Following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, mainstream social media platforms cracked down on content and accounts promoting QAnon, a conspiracy theory that claims a secret group of elites controls global governments, as well as a political movement that pushed the idea that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.
In response, many QAnon believers moved to lesser-known social platforms marketed to users with more right-wing sensibilities. These “alt-tech” platforms, including one launched by Trump, pitched themselves as havens for free speech and attracted users who would face suspensions or bans for sharing content that promoted QAnon on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok.
On the alternative sites — including Truth Social, Parler, Rumble and Telegram — the conspiracy has maintained relevance. Users of alt-tech platforms are twice as likely as U.S. adults overall to participate in posting about QAnon, according to a Morning Consult survey.
Alt-Tech Platform Users Are More Likely Than General Public to Engage With QAnon Content
About 1 in 5 adults who have an account on right-leaning social media platforms said they post and/or engage with content related to QAnon in a positive manner, compared to just 1 in 10 U.S. adults overall who said the same.
According to data collected by Sensor Tower Inc. and provided to Morning Consult, alt-tech platforms saw significant growth in 2021, following the new restrictions on mainstream social media.
Messaging platform Telegram received 4 million installs in the United States from Jan. 6 to Jan. 31, 2021, compared to 446,000 downloads during the same period a year earlier. Parler, which hosted photos and videos of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, achieved more than 850,000 downloads and Rumble received more than 760,000 during that window of time — both of which had only 1,000 installs each during the same period in 2020.
The ability for QAnon adherents to rapidly shift to these platforms stems from what Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, calls an “amplification imperative” that is “baked into their DNA.” He notes that as far back as early 2019, members of the movement built apps for many platforms, from Android and iPhone to Roku, with the goal of scattering content far and wide.
Mike Rothschild, author of “The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything,” said that the major QAnon influencers who were banned from Twitter after Jan. 6 “immediately moved over to Telegram.” He noted that platforms like Rumble and Parler saw some embrace, as well, but QAnon influencers were able to build “six-figure followings with almost no trouble” on Telegram.
QAnon’s evolving message goes beyond platforms
As QAnon increasingly moved onto these alt-tech platforms, it has shed its reliance on Q, the singular figure initially central to the movement who was allegedly a high-level government official with access to classified information. In the early years, the community built around QAnon was dedicated to decrypting the coded language that the Q figure would share.
“Most people who believe in the conspiracy theory no longer care who QAnon was, because it doesn’t matter who the messenger was for them,” said Mia Bloom, co-author of “Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon” and a fellow at Georgia State University’s Evidence-Based Cyber Security Program and Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative. “It’s the message that is really what’s important.”
QAnon Believers Cite Social Media as Their Top Source for Information
Social media is still the biggest driver of QAnon information, per the survey, but the shift in importance from messenger to message unfolded in part because of how some QAnon beliefs found their way out of the fringes and into the mainstream, getting repeated by right-wing media figures like Tucker Carlson and Jesse Watters. Nearly 3 in 10 QAnon believers say they get their information on the movement from mainstream media.
“Part of the Republican Party did tease out parts of the QAnon conspiracy and weaponize them in this larger culture war,” Carusone said. “They might not have been advocating QAnon, but they spent a year talking about LGBTQ people grooming kids,” which plays on QAnon’s belief that elites operate a global child sex trafficking operation.
How QAnon turned into a social movement
As QAnon conspiracies found their way into the mainstream and the conspiracy theory became less reliant on its central figure, it started to become more of a social movement.
The change started in early 2020, according to Rothschild, when QAnon went from an almost entirely online movement to one that was involved in protests that opposed lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Looking back, it was a preview of what was to come over the next year, when the anti-vax movement and the stolen election movement would consume each other, and both are huge parts of the QAnon mythology,” he explained.
Carusone said the problems associated with the movement were exacerbated by the arrival of waves of QAnon believers on alt-tech platforms, where they were viewed by other groups as “dupes” — but well-organized ones.
Alt-Tech Platform Users Are More Likely Than the General Public to View QAnon Favorably
QAnon is divisive, even on alt-tech platforms, with equal shares of users viewing it favorably as unfavorably, per the survey.
