Facebook communities are gaining followers rapidly as Twitter cracks down on QAnon content, according to an August 10 report.
New and established QAnon groups on Facebook are growing rapidly and helping spread the unverified and dangerous conspiracy theory to new countries globally.
Over 170 QAnon pages, groups, and accounts are active across Instagram and Facebook with over 4.5m aggregate followers. Also, Guardian researchers discovered dedicated communities for QAnon followers in more than 15 countries on Facebook.
The growth of these communities on Facebook has come as Twitter launched a widespread crackdown on accounts and content dedicated to the conspiracy theory. Twitter cited the movement’s “clear and well-documented informational, physical, societal and psychological offline harm.”
Anonymous sources said that Facebook was planning to take the same measures as Twitter did later this month. Meanwhile, Facebook’s algorithm has continued to promote QAnon groups to users with some of the groups enjoying explosive growth.
What is QAnon?
By description, QAnon is a baseless internet conspiracy theory. The followers believe that Donald Trump is fighting a “deep state” cabal of Democrats and Hollywood celebrities who engage in sex trafficking and pedophilia.
That theory came up from the 2016 “pizzagate” conspiracy theory. It has grown to have a real-world political impact. Many of the QAnon adherents are running for elected office as Republicans. On its part, the FBI identified QAnon as a potential source of domestic terrorism.
In late June, reports emerged that the QAnon community on Facebook comprised of over 100 Facebook pages, profiles, groups. Also, there were adherents on Instagram with all of them boasting over 1,000 members or followers.
The biggest of these groups had over 150,000 members or followers. Cumulatively, the groups, accounts, and pages counted over three million aggregate members or followers.
As of August 9, the aggregate followers grew by over 34% to surpass four million. The biggest groups have expanded to include over 200,000 members.
An additional 73 groups and pages dedicated to QAnon also have at least 1,000 followers each. Most of these groups are brand new and were launched in May 2020 or later. They have already amassed a cumulative of over 560,000 followers.
QAnon followers are also present in many other countries including Poland, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Canada, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, Slovenia, Serbia, and Germany.
The biggest international QAnon groups discovered were Italian, German, British, Dutch, Polish, and Australian. A Facebook spokesperson explained anonymously:
“Enforcing against QAnon on Facebook is not new: we consistently take action against accounts, Groups, and Pages tied to QAnon that break our rules. Just last week, we removed a large Group with QAnon affiliations for violating our content policies, and removed a network of accounts for violating our policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior. We have teams assessing our policies against QAnon and are currently exploring additional actions we can take.”
Facebook removed one such group with almost 200,000 members banning them for repeated violations of the platform’s rules against harassment, hate speech, bullying, and harmful misinformation. But, Facebook clarified that it was a ‘one-off’ ban and not part of a widespread policy shift.
Nonetheless, Facebook said that it has been looking into QAnon since June. A researcher and co-host of QAnon Anonymous, Travis View, said:
“The response from all social platforms to the harm and threat of QAnon has been slow and anemic. But Facebook stands alone in how much it has enabled this conspiracy theory-driven extremist community. Not content with merely hosting QAnon propaganda, Facebook continues to recommend QAnon groups to users, essentially providing free marketing for a movement that has already inspired people to commit terrorism, murder, and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.”
Other reports state that Facebook aims to deal with QAnon similarly to its policies on anti-COVID-19 vaccine propaganda. That approach will remove the groups from search results on Facebook’s recommendation algorithms instead of banning them outright.
Facebook remains cautious
Experts advise that the social media platform should be careful about how it manages crackdowns on QAnon, mostly with the elections approaching. The QAnon adherents believe that the truth of secret pedophile cabals is being suppressed by liberal media. Thus, a crackdown may serve to reinforce unfounded beliefs.
A senior researcher at the Harvard Shorenstein Center’s Technology and Social Change Project, Brian Friedberg, warned:
“We want to stop QAnon because it’s degrading trust in our institutions, spreading medical misinformation and potentially fostering violent extremism. Without an explanation as to why QAnon content is being banned, this is not going to do anything to deter the beliefs of the communities.”
Friedberg believes that fighting QAnon may need ‘factual interventions’ from conservative media outlets and leaders trusted by those who most likely believe in QAnon. They include the older, white, and conservative Evangelical Christians. The researcher added:
“As QAnon seems to be largely centered around support for Trumpian politics, there needs to be intervention from the conservative members of their trusted partners. What if PragerU decided to do a two-week-long series debunking QAnon?”
The goal is not to suppression of speech but rather to rebuild trust in institutions and electoral politics.