Such unhinged conspiracy theories once ran rampant on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. But months of purging accounts that trafficked heavily in the baseless QAnon ideology — especially after it helped fuel the Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol — have reduced those voices on leading social media sites.
Now adherents of QAnon, an extremist ideology that the FBI has deemed a domestic terrorism threat, can be found in the less-visible but still-virulent world of encrypted chat app groups on Telegram and elsewhere. These largely unmoderated online spaces have become cauldrons of ludicrous claims about the pandemic and breeding grounds for an increasingly intense alliance between QAnon and covid denialism.
Videos with names such as “Murder By ‘Vaccine’ — The Evidence Mounts!” and “Doctors and Nurses Giving the coronavirus vaccine Will Be Tried as War Criminals” have been viewed tens of thousands of times after being linked on QAnon-themed channels, including “Q NEWS OFFICIAL TV,” which has more than 50,000 members. Other QAnon groups on Telegram have more than 200,000 members — and endless streams of misinformation about the pandemic.
“Nothing so far has been able sink QAnon, whether it be massive purges by social media companies or the failure of its so-called plan to manifest,” said Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online extremism. “Now, as energy around its election-related conspiracy theories loses momentum, the Q movement has doubled its focus on themes like covid-19 denialism and vaccine skepticism.”
QAnon, with its false claims about shadowy political forces and rampant pedophilia among Democratic leaders, is older than the pandemic, tracing its roots to anonymous postings in 2017. But the arrival of the pandemic last year supercharged QAnon’s growth, as did former president Donald Trump’s baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud.
The ideology’s followers have reconstituted themselves as a leaderless but still fervent online movement in the months since Trump left office in January and Q, the anonymous leader who claimed access to high-level government secrets, last posted in December. A leading focus is undermining support for vaccines that scientists say are safe, highly effective tools for finally bringing the global pandemic under control.
Telegram channels whose names bristle with references to QAnon and Trump mix posts from conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones with homages to the former president and posts promoting resistance to pandemic public health measures. These include the burning of masks, refusing of coronavirus testing and discouraging friends and family members from getting the lifesaving vaccine. Numerous QAnon groups are pushing March 20 as a “World Wide Rally For Freedom,” calling for global protests against pandemic health restrictions.
One homemade video viewed more than 74,000 times alleged, without offering any credible evidence, that tens of millions of people who have been vaccinated are now “superspreaders” of covid-19, which the video calls a “hoax.” It also claims falsely that shots have led to countless deaths and other severe health consequences. (Public health officials, by contrast, have said adverse events have been rare and largely not serious, while producing no known fatalities.)
“The covid-19 shot is an experimental bioweapon, right? You can see the harm it’s causing. So you can understand how it’s killing all the people,” the video’s narrator says. As he scrolls through a supposed list of adverse vaccine events, he adds, “Dead, dead, dead, dead. Murder, murder, murder, murder, murder.”
The migration of the QAnon and covid denialist communities to chat groups means they are less able to push falsehoods virally, reaching people who might not seek out such information but still could be susceptible to well-crafted misinformation. But these smaller, highly energized online communities, researchers say, risk increased alienation and the widening of political fractures.
A report published Thursday by the Network Contagion Research Institute, which tracks misinformation and extremism online, warned that crackdowns on mainstream sites may backfire by fueling vaccine resistance and making it harder for researchers to monitor. The report also said several potent online conspiracies are showing signs of merging into a broader populist, anti-government movement distrustful of outsiders and traditional sources of authority.
The consequences for crucial public health measures could be severe, the report argued, by undermining trust in ways that hamstring inoculation efforts and, as a result, extend the pandemic. The damage done to the world’s health, political institutions and economy could lend new energy to conspiratorial thinking.
“This creates a ready audience for politically fueled lies and will undermine the vaccine rollout,” said Joel Finkelstein, co-founder of the research group. “This could cost thousands and thousands of lives.”
Covid deniers find new online homes
Some QAnon and anti-vaccine posts still can be found on major social media sites, but there is far less than even a few months ago, according to independent researchers. Advance Democracy, a nonpartisan research group, found QAnon content on Twitter shrank dramatically after the company purged 70,000 accounts following the Capitol siege. Since President Biden’s inauguration seven weeks ago, there have been QAnon postings from about 2,300 accounts — down from nearly 40,000 in the days leading up to the Capitol assault.
Media analytics research firm Zignal Labs, meanwhile, found that misinformation about election fraud declined 73 percent in the week after Twitter banned Trump and closed the accounts of QAnon adherents, misinformation peddlers and far-right influencers who had violated site policies, and continued to stay down through late February.
