Twitter moves against QAnon conspiracy theorists
23 Jul 2020|

On Wednesday, Twitter announced a series of aggressive steps it would be taking over the next week to control the rapid rise of the QAnon conspiracy movement across its platform. Twitter has already suspended 7,000 QAnon-related accounts and limited or restricted 150,000 more. It is also taking steps to prevent its own algorithms from contributing to the further spread of QAnon, including by preventing QAnon-related topics from trending, preventing QAnon-linked recommendations, and blocking QAnon-related URLs from being shared.

This is not an existential threat to QAnon, which is an explicitly political and pro-Trump conspiracy theory. As Daily Beast journalist Will Sommer has written, QAnon has established a meaningful offline presence, and is a fringe but growing force in the Republican Party.

However, Twitter’s decision to restrict—but not evict—QAnon, and expected similar actions from Facebook, could still have a major impact on the conspiracy movement’s trajectory. What happens next may determine whether the movement goes onwards and upwards into the mainstream or gets funnelled off into ever smaller and more extreme niche communities.

Twitter has explicitly linked its actions against QAnon to the risk of offline harm. In 2019, the FBI reportedly considered the movement to be a domestic terrorism threat. In recent months, the explosive growth in conspiracy theories which has accompanied the Covid-19 crisis (and which we have written about in relation to Bill Gates and ID2020 conspiracies) has also propelled QAnon to new heights—and contributed to a spate of violent incidents in the real world.

In April, a conspiracy theorist deliberately derailed a train in Los Angeles near the US Navy hospital ship Mercy in an attempt to ‘wake people up’ to what he believed was taking place on board the ship. (Precisely what he thought that was isn’t clear. USNS Mercy has been the subject of multiple QAnon-linked conspiratorial narratives, but has also been incorporated into some other conspiracy theories.) Later in April, a QAnon follower in the midst of a mental health crisis who had made threats against former vice president Joe Biden was arrested with 18 knives in her car near the USS Intrepid. This month, a Canadian QAnon follower armed with four guns including ‘assault-type’ weapons attempted to crash a pick-up truck through the front gates of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s official residence.

Twitter also highlighted QAnon followers’ practice of ‘swarming’ particular individuals and organisations for intense, targeted harassment. Last week, model Chrissy Teigen spoke out about QAnon’s relentless attacks on her and her partner, John Legend. The week before, it was Wayfair, a furniture company which QAnon followers decided—based on absolutely nothing—was engaging in child trafficking, precipitating days of abuse of the company and its employees. It’s telling that the Twitter spokesperson who announced the crackdown to the media did not want to be named due to concerns about becoming a target for harassment.

‘We will permanently suspend accounts Tweeting about [QAnon] topics that we know are engaged in violations of our multi-account policy, coordinating abuse around individual victims, or … attempting to evade a previous suspension—something we’ve seen more of in recent weeks’, Twitter’s safety team said in a tweet.

(Strangely, one of the most significant examples of a user evading Twitter suspensions has not yet faced any repercussions. High-profile QAnon influencer Joe M’s Twitter account, @StormisUponUs, was banned in April after accumulating more than 273,000 followers. Less than a week later he was back with an extremely thinly disguised new account, @SheepKnowMore, which has built up more than 107,000 followers in just a few months and remains active on the platform as of the time of writing.)

QAnon’s rapidly accelerating shift into the mainstream has been directly fuelled by its access to mainstream audiences on Twitter and Facebook, and by the endless rabbit warren of conspiracy content on YouTube. Its main demographic is a subset of US President Donald Trump’s base; the bulk of QAnon followers tend to be middle-aged or older, white, socially conservative and, by and large, not particularly tech-savvy.

Periodic efforts by some members of the QAnon community to encourage more users to follow them to fringe platforms such as Mewe and Gab have met with lukewarm responses. Some QAnon followers are now encouraging one another to move to Parler in response to Twitter’s announcement, but it seems probable that this will go the same way as previous attempts. The mainstream platforms are where the biggest audience and potential for influence are, and sooner or later they always drift back.

Other QAnon followers have suggested that they should turn to using ever more coded language to avoid detection. This includes the individual who poses as the ‘Q’ persona behind QAnon, who posted that followers should ‘learn the use of camouflage on the digital battlefield’.

This tactic seems unlikely to work. As the boogaloo movement is discovering on Facebook, code words are only useful if a majority of the community can understand them faster than the platforms can. A code which almost no one understands is not useful for building a mass movement, and the likelihood that most of QAnon’s mainstream converts will be able to adapt fast enough to keep ahead of Twitter’s moderators is not high.

Assuming Twitter and Facebook are serious about making their platforms an inhospitable place for QAnon to proselytise, and are willing to commit the time and resources to enforcing those policies, the likely outcome is a deceleration of but not an end to QAnon’s recent rapid growth. Influential QAnon figures and, increasingly, QAnon political candidates will keep on using the platforms to build their own followings and drum up support and funding.

Twitter’s decisions this week amount to stopping algorithmic petrol from being thrown on the fire of the QAnon conspiracy. It’s a positive step, but so long as that fire continues to burn, the embers and spot fires will continue to spread.