By Jared Holt and Max Rizzuto, DFRLab
Data retrieved and analyzed by the DFRLab shows that the language of the QAnon conspiracy theory movement as it has historically appeared online has all but evaporated from the mainstream internet. In its wake lies a kind of neo-QAnon: a cluster of loosely connected conspiracy theory-driven movements that advocate many of the same false claims without the hallmark linguistic stylings that defined QAnon communities during their years of growth.
The QAnon conspiracy theory alleges that one or more high-rank individuals within former President Donald Trump’s inner circle utilized anonymous online imageboards to share national security intelligence with Trump’s strongest supporters. Followers of the conspiracy theory believe that the anonymously sourced messages, attributed to an author calling themselves “Q,” contain puzzles that can be solved to reveal information about a secret plan to crush a global network of business, entertainment, media, and political leaders plotting to subvert the United States by arresting them for their supposed engagement in human trafficking, satanic rituals, and child sex abuse.
Though outlandish, the political movement surrounding the claims blossomed into a fringe, yet powerful force in American politics since its inception. It produced two elected Republicans in the U.S. Congress and has been tied to acts of violence, murder, and terrorism. Several individuals who displayed belief in the conspiracy theory were arrested for participating in the insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Trump and his associates courted QAnon while in the White House; the movement’s followers were repeatedly boosted on Trump’s Twitter feed and QAnon-related content found its way to Trump’s family members again and again. Trump repeatedly declined opportunities to denounce the conspiracy theory. In August, he told reporters in the White House briefing room that he “didn’t know much” about QAnon and its supporters “other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.”
The theory and its followers received increased public attention and scrutiny in the last year corresponding with its groundswell within the broader Republican Party base. Data analyzed by the DFRLab shows that the taglines and phrases associated with the movement have plummeted in mainstream internet venues following major tech moderation and policy actions meant to counter the conspiracy theory. While alternative social media platforms like Parler and Gab have seen swells in QAnon language on their respective platforms, those peaks still pale in comparison to mainstream platforms’ slowest days.
The DFRLab detected and analyzed more than 40 million appearances of QAnon catchphrases and related terms online in a one-year span from January 1, 2020, to April 1, 2021.
We gathered data from Meltwater Explore, Parler Archive, the Social Media Analysis Toolkit (SMAT), and GabLeaks and analyzed it for the quantity of appearances of 13 QAnon phrases and related terms used widely online by the theory’s followers. The phrases searched were as follows: “WWG1WGA” (Where we go one we go all), “the storm,” “great awakening,” “trust the plan,” “dark to light,” “future proves past,” “disinformation is necessary,” “the military is the only way,” “we are the news,” “save the children,” “Pizzagate,” “Seth Rich,” and “there’s Q and there’s anons.” Our search inquiries were written to account for common misspellings and variations.
Our inquiries were chosen for their low likelihood to generate significant numbers of false-positive results, but the searches may still include some occurrences of QAnon slogans that are not supportive of the conspiracy theory movement. For example, an instance of a journalist using one of the searched QAnon slogans in a critical Twitter post appears in the data gathered as a single occurrence the same way a Twitter post promoting the false theory would. We do not believe our inquiries produced false positives in numbers that meaningfully impact our analysis.
The same searches were conducted on alternative social media platforms, for which data is less readily available. The DFRLab retrieved data from GabLeaks and Parler Archive to inform our analysis of Gab and Parler, respectively. Parler data included comments on posts. We used the SMAT to retrieve data from Dot-Win forum sites, 4chan, and 8kun. We also used data available from SMAT to fill in dates where data from Parler Archive was unavailable, though SMAT data for Parler is less comprehensive than Parler Archive provides. Our analysis did not include data from Telegram, which is a popular venue for QAnon followers to distribute information among themselves, due to a lack of comprehensive data available for the platform.
What we found
QAnon-related chatter online experienced a months-long growth on mainstream internet venues that began in March 2020, when the United States implemented restrictions on business, travel, and public gathering to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. That surge sustained throughout the summer, fluctuating with news cycles. In early June 2020, QAnon-related chatter peaked as Trump publicly floated activating the U.S. military to quell racial justice protests across the country following the murder of George Floyd, spiking in a span of days around the time that protesters were forcefully cleared outside the White House to facilitate a photo-op of Trump holding a bible in front of a church. Data also shows that the usage of QAnon slogans and related terms online heightened in the days before the January 6 Capitol attack.
