Early last month, QAnon braced for a purge. Facebook had removed a small subset — five pages, six groups and 20 profiles — of the community on the social network, and as word of the bans spread, followers of Q began preparing for a broader sweep.
Some groups changed their names, replacing “Q” with “17” (the 17th letter of the alphabet); others shared links to back-up accounts on alternative social media platforms with looser rules.
Being more than just another Internet conspiracy theory, QAnon is a movement of people who interpret as a kind of gospel the online messages of an anonymous figure called Q, who claims to have knowledge of a secret cabal of powerful pedophiles and sex traffickers.
Illustration: June Hsu
Within the constructed reality of QAnon, US President Donald Trump is secretly waging a patriotic crusade against these “deep state” child abusers, a great awakening that will reveal the truth is on the horizon.
QAnon evolved out of the baseless Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which posited that then-US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a Washington pizza restaurant and has come to incorporate numerous strands of rightwing conspiracy mongering.
Dedicated followers interpret Q’s cryptic messages in a kind of digital scavenger hunt. Even though Q’s prognostications have reliably failed to come true, followers rationalize the inaccuracies as part of a larger plan.
Q’s initial commentary on the Facebook bans was concise: “Information Warfare,” Q posted on the website 8kun.
Two days later, in a post that included a collage of dozens of news headlines about the takedowns, Q went further, speculating that there had been a “coordinated media roll-out designed to instill ‘fear’” in believers and dissuade them from discussing QAnon on social media.
“When do you expend ammunition? For what purpose?” Q wrote.
The anticipated purge never came. Instead, QAnon groups on Facebook have continued to grow at a considerable pace in the weeks following the takedown, with several adding more than 10,000 members over 30 days.
An investigation by British newspaper the Guardian has documented more than 100 Facebook pages, profiles, groups and Instagram accounts with at least 1,000 followers or members dedicated to QAnon. The largest of these have more than 150,000 followers or members. In total, the documented pages, groups and accounts count more than 3 million aggregate followers and members, though there is likely significant overlap among these groups and accounts.
The groups and pages play a critical role in disseminating Q’s messages to a broader audience and in recruiting followers to the cult-like belief system, researchers say.
“Facebook is a unique platform for recruitment and amplification,” said Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher at the Harvard Shorenstein Center’s Technology and Social Change Project who has been studying QAnon for years.
“I really do not think that QAnon as we know it today would have been able to happen without the affordances of Facebook,” Friedberg said.
Moreover, Facebook is not merely providing a platform to QAnon groups. Its powerful algorithms are actively recommending them to users who may not otherwise have been exposed to them.
The Guardian did not initially go looking for QAnon content on Facebook.
Instead, Facebook’s algorithms recommended a QAnon group to one of its reporters’ account after it had joined anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown and pro-Trump Facebook groups.
The list of more than 100 QAnon groups and accounts was then generated by following Facebook’s recommendation algorithms and using simple keyword searches. The Instagram accounts were discovered by searching for “QAnon” on the app’s discovery page and then following Instagram’s algorithmic recommendations.
Receiving QAnon recommendations from Facebook does not appear to be that uncommon.
“Once I started liking those pages and joining those groups, Facebook just started recommending more and more and more and more, to the point where I was afraid to like them all in case Facebook would flag me as a bot,” Friedberg said.
Erin Gallagher, an expert on social media extremism, said she was encouraged to join a QAnon group by Facebook soon after joining an anti-lockdown group.
Facebook’s own internal research in 2016 found that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools,” the Wall Street Journal reported, primarily through the same “Groups you should join” and “Discover” algorithms that promoted QAnon content to the Guardian.
“Our recommendation systems grow the problem,” the internal research said.
Facebook did not directly respond to questions from the Guardian about its policy considerations around QAnon content.
“Last month, we took down accounts, Groups, and Pages tied to this conspiracy theorist movement for violating our policies,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.
“We also remove Groups and Pages that violate other policies from recommendations and demote in search results. We’re closely monitoring this activity and how our policies apply,” they added.
The company also claimed that “all of the Pages” and “the vast majority of Groups” documented by the Guardian had been removed from recommendation algorithms prior to the Guardian’s query. The company did not provide evidence for this claim, which is contradicted by screenshots of pages and groups appearing in recommendations that were taken last month.
The Guardian also continued to receive recommendations to join additional QAnon groups after its initial query to Facebook.
Asked about this discrepancy, Facebook said that the pages and groups in question had been marked as “non-recommendable” as of April 8 this year for violations of policies against clickbaiting, viral misinformation and hate speech, but that a page or group can be restored to eligibility for recommendations if its behavior improves for several months.
Over the course of the Guardian’s initial research — about one month — the aggregate membership of the documented groups and pages grew from 2.75 million to more than 3 million, or approximately 8.5 percent.
