- Members of the far-right QAnon movement are spreading pro-Trump conspiracy theories and propaganda across social media platforms.
- They're getting a boost from President Donald Trump and key supporters, who pick up and further amplify the messages.
- QAnon supporters wrongly believe that Trump is fighting a cabal of child abusing Democrats and Hollywood stars. The movement emerged from the 4Chan messaging board.
- Some of the top accounts promoting popular pro-Trump messages on Twitter are also promoting QAnon propaganda, according to a data analyst who scoured thousands of posts.
- Experts say that Trump is giving dangerous legitimacy to an extremist movement linked to several violent crimes.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
As protests raged in Washington DC on May 31 following the death of George Floyd, President Donald Trump shared a cryptic Twitter message from a supporter with a one word message of his own: "STRENGTH."
The message, from an account that went by the name Sean Cordicon, contained video of the president and his supporters, and the message the "the calm before, during, & after the storm."
The post — from an account soon suspended by Twitter for spreading disinformation — would have meant little to most people.
But to those in the sprawling QAnon movement it was a nod of presidential approval, cementing an unusual symbiosis between an online conspiracy theory and Trump's re-election campaign.
For QAnon supporters, "the storm" refers to the day Trump will finally take action against the alliance of intelligence officials, child-abusing Democrats and their media allies whom they believe — groundlessly – have long been covertly manipulating world affairs.
According to new data shared with Business Insider, this relationship goes beyond occasional sign of approval, and is in fact a deeply-embedded part of how the Trump campaign operates online.
At least three recent propaganda narratives aired by Trump can be traced directly to QAnon accounts.
According to research by Alex Kaplan, a researcher at progressive media monitoring group Media Matters, the hashtags #DoNothingDems and #OpenAmericaNow both originated from QAnon Twitter before being repeated by Trump — as did the more incendiary #Obamagate.
#Obamagate refers to a vague conspiracy theory, promoted by Trump and key allies, alleging that President Barack Obama had been involved in a criminal plot involving the probe into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
Trump has avoided describing exactly what crime he believes his predecessor committed back in May, but claimed it was serious.
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2020
Cody Webb, a data analyst who researches right-wing disinformation campaigns, monitored the hashtag as it spread. He shared a visualization with Business Insider which shows the substantial overlap between #Obamagate posts and other QAnon messaging.
Webb set out to establish who was behind the emergence of the #Obamagate hashtag, and the role of groups of accounts working closely together to spread it across Twitter.
To do this, he analysed data from 380,000 tweets sent between early April, when the hashtag first emerged, and the end of May. Trump first used the phrase at the beginning of May.
Webb uses software to group accounts which are sharing the same or very similar messages into clusters.
In the graphic below, a green dot corresponds to an account, and the bigger the cluster of accounts the more important a role it has in spreading a message.
Webb's analysis uncovered a striking fact: the single largest and most influential cluster of accounts spreading the #Obamagate hashtag — 246 accounts in total — were also spreading QAnon conspiracies and buzzwords.
He found that many of the accounts in the network are bots, automated accounts which send the same message hundreds of times a day.
For Webb, it is proof that the president adopted the slogan only after it had been spread and popularized by QAnon conspiracy theorists. The slogan went on to be spread thousands more times after he had adopted it.
In a second visualization, published below, he picks out the most popular words posted by the leading 1,000 accounts in the networks spreading the #Obamagate message.
The larger the words in the image, the more frequently they appear. "Obamagate" is the largest one, while other top messages are also QAnon slogans — such as "wwg1wga," an unofficial motto that's short for "Where We Go One We Go All."
Others reference the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, a precursor theory to QAnon that motivated a man to open fire inside a Washington, D.C., pizzeria in 2016, convinced he was foiling a Democrat child trafficking ring.
For Webb the analysis is more evidence that the QAnon network is playing a key role in generating and spreading Trump's propaganda.
Pro-QAnon accounts spread propaganda and conspiracy theories across the internet
According to experts, QAnon supporters have an extensive and coordinated online presence, working in groups to spread pro-Trump messages and conspiracies about the "deep state" across social media.
"They are a far-right group that has been powerful for Trump's messaging," Kaplan explained.
Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst and disinformation expert, told Business Insider that the movement has an organised online presence, capable of distributing messages to a massive audience.
There is "a lot of coordination within Q groups - attempts to get content to go viral, to push certain articles or messages or hashtags on different platforms, etc," she said. "That coordination happens in places such as Facebook groups, 4chan, Discord, and Reddit."
The Trump campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The White House also declined to comment.
FBI warns QAnon movement may pose a domestic terror threat
Kaplan said that Trump's tacit endorsement of the QAnon movement stems back to the controversial July 2019 social media summit at the White House where he first courted the QAnon movement by inviting prominent Q supporter Bill Mitchell and others.
Since then, the ties between pro-Trump Republicans and the QAnon movement have becoming increasingly extensive. At least 10 GOP Congressional candidates have signaled their support for the movement.
In a bizarre Fourth of July video, Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security director and a hero for QAnon supporters, showed his family pledging an oath of allegiance in which Flynn uses a QAnon slogan.
—General Flynn (@GenFlynn) July 5, 2020
"I think increasingly at least some Republicans see QAnon and its supporters as a kind of political constituency that they can appeal to to get some kind of political benefit," explained Kaplan.
"There is already something of a QAnon infrastructure that these candidates can tap into, whether it be QAnon hashtags or QAnon shows on YouTube."
Peter Knight is an expert in conspiracy theories in US culture who teaches at the University of Manchester in the UK. He said that, as in 2016, Trump's election strategy in 2020 is premised on maximizing turnout from his core supporters. And for Knight, there is significant overlap between Trump's core supporters in 2020 and the QAnon movement.
"Trump is always engaging with his base and so he's following right-wing media and right-wing Twitter and amplifying what his supporters are interested in," he explained.
Kaplan said that there was no clear evidence of Trump's campaign working directly with QAnon accounts — discussing lines of attack and themes. It could simply be picking up QAnon hashtags, taking advantage of their popularity to hammer home Trump's own message.
But Kaplan said that in bestowing approval on the network the president was helping boost not just a collection of conspiracy theorists with eccentric but harmless views, but a movement that had inspired violent crimes.
He pointed to a 2019 FBI field report obtained by Yahoo News, which warned that the movement poses a domestic terror threat. Followers of QAnon have been linked to a series of violent plots and crimes across the US, a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found.
"It's a conspiracy theory that has been tied to violent threats and repeatedly tied to disinformation and misinformation campaigns. It having this sort of influence is very concerning," Kaplan said.