In just three years, the absurd QAnon conspiracy theory gained several million sympathisers in the United States. The tale of Donald Trump, who is thought to be a military-hired ideological soldier fighting a global conspiracy of paedophile Satanists who rule the world, has become so influential that politicians have been wooing its believers. The reason for its popularity is the great underestimation of the role of online platforms as places that drive the public debate. We can still fix this by navigating between freedom of speech and censorship.
The crusade against the ‘evil’ of this world
‘Have you ever wondered why we go to war, or why you never … get out of debt, why there is … crime? … What if I told you that those who are corrupting the world, poisoning our food, and igniting conflict were themselves about to be permanently eradicated from the earth?’ This is how the introductory video of one of the most interesting and most important conspiracy theories begins, that is, QAnon.
It all started in October 2017 with an anonymous post, most likely by a single person at the time, hiding under the pseudonym Q. They introduced themselves on 4chan as someone with access to classified documents. Then they wrote about a global conspiracy of Satanist elites, often indulging in paedophilia, which the American military and services had ‘hired’ Donald Trump to fight against. Then—according to an NBC investigation—three other users started propagating this theory on other social media, hoping to cash in.
According to QAnon, the current social tensions, wealth inequality, racial riots, terrorism, and the broadening split in the worldview of young men and women are all the result of the deliberate actions of the ‘bad guys’. Of course, these include big businessmen, leading politicians, and celebrities—all more beautiful, wealthier, and more popular than a regular citizen. The QAnons believe in a black-and-white morality: You are either a criminal or you are ‘clean.’ You and I don’t steal, we’re not racist, we don’t hurt people. They do. Those in Brussels, Washington, and the Vatican. The heads of pharmaceutical companies and food giants such as Monsanto, the CEOs of central banks, and Hollywood celebrities.
Interestingly, the heroes of this story are not only conservatives and Republicans. The first one mentioned is, of course, John Kennedy, who was killed—according to Q—for being ‘a good guy’. Another one is Ronald Reagan, who also had good intentions, but the unsuccessful assassination that he experienced made him turn over to the corrupt elite. Every successive American president, whether from the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, turned out to be ‘criminals’. That is, until Donald Trump was, according to QAnon, persuaded by the US military to run for office and become part of a grand plan to defeat Evil. According to this view, the mainstream media’s harsh criticism of Trump in 2016 was not the result of his own words about where to grab women, but the criminals’ reaction to his growing support.
At first glance, QAnon may seem like an anti-institutional movement. Meanwhile, community researcher and author of the QAnon Anonymous Podcast said in an interview with NPR: ‘The interesting thing about QAnon is that it is a movement that puts a lot of faith in government and law. This sounds incompatible with the whole narrative, but its members imagine that the announced revolution will take a legal character, will be carried out in white gloves.’
How many people believe in QAnon? It’s difficult to estimate precisely. According to an internal Facebook investigation reported by NBC, the largest groups and pages on the social media platform had approximately 3 million users. The Polish forum of anonymous Q fans on Discord has over 17,000 users (although it is difficult to estimate how many are active).
Nothing new under conspiratorial skies?
Moral intransigence and a clear distinction between good and evil are always an element of political conspiracy theories. QAnon is no different. It puts the stereotypical, well-coordinated bad guys against the squeaky clean ones who want to save the world. It convinces people that the shortage of the latter is caused solely by the ill will of a handful of rich and powerful people.
Q brings together several famous conspiracy theories, from Kennedy’s assassination to the New World Order. QAnon, however, stands out because it is spreading faster than wildfires in California. In just three years since the first mention, the movement has reached several million followers and has spread well beyond the US.
It is a sign of our times that the movement has become so important that it is politically profitable to fight for its support. Not only is President Trump flirting with QAnon, but so are several Republican candidates in state elections. Although last year the FBI classified QAnon as an intra-state terrorist threat, as reported by Yahoo News, Donald Trump said in a recent interview, ‘I’ve heard these are people that love our country. So I don’t know anything about it other than they do supposedly like me.’ FBI warnings did not prevent the president from taking pictures with one of the movement’s promoters in the Oval Office. Trump’s gentle wooing is understandable: many of his tweets and statements are being analysed to find ‘evidence’ of the truthfulness of Q’s message. What could such evidence be? For example, a spelling error when the POTUS used the letter ‘q’ in the name of Ecuador:
It could also be the fact that Trump and Q used the same words on the same day (though a different year). For example, the word ‘watch’ was used in a statement.
A certain sympathy for the movement also appears at lower levels of politics. For instance, Jo Rae Perkins, Oregon’s Republican Senator, seemed to be supportive of the movement and used its hashtag, #WWG1WGA. After some criticism, she distanced herself from these views. The current Republican candidate in Wisconsin, Dave Amstrong, admitted that he believes in the movement’s main tenets.
