(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Imagine it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, the one where the entire extended family shows up. There’s a little corner of the long dinner table where you put the relatives most likely to be awkward, so they can chat among themselves. You know who they are, the uncle and cousins who go on rants about Trump’s righteous war against an international cabal of pedophiles or Hillary Clinton’s imminent arrest. Everyone else in the family remembers the stir that corner caused when they claimed that Tom Hanks had a sex slave. No one with any sense took them seriously. Picking a fight would sap your energy and divide the clan.
For the most part, social media companies have been content to treat QAnon like those relatives. (And those are actual QAnon beliefs.) None of the tech giants were really happy the amorphous online conspiracy movement was at their party, but it wasn’t worth the trouble to disinvite them. As long as they kept to their own corner of the internet, the QAnon faithful could enjoy turkey and stuffing with everyone else.
But everything has changed. In the annus horribilis of 2020, the social networks can no longer afford to treat QAnon the same way. Why? Because it’s left its corner and is messing with the rest of the table.
Memes emanating from the conspiracy group—which are tenuously united in the discredited belief that there’s a plot to oust Trump from the presidency—have made their way into the social media accounts of everyone from Michael Flynn (who was briefly national security adviser) to White House social media adviser Dan Scavino. Sometimes these memes can be as innocent as an image featuring Trump with a QAnon slogan (as was the case for Scavino), but at other times they take on more sinister overtones such as the oath to QAnon—“Where we go one, we go all”—which Flynn posted on July 4. Trump’s account has been known to retweet accounts aligned with QAnon.
It goes down the political chain. QAnon-sympathetic Republican candidates may be on the ballot for the Senate and the House in November, including Lauren Boebert in Colorado, Jo Rae Perkins in Oregon, and Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia (who faces an Aug. 11 runoff). It also seems to be manifesting outside the U.S. In February, in Hanau, Germany, a lone gunman espousing QAnon-like beliefs massacred nine people in bars frequented by immigrants before killing his mother and himself.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only helped the movement expand: Hundreds of thousands of people with nothing else to do have been exposed to the fringe fulminations. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a London think tank, says that from March through June, QAnon-related posts surged on Facebook and Twitter. While its believers were far from the only ones trying to discredit the use of masks or cast doubt on vaccines, they were among the largest groups.
Twitter took action on July 21, announcing measures targeting “so-called ‘QAnon’ activity” across its platform. “We’ve been clear that we will take strong enforcement action on behavior that has the potential to lead to offline harm,” the company tweeted as it detailed the crackdown. Twitter is suspending accounts for breaking existing rules and will no longer highlight as “trending” or recommend content and accounts associated with QAnon. It will also try to stop the movement from being played up in search. Users will no longer be able to share URLs associated with it.
Twitter’s plan has parallels with an earlier crackdown by Reddit in 2018 after its forums became QAnon hotbeds. The most prominent subreddits associated with the movement came down, and new ones even hinting they had something to do with it could not be created. Reddit’s move is considered to be among the more significant blows against QAnon.
But the tactics so effective on Reddit in 2018 may not work for Twitter. The QAnon movement is now a very different beast from the one that used to populate now-deleted subreddits such as r/TheGreatAwakening. If Twitter no longer wants QAnon to come to Thanksgiving, the conspiracists can still put on a mustache and a hat and sneak in through the back door. There’s nothing to stop banned QAnoners from returning to engage in “digital guerrilla warfare,” says Marc-André Argentino, a researcher at Concordia University in Quebec who studies how extremist groups use online technology and co-authored a report from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center titled “The QAnon Conspiracy Theory: A Security Threat in the Making?” All they have to do is get “a bunch of new sock puppet accounts”—camouflaged identities—to stage incursions on Twitter with fresh tweets.
For QAnon adherents, Argentino says, “Twitter is the battlefield.” A ban just reinforces and vindicates its ideology, which posits that any action taken against it is “part of war.” “It might motivate people more, because you’re doing something more than just posting memes,” he says. “The damage can still be done, so I don’t think they are going anywhere.”
Data from Facebook-owned analytics platform CrowdTangle show a surge in interactions around QAnon content on other platforms following Twitter’s July 21 announcement. Posts on social networks seen to be friendlier to QAnon—such as Parler and MeWe—rallied supporters not to take the Twitter crackdown lying down. “The fight needs to continue on Twitter,” as one Parler account put it.
Argentino isn’t the only one who’s skeptical about the effect of bans. “Account and content takedowns play a useful role in limiting the spread of harmful content, but they can only ever be one part of the solution,” says Jacob Davey, one of three authors of “The Genesis of a Conspiracy Theory,” the ISD’s recent report on QAnon. It details the evolution of the movement from late 2017, when several anons—nameless online personalities—coalesced around posts by another who claimed to have “Q” security clearance from the U.S. Department of Energy. “A cursory search of Twitter reveals that it still has a thriving QAnon community,” Davey says.
