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In rainy Dallas with temperatures dipping into the low 60s, hundreds huddled with umbrellas, flags and signs to wait for history to be made on Tuesday. Some even brought folding chairs.
At the site overlooking where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated nearly six decades ago, scores of QAnon believers outfitted with “Trump-Kennedy 2024” shirts, flags and other merchandise gathered. They forecast the president’s son John F. Kennedy Jr., who has been dead for over 20 years, would appear at that spot, emerging from anonymity to become Donald Trump’s vice president when the former president is reinstated. The prophecy foretold online, of course, did not come true.
The spectacle captivated people, some amused at the ridiculousness of the far-fetched theory that Kennedy faked his death. But the size of Tuesday’s gathering was concerning for Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who researches domestic extremism. The claim about Kennedy Jr. is considered fringe even for supporters of QAnon, a collective of baseless conspiracy theories revolving around an idea that Trump is battling a Satan-worshiping cabal that traffics children for sex. The sprawling set of false claims that have coalesced into an extremist ideology has radicalized its followers and incited violence and criminal acts. The FBI has designated it a domestic terrorism threat.
Holt, who monitors online communities like QAnon, saw the Kennedy Jr. theory appear on a handful of Telegram channels trafficking in numerology, when people ascribe different kinds of significance to dates and numbers. However, the theory is written off, even by Q, the movement’s mysterious prophet.
“It surprised me that as many people showed up as they did for something as specific and outlandish as they did,” Holt said. “It was not like this claim is everywhere. This was like a pocket of QAnon.”
Yet the devotion of the QAnon followers, some showing up the night prior at the AT&T Discovery Plaza, has dangerous implications, Holt said. QAnon followers, along with extremist group members and white supremacists, participated in the failed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, coordinating the deadly event via the movement’s online message boards.
“For people to be in the state of mind where they are utterly and hopelessly detached from reality opens up very dangerous possibilities for what that individual may do going forward,” Holt said.
“Even though this event is ripe for mockery, and I think people should allow themselves to laugh, I think we need to reconcile with the fact that hundreds of people turn out for a celebrity who has been dead for two decades,” he said.
“What drove them out to the streets is a kind of a representation of a broader sickness,” he added.
Kennedy Jr. died after crashing his six-seater plane in the Atlantic off Martha’s Vineyard in 1999. Kennedy’s wife, Carolyn Bessette, and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, also died in the crash. But several theories suggest Kennedy did not die and is either inconspicuously living under a pseudonym or as a financial services manager from Pittsburgh. Some claim he is Q.
Believers speculated Trump would return to the White House based on an unfounded belief that no president was legitimate after 1871 centered around a misreading of the law. When Kennedy Jr. emerged, Trump would be reinstated and make the Democrat his successor when he stepped down, according to one Telegram post.
“We’re expecting a parade,” an attendee from Nebraska named Ginny told the Rolling Stone. “JFK is going to be here.”
Attendees like Ginny claimed to see dead celebrities, including Robin Williams and Michael Jackson.
Those attracted to these fringe theories incubated by the QAnon movement have certain personality characteristics, such as having malevolent qualities or leaning toward anti-establishment beliefs, said Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist and conspiracy theory expert at the University of Miami.
Uscinski reviewed polling and found QAnon support is founded in anti-social personality traits and behaviors, like narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.
Although vocal, QAnon’s following remains small and stable, Uscinski said, adding that surveys show 5 to 7 percent of respondents are predisposed to the kind of theory.
Uscinski warned the size of the gathering in Dallas does not mean that people have become more conspiratorial. But the QAnon movement’s “choose-your-own-adventure” quality, in which people can ascribe to different outlandish theories and extrapolate meanings from someone posting anonymously on the Internet, lends itself to a certain type of person.
“These are small numbers of people with a fringe belief and there’s nothing new or apocalyptic about it,” Uscinski said. “I would prefer they don’t have these beliefs, but lots of people happen to believe lots of weird things.”
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