At first glance, you might think the QAnon plot has largely disappeared from the big social media sites. But that’s not quite the case.
But QAnon is far from running out of steam. Federal intelligence officials recently warned its adherents could commit more violence, such as the deadly Capitol Hill insurgency on January 6. At least one outspoken supporter of QAnon has been elected to Congress. In the four years since someone called “Q” began posting cryptic messages on fringe Internet discussion boards, QAnon has grown.
In part, that’s because QAnon now encompasses a variety of conspiracy theories, from evangelical or religious angles to alleged pedophilia in Hollywood and the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, said Jared Holt, resident member of the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab who is in focuses on domestic extremism. âThe Q-specific stuff is sort of decreasing,â he said. But the worldviews and conspiracy theories that QAnon absorbed are still with us.
Tying these movements loosely together is a general distrust of a powerful elite, often on the left. Among the purveyors of the anti-vaccine lies, the followers of Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and believers in just about any other worldview who believe a cabal obscure secretly controls things.
For social platforms, dealing with this faceless, changing and increasingly popular mindset is a far more complicated challenge than they have faced in the past.
These ideologies “have cemented their place and are now part of American folklore,” said Max Rizzuto, another researcher at DFRLab. “I don’t think we’ll ever see him go away.”
Online, these groups are now fading into the shadows. Where Facebook groups once openly referred to QAnon, you’ll now see others like âSince you missed that in the so-called MSM,â a reference to mainstream media. This page has over 4,000 subscribers who post links to clips from Fox News Â»Tucker Carlson and links to articles from right-wing publications such as Newsmax and the Daily Wire.
Topics range from allegedly rampant crime to unfounded allegations of widespread electoral fraud and “outright war on conservatives.”
When DFRLab analyzed more than 40 million appearances of QAnon slogans and related terms on social media this spring, it found that their presence on mainstream platforms had declined significantly in recent months. After spikes in late summer 2020 and briefly on January 6, QAnon slogans have largely evaporated from mainstream sites, DFRLab found.
There are several reasons for the decrease in Q-speech – Trump losing the presidential election, for example. But the biggest factor appears to have been QAnon’s crackdown on Facebook and Twitter. Despite well-documented errors that revealed patchy application, the ban largely seems to have worked. These days, it’s harder to find blatant QAnon accounts on major social media sites, at least from publicly available data that doesn’t include, for example, hidden Facebook groups and private messages.
But while QAnon’s main groups, pages, and accounts may be gone, many of their followers remain on major platforms – only now they are camouflaging their language and watering down QAnon’s more extreme tenets to make them more acceptable.
âThere has been a very, very explicit effort within the QAnon community to camouflage their language,â said Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters, a liberal research group that has followed the rise of QAnon. “So they stopped using a lot of the codes, the triggers, the keywords that triggered the types of coercive action against them.
Other dodges may also have helped. Rather than repeating Q slogans, for example, for a while earlier this year, supporters would type three asterisks next to their name to signal their adherence to the conspiracy theory. (It’s a nod to Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a three-star general).
Facebook says it deleted around 3,300 pages, 10,500 groups, 510 events, 18,300 Facebook profiles and 27,300 Instagram accounts for violating its policy against QAnon. “We continue to consult with experts and improve our app in response to evolving harm, including by repeat offender groups,” the company said in a statement.
But the social giant will still suppress posts on QAnon, citing experts who warn that banning individual Q members “may lead to further social isolation and danger,” the company said. Facebook’s policies and response to QAnon continue to evolve. Since last August, the company claims to have added dozens of new terms as the movement and its language evolved.
Twitter, meanwhile, says it has systematically taken action against activity that could cause harm offline. After the Jan. 6 uprising, the company began permanently suspending thousands of accounts it said were “primarily dedicated” to sharing dangerous QAnon material. Twitter said it has suspended 150,000 of these accounts to date. Like Facebook, the company says its response is evolving as well.
But the crackdown may have come too late. Carusone, for example, noted that Facebook banned violence-related QAnon groups six weeks before banning QAnon more broadly. This effectively gave subscribers notice to band together, camouflage themselves, and switch to different platforms.
âIf there had been a time for a social media company to take a stand on QAnon’s content, it would have been like months, years ago,â said Rizzuto of DFRLabs.