The pandemic has been a boon for QAnon.
For the last 10 months, as people have been trapped at home with time on their hands, millions of Americans have begun following the delusional conspiracy theory.
The conspiracy theory has even burrowed its way into the Republican Party, with dozens of GOP candidates openly supporting the movement, and many others tacitly approving it by refusing to condemn it.
It’s even reached the White House, with President Donald Trump speaking approvingly of a conspiracy theory that says one day he will save the world from a cabal of satanic, child-eating pedophiles.
But now, as the presidential election approaches and social media companies belatedly try to close the door after the QAnon horse has bolted, the movement is moving into stealth mode and merging into the wider right-wing, conservative world.
“Drop all references re: 'Q' 'Qanon' to avoid ban/termination,” the eponymous Q said in one of a post on Sept. 17, ordering his digital soldiers to “deploy camouflage.”
And already that camouflage is being deployed.
Hours before the first presidential debate took place on Tuesday night, Q posted a screenshots of a conspiracy theory that had been spreading within mainstream conservative circles, that Democratic nominee Joe Biden would use a hidden earpiece to get answer fed to him by his campaign team.
Q even posted a link to a Fox News story about the unfounded claims, highlighting just how the movement is seeking to co-opt the established conservative world in order to increase its support base. Various versions of this story from right-wing media outlets were widely shared on Facebook, which helped disseminate them to an audience outside of those specifically seeking out Qanon talking points.
And Q’s followers are fully on board with this change in approach, seeing the benefits of this new tactic.
“If somebody comes to accept a truth or swallow a redpill without knowing it was associated with Q, then they do so unpolluted by media bias,” one follower said, adding: “Bypass prejudice. Makes sense.”
Even those who have found fame as high-profile members of the QAnon community embraced the directive of their mysterious master.
“Dead soldiers launch no memes,” Dave Hayes, a Christian author and QAnon star known online as the “Praying Medic” warned in a blog post last week, which outlined how he and others are changing up their online tactics by “omitting direct references to Q, on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.”
While Hayes and others continue to preach the Q gospel to hardcore believers on other platforms — such as Gab, Parler, and Clouthub — experts are worried that shedding the explicit Q branding will help the conspiracy theory gain even more traction among unwitting voters ahead of next month’s election.
“This is absolutely a concerted effort to smooth the rough edges and gain a larger following, and thus more legitimacy, in the mainstream public,” Alex Newhouse, digital research lead at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute, told VICE News.
While it’s still unclear what impact this move could have on November’s election, we already know that a softer version of the conspiracy theory can be hugely effective.
This summer, social media users began sharing post urging their followers to speak out, get woke, or wake up to the fact that child sex trafficking in the U.S. was out of control. The posts were accompanied by the #SavetheChildren hashtag
What had started out as a legitimate fund-raising effort for an anti-trafficking charity, was hijacked by QAnon followers who were eager to use the hashtag’s popularity and credibility to spread their own insidious and completely false version of the story.
QAnon claims that liberal elites, including high profile individuals like Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates and Tom Hanks, are operating an underground satanic child-trafficking ring, involving child sacrifice.
QAnon’s piggybacking on the #SavetheChildren hashtag began in July, at the same time as Facebook and Twitter began aggressive efforts to rid their platforms of the conspiracy theory.
According to new research from Marc-André Argentino, a PhD candidate at Concordia University who studies QAnon and similar far-right movements, QAnon’s efforts were hugely successful.
Argentino said this week that he has identified 114 groups that have branded themselves as anti-child trafficking pages or organizations that in reality are predominantly QAnon communities.
Using Facebook analytics tool Crowdtangle, Argentino found that aggregate membership of the groups had grown by more than 3,000 percent since July.
There was a corresponding spike in content being posted to these groups and interactions by members of the groups. Argentino told the New York Times that one of the links being shared was to the “Fall of the Cabal” video — viewed as a foundational text by QAnon believers, suggesting that people who were following the #SavetheChildren campaign were being converted into QAnon believers.
“The QAnon movement has been dangerously successful already in reframing the conversation in right-wing circles to be about child trafficking, not about the outrageous, anti-Semitic beliefs that are central to the movement,” Newhouse said.
As well as boosting conspiracy theories, this QAnon hijacking hurt legitimate anti-trafficking groups, who reported being overwhelmed with phone calls from QAnon believers passing on false and debunked tips. The result was groups having to route resources away from their real work.
QAnon’s roots began back in 2017 in the darkest corners of the internet, on message boards like 4chan and 8chan. Slowly it gained a core group of supporters who were drawn into the cryptic nature of the messages posted by the anonymous Q, a person claiming to have top-level security clearance within the U.S. government.
But in 2019 the movement was dealt a blow when 8chan, the website where Q posted his messages or “drops” was taken offline after the El Paso shooter posted his manifesto there.
As 8chan failed to find a hosting partner willing to keep it online, Q was in danger of becoming a minor footnote in internet history. But with the pandemic came a new lease of life on mainstream platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
For months, the companies in Silicon Valley ignored warnings about the dangers of the conspiracy theory, which was continually evolving to include new conspiracies about the origins of coronavirus, the dangers of 5G and the threat posed by a COVID-19 vaccine.
The social networks’ efforts to crack down on QAnon content has been mixed. Twitter says impressions on this content dropped by more than 50%, but content continues to spread. Facebook says it has removed hundreds of QAnon groups in the past month, but recent reports suggest that QAnon groups on Facebook continue to flourish.
Now the social networks are facing an even bigger challenge — finding QAnon content on their platforms that doesn’t mention Q, QAnon or any of the related hashtags and catchphrases.
Twitter, YouTube and Facebook all told VICE News that their teams were aware of the evolving tactics of QAnon supporters to circumvent enforcement of new policies and that they are working to counter those tactics.
None of them however were able to say exactly how they would counter the change of direction or say what impact it would have on the upcoming election — if any.
While the QAnon conspiracy has evolved and changed dramatically over the years, there has always been a singular goal involved in those behind the theory.
“We have never had a U.S. presidential election during the existence of Q. This is the most important moment for the QAnon movement in its entire history,” Julian Feeld, co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, which takes a critical look at the conspiracy theory, told VICE News. “Despite QAnon being a complex and mutating Rube Goldberg machine, the end result is nearly always convincing the ‘redpilled’ person to vote for Trump.”
It appears that whoever is behind the Q persona has seen the success the #SavetheChildren campaign had in getting ordinary citizens to share QAnon talking points, without ever having heard of the conspiracy theory.
Ultimately it seems, Q and QAnon branding are entirely unnecessary to the wider adoption of the conspiracy’s core tenets — and in fact, they may be a hindrance.
“The core message of QAnon is basically: the ‘elites’ are evil and corrupt; the mainstream media is lying about everything; and Trump is going to save humanity,” Travis View, a conspiracy theory researcher, told VICE News. “You don't really need Q branding to push or swallow that message.”
But just because a softer, PG-13 version of QAnon beliefs is gaining traction, it doesn’t mean that the more extreme fringes of the group are going anywhere and could soon be set to celebrate their first QAnon-supporting member of Congress.
“Even while QAnon's outward rhetoric has been watered down, there's little to suggest that the core of the movement is reducing its extremism or taking this as anything but a strategy to increase its political power,” Newhouse said.
Cover: BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 30: A man wearing a Q Anon vest held a flag during a No Mandatory Flu Shot Massachusetts rally held outside of the State House in Boston on Aug. 30, 2020, to demonstrate against Governor Charlie Baker's order for mandatory influenza vaccinations for all students under the age of 30, an effort to lower the burden on the health care system during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)