One must be aware that QAnon leads to violence. Some events connected with the movement’s supporters include, for example, the 2017 arson of a Muslim centre in Bloomington, MN by three Americans, or an attempt to burn down the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. This small Washington, DC restaurant became one of the crucial elements of an earlier conspiracy theory—Pizzagate—of which QAnon is a sort of continuation.
In the stolen emails of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign staff, the topic of ordering a pizza from Comet Ping Pong appeared very often. According to the creators and supporters of this conspiracy theory, ‘pizza’ was a code word for trafficking in children as part of a great paedophile gang. Sounds absurd? Not to Edgar Welch, who on 4 December 2016 burst into a pizzeria full of customers with a gun in his hand and walked into the backroom in order to—according to him—free the children being held there. However, when he got there, it turned out that nobody was there.
Digital giants start deleting QAnon
Where does the popularity of QAnon stem from? There are probably many reasons, but the ability to communicate that social media platforms provide is one of the main ones. Conspiracy theories have existed before, and they were spread through magazines, radio, and VHS tapes. However, it was precisely the forums, groups, and channels that emerged in online communities that were able to create a critical mass of followers. This raises the question of whether the private companies behind social media have the right to regulate freedom of expression and (online) assembly of citizens.
QAnon was established on 4chan, an online image and message board whose main principles is anonymity and the defence of freedom of speech. Over time, however, groups of followers and content that promote the movement started to appear on mainstream social media sites Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok.
Reddit was the first to react in 2018 by removing the r/greatawakening forum from the site. In July 2020, Twitter declared that its algorithms would stop recommending content related to QAnon, which creates up to 150,000 accounts, according to the portal’s statistics. Posts with links to websites related to QAnon are also starting to be blocked. Facebook has removed over 800 groups that featured posts encouraging violence, and nearly 2,000 others were ‘restricted’. TikTok, in turn, claims to block traffic-related hashtags. YouTube told Reuters it has removed tens of thousands of Q videos and hundreds of accounts since it updated its hate speech policy in July 2019.
Freedom of speech and limiting the freedom of algorithms
Excessive censorship, including online one, is not good for society. Removing anti-vaccination groups and websites from the net will rather radicalise them than solve the problem; this is a common argument raised by advocates of freedom of speech. According to them, the ability to express a controversial hypothesis is necessary because it constitutes a certain safety valve. I believe this reasoning is correct, but it does not mean we can forget about the matter.
First of all, let’s remember that social networks are private platforms, not public spaces. In recent years, their importance for society has grown, and private companies can indeed influence the shape of public debate by banning certain users. However, the regulatory system still fails to keep up with the actual relevance and legal status of platforms and services such as Facebook or YouTube.
This results in differences in the behaviour of individual companies. Twitter went to war with Donald Trump, introducing a policy of verifying the accuracy of posts; this, however, in practice seems to cover … nearly exclusively the ones added by the president. Facebook, in turn, has been trying to defend freedom of expression for months and is opposed to the removal of controversial content as long as it does not break the law.
However, if we were to try to regulate freedom of speech on digital platforms from above, the fundamental question arises of how to do it. I am an advocate of freedom of speech and an opponent of non-platforming the public debate. However, nothing is that simple online: there is a fine line between freedom of expression and the automatic promotion of socially harmful content.
Outside the digital world, the situation is quite clear: you can print anything that does not break the law, and the consumers can make their choice. At most, we have at our disposal advertisements or special agreements that require newsagents to put our QAnon magazine on top. Social networks do not work that way. Their algorithms are designed to attract our attention for as long as possible, by showing us content we like or which at least evokes some emotion.
Therefore, controversy is in high demand; one can easily fall into an endless spiral of recommended films or groups which become more and more radical every step of the way. This is exactly what Guillaume Chaslot, a former YouTube employee, who co-created the algorithm that recommended new videos to users for years, meant. He even conducted his own experiment, in which he found, for example, when typing ‘Pope’, more than 80% of YouTube-recommended videos labelled the head of the Church as ‘evil’, ‘Satanist’, or ‘the Antichrist’.
There is therefore a major difference between civil freedom of expression and the socio-technological mechanisms that promote anti-social, harmful, or simply untrue content. It will be difficult to fight such content while preserving freedom. This is shown by the platforms’ reactions to QAnon, which largely entails removing the space for gathering the theory’s supporters (Reddit) or removing users from the site (Twitter).
However, it is possible to reconcile these two values. We need greater transparency of the mechanisms controlling the algorithms and advertisements on social media, more precise control over places and content where calls for breaking the law appear, platform liability for automatically multiplying harmful content, and individual liability for breaking the law. We also need global companies to take such decisions locally, taking into account the values and situation of local communities.
A mechanism to refer to an independent instance is required. The QAnon movement shows that it is high time to start creating real social rules for regulating platforms. How we respond will determine whether we allow socio-technological systems (based on everyone’s attention) to tear the social structure apart.
Polish version is available here.
Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International. Any use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" (below) is mentioned.
The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.