Twitter and TikTok both took action against the internet’s most persistent conspiracy theory this week, but experts suggested it may be too little and too late to halt the phenomenon known as QAnon.
Since October 2017, the anonymous individual or group known as “Q” has left 4,600 posts, or “drops”, hinting that the world, but particularly America, is controlled by a “deep state” which President Donald Trump is trying to fight against.
The posts, which started on the 4chan forum and have now moved to another board named 8kun, supposedly contain clues that Q (in reference to a level of security clearance) is trying to make public on topics ranging from government surveillance to coronavirus to alleged paedophile rings in the establishment.
The conspiracy theories inspired by the posts have swept across the internet and increasingly into real life. A search for QAnon on Facebook shows 79 public and private groups, of which 30 had 10,000 members or more. By far the largest is QAnon News & Updates, which boasts over 200,000 users and was founded in February 2018.
Media Matters for America, a left-leaning non-profit group, found that 14 current congressional candidates have endorsed or added credence to QAnon content.
Social media platforms take action
This week, ahead of November’s presidential election, Twitter said it had taken down thousands of accounts linked to QAnon, while TikTok has blocked popular hashtags.
Facebook declined to comment, but it is currently considering how to restrict the reach of QAnon and plans to make an announcement next month according to one person familiar with the plans.
But experts said the deplatforming would not be enough to stop a movement which sells itself as a kind of shared treasure hunt for the “truth”.
What sets QAnon apart from older conspiracy theories, such as those surrounding vaccines and the September 11 attacks, is that participation is built into its DNA, said Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab.
“The central ‘texts’ of the movement, Q’s drops, are so shambolic and oblique that they are very much written to be interpreted in the Socratic method,” said Mr Zuckerman, referring to the dialogue between Q’s followers. The back and forth debate about the clues left by Q is perfectly suited to the medium of social media.
Why QAnon is so appealing
William Partin, a research analyst at the New York-based think-tank, Data & Society, agreed that the sense of agency imparted to believers was significant. “[Q’s messages] don’t just offer seemingly bespoke insight, they interpolate you as a player in these events. You’re aiding Trump through this research process.”
He added that QAnon groups could also be highly welcoming to newcomers, encouraging them to post questions for more senior members to answer. “That’s a really fan culture way to do things,” he said. “Interpersonal bonds get built through this.”
The vagueness of Q’s drops has also made it easy for followers to link other conspiracy theories to the central thesis, said Joe Ondrak, senior researcher at Logically, an organisation that counters misinformation.
Trump supporters hold up their phones with messages referring to QAnon at a February rally in Las Vegas © Mario Tama/Getty
For example, one message from the start of July saw Q question whether Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier and sex offender, was actually a puppet of Ghislaine Maxwell, his former partner. “Sometimes it’s the people in the background that are of greater significance,” the message concluded, leaving it open for members to find more evidence and to make connections.
Mr Partin suggested that QAnon followers strengthened their belief by engaging in their own form of scholarly research. “There’s peer review, they’re very careful and they engage in all kinds of source validation,” he said.
They also have their own form of quality control: in an administrator post in one Facebook group from 2019, members are told to avoid linking to “clickbait and wild conspiracy” sites, including Newspunch and InfoWars.
Videos and merchandise
YouTube is another key space, said Mr Zuckerman, noting that the video site offers access to a much wider audience.
The “DIY commentators” of YouTube produce a wide variety of content, including their own views on Q’s messages, music videos celebrating the struggle against the cabal, or provide explainers on concepts such as adrenochrome (a drug supposedly harvested from tortured children).
YouTube has taken some action against QAnon. Searches for the conspiracy theory include a link to the Wikipedia page on the conspiracy theory in a banner at the top of the page, similarly to its efforts to counter coronavirus misinformation. Top search results also come from authoritative news sites.
Others appear to be making money on the back of the conspiracy theories. QAnon.us, an Instagram page with almost 40,000 followers whose first post dated back to 2018, opened a marketplace this year. Among the items for sale are Hillary Clinton toilet stickers, T-shirts emblazoned with QAnon and baseball caps with the acronym WWG1WGA — “Where we go one, we go all”, one of the conspiracy theorists’ most popular slogans.
Too widespread to stop
Mr Zuckerman said the movement was now so widespread that the motivations of the person or people behind Q no longer mattered. “It’s too easy to dismiss this as a hustle or a joke that went out of control,” he said. “But for some very large number of people, this is a reflection of how they think the world works.”
All of this makes it unclear how best to counter the spread of QAnon. Twitter’s move to downgrade accounts was a positive step, said Samantha North, a freelance disinformation investigator, but it also risked entrenching the worldview of persecution among believers.
Mr Partin said removing posts from platforms would do little to stop a movement which encourages participants to develop their own world view. “You can’t fact check someone with a different epistemology because the facts aren’t fact at all to them,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said, at least some believers do end up drifting away from the movement. While that may be the result of disillusionment with the prophecies, Mr Partin said it was more commonly the result of a lifestyle change.
“They get a new partner, they’re busier . . . Q picked up in the pandemic because people are spending a lot of time online,” he said. “To me, the more compelling ways of trying to get people out [of that thinking] is to give them something else to do.”
A protester at an alt-right rally in Portland last August displays a QAnon banner