Summer’s swell eventually subsided. Appearances of QAnon-related catchphrases on the mainstream internet have lessened to a low murmur. Decreases in QAnon-related chatter can be attributed to several factors including, but not limited to, major tech platform moderation actions against the conspiracy theory and its digital community; a prolonged silence from the pseudonymous “Q” author; encouragement among community members to mask their language; and President Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election. Of all factors, data analyzed by the DFRLab found that reductions correlated most strongly with social media actions taken by Facebook, Twitter, and Google to limit or remove QAnon content. Actions taken by Twitter after the January 6 attack on the Capitol correlates strongly with a dampening of what remained of traditional QAnon chatter at the time.
Meanwhile, on alternative social media platforms from which the DFRLab was able to analyze data, QAnon catchphrases and related terms appeared with gradually increasing frequency in the latter months of 2020 and skyrocketed in January surrounding the U.S. Capitol attack. As usage of alternative platforms saw increases, some struggled to remain online. For some dates, including a period when Parler was offline, data was not readily available.
Even as the numbers of appearances of QAnon catchphrases and related terms on alternative platforms increased, they remained drastically lower than the number of times they appeared on mainstream platforms. There was one exception to this trend in the days after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, when more QAnon slogans were recorded on alternative platforms than mainstream ones. The spike can largely be attributed to a particularly active day on Parler when the conspiracy theory phrases appeared in high numbers.
Of the data collected, uses of QAnon catchphrases and related terms on alternative platforms accounted for just 2.4 percent of all mentions analyzed in a one-year period.
What it means
These findings dissuade conceptions that QAnon followers are using alternative social media platforms in traditional ways at a scale that competes with their prior activity on mainstream platforms. Though some alternative platforms have sought to appeal directly to extremist communities like QAnon, the data show that most followers of the false conspiracy theory have largely chosen to distribute their slogans on mainstream platforms instead. More than 211,000 posts containing content matching our search queries were recorded on Parler for January 9, 2021, but that single-day peak makes up less than a third of what was recorded as the strongest day on mainstream platforms, when more than 650,000 posts containing matching phrases were recorded on May 30, 2020. Beyond the all-time high day on Parler, the number of matching terms on alternative platforms were reliably dwarfed by those on their mainstream counterparts.
Of all the alternative social media platforms analyzed, Parler attracted the most QAnon-related activity and handily crushed its closest runner-up, Gab, except on days when Parler data was unavailable due to missing data, site maintenance or being offline. (Though even a slow day for QAnon slogans on Twitter almost always crushed both competitors combined.) Our findings reveal the degree to which Parler behaved as a central location in the broader alternative platform ecosystem for users who were sharing QAnon-related content.
The data also indicate that policy and moderation actions major tech companies took to counter QAnon and its corresponding online communities closely correlated with declines in terms that matched our queries, suggesting that those belated efforts were generally successful in reducing typical QAnon chatter on mainstream platforms. Similarly, mainstream social media platforms and the recommendation algorithms they employ likely contributed to the movement’s success. Sites like Facebook and Twitter were home to Q communities and inevitably contributed to the growth of the Q movement, as indicated by the apparent decline of Q terms following deplatforming. That said, news reports have indicated that some Q followers have attempted to shift their language and presentation to evade detection. Last year, the pseudonymous author of Q posts explicitly encouraged followers to “deploy camouflage” and “drop all references” to QAnon to avoid social media moderation actions.
The DFRLab’s findings do not conclusively mean that the conspiracy theory movement is vanishing altogether; rather, our findings indicate that the QAnon movement may be moving on from Q as it once defined itself and morphing during Biden’s presidency.
Jared Holt is Visiting Research Fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Max Rizzuto is a Research Assistant with the DFRLab.
Cite this case study:
Jared Holt and Max Rizzuto, “QAnon’s hallmark catchphrases evaporating from the mainstream internet,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), May 26, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/qanons-hallmark-catchphrases-evaporating-from-the-mainstream-internet-ce90b6dc2c55.
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