No One is Immune: The Spread of Q-anon Through Social Media and the Pandemic

By Ian Haimowitz

At some point, you were exposed—and probably also fascinated—by a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon. From Ancient Aliens, to pondering if there was another shooter on the grassy knoll, our brains intuitively look for patterns to process information, despite that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” as Sigmund Freud noted. However, with most of our attention directed online due to the pandemic, and the rising prevalence of the anti-vaccination and anti-mask movements, we must reexamine how outlandish theories are spreading across the social media ecosystem. Q-anon, a far-right conspiracy theory, is an example of how a conspiracy theory can change and spread through the power of the internet.

Q-anon is rooted in the idea that an elite group of child-trafficking pedophiles has been ruling the world, from Hollywood elites to senior Democratic political figures. The conspiracy traces back to October 28, 2017, when a user from the messaging board 4chan—an anonymous online forum considered the “ninth circle of hell” due to its constant appeal for outrage—revealed the first “Q Drop.” Q, the predominant spokesperson of these conspiracies, claims to have a high-level security clearance that has allowed him/her to access this information. Never mind that Q clearances belong to the Department of Energy, equivalent to a Top-Secret clearance that provides access to restricted data on nuclear weapons and facilities, not pedophiles (the exact relations of Q to the Department of Energy is not known at this time). The Q drops, riddled with cryptic language and peppered with slogans and pledges, captures the story of Donald Trump's role in saving the world from pedophiles.

Q successfully brought attention to his fight against the “deep state.” For example, the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign, a push for the release of Rep. David Nunes’s intelligence memorandum detailing missing FBI text messages to “imaginary secret societies plotting internal coups against the president” saw a 233,000% increase in tweets with the related hashtag in less than 48 hours. While some report that this was achieved thanks to the amplification of Russian bots, since 2018 the Q-anon conspiracy has spread, pouring into the physical world. Q-anon conspiracies have been the cause of several violent attacks, including breaking into the residence of the Canadian prime minister, an armed standoff near the Hoover dam, and several kidnapping plots, with two successful kidnappings.

To facilitate its spread, Q-anon weaves a myriad of conspiracies, from anti-vaccine and anti-5G conspiracies to antisemitic and antimigrant tropes. Social media algorithms, designed to maximize user engagement, make this easier. If you are, for example, into yoga, your Facebook ads and recommendations will be tailored around that interest; maybe suggesting some essential oil groups. It is in these groups that conspiracy theorists thrive, with posts about a variety of issues populating the feed. It’s not hard to imagine articles on anxieties related to vaccinations getting some traction, appealing to new members. What was initially a harmless search into non-traditional healing practices, with the help of algorithms and misinformation, has blurred reality, and convinced users that essential oils can replace vaccines. Intentionally or not, social media is creating a pipeline to conspiracy theories.
Yoga-enthusiast turned anti-vaxxer may sound extreme, but this method has been co-opted by Q-anon to conscript new supporters, while also leading to vaccination rates as low as “Chad or South Sudan” in certain communities. According to researchers like Mia Bloom, a professor at Georgia State University and a leading expert in radicalization, there has been a 174% increase in Q-anon posts throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Such messaging is attempting to do the same as the yoga example, exploiting anxieties attributed to governmental overreach (mask mandates), economic disruption (lockdowns), and other areas (anti-vax and government microchips).

Facebook has de-platformed groups associated with Q-anon, gradually banning all pages, groups, and Instagram accounts. However, efforts have been slow, with only 790 groups removed earlier in 2020, showing the new difficulties in limiting this group. Twitter is said to have changed its algorithm to stop recommending Q-anon related accounts and trends, however there are still over 93,000 active accounts referencing Q-anon. Other technology platforms are attempting to circumnavigate how to limit Q-anon without completely banning it.

However, when one post is taken down, there still may be ten unnoticed, as individuals within Q are told to “deploy camouflage” to avoid any “censorship.” So instead of using #Qanon on their social media posts, they now use #SavetheChildren. Such efforts are what researcher Marc-André Argentino calls “pastel Q,” an attempt to make Q theories more palatable to the general population, to begin their algorithmic descent into conspiracy theories.

 While once a fringe movement, Q-anon’s growth is exponential, with 22,232,285 tweets with #Qanon or related hashtags in 2019. Comparatively, other popular hashtags in 2019 have less than half the tweets, with #MeToo at 5,231,928 tweets and #climatechange at 7,510,311. Likewise, Q has spread throughout the world. The United States, U.K., Canada, Australia, and Germany account for the top five countries producing Q-anon tweets, and of 150 Telegram groups (one of the leading methods of Q communications), 84 were in German. The international spread of Q is using the interconnectivity of the internet to grow new appendages. However, while the main focus on Q is to stop the cabal of elites battling Trump, the conspiracy theory has been localized to different countries, adding unique twists. In Japan, the conspiracies have included local issues, whether complaints that the Prime Minister’s media ratings are inflated, to even suggesting that a Japanese movie, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba,” is warning the Japanese people of the pedophilia and cannibalism of the international elite. According to Graphika, a social media analytics firm, Q has diverged, with Brazil and Japan leading the localized efforts, and Western Europe mirroring the U.S. version, while still including their own respective governments.

Fighting Q-anon's capture of minds requires a new approach
One alternative is to implement "off-ramping" measures, originally a method to disengage and deradicalize individuals from violent extremism. Instead of attempting to prevent someone from entering the pipeline of conspiracy theories, the focus is to prevent such efforts from becoming violent. In this case, efforts can come from social media companies by providing access to new networks. Meaning while someone is interested in yoga, and has metaphorically drank the Kool-Aid, companies can recommend knitting instead. While knitting might not be the solution for everybody, it is necessary to remember Albert Camus’s words: In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion. Perhaps social media companies could encourage people to take a break from their algorithmic deluge of conspiracies. If not, there are risks of harmless scrolling on the internet turning into violent actions against innocent people.

Ian Haimowitz is a former CHCI Visiting Fellow with the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

The Technology Policy Blog is produced by the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).