This week, Facebook banned all pages related to QAnon, a fringe far-right conspiracy theory that claims sex trafficking elites are plotting against President Trump. But many groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, have been calling on the social media platform to take down these pages for a long time.
NBC News investigative reporter Brandy Zadrozny, who has been closely covering QAnon, says earlier this year, after many months of pressure, Facebook took down groups that promoted violence and actively represented the conspiracy.
In one instance of real-world violence, a QAnon adherent from Illinois was arrested in connection to threatening to “take out” Joe Biden, Zadrozny says, adding the woman was found in her car with a stash of knives.
The loosely organized network has been accused of co-opting other legitimate social movements, most notably the hashtag #SaveOurChildren, in order to attract new followers, she says. And recently, using sophisticated tactics, the conspiracy movement has been making inroads with parts of the health and wellness community.
So will the Facebook ban actually halt the movement? That’s the “real challenge,” Zadrozny says.
As part of her reporting, she was in hundreds of QAnon Facebook groups and says almost every single one was “decimated by this ban.” While she’s seen faithful followers move to other smaller social media platforms in order to converse, Zadrozny says “a great deal of them” will likely go back to their usual groups and “hopefully some of the worst parts of this conspiracy theory, the Save The Children ruse, will just sort of fade away.”
No matter the outcome, she says researchers, journalists and anti-hate organizations, such as the ADL, will be keeping close tabs on their movements.
The number of actual QAnon adherents is difficult to pinpoint. Tufts University political scientist Brian Schaffner says the conspiracy is so vast and convoluted, it could mean very different things to many different people. He believes the true number of believers is around 2% of Americans, lower than the 7% figure other polls have estimated.
Zadrozny agrees with Schaffner’s findings, saying since QAnon is an “umbrella conspiracy theory,” a spectrum of people can fall into the QAnon bucket. That includes anti-maskers, COVID-19 deniers and anti-vaxxers, she says. Many also believe in the existence of a deep state and Obamagate, a fire flamed by President Trump on Twitter, she adds.
“But the true believers, the ones who are going to move on to those alternative platforms, that’s really not that many people,” she says.
Reporting on the QAnon movement is necessary, she says, because adherents make up some of the Republican Party’s most passionate supporters. Adherents are even running for office — and winning.
In August, vocal QAnon supporter and conservative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has expressed anti-Muslim sentiments in the past, won the Republican primary runoff in Georgia and is likely to win a House seat in November, NPR reports.
While it’s vital to debunk QAnon’s online disinformation campaigns, Zadrozny says it’s equally as important for the media to understand their beliefs and operations while not putting them in the spotlight.
“Although this conspiracy theory is as old as time, what’s new here is the algorithms and the technology and the social media platforms that allow it to spread,” she says. “So what Facebook has done now, this clampdown, is really an important moment in the QAnon story.”