The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How conspiracy theories spread from the Internet’s darkest corners

QAnon’s “researchers” have figured out how to shape national conversations.

During President Trump’s rally on July 31, several attendees held or wore signs with the letter “Q.” Here’s what the QAnon conspiracy theory is about. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Editor’s Note: Travis View, co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, is a pseudonym. His real name is Logan Strain.

On July 7, Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA and frequent Fox News contributor, published a tweet that contained startling but inaccurately sourced statistics about the alleged growth of human trafficking arrests under the Trump administration. It stated there were 1,952 human trafficking arrests through all of 2016, but in the first half of 2018 authorities had already made an astounding 5,987 human trafficking arrests. Kirk’s tweet falsely claimed these figures came from the Justice Department.

Kirk deleted the tweet shortly after the true source of its figures was revealed: the notorious imageboard 8chan, home of the QAnon conspiracy “researchers” of the /qresearch/ board. The board’s “research,” which consisted of sloppily compiling information from nationwide news reports about human trafficking and child pornography arrests and charges, seeks to support a core belief of the QAnon conspiracy theory — that Trump is secretly battling a corrupt deep state and an evil cabal of pedophile Satan-worshiping elites. QAnon believers think if they can show that more human traffickers are being arrested, it will support the baseless notion that Trump is finally putting an end to long-protected trafficking rings used by these elites.

Though Kirk may not have realized it at first, he had bought into the collective fantasy of some of the Internet’s most outré Trump fans.

People sometimes dismiss the “anons” — the term users of the chan message boards employ to describe themselves — as a group of amoral pranksters. 4chan anons, for example, gained notoriety for leading a campaign against the HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US art project and its creators. The campaign led to the vandalization of the artwork and stalking of the artists. But 8chan’s success in spreading QAnon suggests that targeted harassment is merely one of the ways they can inflict real world damage. Namely, they represent a political force that can craft resonant narratives and push them through major social media networks into the mainstream. They sometimes half-jokingly refer to their community’s combination of intense focus and tech savviness in the pursuit of real-world impact as “weaponized autism.”

But it is more than a joke. It can drive national conversations.

On Jan. 19, users of 8chan’s /qresearch/ board were rallying fellow QAnon believers for a day-old digital canvassing campaign. The campaign’s participants, who were anonymous to everyone, including each other, had specific and ambitious goals. They wanted to make the hashtag #releasethememo trend on Twitter, with the ultimate goal of making the “Nunes memo” a major point of discussion in the mainstream media. This, they hoped, would lead to the public release of the memo.

One anon wrote, “NEW MISSION FROM Q - RELEASE THE MEMES, RELEASE THE KRAKEN.” Another post laid out a “BATTLE PLAN FOR #ReleaseTheMemo.” Tactics in this battle plan included concrete steps like, “Tweet all Republican members of the House Intel Committee with memes of #releasethememo.” They also offered a suggestion for increasing visibility of their tweets: “Anon heard changing your name lifts shadowbans. Worth a try.” (“Shadowbanning” is a reference Twitter’s practice of limiting the reach of certain Twitter accounts because of spammy or abusive behavior or quality filters. Twitter does not use this term, and the practice is often exaggerated by Twitter users who claim they are being “censored.”)

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The anon who authored that “battle plan” included a link to a collection of memes to spread on social media generally, plus a separate zipped file that included the same memes formatted specifically for Twitter. The post also linked to online tools to track hashtag trends, enabling other anons to monitor the campaign’s progress. Hundreds of posts from other anons offered words of encouragement, speculation and updates on individual efforts. One of these posts said, “#releasethememo is starting to pick up again . . . seeing a lot in my feed and getting retweets.”

It was, in short, an well-organized and media-savvy operation. They had a specific goal, a message about government corruption, community-generated media assets and a focused media strategy. Everyone who participated was a motivated volunteer who simply wanted to get the message out. All of these efforts were inspired by the mysterious 8chan poster known as “Q,” whom they believe is a high-level government official close to Trump and releases information in cryptic messages known as “Q Drops.” QAnon believers thought the release of Nunes memo would finally expose the corruption of the “deep state” and possibly even destroy the mainstream media.

