crowd and the other was shot and killed by a U.S. Capitol police officer after breaching the building.

Keliikupakako said she is embarrassed about her short-lived interest in QAnon, and thanks her grandmother for making her question herself. She had a warning for others who find themselves lured into believing extreme ideas online.

"Check your sources and check to see where their sources are from. And not to believe everything you see on the internet," she sid.

Keliikupakako is one of six female students from Boston University's "Countering Online Hate" class last semester who said they had fallen under the spell of QAnon for at least a few days.
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