QAnon, the spread of disinformation and conspiracy-based radicalization – Homeland Security Today

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QAnon’s conspiracy theory alleges that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophile politicians control the United States. government.[i] While QAnon gained significant media coverage in the recent elections, the movement has actually been around for almost four years, with the first QAnon post taking place on October 28, 2017.[ii] QAnon adherents believe that “Q” is an individual or group of senior military and intelligence officials who are in direct communication with former President Donald Trump. This notion allowed QAnon to attract support at exponential rates, especially ahead of the election, due to the legitimacy and relevance of this false claim.

QAnon relies on the use of anonymous online messages known as “Q Drops” to spread disinformation. These anonymous messages are the very essence of how Patrons felt they were receiving information directly from Q. Q Drops are often first posted on 4chan or 8kun and would generally claim that Q knew about some type of government information. The “Q” drops often foreshadowed a future event dedicated to dismantling the so-called Deep State cabal. Ahead of the 2020 US Presidential Election, QAnon maintained a consistent online presence through Q drops and social media; however, there has not been a further drop in Q since December 8, 2020.

A recent study published in the Journal for Deradicalization, “QAnon conspiracy theory: examination of its evolution and the mechanisms of radicalization”, sought to examine how disinformation disseminated online has been one of the main drivers of conspiracy-based radicalization.[iii] This study analyzed the evolution, ideologies and paradigms associated with supporters of QAnon to understand the most influential mechanism of modern conspiracy-based radicalization. This study also analyzed the global spread of QAnon by tracking the growth of disinformation related to QAnon over time. The study acknowledges that there is currently a lack of research examining the correlation between conspiracy theories and offline violence.

The main findings of the study supported claims that QAnon’s activity increased significantly before the election. The study used a software-as-a-service tool designed by French company Storyzy to track the volume of articles published about QAnon over time. From July 1, 2019 to March 1, 2020, there were 4,207 articles published around the world that dealt with the QAnon Conspiracy to some extent. However, in the eight months leading up to the March 1, 2020 – November 1, 2020 elections, a total of 39,692 articles were published regarding QAnon. This is an 843.4% increase of articles from both trusted sources and misinformation sources discussing QAnon compared to the previous eight month period. This suggests both increasing public awareness and an increase in reporting by reliable sources, as well as an increase in disinformation.

Looking specifically at the disinformation articles, the authors found that disinformation spread at a considerably constant rate until the early months of 2020. There were approximately 17,152 disinformation articles shared regarding QAnon from October 28, 2017 to October 1, 2017. November 2020. However, 8,032 of these articles have been published since March 1, 2020. This represents almost half (46.8%) of all disinformation articles on QAnon disseminated in the 8 months leading up to the election, despite the ‘existence of QAnon for over three years. This is an alarming leap in the creation and spread of disinformation in a relatively short period of time.

The type of disinformation disseminated regarding QAnon is best described as content fabricated with the intention of deceiving viewers in order to create distrust of the government. The Storyzy platform was able to rank the 10 most cited sources of QAnon disinformation – those online news hubs that were most often cited or used as the source for another article. The analysis found that Russia-based rt.com was the most cited source at the time of the study. Five of the 10 most cited sources are classified as far-right sources of information. These are westernjournal.com, thegatewaypundit.com, breitbart.com, pjmedia.com and thefederationist.com. These sites have a great influence on a much larger network of sources of disinformation and streams of disinformation online. In addition, the network of sources of disinformation is well interconnected and includes sources based in the United States and abroad.

The study authors also analyzed social media analysis of QAnon disinformation online. Figure 3 shows the social media analysis of 9,920 articles published on QAnon from March 1, 2020 to November 1, 2020. The circular network visualizes how sources are cited and connected to other sources. Green nodes (endpoints) represent trusted sources and red nodes represent sources of disinformation ranked by Storyzy. Nodes grow larger depending on how often they are cited by other sources. The color of the edge is determined by whether the cited source is a trusted source (green edge) or a source of misinformation (red edge). The main benefit of social media analysis is the significant red-red connectivity, which is pulled from the network in the image on the left. This red to red network represents 4,985 disinformation articles shared and cited by other disinformation articles.

Most of the biggest red knots are the sources in the top 10 most cited list in the previous figure. For example, three of the sites mentioned on the list – thegatewaypundit.com, rightwingwatch.org, and westernjournal.com – are at the top of the network. These sources have several bidirectional edges extending outward, illustrating the number of sources they can influence. Social media analysis highlights the range of sources of disinformation available online, including independent websites, blogs and information centers. The significant connectivity and spread of disinformation linked to QAnon threatens the legitimacy of real news institutions, real news, and democratic institutions that fight conspiracy and violent extremist radicalization.

In addition to the fact that these sources are highly connected, the disinformation articles they produce are often redistributed on social media. In particular, Telegram is a popular app for spreading violent extremist and conspiratorial rhetoric. The study authors used the QAnon-focused Telegram channels to understand the vastness of the next QAnon. They found 36 Telegram channels focused on spreading QAnon disinformation and propaganda, with a strong international presence. There were at least 11 countries represented, including the United States, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany – especially the region of Bavaria – France, Austria, Brazil, Argentina and the United Kingdom. Many of these channels had thousands of subscribers, with an international channel called “Qlobal-Change” growing from 137,006 subscribers to 164,857 subscribers from November 2020 to February 2021.

Traffic analysis of a popular QAnon 8kun sign also showed evidence of the movement’s global appeal. The authors found that outbound traffic from the 8kun card connects to US-based sources 70.4% of the time, while inbound link traffic only comes from the US 47.3% of the time. This suggests that there are sources broadcast around the world that bring users to the 8kun bulletin board, perhaps through social media channels such as Telegram that draw an international audience. Popular inbound link locations including France, UK, and Australia, in addition to the following US-based sites. However, the 8kun bulletin board itself often links users to news sources disseminated by US sources. This suggests that QAnon sites have gained an international audience, but US-based sources of disinformation continue to be an important part of QAnon’s global growth.

The digital environment has served as the primary vehicle for the rapid dissemination of QAnon-related content that has resulted in violence in nearly 23 cases, including the January 6 Capitol uprising. This tangible effect of QAnon underscores the high levels of risk conspiracy theories pose in the modern age in conjunction with the internet. QAnon has shown no concrete signs of slowing down and continues to engage in new lines of conspiratorial thinking to attract followers. Intervention should take the form of a multi-level approach, emphasizing the role of friends, family and community in countering conspiratorial narratives. In addition, social media policies and content removal need to be reassessed to deal with the threat from a holistic and practical perspective. While conspiracy-based radicalization has been under-studied, the dangers that can arise have been shown to evolve into real-time international security concerns that should not be overlooked.

The views expressed here are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a wide range of views in favor of securing our homeland. To submit an article for review, send an email [email protected] Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

The references
[i] Zadrozny, B. and Collins, B. (August 14, 2018). QAnon explained: The anti-Semitic conspiracy theory is gaining ground around the world. NBC News. Retrieved on December 5, 2020 from https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/how-three-conspiracy-theorists-took-q-sparked-qanonn900531.
[ii] Drops of intelligence. (2017, October 28). Alerts Q. Retrieved December 5, 2020 from https://qalerts.app/?sortasc=1.
[iii] The author’s original study can be viewed here: Garry, A., Walther, S., Mohamed R., & Mohammed, A. (2021). QAnon conspiracy theory: examining its evolution and the mechanisms of radicalization. Journal for deradicalization, https://journals.sfu.ca/jd/index.php/jd/article/view/437/265

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