Did the campaign work? The overall #releasethememo campaign, of which 8chan anons played only a part, was wildly successful. An analysis by the social media intelligence group New Media Frontier found that #releasethememo campaign’s movement from social media to fringe media to mainstream media was “so swift that both the speed and the story itself became impossible to ignore.” The full extent of 8chan’s contribution is unknown, but the anons’ goals for the campaign (excepting the destruction of Q’s corrupt cabal enemies in the fictional QAnon world) were fully realized.

Charlie Kirk is not the only mainstream political figure who has promoted QAnon on social media. Roseanne Barr was one of the earliest mainstream figures to promote QAnon and is still the most famous. Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling promoted a video on his Facebook page explaining QAnon. The official Twitter account for the Hillsborough County, Fla., Republican Party tweeted a link to a YouTube video titled “Q Anon for Beginners” created by a popular QAnon decoder named “Praying Medic.” The since-deleted tweet read, “You may have heard rumors about QAnon, also known as Q, who is a mysterious anonymous inside leaker of deep state activities and counter activities by President Trump.” Trump himself even quote tweeted the QAnon-promoting Twitter account MAGAPILL on Nov. 25, 2017, less than a month after Q’s first post on 8chan. That tweet has not been deleted.

QAnon made its presence known in the physical world, as well. At Trump rallies in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, QAnon believers waved Q signs for the cameras and proudly wore Q T-shirts. This visible presence inspired numerous mainstream news outlets to publish QAnon “explainers.” This was a point of pride in the QAnon community. In a Q drop on Aug. 2, following the flurry of coverage about QAnon after the Tampa Trump rally, Q gloated, “Welcome to the mainstream. We knew this day would come.” In other words, even skeptical attention feeds back into the community’s media strategy.

While QAnon is 8chan’s most visible success, anons also run many smaller campaigns. These have less obvious connections to QAnon. For example, on Sept. 5 one anon on the /qresearch/ board posted an image of a woman exchanging money and another image of the same woman being escorted out of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing. The anon suggested this was evidence she was a paid protester. Another anon combined the images, along with a third close-up image of the woman’s hands holding the money, and formatted the final combined image so it could be easily shared on mainstream social networks. The final product included the snappy hashtag #activismatwork. To signal the image was ready to promote into the mainstream social media world, the anon who created the image declared, “Ready to meme.”

The image, which promoted the unsubstantiated theory that the woman was a paid protester, quickly jumped on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and on many blogs and online political forums.

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How far has QAnon spread? It is hard to say how many believe in the conspiracy theory, but a Washington Post poll of Floridians found 58 percent are familiar enough with QAnon to have an opinion about it. Though QAnon was rated unfavorably by those who were familiar with it, that is still a remarkable feat when you consider QAnon’s origin. Just try hatching a new political movement today and reaching 58 percent awareness in less than a year with no budget and little more than posts on an anonymous message board.

Through crowdsourced efforts, these anons collectively command remarkable power to spread a message on social media and beyond. As social media continues to shape the ways Americans consume news and discuss politics, the chans’ power stands to grow. The issues that motivate people to vote, write their congressmen, hold protests and argue online will be set by anonymous people with unknown agendas on platforms designed to keep less tech-savvy “normies” away.

This is not speculation: The fast spread of QAnon, despite the insanity of the conspiracy theory’s premise, shows that these shadowy parts of the Internet already have influence. Many anons would no doubt find the description of them as “influential” flattering. Influence is their goal, after all. People on 8chan’s /qresearch/ board believe the country’s agenda is being illegitimately set by a compromised mainstream media or an evil cabal, so they use the power of social media to wrestle some influence away from the institutions they sometimes call the “mockingbird media.”

In the abstract sense, there’s nothing wrong with grass-roots organizers flexing their muscle to get a message out. But in the case of the chans, that influence is being used to spread claims that are, at worst, far detached from reality — and at best, merely have no evidence. Bogus statistics, satanic panic and misleading memes are being piped from online fever swamps into mainstream discourse at an increasingly rapid rate. When this happens, very few social media users know the true origin of the memes they share or the talking points they absorb from pundits. So, perhaps it is time to start paying attention to the true source of many of the claims we see online.

This post has been updated.

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