China and Russia played significant role in promoting QAnon conspiracy theory, study claims

Study claims ‘intense amplification efforts’ of QAnon conspiracies seek to ‘sow further discord and division’ in US society

Oliver O'Connell
New York
Monday 19 April 2021 18:41
Former QAnon believers explain how they were radicalised

China and Russia are among the foreign actors amplifying online disinformation rooted in QAnon conspiracy theories in the US, according to a new report published Monday.

Analysis by The Soufan Center, a New York-based research firm with a focus on national security threats, concludes that QAnon beliefs constitute a mounting domestic terrorism threat.

International adversaries are seeking to sow further societal discord and division among Americans and compromise legitimate political processes by encouraging online dissemination of the theories, the report asserts.

QAnon conspiracy theories centre around a belief that senior Democrats and Hollywood stars are part of a child-eating, Satan-worshipping, sex trafficking cult that runs the US government.

The report sets out how QAnon conspiracy theories foster “a process of radicalisation and violence similar to that fueling other violent extremist movements”.

It draws similarities to some of the beliefs that created a hospitable environment for al-Qaeda and ISIS.

As the QAnon movement continues to evolve, the report warns that it has the potential to “exploit widespread societal grievances to incite more acts of violence in the future”.

The report cites the radicalisation of people in online echo chambers by false narratives, who may then be inspired by other attacks, such as the violent insurrection on 6 January at the US Capitol. During the storming of Congress, many QAnon signs and flags were evident in the crowd.

On top of that, the report specifically notes that racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists, including white supremacists, are actively seeking to recruit QAnon followers to expand their influence — often using antisemitism as a gateway.

“The national security and broader policy implications of the sustained influence of QAnon conspiracy theories are profound,” says Naureen Chowdhury Fink, executive director of The Soufan Center.

“As such, addressing this challenge will require a joined-up response from the US government, private sector, civil society organisations, and others in countering the spread of QAnon-related conspiracy theories, and greater investment in preventing and countering terrorism at both government and local levels.”

The research was conducted with Limbik, a company that uses AI and predictive modelling to analyse and counter weaponised information online.

The report also identifies how the QAnon movement has received support through “intense amplification efforts” of multiple external actors.

“Our data collection and analysis has demonstrated that QAnon has been weaponised by America’s adversaries,” says Zach Schwitzky, founder of Limbik.

“Actors from Russia, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have all entered the fray amplifying QAnon messaging, most likely as a means to sow further discord and division among the American population.”

Nearly one-fifth of 166,820 QAnon-related Facebook posts between January 2020 and the end of February 2021 originated from outside the US, the report states.

According to the report, Russia dominated the space for much of the last year, responsible for 44 per cent of foreign QAnon content on the platform.

In 2021, though, other actors have overtaken Russia, with 58 per cent of such content coming from China in January and February.

The mysterious Q began posting online in 2017, making wild predictions that gained traction in some parts of the internet.

He is supposed to be a highly placed intelligence official with top security clearance, and many posts refer to Donald Trump as a messianic figure battling those that secretly control the US government.

An HBO documentary released in March, Q: Into the Storm, speculates that the identity of Q is father and son duo James and Ron Watkins, responsible for running message boards 8chan or 8kun. The younger Mr Watkins seems to all but admit that he is Q.

Since the end of the Trump presidency, Q has been silent, leaving followers of the conspiracy to reinterpret previous posts to fit current events — most recently a wild claim that the cargo ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal was being used to traffic children.

Despite these wild stories, a recent survey carried out by Limbik found that approximately  20 per cent of respondents self-identify as QAnon believers and an even larger portion subscribe to one or more QAnon-narratives, including allegations of voter fraud and suspicions about the reality of Covid-19.

The findings of this report conclude that it is imperative to protect freedom of speech, but social media companies also need to tackle how they handle disinformation on their platforms, either through deplatforming, or refining algorithms to stop recommending more “toxic QAnon-related content”.

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