Last year, QAnon was on the ropes.
The pro-Trump conspiracy theory had been left homeless by the disappearance of 8chan, the message board where "Q," its pseudonymous central figure, posted cryptic clues about a cabal of child-eating Satanic paedophiles. The message board had been cut off by its security provider after the El Paso, Texas, mass shooting, and while 8chan's owner, Jim Watkins, was struggling to bring a replacement site online, some QAnon believers appeared to be losing interest.
Then, the pandemic hit — and with it, a new wave of misinformation that QAnon could incorporate into its overarching narrative, from false claims about mask-wearing to conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and a Covid-19 vaccine. The Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd in May also provided new fodder for QAnon's "bakers" — the amateur sleuths who gather in private Facebook groups and chat rooms to decode Q's latest posts and discuss their theories about the global cabal.
But new research suggests that the biggest jolt to QAnon came from the so-called "Save the Children" movement. It started out as a fundraising campaign for a legitimate anti-trafficking charity, but was then hijacked by QAnon believers, who used the movement to spread false and exaggerated claims about a global child-trafficking conspiracy led by top Democrats and Hollywood elites. This hijacking began in July, around the same time that Twitter and Facebook began cracking down on QAnon accounts.
Marc-André Argentino, a doctoral student at Concordia University who studies QAnon, has been tracking the growth of "Save the Children" Facebook groups, many of which operate as soft fronts for the movement.
Argentino identified 114 groups that bill themselves as anti-trafficking concerns, but are actually dominated by QAnon content. Since July, he found, these groups have increased their membership by more than 3,000 per cent — yes, 3,000 per cent— with a corresponding surge in activity within these groups.
"Save the Children really revitalised the community after Twitter and Facebook took action against QAnon," Argentino said. "It's introduced an entire new population to QAnon."
Argentino also found that traffic to several pieces of core QAnon content — such as "Fall of Cabal," a YouTube video that many QAnon believers have credited with spurring their interest in the group — has surged in recent weeks, after months of decline.
2/ Using @crowdtangle aggregate membership on September 16 was ~330K and a week later it is at 505k this represents growth of 3,028.66% since July 2020. The spike in the community started the week of July 26th pic.twitter.com/boh36dw3XD— Marc-André Argentino (@_MAArgentino) September 23, 2020
Facebook, Twitter and other social networks have tried to limit the spread of QAnon, shutting down some accounts and pages associated with the movement. But "Save the Children" is a fuzzier area for platform enforcers because it can be difficult to tell who is genuinely concerned about child exploitation and who is taking advantage of those concerns to sow misinformation. That vagueness has helped QAnon believers avoid a total crackdown, and it has given them venues to discuss their theories that aren't as vulnerable to being taken away.
Adopting "Save the Children" as a mantra helped save QAnon in several other ways. It created a kind of "QAnon Lite" on-ramp — an issue QAnon believers could talk about openly without scaring off potential recruits with bizarre claims about Hillary Clinton eating babies, and one that could pass nearly unnoticed in groups devoted to parenting, natural health and other non political topics.
Typical of the new, understated QAnon style are Facebook videos in which parents sound the alarm about paedophiles brainwashing and preying on children. These videos, wrote Annie Kelly, a researcher who wrote a Times op-ed about QAnon's appeal to women this month, make for "compelling and dramatic content" that is "easily shared in other parenting groups with little indication of their far-right origins."
Since stopping child exploitation is an issue that has broad and bipartisan sympathy, QAnon's anti-trafficking rebranding has also allowed politicians to appeal to QAnon supporters without explicitly mentioning the theory. And seeding misinformation about child sex trafficking on platforms like Instagram and TikTok has allowed QAnon to tap into a younger and less explicitly pro-Trump demographic.
"It's bringing down the average age of a QAnon follower," Argentino said. "In 2019, this was mainly a boomer movement. Now we're seeing millennials and Gen Z getting on board."
Argentino's research shows just how effective QAnon's "Save the Children" pivot has been. In addition to spurring in-person rallies all over the world, the movement has become one of the most potent forces on Facebook. Stories about child exploitation and human trafficking routinely end up being among the most-shared news articles on the site, and some QAnon-adjacent scandals — such as the uproar over Netflix's Cuties documentary, which was discussed for weeks inside QAnon Facebook groups before it was condemned by Republican lawmakers as promoting child sexualisation — have crossed over into mainstream political discourse.
There is nothing wrong with expressing concerns about child exploitation, which is real and harmful. But QAnon's embrace of the "Save the Children" movement has created its own harms. Legitimate anti-trafficking groups have reported being flooded with calls from QAnon believers passing on false and debunked tips, forcing the groups to divert resources away from their actual work. QAnon believers have organised virulent harassment campaigns against people they accuse of being paedophiles, including celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Ellen DeGeneres.
And some QAnon followers have pursued acts of vigilante justice against the imagined "cabal" they believe is running an underground child sex-trafficking ring. Last year, a Colorado woman was arrested on suspicion of plotting with other QAnon supporters to have her son kidnapped from foster care. (The woman, Cynthia Abcug, has pleaded not guilty.)
As Argentino points out in a recent Twitter thread about his findings, there is some evidence that the growth of "Save the Children" may be slowing down. Sharing of posts inside the 114 groups he tracked has declined in recent weeks, even as membership in the groups has continued to rise. Facebook's recent crackdowns may explain part of the falloff in sharing. But it could be evidence that QAnon — which needs a constant supply of fresh misinformation and new narratives to keep its community hooked — is preparing to move on.
"People are getting bored," Argentino said. "There's only so much content about child sex trafficking that you can share."
Written by: Kevin Roose
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES