What is QAnon, the conspiracy theory supporting Trump in the 2020 presidential election?

Click to play video: 'US election misinformation: What is QAnon and how much of a threat is it to democracy?' US election misinformation: What is QAnon and how much of a threat is it to democracy?
In part one of misinformation in the U.S. election, Emanuela Campanella explores the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon – Oct 28, 2020

Misinformation has been spreading like wildfire in the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. In the last couple of months, QAnon has gone mainstream.

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.

Read more: Some U.S. legislative state candidates bring QAnon conspiracy theories to campaign trail

“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.

QAnon followers have been flooding social media with false information about COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and most recently about the U.S. election.

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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.

Read more: Trump says QAnon conspiracy theorists are people who ‘love our country‘

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.

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Click to play video: 'Cracking down on QAnon influencers on social media' Cracking down on QAnon influencers on social media
Cracking down on QAnon influencers on social media – Oct 7, 2020

“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.

“Never before in history [was there] an algorithm, one single algorithm that was deciding what over two billion people all around the world are seeing every month, every week, every day when they log on the platform. This is a huge responsibility,” he added.

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.

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Read more: Facebook to remove pages, groups and Instagram accounts representing QAnon

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.”

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