Influencer extremism: Q-Shaman expanded his brand at the Capitol attack

Jacob Chansley, aka the Q-Shaman, stormed the U.S. Capitol to bolster his following online. It worked.

@DFRLab
@DFRLab
Mar 3 · 5 min read
Jacob Chansley, aka Jake Angeli the QAnon Shaman, joins protesters as they storm the Capitol during a Joint Session of Congress in which members were to certify the 2020 Presidential election. (Source: Reuters / Chris Kleponis / Sipa USA)

In the months leading up to the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Jacob Chansley, also known as the “Q Shaman,” enjoyed a small but growing following as a QAnon micro-influencer. Protests over the summer of 2020 gave him a venue to establish his brand in front of a loyal and engaged audience. Chansley presented his audience with content affirming #StopTheSteal and Q narratives; the attack on the Capitol provided a chance to create content congruent with that interest. Judging by subsequent engagement with his content, January 6 was a success for the Q-Shaman brand. Viewership on his content has skyrocketed and his videos have even been translated for international audiences.

The influencer economy incentivizes the creation of visual content congruent with audience’s interest. When that audience is interested in extremist action, they will reward influencers who create extremist visual content, like the Q-Shaman. The following timeline chronicles the evolution of the Q-Shaman’s brand up to the attack on the Capitol.

Before January 6, Chansley’s two Twitter accounts, @USAwolfpack and @starseedacademy, registered roughly 5,400 and 2,800 followers respectively. Chansley, who also went by the name Jake Angeli, began by cultivating his brand on YouTube, as YouTube suited the long-form format of his videos. He would later migrate to alt-tech platform Rumble following de-platforming, as many QAnon influencers did after major social media platforms begin enforcing their rules more stringently against them.

Chansley used shamanistic and pagan motifs to position his brand — as a “Spiritual & Political Consultant”- in a gatekeeper position to the spiritual side of QAnon. As the movement became more agitated, Chansley used speeches and media appearances to affirm his brand as the spiritual manifestation of that unrest. Cementing this narrative incentivized him to illustrate this relationship in the most dramatic terms, by participating in the storming of the Capitol.

A DFRLab analysis assessed social media associated with Jacob Chansley and found a rise in engagement that correlated with a rise in the amount of Q related content he was involved in. Perhaps most alarming is that the Q-Shaman brand appears to have benefited from his action at the Capitol. The graph below displays the rising YouTube subscriber count associated with Chansley’s “spiritual guidance” channel, Starseed Academy (SSA). As Chansley leaned into posting more extreme content, the channel’s subscriber count grew as well.

Total subscribers on YouTube channel associated with Jacob Chansley, “Star Seed Academy Channel” September 2019 — September 2020. His popularity increased as he tapped into and engaged with QAnon. (Source: SocialBlade; (1) CosmicGaia/archive; (2) @brieannafrank/archive , @brieannafrank/archive; (3) AZPatriot/archive, SunshineSuz/archive, LibertyReport /archive)

In late 2019 to early 2020, Chansley actively developed his brand as a spiritual advisor. Chansley was a fixture at rallies, driving in-person engagement through costuming and action couched in shamanic or pagan affectations. He demanded attention at the rallies through ritual drumbeating and leading chants while carrying signage that promoted his company, SSA. These early attempts to drive engagement with his brand did not result in significant traction. Analysis of an archive of his YouTube channel indicates videos he posted during this time period averaged only 288 views apiece.

Chansley began to see increased engagement in March 2020, coinciding with his video “Who is Q?” Contrasting his appearance on spiritual wellness channels with his appearance on Q-focused channels shows much more robust engagement on the latter. His two appearances on alt-spirituality channel “Soul Freedom” in August 2020 garnered 1,500 and 2,500 views respectively. The “Soul Freedom” channel averages 3,280 views per video. His work with Q content creators was much more successful: a video of him on the “Qame theory” channel garnered 6,000 views, well above the channel’s average of 1,900 views per video.

Summer 2020 gave Chansley a chance to capitalize on the Q influencer market due to a wealth of in-person events where he could generate visual content that aligned him with the Q movement. His eye-catching nature — he often appeared in full costume — made it easy for those viewing visual content from rallies to notice him across events. This helped establish him as a mainstay of the Q community, and therefore a source of knowledge about the movement.

In Fall 2020, As pro-Trump protests became more regular in Arizona and the coverage of them increased, Chansley increased his public profile by giving a number of speeches and interviews. These appearances increased his cache in the QAnon community as attendees and journalists eagerly disseminated content involving the Q-Shaman.

As the world watched the events of January 6 unfold in real time, Chansley immediately became a focal character. He was filmed posing for professional photographs and would even stop the procession he was a part of to accommodate photographers. He took care to be filmed leading those storming the Senate and leading the rioters in prayer on the Senate floor. Creating this content provided a visual of the storm portended by QAnon, where he was the personification of its spirituality and mysticism.

Even after Chansley’s arrest for his role in the January 6 attack, this imagery earned his brand a surge in engagement. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Google trends shows aliases associated with Chansley trending higher than notable alt-right personalities in attendance, such as Ali Alexander, Baked Alaska and Alex Jones. This popularity translated into sustained attention from mainstream outlets; per Buzzsumo, over the month of January 2021, 863 articles referenced Chansley or his aliases.

Support in fringe communities also increased following the attack on the Capitol. Chansley’s Rumble channel has seen increasing engagement. Across the 21 videos on his channel, the average number of views has jumped from 45 to 6,837. His content is also regularly being reposted by QAnon adherents. Interestingly, as of February 2021, the reposted videos had an average of 19,000 views, well above Chansley’s average viewership.

This points to a worrying trend in the social media ecosystem. As political content becomes more extreme online, people will look for influencers creating content congruent with their beliefs. With the wealth of content creators out there, the more extreme a piece of content is, the better chance it has of breaking through. Mapping the brand development of the Q-Shaman through 2020 illustrates the escalatory nature of this influencer relationship.

Adam Gates is a Young Global Professional with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

@DFRLab

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@DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

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