Decoding QAnon: Conspiracy theorists believe Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis is the beginning of the end for the “deep state”
Baseless conspiracy received engagement from hundreds of thousands on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tik Tok
This is the first article in a series that will monitor how followers of the QAnon movement are filtering major election events through their conspiratorial version of reality.
For any normal presidential candidate, a life-threatening diagnosis, a widely-panned debate performance and dismal poll numbers in key states would be cause for concern in the weeks leading up to election day. But for followers of the the far right QAnon conspiracy theory, President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis instead marks the beginning of the political “storm” that will implicate his “deep state” enemies.
When Trump announced in a tweet Friday that he and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19, social media was indundated with conspiracy theories. Some users suggested the president was faking his diagnosis to earn sympathy from voters only a month before the election. Others shared a debunked claim that Trump was concealing a secret oxygen tank when he left the White House for Walter Reed hospital on Friday. VineSight, a tech company that tracks online misinformation, found that nearly 30,000 Twitter accounts retweeted conspiracy theories following Trump’s announcement.
VineSight, a tech company that tracks online misinformation, found that nearly 30,000 Twitter accounts retweeted conspiracy theories following Trump’s announcement.
But in the QAnon alternate reality, an entirely different story was materializing. Followers read a secret message into Trump’s tweet that former Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton would soon be arrested. Supposed “Q-drops” from as far back as 2017 were widely shared among Q enthusiasts, with supporters asserting that present events were the culmination of a grand scheme years in the making to round up an underground cabal of liberal pedophiles. Popular QAnon accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Tik Tok began disseminating the erroneous theory. YouTube channels with hundreds of thousands of subscribers dissected it, with one video earning almost half a million views. In a political climate wrought with baseless conspiracies, QAnon once again exposed itself as the most unhinged.
What is QAnon?
QAnon is wide-ranging right wing conspiracy theory that originated on 4chan in 2017. Its followers typically espouse a variety of baseless anti-government claims aimed at denigrating political opponents and democratic institutions. The central belief of the movement has strong anti-Semitic roots, and alleges that world governments are being controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, who feast on the blood of innocent children. The source of this supposed information is “Q,” a so-called government insider with a Q-level security clearance offering classified information on President Trump’s effort to fight the “deep state,” a blanket term to describe opponents of President Trump. This information comes in the form of “Q-drops,” or forum posts containing vague, cryptic and unverifiable information designed to be decoded by Q followers. As of publication, there have been 4,810 “Q-drops.”
QAnon has flourished in 2020, due in part to the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic along with the influence of major political candidates who have promoted the conspiracy. The emergence of QAnon adherents running for office suggests that QAnon is far removed from the fringe movement it began as in 2017. Candidates like Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene have won congressional primaries, while dozens of others are competing in state legislative races. Disturbingly, a Daily Kos/Civiqs poll from early September found that 56 percent of Republicans believe QAnon is “partly or mostly true.”
The #SavetheChildren movement was another online movement instrumental in the mainstreaming of QAnon. QAnon supporters were behind the popular #SavetheChildren and #SaveOurChildren hashtags, purportedly aimed at ending child sex-trafficking but affiliated with and largely promoted by QAnon accounts on social media. The innocuous-sounding hashtags had significant reach with Facebook moms and parenting influencers, many of whom were unfamiliar with the depraved elements of the QAnon movement. In late August, the #SavetheChildren movement emerged in the real world when supporters attended rallies organized on Facebook. While every #SavetheChildren rally was not affiliated with the QAnon movement, an NBC investigation found that the largest rallies were organized by individuals who shared QAnon content on personal social media pages and private Facebook groups. The QAnon-backed movement is not affiliated with the anti-trafficking humanitarian organization Save the Children, which distanced itself from the rallies.
QAnon adherents have been involved in real-world violence and criminality, as well, dating back to June 2018 when a QAnon supporter blocked a major bridge near the Hoover Dam with an armored vehicle. Last year, a Montana woman whose son was taken by child state-welfare officials was arrested on a felony kidnapping charge. Her daughter told police that “people from the Q-Anon group” were planning the kidnapping. In September, Joshua Jennings, 33, was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend’s 10-month old baby. While it is unknown whether the crime is directly related to QAnon, Jennings praised the #SavetheChildren movement repeatedly on Facebook. Last year, the FBI identified QAnon as a domestic terrorism threat.
Trump’s diagnosis reignites “The Storm” conspiracy
“The Storm” is a foundational concept of the QAnon movement, dating back to the conspiracy’s inception in October 2017 and referencing a cryptic remark by President Trump during a military dinner that same month. Trump’s remark, and the supposed Q-drops that followed, have been interpreted by QAnon devotees as referring to the mass arrests of President Trump’s major political opponents. Since 2017, QAnon conspiracists have warned of the supposed inevitability of “The Storm” on multiple occasions. For instance, during Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference, QAnon adherents circulated baseless conspiracies that the investigation had nothing to do with Trump or Russia, and everything to do with the eventual arrests of Clinton and former President Barack Obama. Needless to say, after Mueller’s investigation concluded, Clinton and Obama remained free citizens.
When Trump revealed his COVID diagnosis on October 2, a new version of “The Storm” conspiracy began to circulate on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, before permeating to YouTube and Tik Tok. According to Q followers, President Trump was falsely claiming to have COVID-19 so he could arrange the arrests of Clinton and his other “deep state” enemies. Hundreds of thousands engaged with the conspiracy.
