Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the National Space Centre construction site in Moscow on February 27, 2022. (SERGEI GUNEYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)
Some QAnon followers believe that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a false flag operation, or that it’s all just a movie. Other followers believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is conducting a secret war to root out the “deep state.” Still others believe it’s somehow linked to President Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s infamous laptop. Some even believe it’s a covert operation to attack U.S. biolabs located in Ukraine.
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.
But whatever else QAnon followers believe, they share a common admiration for the authoritarian Russian leader, thanks to messages from their anonymous leader Q, the friendship between Putin and their hero former President Donald Trump, and most recently, messages from Russian-state-backed media that the mainstream media is not to be trusted and its criticism of Putin isn’t justified.But when QAnon first began, the person behind the conspiracy had a very different opinion of Russia’s authoritarian leader.On Nov 1, 2017, four days after the very first “Q drop” was posted on 4chan, the anonymous creator of the conspiracy movement made his first reference to Putin.In drop number 15, Q claimed that Putin is part of the global cabal that then-President Trump was fighting, lumping Putin in with sworn enemies of the movement like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Hungarian billionaire philanthropist George Soros. But a day later, when Q posed the question “Russia is what?” one of the first responses shows how QAnon’s view of Putin would evolve, directly in line with Trump’s views of the Russian leader. “Russia has historically been the perceived arch-rival and pure nemesis of the United States for over seventy years,” a 4chan user wrote. “On the other hand Putin rejects the [New World Order]—the global government plan of the cabal and promotes national sovereignty—two things in common with DJT. Putin has also supported the revival of Christian faith within Russia and frequently emphasizes its importance for a moral and sustainable society.”
And so, for the next four years, QAnon viewed Putin and Russia in a favorable light, which was supercharged by Trump’s open embrace of the Russian leader.References to Putin in the Q drops spiked in mid-2018, when Trump met with the Russian leader for the infamous summit in Helsinki, where the U.S. president sided with Putin over his own intelligence agencies on the question of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.Then, as the Mueller investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia ramped up in 2019, QAnon naturally sided with Trump and Russia, slamming the Democrats and mainstream media for pushing what they called false allegations. At this time, QAnon followers were still very active on mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and according to an analysis of 5 million tweets from QAnon-linked accounts collected by Marc-André Argentino, an extremism researcher and Ph.D. candidate at Concordia University between 2017 and 2020, followers of the conspiracy were sharing links to YouTube videos as well as U.S.-based right-wing sites like Fox News, Breitbart, and the Gateway Pundit.
But that all changed in January 2021, when QAnon accounts were purged from mainstream platforms in the wake of the Capitol riot, and found a new home on Telegram.According to data collected by Argentino between January and November 2021, one website stood out as the most shared link in the nascent QAnon ecosystem: Russia Today.
The Kremlin-backed TV station is a key part of Russia’s never-ending disinformation war against the West, boosting conspiracy theories and, crucially, undermining trust in the mainstream U.S. media.“Russian state media and some of their amplifiers increased their presence on Telegram last year in light of growth on Telegram due to mass de-platforming,” Argentino told VICE News. “The audience for their anti-government and anti-Western propaganda are prime targets with little interference from other sources and fact-checkers as they are not present there.”So when Russian troops began pouring over the Ukrainian border last week, there was only one side that QAnon was going to pick.“Putin is straight gangsta,” John Sabal, a QAnon influencer who is known as QAnon John, wrote on Telegram in the wake of Russia’s invasion. “MSM [mainstream media] is totally losing their minds right now.”But when you are part of an all-consuming conspiracy that QAnon has become in recent years, it can be hard to settle on just one theory. Here are three of the most prominent theories QAnon followers are sharing about the Ukraine invasion.
- This is a psy-op, a false flag, or a movie: For many in the QAnon world, nothing is ever as it seems, and so when Russia invaded Ukraine, the reflexive reaction from believers was to claim that this was all a construct of the mainstream media and that no such attack was taking place. To back up their claims, QAnon followers shared the bogus claim that one of the iconic early pictures of the conflict, of a woman in Ukraine with blood on her face, was taken in 2018 and not 2022. The photo was taken on Feb. 24, 2022, by photographer Wolfgang Schwan. QAnon followers have long promoted the idea that President Joe Biden is simply playing the role of president is an elaborate movie, as part of a complex campaign to oust the deep state. So the fact that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a former actor just adds to their “evidence” that this is all a false-flag operation. One major antisemitic QAnon influencer, Robert Smart, known online as Ghost Ezra, created a poll asking his followers whether they thought the Ukraine invasion was “just a movie and not real.” Over 50,000 followers have voted, and so far 71 percent agree.
- Attack on the deep state: Almost immediately, QAnon followers justified the invasion of Ukraine not as an attack on a sovereign nation by an authoritarian leader, but as part of an operation to flush out the “deep state.” The reasoning behind this conspiracy is related to the central role Ukraine plays in so many QAnon conspiracies, ranging from links to Hunter Biden’s laptop to the Podesta emails. The current round of conspiracies claim that Putin is waging a war on the globalist cabal of elites who are trafficking children around the world for sex. Sabal described the invasion as “a cleaning out of a VERY corrupt center of operations for the Cabal.” Meanwhile, the QAnon “Queen of Canada”, Romana Didulo, posted a video claiming the Russian military is conducting an operation to remove the deep state in Kyiv. A typical comment in the QAnon swamp on Telegram reads: “Go Russia! Get rid of this deep state bullshit.”
- U.S.-funded biolabs: This particular conspiracy theory was first spread on Russian state-run media and gained traction more broadly when it was shared by a Twitter account with the handle @WarClandestine, claiming Russia was really invading Ukraine to target the sites of U.S.-run biolabs. That account was quickly suspended, but the narrative gained traction as other accounts shared the claim with the hashtag #USbiolabs. Even though the claim about the biolabs and Putin targeting them has been widely debunked, QAnon channels continue to promote the claim.
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