Groups and pages that have been promoted through Facebook’s recommendation algorithms grew 19.9 percent. One page that appeared in recommendations — “We are ‘Q’” — saw its following grow nearly 60 percent, from about 24,000 to about 38,000 over the month — despite the page not having posted any content since February.
To Friedberg, the window for Facebook to act on QAnon might have already passed.
“I’m starting to wonder if we’re just waiting for the next shoe to drop — another act of violence. That seems to be what the platforms wait for and that in and of itself is terrifying,” Friedberg said.
While QAnon thrives on Facebook, another social media site took timely and decisive action against it. Nearly two years ago, Reddit, a link-sharing network of interest-based message boards, carried out a purge of QAnon — and made it stick.
Reddit had been central to the development of the QAnon movement, which began in October 2017 with the emergence of “Q” on 4chan, an anarchic image board that has served as a launching pad for memes and Internet culture, but also to racist extremism and harassment campaigns.
Q, whose cryptic messages and predictions claimed to be based on a high-level government security clearance, quickly decamped from 4chan to the even more extreme 8chan, where believers could read Q’s latest “crumbs” directly from the source.
Last year, Q briefly went silent when 8chan was forced offline in the wake of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, but re-emerged on a new site founded by 8chan’s owners, 8kun.
Anonymous Internet posters claiming to be high-level government officials are not entirely uncommon.
In the past few years, other so-called “anons” have emerged with claims that they were revealing secrets from inside the FBI or CIA. However, Q is the first such figure to have achieved such a broad audience and real-world political influence.
This is largely due to the activism of three dedicated conspiracy theorists who latched on to Q’s posts in the early days, according to an investigation by NBC News. These activists worked to develop a mythology and culture around QAnon and cultivated an audience for it on several mainstream social media platforms.
Reddit was significantly easier to use for the kind of crowd-sourced research and interpretation that forms the core of participation in Qanon. The site was host to a large pool of potential recruits, such as the 1.2 million members of the subreddit “r/conspiracy”. It had also long enjoyed and at times earned a reputation as one of the danker cesspools of the Internet, for years tolerating communities dedicated to sharing non-consensual sexualized images of women or advocating rape.
The violent anger of adherents to QAnon crossed the line for Reddit in less than a year. On Sept. 12, 2018, citing its rules disallowing content that “incites violence, disseminates personal information, or harasses,” the company banned 18 QAnon subreddits, the largest of which had more than 70,000 members.
Social media bans are often difficult to maintain, but Reddit’s move was uncommonly effective. Today, QAnon remains unwelcome on Reddit, with the few subreddits that address it dedicated to either debunking the theory or providing support to people who have lost friends and family members to QAnon.
However, QAnon did not disappear after Reddit pulled the plug. Instead, its believers moved on to other platforms, including YouTube, Twitter, Discord and — crucially — Facebook.
At the time of the Reddit ban, one of the largest closed Facebook groups dedicated to QAnon, “Qanon Follow the White Rabbit,” had 51,000 members, according to NBC News. Today the group has more than 90,000 members.
While YouTube and Twitter have played an important role in providing a broadcast platform for QAnon content, the specific structures provided by Facebook are uniquely suited for Qanon’s spread. Facebook provides QAnon with an even larger pool of potential recruits than Reddit did, especially with older evangelical Christians, a demographic that has proven susceptible to QAnon’s messaging.
Will Partin, a research analyst with Data & Society, and Alice Marwick, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill communications professor, describe QAnon as a “dark participatory culture,” which is to say that it is a community that takes advantage of the infrastructure of social networking sites to bring disparate people together and foster discussion, collaboration, research and community, but directs those energies toward anti-democratic, regressive and even violent ends.
“Everything about our research suggests that these people are not irrational. They’re hyper-literate, even if they’ve come to beliefs that are empirically inaccurate. That’s partly because they have a fundamentally different epistemology to judge what is true and false,” Partin said.
The digital architecture of Facebook groups is also particularly well-suited to QAnon’s collaborative construction of an alternative body of knowledge, as the platform has created a ready-made digital pathway from public pages to public groups to private groups and finally secret groups that mirrors the process of “falling down the rabbit hole or taking the red pill,” Friedberg said.
While Facebook has policies banning hate speech, incitement to violence and other types of content that it considers undesirable on a family and advertiser-friendly platform, QAnon does not fit neatly into any single category.
Much of what is shared in QAnon groups on Facebook is a mix of pro-Trump political speech and pro-Trump political misinformation. Memes, videos and posts are often bigoted and disconnected from reality, but not all that different from the content that is shared in non-QAnon, pro-Trump Facebook groups.
The pages and groups that were removed early last month violated the company’s ban on “coordinated inauthentic behavior” — the kind of digital astroturf tactics that Russian operatives used to support Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016.
Those rules are aimed at operations in which actors make false representations about their identities in order to mislead people — a description that could encompass Q — but Facebook only applies its policy to deceptive behavior that occurs on its platform, not on 8kun.