The company has further found that thousands of pieces of content containing vaccine misinformation that were active in December disappeared after the January purge, and that overall, the volume of misinformation about the coronavirus on the main social platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, is lower than it was at the height of government lockdowns last May.
Melinda McClure Haughey, a research assistant with the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, said right-leaning accounts that continue to exist on Twitter, including those of Eric Trump, Charlie Kirk and Breitbart editor Josh Caplan, lost a significant number of followers when QAnon accounts were closed in January.
The crackdowns appear to have diminished the reach of misleading claims about vaccines as well, as has stepped-up enforcement against health misinformation on the largest social media sites. Facebook in December banned a range of misleading and false claims associated with the coronavirus vaccines, including claims that they cause infertility, that they represent the biblical “mark of the beast” and that they are untested and they contain toxic ingredients or alter DNA.
But QAnon’s social media users haven’t disappeared. Katz, of the SITE Intelligence Group, called Telegram “QAnon’s most critical hub.”
Telegram prohibits what it calls “public calls to violence” but has few other rules beyond bans on spam and pornography, and even these limited restrictions seem to leave room for violent conversation. In one recent exchange on a QAnon group, one member wrote, “Give me a vaccine I will give you my bullets.”
Another replied, “I will take their vaccine, from their cold dead hand.”
Telegram spokesman Mike Ravdonikas did not return a request for comment about QAnon groups on the app.
QAnon has gradually come to encompass an increasingly broad tent of conspiracies, such as fears about jet contrails and 5G wireless technology, as well as antisemitic tropes about shadowy financiers controlling the world. Even clips from Jones, who publicly denounced QAnon in January, have been widely shared on QAnon-themed channels on Telegram.
Jones, whose content was deleted from several mainstream platforms for hate speech violations in 2018, said vaccination campaigns were lethal in one recent clip of his online show posted to Telegram.
“If you let them kill old people like this and kill babies already born, and they admit they’re doing it, you are an accomplice,” Jones said, adding, “So for all of you out there that are mad at me because I’m saying let’s not be violent, let’s not be offensive, I understand your guts and your blood and your soul and your mind is burning with the desire to kill. I understand that.”
Then he urged his viewers to resist those urges while acting as “wise as serpents and peaceful as doves.”
He said in an audio text to The Post that he was urging nonviolent responses to vaccination campaigns.
Researchers argue that covid misinformation can help fuel real-world events, including a January rally at a mass vaccination site at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles that resulted in its temporary closure and a demonstration last weekend against coronavirus restrictions in Boise, Idaho’s capital, where children tossed surgical masks into a fire.
Social media chatter also is heightening individual concerns in ways that can undermine confidence in coronavirus vaccines, researchers say. What public health experts call “vaccine hesitancy” has emerged as an obstacle to achieving herd immunity and ending the pandemic.
QAnon channels on Telegram and leading social media sites are now featuring chatter about demonstrations against public health restrictions on March 20 in dozens of cities worldwide. Although not mainly about resisting vaccines, researchers are concerned about this rising political energy regarding a pandemic whose broad global declines in January and February show signs of flattening in March.
U.S. officials “are trying to keep Americans from dropping their guards at this point,” but such messages are being undermined by QAnon groups, said Marc Ginsberg, president of the Coalition for a Safer Web, a nonpartisan group that advocates for technologies and policies to remove extremist content from social media.
Misinformation about the vaccine often is mixed in with other conspiracies, such as concerns that global elites will force people to take a vaccine or that the pandemic is a way for powerful elites to control the population.
Another increasingly prominent topic among QAnon communities, for example, is “The Great Reset,” a term that has its origins in a plan drawn by the World Economic Forum to explore how economies might recover from the pandemic. The term has been distorted on social media, where it is used to imply that “global elites” such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates will use the pandemic to advance their interests and push forward a globalist or Marxist plot.
Prominent groups that are critical of vaccines have posted on Instagram about the Great Reset, and in late February, British actor Russell Brand posted a viral video about it on YouTube.
The term had 703,283 mentions across social media sites during the first three weeks of February, Zignal found. The large number of mentions suggests the term can much more easily slip through technology companies’ detection systems than content directly about QAnon.
Thursday’s report by the Network Contagion Research Institute found that online conversation about another QAnon fixation, the “New World Order,” surged during the Dodger Stadium vaccination protest — along with terms such as “Scamdemic” and “Plandemic” — on Twitter. Anti-government themes in general appear with growing frequency in conjunction with posts opposing vaccination and coronavirus restrictions at businesses and schools.
The report argues that easing years of political polarization is the best way to drain energy from the conspiracy theories running wild online.
“God, don’t we need to heal,” said Finkelstein, the group’s co-founder. “The virus is real, and the nation really needs to come together, and these two things go together.”
Gerrit De Vynck contributed to this report.