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Down the rabbit hole: how QAnon conspiracies thrive on Facebook

Guardian Technology 25 Jun 2020 10:00
QAnon is a movement of people who interpret as a kind of gospel the online messages of the anonymous figure, ‘Q’. Illustration: Eric Pratt/The Guardian

In early May, QAnon braced for a purge. Facebook had removed a small subset – five pages, six groups and 20 profiles – of the community on the social network, and as word of the bans spread, followers of Q began preparing for a broader sweep.

Some groups changed their names, substituting “17” for “Q” (the 17th letter of the alphabet); others shared links to back-up accounts on alternative social media platforms with looser rules.

More than just another internet conspiracy theory, QAnon is a movement of people who interpret as a kind of gospel the online messages of an anonymous figure – “Q” – who claims knowledge of a secret cabal of powerful pedophiles and sex traffickers. Within the constructed reality of QAnon, Donald Trump is secretly waging a patriotic crusade against these “deep state” child abusers, and a “Great Awakening” that will reveal the truth is on the horizon.

QAnon evolved out of the baseless Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which posited that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a Washington DC pizza restaurant, and has come to incorporate numerous strands of rightwing conspiracy mongering. Dedicated followers interpret Q’s cryptic messages in a kind of digital scavenger hunt. Despite the fact that Q’s prognostications have reliably failed to come true, followers rationalize the inaccuracies as part of a larger plan.

These groups and pages play a critical role in disseminating Q’s messages to a broader audience and in recruiting more believers to the cult-like belief system, researchers say.

Moreover, Facebook is not merely providing a platform to QAnon groups. Its powerful algorithms are actively recommending them to users who may not otherwise have been exposed to them.

Facebook did not directly respond to questions from the Guardian about its policy considerations around QAnon content. “Last month, we took down accounts, Groups, and Pages tied to this conspiracy theorist movement for violating our policies,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “We also remove Groups and Pages that violate other policies from recommendations and demote in search results. We’re closely monitoring this activity and how our policies apply.”

Reddit was significantly easier to use for the kind of crowd-sourced research and interpretation that forms the core of participation in QAnon, and the site was host to a large pool of potential recruits, such as the 1.2m members of the subreddit r/conspiracy. It had also long enjoyed and at times even earned a reputation as one of the danker cesspools of the social web, for years tolerating communities known as “subreddits” dedicated to sharing non-consensual sexualized images of women or advocating rape.

The digital architecture of Facebook groups is also particularly well-suited to QAnon’s collaborative construction of an alternative body of knowledge, Friedberg said. The platform has created a ready-made digital pathway from public pages to public groups to private groups and finally secret groups that mirrors the process of “falling down the rabbit hole or taking the red pill”.

To enact a blanket ban akin to Reddit’s under its current rubric of rules, Facebook would likely have to designate QAnon as a “dangerous organization” – the category it uses to ban both terrorist and hate groups and any content published in support or praise of them. QAnon is hardly an organization, though as a movement it has certainly caused harm and could be considered dangerous.

But the potential for damage from QAnon goes well beyond. For those individuals who truly believe in the QAnon narrative, the crimes of the “cabal” are so grievous as to make fighting them a moral imperative. “They’re talking about a group of people who are operating our government against our wishes and they’re molesting and torturing children and destroying our society,” said Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science who studies conspiracy theories. “It’s an incitement to violence.”

“In some ways, the second that Trump officially acknowledges QAnon is the second it becomes a partisan political issue that Facebook may not be able to take action against,” said Friedberg. “We’re watching a normalization process of these conspiracies, and I think the beast that is Facebook was really the answer to this all along.”

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