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Where Have QAnon Supporters Gone?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

After the attack on the U.S. Capitol, Twitter and Facebook got a lot more aggressive in trying to crack down on the baseless conspiracy theory known as QAnon. Just two weeks later, Joe Biden was inaugurated president, and that stunned those who had bought into QAnon's fantastical false promises. They believed, among other things, that Donald Trump would stay in office for another term and that he would arrest and execute his political enemies. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond looks at where QAnon has gone now.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: QAnon has two stars. There's Q, the mysterious figure who spins evidence-free tales about a satanic cabal of pedophiles in government and Hollywood. And there's former President Donald Trump, who was supposed to expose and defeat that cabal. Now both have disappeared from social media.

MIKE ROTHSCHILD: There's no one cohesive narrative that's really emerged yet, and I pin that on Q not really having a leader right now.

BOND: Researcher Mike Rothschild is working on a book about QAnon. Whoever Q is, the account has pretty much stopped posting since the election, and Trump was kicked off Twitter, Facebook and Google's YouTube this month after urging his supporters to go to the Capitol. I should note, Facebook and Google are financial sponsors of NPR. At the Capitol, some rioters openly expressed support for QAnon.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Jacob Chansley, also known as the QAnon Shaman - he faces multiple felony and misdemeanor charges for his alleged role in the storming of the Capitol.

BOND: It's hard to quantify just how big QAnon is. When NPR and Ipsos polled people about QAnon beliefs in December, more than half said they were either true or that they weren't sure. After the insurrection, Twitter banned 70,000 accounts spreading the conspiracy. Some were influencers with large followings, so removing them is having an impact, says Melanie Smith of the research firm Graphika.

MELANIE SMITH: Which means that there isn't one central place that people are finding information in terms of influential accounts, and it's kind of become more disparate.

BOND: That makes it harder for harmful, even violent ideas to gain traction and less likely that unsuspecting Twitter users will stumble across them.

SMITH: The kind of deplatforming and what does success look like for me is about not exposing new communities to that type of content. So in my mind, that's a pretty big success.

BOND: But Smith and other researchers warn there's a cost to that success. As QAnon influencers and their followers are pushed off mainstream platforms, some are migrating to apps with fewer rules, like the alternative social network Gab and the messaging app Telegram. There, they may be exposed to more extremist content, like white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

JARED HOLT: What they're essentially doing is walking straight into a incubator for radicalization.

BOND: Jared Holt studies disinformation and extremism at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab. He says QAnon is already incorporating new, unfounded theories from other extremists. Some accounts are latching on to obscure legal fictions promoted by sovereign citizen groups which deny the legitimacy of the U.S. government, like the bogus idea that Trump will be inaugurated on March 4.

HOLT: The adoption of sovereign citizen-style ideas is just another example of something that QAnon has done repeatedly, if not constantly, which is crowdsourcing their idea of reality.

BOND: QAnon's constant evolution is a challenge for platforms like Twitter and Facebook that have banned the movement to stamp out its latest theories and hashtags. But there are QAnon podcasts. Some Republicans in Congress have expressed sympathy for these beliefs, and QAnon adherents find defenders in conservative media. Researcher Mike Rothschild says that's a bigger problem than the platforms can solve.

ROTHSCHILD: When you've got people like Tucker Carlson or sitting members of the House of Representatives talking about something, it's hard to ban it.

BOND: At this point, he says, it's inconceivable that QAnon will disappear. Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.