To enact a blanket ban akin to Reddit’s under its current rules, Facebook would likely have to designate QAnon as a “dangerous organization” — the category it uses to ban both terrorist and hate groups and any content published in support or praise of them. QAnon is hardly an organization, though as a movement, it has certainly caused harm and could be considered dangerous.
“When a common sense of what is real and what is correct breaks apart, it becomes nearly impossible to reach a democratic consensus,” Partin said, adding that there are innate societal and individual harms to convincing people of a version of reality that is simply false, as QAnon does.
QAnon followers’ enthusiasm for misinformation is not confined to politics. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the US, the groups became a hotbed for medical misinformation — something Facebook has claimed to be working hard to combat.
Erin Gallagher, a researcher who studies social media extremism, in cooperation with the New York Times demonstrated how QAnon groups fueled the viral spread of Plandemic, a 26-minute video full of dangerously false information about COVID-19 and vaccines.
Facebook’s algorithms appear to have detected a synergy between the QAnon and anti-vaccine communities. Several QAnon groups are flagged with an automated warning label from Facebook that reads, “This group discusses vaccines” and encourages users to visit the Website of the US Centers for Disease Control to obtain reliable information on health.
It appears that anti-vaccine propagandists are also taking notice and are attempting to capitalize on QAnon.
Larry Cook, administrator of Stop Mandatory Vaccination, one of the largest anti-vaccine Facebook groups, has begun incorporating QAnon rhetoric into the medical misinformation he peddles, as well as making explicit invitations to QAnon believers to join his group.
Cook has begun referencing the “deep state” and stoking fear of forced vaccination and fictitious secretive plans of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency to imprison large numbers of Americans for the purpose of re-education.
“I have discussed the concept many, many, many times that vaccines destroy our connection to God and that we are in a spiritual war with Principalities of Darkness that have a death wish for our children, and humanity at large,” Cook wrote in a QAnon-inflected post.
Cook also uses the Facebook group to aggressively promote his various products and a subscription-only platform for “medical freedom patriots.”
For many who truly believe in the QAnon narrative, the crimes of the “cabal” are so grievous as to make fighting them a moral imperative.
“They’re talking about a group of people who are operating our government against our wishes and they’re molesting and torturing children and destroying our society. It’s an incitement to violence,” said Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami political science associate professor who studies conspiracy theories.
There have been numerous incidents of real-world violence linked to QAnon, and in May last year, the FBI identified QAnon as a potential domestic terrorism threat in an intelligence bulletin.
While anti-government conspiracy theories were not new, social media were allowing them to reach a larger audience, and the online narratives were determining the targets of harassment and violence for the small subset of individuals who crossed over into real-world action, the bulletin reads.
Despite this, Uscinski is skeptical of the idea that banning QAnon from Facebook would help anyone. He regularly polls conspiracy theories and consistently finds that QAnon is “one of the least believed things” out there, well below belief in theories about Jeffrey Epstein’s death, anti-vaccine hoaxes and Holocaust denialism.
Uscinski also cautions against overly exoticizing the QAnon narrative, noting that “most of the component parts of QAnon have been around forever,” with parallels for example in the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.
Meanwhile, Partin said that he generally favored Facebook taking a “more aggressive approach to moderation,” including addressing the recommendation algorithms and trying to reduce the spread of misinformation out of dedicated conspiracy communities into the mainstream.
“If Facebook flipped a switch and every Q post disappeared tomorrow, that probably would be harmful for QAnon. But there is resiliency built in. Getting deplatformed is harmful, but the idea that it would somehow make this disappear is fanciful,” Partin added.
Friedberg worried that it might already be too late.
“Facebook should have taken action on this a long, long time ago, and the longer that they wait, the more deeply entrenched in mainstream politics this becomes,” Friedberg said.
Facebook has been reluctant to appear in any way politically biased, and if QAnon reaches the US Congress, it would be even more politically difficult for Facebook to take a stand.
Last month, voters in Oregon nominated a QAnon believer to run for the US Senate in November. Another QAnon supporter, Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, is likely to be elected to the US House of Representatives after she came in first in her district in a primary election on June 11.
“In some ways, the second that Trump officially acknowledges QAnon is the second it becomes a partisan political issue that Facebook may not be able to take action against. We’re watching a normalization process of these conspiracies, and I think the beast that is Facebook was really the answer to this all along,” Friedberg said.
Trump has repeatedly retweeted QAnon accounts on Twitter, which believers take as confirmation of their alternate reality. On Saturday last week, just before Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Trump’s son Eric posted a QAnon meme on his Instagram account.
Eric Trump deleted the image relatively quickly, but not before screenshots spread across the Facebook Q-sphere.
“So Eric Trump posted a pic with a ‘Q’ in the imagery. The pic has been taken down but the message was received,” an administrator of one of the larger QAnon groups wrote.
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