Indeed, a Bloomberg search of terms associated with the conspiracy movement brought up multiple Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of followers. While they didn’t bear the usual hallmarks of QAnon supporters—such as the use of an illustrated Q—they all circulated QAnon posts from the forum 8kun, the movement’s current home base. They shared misinformation about Black Lives Matter and Covid-19.
Crackdowns by one platform may no longer have much of an impact on the movement. Travis View, a longtime observer of QAnon and presenter of the QAnonAnonymous podcast, says that even if companies were able to push the movement off their platforms, the “delusional QAnon style of thinking” would survive. He says there’s no way to “stamp down every single delusional conspiracy theory that grabs hold in the online community.” Case in point is the recent popularity in QAnon and far-right circles of the “demon sperm” video, featuring several self-described medical experts pushing the merits of hydroxychloroquine, including Dr. Stella Immanuel, who made the claim about the satanic origins of the illness.
If crackdowns don’t work, how can tech companies and others deal with a movement built around this miasma of misinformation? A good start would be for social media platforms to enforce existing rules, Davey says. “If platforms were more effective in enforcing policies around authentic and transparent use, this could help strike a blow to the network.” Better enforcement of Facebook’s community standards on authenticity and safety could have devastating effects on the QAnon presence on its platforms. Policies designed to tackle disinformation also need to be more rigidly enforced.
Still, it’s complicated. There are corporate regulations and then there are constitutional guarantees. Argentino points out that many of QAnon’s followers aren’t actually doing anything against the law. “Is QAnon really a problem to solve?” he asks. Before the pandemic, a lot of what QAnon did, as toxic as it was, could be classified as protected speech. Argentino says “there’s a delicate balance where you can be very shortsighted and want to deal with QAnon, especially ahead of an election. But what are the ramifications where this can be applied in other contexts that may have impacts on freedom of expression?”
“QAnon is not ISIS,” he says. The Islamic State group used platforms such as Twitter for recruitment or propaganda, and QAnon isn’t that sophisticated. While QAnon beliefs have a way of rapidly radicalizing some adherents, Argentino says, it would require “individuals with greater organizational skills and operational acumen” to become an actual threat. But, says View, “the potential for greater harm is there.”
QAnon isn’t likely to be as harmlessly batty as the flat Earth movement. Not with friendly platforms continuing to let its followers post what they want. The conspiracy isn’t going to go away soon and, as the Republican Party begins to count on QAnoners for votes, its paranoid style is almost on the verge of political normalization.
In one important aspect, though, QAnon is like Islamic State: Adherents often start from a feeling of alienation and then acquire an unquestioning faith in the righteousness of a cause that gives vent to their frustrations. Davey says longer term solutions are needed to minimize the damage. These include the “mass rollout of digital literacy initiatives, which can help limit the uptake of conspiracy theories.” He says it’s necessary to engage with and talk to believers and “hopefully help them disengage from the QAnon movement.”
A model for that kind of dialogue can already be found on Reddit. Created in July 2019, the subreddit r/QAnonCasualties aims to be a resource for people with loved ones who’ve been taken in by the movement. It currently has more than 9,000 members. Posts with titles such as “A letter to my Q BF!” and “This madness cost us our home” detail the consequences of having a friend or family member start believing in QAnon. The posts, describing angry confrontations in families, closely echo the experiences of people who confront friends and relatives who’ve joined cults.
Underneath each post about losing a friend or relation to QAnon, the subreddit’s users leave advice or words of encouragement. “Feeling like their whole personality has changed is such a shock,” said one comment. “The next few days are gonna suck,” another said on the prospect of having to spend just a few days with their QAnon-believing mother. “We can’t deprogram people or get a loved one out of the cult, but at least we can offer support,” said ‘OreWins,’ one of the moderators of the subreddit, communicating via Reddit’s chat function. OreWins said the forum “helps people understand what QAnon is and how it gets its hooks into people.”
Bloomberg couldn’t verify the accounts in the forum, but they match what View has seen. “I sometimes call it the digital zombie apocalypse, because it feels like this virus that has been spreading to people’s minds through the internet,” he says. He urges more investment in mental health as one way of dealing with QAnon, but he’s one of several experts who recognize that’s just one part of the battle. A lot of QAnon supporters “feel like they’ve been let down by institutions, and they don’t understand what’s going on behind the scenes,” he says. Recent criminal cases—including the Hanau shootings and a 2019 mob boss murder in New York—involved apparently troubled and erratic individuals who’ve latched onto the catch-all ideology.
The big social media companies are now turning against QAnon and its theories. But it may not matter if Twitter is joined by Facebook and all the other apps in this campaign. QAnon and its followers still have ways to come to Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps the best thing to do is what should have been done all along. Don’t relegate your crazy relatives to the far side of the table. Learn to engage with them even if you disagree, even if it’s difficult. Maybe that’s the best way to save them—and help everyone—while we still have time.
Read next: Who Is Germany’s Self-Proclaimed King Peter Fitzek?
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
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