The unfounded internet conspiracy theory alleges the world is run by a cabal of satan-worshiping pedophiles including Democratic politicians and Hollywood celebrities running a global child sex-trafficking ring.
“The starting point right now is really that there is this deep state or shadow government, which has in mind the takedown of Trump,” said Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism.
At its core, the far-right conspiracy theory is that U.S. President Donald Trump is fighting a battle against evil, according to Perry, who studies extremism extensively. The theory suggests the military, supposedly eager to see the deep state overthrown, recruited Trump to run for president. But the deep state, which controls the media, quickly tried to smear him through “fake news.”
They claim it is only Trump who can get “deep state” leaders arrested in what they call “The great awakening,” Perry says.
Although some of these ideas around a “deep state” — which has been around since the Cold War — seem absurd, a global pandemic, a looming recession and more people in isolation have pushed many people over the edge, says Perry.
“There’s nothing new to the content necessarily. I think what’s new is the rapidity with which it now spreads and the ease with which it now spreads because of social media,” Perry said.
For years, social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube left QAnon largely unchecked, she added. Their algorithms pushed content with high engagement — often false and sensational. And once you engage with it, more and more of it is curated to you on your feed.
“It’s time, right? It’s time for them to ask, ‘What have we built? We’re the biggest social media on Earth,’ said Luca Nicotra, a disinformation researcher with a non-for-profit foundation called Avaaz.
Now, social media platforms have identified QAnon as a serious source of harmful misinformation linked to real-world violence, and in the past few months have taken down thousands of QAnon accounts to minimize the group’s reach.
Facebook in particular has been taking heat for not doing enough. Its algorithm — the computer-automated calculations that determine what you see on your feed — is so powerful at filtering reality, experts say it will further distort trust in science and democratic institutions.
Nicotra says we can’t accept the rhetoric that the algorithm is too powerful to control.
“This is one of the main talking points, right, that we don’t control the algorithms. It’s a black box … Well, we can’t accept that — Democracy can not accept that.”