SAN FRANCISCO — Republican state Sen. Shannon Grove tried out a new hashtag on her Twitter account this week: #SaveOurChildren. It was a phrase she hadn’t used before Tuesday, and just a few weeks ago, it would have seemed harmless enough.
But these days on social media, #SaveOurChildren has been almost entirely taken over by a movement connected to the baseless and sprawling conspiracy theory known as QAnon.
Conspiracy theorists have latched onto the phrase "Save Our Children" and others like it in recent weeks to promote the belief that a government cabal is protecting Satanist pedophiles hidden among society’s elite, with President Donald Trump cast in the role of the possible savior.
Grove, the Republican leader in the California Senate, sent three tweets Tuesday with the hashtag, criticizing a bill that would change the types of crimes that come with mandatory registration as a sex offender.
Grove, who represents the Bakersfield area, didn’t mention QAnon in her tweets, but her use of the hashtag shows how far QAnon language has traveled since it emerged on the fringe of the internet in 2017.
Congress next year may have something like a QAnon caucus composed of Republican candidates who have promoted the conspiracy theory on the campaign trail this year, but in state capitals around the country, including Sacramento, the language of QAnon has already arrived.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, accused Grove of using “QAnon cult hashtags to rile people up.”
“You know better, Senator. Just stop,” Wiener tweeted.
Grove’s office said her use of the hashtag was not intended as an endorsement of or an affiliation with QAnon.
“As her post shows, Senator Grove voted against legislation that will reduce penalties for sex offenders who have committed certain acts and the post is not contributing to or sharing any information from QAnon,” Hector Barajas, a spokesman for the California Senate Republican Caucus, said in a statement.
Travis View, the host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, which tracks the conspiracy theory, said the #SaveOurChildren hashtag is “used widely by people who are trying to promote QAnon without revealing their QAnon roots.”
Save the Children is also a long-standing charity based in the United Kingdom with no affiliation or connection to QAnon.
The legislation that Grove is opposing would give state judges in California wider discretion in deciding whether an adult must register as a sex offender. Current state law varies depending on the type of sexual contact involved, a discrepancy that Wiener, the bill’s sponsor, said leads to harsher punishment for LGBTQ youth than for straight youth.
The bill would not end felonies for child rape as rumors on the internet have claimed, The Associated Press said in a fact check Wednesday. Wiener has faced harassment and death threats, including from QAnon supporters who appear to believe the rumors.
QAnon support has popped up elsewhere in the country among state officials. A South Carolina lawmaker, Charleston-area Republican Rep. Lin Bennett, repeatedly endorsed QAnon in online posts, The Daily Beast reported last year; she later said she was not a follower. A new slogan for the Texas Republican Party, “We Are the Storm,” is similar to a common QAnon phrase; the party said the slogan came from a poem.
In state legislative races around the country, there are 14 known candidates who have endorsed or given credence to the QAnon theory or promoted QAnon content, according to a tally by the liberal watchdog group Media Matters.
“You have politicians and other elites increasingly willing to endorse and spread these claims even when they have no particular evidence for them,” said Josh Pasek, a University of Michigan communication associate professor who studies new media.
“What it does is it takes the wacky that exists out there in the fringes and legitimates it, and that can be really dangerous,” he said.
The danger is not entirely theoretical, as QAnon has been connected to numerous examples of violence. A man charged in the killing of a New York mob boss used memes and symbols associated with QAnon. Another QAnon follower was charged after an armored vehicle was used to block a bridge near Hoover Dam, where prosecutors say he was ready for combat.
Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami political scientist who studies conspiracy theories, said there have been elected officials who take up fringe ideas throughout history.
“It’s not as if you didn’t have a bunch of Kennedy conspiracy theorists in Congress at one time,” he said.
But he said there are different motivations among politicians. Some may stumble onto the language, while others are true believers in conspiracies, and still others use them strategically as a subtle, targeted signal to voters. Uscinski said it’s difficult to identify the motive of an individual lawmaker like Grove.
“It could just be that she’s sincere about her beliefs in stopping sex trafficking. It could also be the case that she’s using that hashtag strategically to reach out to these more conspiracy-minded groups,” he said.