“You already had these extremist groups on Telegram that were openly hostile to the Q people,” Carusone said. But they thought QAnon believers “still presented an opportunity for growth.”
The QAnon movement proved particularly adept at integrating these other ideologies into their overarching beliefs. QAnon, which already played on some anti-semitic tropes, embraced white nationalist groups that pushed “great replacement” theory — a conspiracy that claims global elites are working to replace white people with people of color — and anti-LGBTQ movements that make claims that gay and trans people are “grooming” young people.
Bloom noted that there are elements of racism, white supremacy and anti-semitism within QAnon, all of which are intended to scare white, suburban parents “into thinking that the Black and brown people are coming for your white kids,” she said. “As you’re looking at the shifts, you can see sort of the racist elements. You can see the anti-LGBTQ elements.”
QAnon Believers Are Largely Young, Male and Without a College Degree
QAnon believers have surprisingly divided political alignment, with 2 in 5 identifying as Republicans and nearly the same share (38%) identifying as Democrats. Roughly 1 in 5 consider themselves to be independents.
Nearly 2 in 3 believers of QAnon are between the ages of 18 and 44, and 60% did not complete or attend college. The conspiracy adherents skew heavily male.
The Trump divide persists when it comes to QAnon
QAnon has found ways to fold in other conspiracies into its tenets, from election denialism to anti-vaccine beliefs. But other conspiracy movements have not necessarily embraced QAnon the same way. The survey appears to echo this sentiment, with nearly equal shares of alt-tech platform users saying QAnon’s claims are either accurate or inaccurate.
Rothschild said he has “definitely noticed pushback against Q” on alt-tech platforms, where some believe Q to be “a deep state plant or psyop.” He said a similar sentiment was present in the militias that broke into the Capitol building on Jan. 6: “Most of them actively loathe QAnon and think it’s completely fake and meant to make patriots lazy and dependent on magical events to solve their problems.”
Alt-Tech Account Holders Are Mostly Divided on Accuracy of QAnon’s Claims
A large part of this split comes from QAnon’s other central figure: Trump.
Many believers in QAnon remain steadfast in their belief that Trump won the 2020 presidential election, and some have maintained that he is secretly operating as president. When Trump announced his bid to run for the Republican nomination for president again in 2024, it undermined this theory and, according to Carusone, has resulted in considerable ridicule of QAnon among peers on alt-tech platforms.
But much of the QAnon movement has stuck with Trump, in part because Trump has increasingly embraced it. Relegated to his own platform, Truth Social, following bans on mainstream sites like Facebook and Twitter, Trump has increasingly engaged with QAnon believers and used some of their coded language.
“He started showing up at rallies in the lead-up to the midterm elections playing QAnon music. He started to post and identify himself as Q Plus, which is what he is in the QAnon ideology. He started sharing and reposting QAnon memes,” Bloom said. Even some suggested running mates — Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser — are viewed as nods to the QAnon movement.
With Trump’s suspensions from Facebook and Twitter lifted and his return to mainstream social media expected later this year, there are concerns that he will bring back QAnon beliefs to the mainstream.
Bloom noted that QAnon figures like Flynn have already been allowed back onto Twitter under Chief Executive Elon Musk, and crackdowns against QAnon-related content have fallen by the wayside.
“Whatever effect content moderation had on QAnon content in the last two years, it’s going to end because there is almost no content moderation now, and most of these individuals are back with a vengeance,” she said.
Carusone warned that QAnon has continued to keep a hold on mainstream platforms by using alt-tech sites as a beachhead.
“I could go to Rumble as a QAnon figure, produce videos and content that are completely and totally prohibited, then cross-posted to Facebook and have no problem having it get saturation,” he said.
Despite mainstream bans, QAnon belief has not dissipated. Awareness of QAnon among social media users has held steady since 2021, as has belief in its accuracy among the same demographic. The QAnon movement has not left, and its most prominent public figure is about to return to the mainstream and once again seek office, providing the possibility for the movement to achieve political power.
“You can’t have a drop-off for what is a fringe conspiracy if core tenets of that fringe conspiracy increasingly get moved to the centers of power,” Carusone said.
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