A man wears a QAnon shirt while boarding a shuttle bus at the Manchester Mall going to Manchester Airport in Londonderry, New Hampshire on August 28, 2020. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP) (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)
There’s a war brewing within the QAnon community. One one side you have an upstart anonymous account called GhostEzra who has amassed a massive following in the space of a few months by spreading wild claims about President Joe Biden being a fake played by Hollywood star James Woods in a mask. In recent weeks, the account has become more and more extreme, spreading Holocaust denial and neo-Nazi content.
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.
One the other side is a group of established influencers who’ve spent years promoting QAnon by pretending that the conspiracy theory isn’t intrinsically antisemitic. But these influencers, who have a smaller combined following than GhostEzra, aren’t worried about the antisemitic content itself; they’re just worried that the extremist language being used to express that antisemitism is damaging the QAnon brand.“Do you see how disinformation accounts hurt our movement?” CJTruth, part of the establishment QAnon influencer group, wrote on Telegram last week.For all their outrage, none of the established influencers has debunked the Holocaust denial content or antisemitic posts. Instead, they have focused on the damage that being so openly antisemitic is doing to their ability to recruit new followers to the movement.At a time when the QAnon movement is in a state of flux, with former President Donald Trump out of office and the anonymous poster known as Q gone silent, experts see the embrace of more extremist views as a dangerous trend. They point out that GhostEzra’s account has become “a hub for radicalization,” where more extreme groups can recruit QAnon followers.“There was always antisemitism, or elements of it, in QAnon, but the type of content being shared in the GhostEzra channel is not the norm and has taken very extreme turns,” Marc-André Argentino, a Ph.D. candidate at Concordia University who studies QAnon and similar far-right movements, tweeted.
The anonymous poster known as Q has not posted since early December—and many believe they won’t ever again. Filling the void are a group of QAnon influencers, grifters and promoters who are jockeying for power among the millions of people who still believe in the conspiracy.In January, after QAnon accounts were deplatformed en masse by Facebook and Twitter in the wake of the Capitol riots, a group of QAnon influencers came together to form the “We the Media” channel on Telegram, aiming to make it the main hub for QAnon information.The channel was set up by a prominent QAnon influencer who goes by IET, revealed by VICE News to be Denver-based chiropractor Craig Longley. He recruited many of the biggest names in the QAnon world to help run the account.But despite their combined following and years dedicated to the movement, GhostEzra has quickly become the leading channel for QAnon content on Telegram. No one knows who is behind the account, but their rise to power within the QAnon community has been extraordinarily fast.A Twitter account using the name GhostEzra was set up in December 2020, and within weeks gained over 18,000 followers. The account was a prolific poster and in the early hours of Jan. 6 alone, they posted a stream of over 80 tweets and retweets, according to an archived version of the account. The posts contained memes, videos, and messages claiming that Trump was about to return to office.
When the account went down as part of Twitter’s major QAnon purge in the wake of the Capitol riots, it quickly reemerged on Telegram. There, freed from any sort of moderation, the account quickly became a massive hit with QAnon followers.In the space of a few weeks, it racked up over 330,000 followers. The account has become so popular that a lawyer for Ezra Cohen, a former Trump official who many believed was Q, felt the need to clarify on Twitter that his client was not running the account.
GhostEzra’s appeal can be traced back to the fact that at a time when Trump had lost the election and Biden had been inaugurated, the channel was still hugely upbeat.“[They] have such an overwhelmingly positive attitude about winning,” Mike Rains, a researcher who hosts the QAnon-focused podcast “Adventures in HellwQrld,” told VICE News.“That's the main thing about QAnon. The selling of hope. Ghost is always all ‘we got this’ and constantly reassuring his audience of victory. When they answer his polls with less than 100% confidence in victory, he scolds them for not being positive enough.”Besides the standard QAnon conspiracies—that a group of Democratic and Hollywood elites is operating an underground sex-trafficking ring, COVID-19 is a hoax, and the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former President Donald Trump—GhostEzra also promoted some truly wild claims.
These included the claim that President Joe Biden is in fact Hollywood actor James Woods in a mask. They also claim that the earth is flat and that outer space is fake.
“[These theories] called back to the creative ferment of QAnon's peak, when absolutely anything would go as long as you could convince a few people of it,” the anonymous founder of the Q Origins Project, which seeks to document how the movement came about, told VICE News.But last week, the underlying antisemitic content that GhostEzra had always been pushing came to the fore in a series of posts on their Telegram channel that left no doubt about just how extreme the account was.
It began by promoting the neo-Nazi film “Europa – the Last Battle” a 10-part film that claims Jews created Communism, and deliberately started both world wars as part of a plot to found Israel by provoking the innocent Nazis, who were only defending themselves.Almost all the 4,000 comments responding to the post on Telegram are positive, with very few pushing back against the openly racist message.On Tuesday night the account posted more Holocaust-denial content. The post attracted over 3,000 comments, the second of which was a link to a neo-Nazi channel whose tagline is “Exposing the Jews is our Mission.”This network effect that’s getting QAnon supporters radicalized into more extreme groups is deeply troubling.“As QAnon has slowly adopted more extreme narratives, violent extremism actors have adopted more salient conspiracy theories,” Argentino said. “There is a symbiotic relationship that has formed, and not for the better.”
As media reports picked up on GhostEzra’s antisemitic rants, the influencers in the “We The Media” channel attempted to distance themselves, and the QAnon movement, from GhostEzra’s claims.
But rather than hitting out at the antisemitic nature of the content, these influencers have simply complained about the damage GhostEzra is doing to their movement. “The responses I have read on their Telegram channels haven’t explicitly been a backlash against GhostEzra’s antisemitism, Hitler apologetics, or Holocaust denial,” a prominent QAnon researcher called Dapper Gander told VICE News. (Dapper Gander tweets anonymously due to fears that Q adherents will harass him and his family.) “If you look at what the other promoters actually wrote, few of them even mention antisemitism, and none mention Holocaust denial,” Gander adds. “They also do not correct him. They simply say GhostEzra is a ‘disinformation account’ that ‘discredits the movement.’”Of course it would be highly hypocritical of those influencers to call out GhostEzra’s antisemitism given that many of them have posted antisemitic content themselves.Jordan Sather, for example, has been one of the loudest voices criticizing GhostEzra, but he has in the past posted antisemitic content, such as using the three brackets “echo” symbol to identify Jewish people.
Similarly, Longley, the founder of the “We The Media” channel, has also repeatedly posted antisemitic content, such as a 2018 tweet where he imagined the day Trump would leave the White House, suggesting that all Jews would be “gone,” again using the three brackets “echo” symbol to identify Jewish people.But for the rank-and-file QAnon follower, the complaints about GhostEzra seem to have fallen on deaf ears, with hundreds of thousands interacting with his posts every day. Even Lin Wood, arguably the most influential voice in the QAnon world today, has signaled his endorsement of the GhostEzra channel, telling his 830,000 Telegram followers that he “enjoys” the channel’s content.With GhostEra’s channel continuing to find huge support despite the horrific content, there’s little that can be done to stop its growth and influence now that it’s on a platform where there are effectively no rules.“There are no ways to introduce friction on Telegram like you could on larger platforms,” Argentino points out. “There are no trust and safety teams, there are no counter-narratives or alternative voices.”