The online phenomenon known as QAnon is evolving beyond its pro-Trump roots and spreading rapidly into new global communities, despite efforts by social media platforms to stamp out the world’s most persistent conspiracy theory.
Cryptic posts by the group or individual known as “Q” first began appearing on the imageboard 4chan in 2017, propagating a theory that swiftly gained traction online in which the US president is leading a battle against a “deep state” that wields control over the country.
In July, TikTok blocked several hashtags, while Twitter banned thousands of accounts. Last month, Facebook launched a sweeping crackdown on the movement, including shutting 790 QAnon-related groups.
But adherents of QAnon have been swift to adapt to their new conditions, rebranding themselves to avoid detection and piggybacking on to related movements to further propagate their message.
“It’s a meta-conspiracy—it just has so much in it you can pick and choose from, which explains its rapid spread,” said Chine Labbe, European managing editor at NewsGuard, a counter-misinformation organization. “It seduces people in a lot of different circles and across ideologies.”
After the shutdowns
Facebook’s actions succeeded in removing some of the biggest accounts from the platform, including QAnon News and Updates—the largest group on the site, with 200,000 members at its peak. But a range of groups from a wide variety of communities have since absorbed the newly displaced believers.
As of September 9, a search for “QAnon” on Facebook yielded 11 groups with 10,000 or more members, compared with 30 in July. One, a private group called QAnon Update Group, has more than 39,000 likes and predates the first QAnon post, with previous names referring to extraterrestrials, popular video games and a Vietnamese marketplace.
Meanwhile members of the closed QAnon groups have used a range of tactics to remain on the platform and continue to spread their message. Some have migrated to other areas, said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, targeting related communities such as anti-mask groups or remnants of the Tea Party, to maintain their network on the platform.
“If [Facebook] had taken their action a year ago, you would not have seen that explosive growth [in QAnon] which began in March,” said Mr. Carusone. “The core infrastructure would not have been able to scale with it.”
Aoife Gallagher, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think-tank, added that some QAnon believers were trying to circumvent detection, sometimes by changing their names. One group with around 3,000 followers had substituted the word Cue for the letter Q.
A spokesperson for Facebook said that the company always removes content which incites violence, and had removed QAnon accounts, groups and pages that had violated the policies in the past. They also said that they were aware that movements and groups can evolve quickly, and that the platform’s teams were studying attempts to avoid enforcement.
The social media crackdown came as QAnon had already begun to move into a range of new online communities, tweaking its message in the hope of broadening its network and capturing more adherents.
On Facebook, for instance, QAnon-related content has been posted on a number of spiritual, wellness and alternative medicine groups. One such group, with over 90,000 members, featured memes about crystal healing, palmistry and alien technology interspersed with QAnon-related claims about pedophilia and Covid-19 denialism.
“If you post a QAnon meme to one of these groups, they can be distributed far and wide,” said Mr. Carusone.
A newer breed of QAnon believer has emerged from these communities, said Joe Ondrak, senior researcher at Logically, a counter-misinformation organization, which he dubs “lower-case q.” Rather than the political dimension of the conspiracy theory, they are primarily focused on child sex-trafficking claims—one of the other original tenets of QAnon.
“They’re all about the narrative itself—they’re not big on personalities except when it comes to the bad guys,” he said. “It’s not the Trump cult for them—it’s about saving kids from this shadowy cabal.”
QAnon content now circulates freely on anti-child abuse groups on Facebook. Several of these were created in recent months, coinciding with QAnon-driven conspiracies about child trafficking and efforts by believers to hijack hashtags such as #SaveTheChildren.
Content in these groups ranges from genuine news reports of pedophilia and child abuse to misinformation. References are often made to the QAnon mythos, even when the wider movement is not always explicitly named. “They’re mixing fictional problems with real ones, creating a real knot of different narratives,” said Mr. Ondrak.
The problem of disentangling real and QAnon narratives has been further complicated as the movement has spilled into the real world. Logically and outlets including NBC document links between QAnon believers and organizing of global marches against child sexual abuse.
Mr. Ondrak argued that this softer-edged form of the conspiracy requires a particularly nuanced policy response, to counter the spread of disinformation while avoiding penalizing genuine advocates for child safety.
Q goes global
At the same time, QAnon is increasingly shedding its US-centric focus. “Every country in the world has elites, so they manage to work these local stories to adapt the QAnon framework,” said Ms Labbe.
In France, QAnon ideas have merged with the similarly nebulous Yellow Vest movement, which began two years ago as a protest against fuel prices and the cost of living. Three of the Facebook QAnon groups with more than 10,000 members are francophone.
According to Similar Web data, Dissept, a French conspiracy theory website created in June 2020, is the single largest site of referrals to Qmap.pub, the major dedicated QAnon website. A NewsGuard report found that in under two months it had reached the top 2,500 sites in France by online engagement.
Mr. Ondrak said that narratives could also adapt significantly when crossing international borders, sometimes in seemingly contradictory ways. He pointed to the co-opting of QAnon discourse by Islamophobic groups in the UK, a sentiment not usually present in its US incarnation.
“It’s this weird malleability and localization as it spreads further into Europe,” he said. “They’re folding localized prejudices into the pyramid of [QAnon beliefs].”