As all information does (even erroneous information), the October 2 variant of “The Storm” began its spread on Twitter. Popular QAnon Twitter accounts posted marked up screenshots of President Trump announcing his COVID-19 diagnosis, and suggested that the word “together” should be decoded as “to get her.” This was to be taken as an apparent sign that Clinton would soon be arrested.
Q followers also pointed to recent Q-drops to support their claim that Trump’s announcement was a planned event to distract from the impending “Storm.” On September 22, a supposed Q-drop was shared containing a photo of a Mickey Mouse clock with its hands pointing to “10” and “2.” When Trump announced his COVID diagnosis on October 2, Q followers claimed it was proof of “The Storm’s” imminence. Followers also shared a supposed Q post from October 1 with President Trump’s face photoshopped over the poster for the 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, with the accompanying text “Red October.” The so-called government insider first mentioned The Hunt for Red October in an October 2017 Q-drop. Since then it’s become a frequent reference in QAnon communities.
The same conspiracy made the rounds on Facebook as well, mostly in private groups of QAnon conspiracists. On October 6, Facebook announced it would remove accounts and private groups with names or descriptions indicating an affiliation with QAnon. As of publication, several of the private QAnon groups I joined to research this article remain active.
While thousands of social media users engaged with the conspiracy on Twitter and Facebook, it captured its largest audience on YouTube.
X22Report, a podcast and YouTube channel with 945 thousand subscribers, spoke on the conspiracy at length during his October 2 episode, “Hold The Line, Optics Are Important, Something Unexpected Is About to Happen.” As of publication, the YouTube video has over 383,000 views. Podcast listenership is more difficult to track, but it is likely thousands more listened to the podcast variant.
And We Know, a YouTube channel with 381,000 subscribers, posted a video on October 2 titled “10.2.20 TEN days of DARKNESS/Quarantine? RED OCTOBER!” As of publication, the video has 454 thousand views. Most of the channel’s videos have between 150,000 and 200,000 views (a post-debate video from September 30, notably, has 431 thousand). Based on average viewership, the channel’s October 2 video appears to have been somewhat of a hit.
Videos about the conspiracy on smaller channels faired better than usual, as well. JustInformed Talk, a channel with 280 thousand subscribers, shared a video on the conspiracy that earned 70 thousand views, more than all but one of the channel’s last ten videos. A video about the conspiracy by Freedom Force Battalion, a YouTube channel with over 62 thousand subscribers, earned 35 thousand views, above average based on recent videos by the channel.
Tik Tok, which claims to have banned QAnon content, has also been an unlikely source for the spread of the conspiracy. On October 6, non-profit media watchdog Media Matters for America identified 14 hashtags spreading the conspiracy, including #RedOctober, #TheStormIsComing, #TheStormIsHere and #TheStorm. Media Matters says these hashtags are in violation of Tik Tok’s own community guidelines and could be removed. According to the media watchdog, the combined views of the hashtags total over 488 million.
Social media giants have failed to quash QAnon. It’s probably too late.
In the last year, every major social network has implemented a policy aimed at limiting the spread of QAnon conspiracies, with little success.
In August, Facebook said it would narrow the reach of QAnon groups and remove those that discuss potential violence. Just yesterday, Facebook changed course and said it would ban groups, pages or Instagram accounts that “represent” QAnon. In July, Twitter banned 7,000 accounts affiliated with QAnon. YouTube spokesperson Farshad Shadloo told The Washington Post in July that the platform would limit recommendations of QAnon videos, but would not delete them from the platform. The same month, Tik Tok said it would block hashtags connected to the conspiracy.
Why then does QAnon misinformation remain rampant on these platforms?
Since March, there has been a 101 percent growth in public QAnon Facebook groups, according to Media Matters. Over 93,000 QAnon-referencing accounts remain on Twitter, according to a Washington Post report from early October. In September, Pew Research found that 8 percent of independent YouTube channels focus primarily on QAnon, and 14 percent of channels have mentioned the conspiracy. QAnon conspiracies remain readily accessible on Tik Tok.
Tech giants’ inability to effectively address QAnon is proof that it’s no longer the fringe movement it used to be. In 2018, when QAnon was mostly confined to the underbellies of the Internet, a ban of QAnon on these platforms may have been feasible. Reddit notably banned the movement that year when QAnon attempted to migrate from the “chan” boards to the popular discussion site. Today, there is virtually no QAnon presence on Reddit. In a recent analysis of Reddit’s 2018 ban, Atlantic reporter Kailtlyn Tiffany attributed Reddit’s success to kneecapping the movement “before QAnon became as much a part of offline culture as it was a part of online culture.”
In a recent analysis of Reddit’s 2018 ban, Atlantic reporter Kailtlyn Tiffany attributed Reddit’s success to kneecapping the movement “before QAnon became as much a part of offline culture as it was a part of online culture.”
Perhaps the “offline” nature of QAnon is exactly why Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms will continue to struggle with a movement they let grow unimpeded on their platforms for years. The terrifying reality is that QAnon has graduated from a baseless online conspiracy to a full-fledged political movement. Adherents are organizing and attending political rallies. Next year, its believers will enter the halls of Congress and state legislatures across the country. They will influence policy that will affect millions.
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that a conspiracy as ridiculous as the latest variant of “The Storm” attracted so much engagement online. Social media platforms abdicated their responsibility to meaningfully address QAnon years ago. Now that QAnon is a full-fledged political movement rather than a depraved 4chan conspiracy, efforts to curb its influence are, in all likelihood, too little too late.