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The Genesis of aConspiracy TheoryKey trends in QAnonactivity since 2017Aoife Gallagher, Jacob Davey and Mackenzie Hart

ISD, 2020London Washington DCBeirutTorontoThis material is offered free of charge for personal andnon-commercial use, provided the source is acknowledged.For commercial or any other use, prior written permission mustbe obtained from ISD.In no case may this material be altered, sold or rented. ISD doesnot generally take positions on policy issues. The views expressedin this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarilyreflect the views of the organisation.Designed by forster.co.uk. Typeset by Danny Arter.

The Genesis of a Conspiracy Theory3Executive SummaryOverviewIntroductionQAnon is a wide-ranging conspiracytheory that claims that an elite group ofchild-trafficking paedophiles have beenruling the world for a number of decadesand that President Trump has a secretplan in place to bring this group to justice.This briefing paper provides an overviewof the key trends in activity around theQAnon conspiracy theory from 2017to 2020. Crucially it points to majorspikes in QAnon activity in March 2020,suggesting both an increase in activityto promote the conspiracy theoryand the spread of this conspiracy tonew audiences.On 28 October 2017, a user calling themselves Q whoclaimed to have high-level security clearance posted aseries of cryptic messages on the “politically incorrect”section of the website 4chan. 4chan is an anonymousimageboard1 with a “no rules” policy that has beenassociated with pranks, violence, and illegal andextremist content. This user claimed that they wouldwork to covertly inform the public about PresidentTrump’s ongoing battle against the “deep state”, ablanket term used to describe those in power workingagainst the president. Over the next few years, usersclaiming to be Q have made over 4,000 posts, knownin the community as “Qdrops”, fuelling the growth of alurid meta-conspiracy connecting a range of harmfulnarratives. The QAnon theory now connects antivaccine, anti-5G conspiracies, antisemitic and antimigrant tropes, and several bizarre theories that theworld is in the thrall of a group of paedophile elites seton global domination in part aided by ritualisticchild sacrifice.In 2019, the FBI labelled QAnon a domestic terror threat,observing that conspiracy theories have the potential toencourage “both groups and individual extremiststo carry out criminal or violent acts”.2 In the 2020 USelections there are 14 congressional candidates on theballot for November who express support for the theory.To better understand the genesis of QAnon we havetracked discussion of the theory across Facebook,Twitter, Instagram and YouTube since its inception,finding that all four platforms play an important role inthe promotion of this potentially dangerous theory.3In particular, this research highlights a significant uptickin the discussion of QAnon in 2020 and suggests thatthe theory is reaching a larger audience. The reasonsbehind this uptick need to be investigated further,but regardless of its genesis reflect a greater flow oftraffic around this harmful conspiracy. An analysis ofthis recent surge in activity reveals how the theoryand its adherents have been important in promotingdisinformation around COVID-19 and the protestsaround the death of George Floyd.The significant surge in support for the theory inthe run-up to the 2020 presidential election is also

4The Genesis of a Conspiracy Theorysomething that should be taken seriously. At itscore, the QAnon community seeks to denigratePresident Trump’s political opponents while idolisinghis supporters. The widespread disinformation that isattached to the conspiracy means it has the potential toact as an important vehicle for disinformation leadingup to the election.Key FindingsAcross Facebook and Instagram we have observeda notable increase of discussion around QAnonin 2020, as well as an increase in the number ofunique users engaging in this conversation onFacebook and Twitter: The number of unique users engaging in discussionof QAnon have increased on both Facebook andTwitter in 2020. The most striking increase, inMarch 2020, saw the number of Facebook usersincrease from an average of 344 unique users perday between March 2 and 8, to 898 between March22 and 29. Similarly, average Twitter users grew from37,302 in the first week to 89,338 in the last. Both Facebook group membership and engagementrates within those Facebook groups increasedsignificantly in March 2020. Membership of QAnongroups on Facebook increased by 120% in Marchand engagement rates increased by 91%. Further research is required into why the QAnoncommunity is growing so rapidly, but possibleexplanations include that this is a by-product ofpeople spending more time on social media as aresult of the COVID-19 lockdowns, or evidence of acoordinated push to amplify the QAnon theory.Although the volume of conversation aroundQAnon on Twitter has been more varied than onFacebook and Instagram, all three platforms sawan increase of QAnon activity in March 2020: While we saw a sharp rise of QAnon activity in 2020on Facebook and Instagram, Twitter traffic has hadgreater variance since 2017 and is often reactive toreal-world events that have resulted in increasedmedia coverage of the QAnon community. The largest increase in Twitter conversation (249%)came just two months into the Q movement inJanuary 2018 when the community latched ontothe hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo.4 The suddenproliferation of this trend drew media attention,with research suggesting Russian bot interferenceon Twitter. This increase is not seen in Facebookconversation at the same time.

The Genesis of a Conspiracy Theory FindingsOther events which caused notable spikes onTwitter, but also on Facebook include the firstappearance of Q followers at Trump rallies inAugust 2018 and the death of Jeffrey Epsteinin August 2019.Trends in QAnon conversation across platformsVolume of QAnon discussion over timeon Twitter, Facebook and InstagramAlthough primarily driven from the US there issome evidence that the QAnon conspiracy theoryis being picked up internationally: - We found that the top four countries drivingdiscussion of QAnon on Twitter were the US, the UK,Canada and Australia. On average the US accountedfor 89.5% of mentions of Q-related hashtags fromOctober 2017 to October 2019. However, in the lasteight months this has dropped to 87%, suggestingthat the conspiracy theory is spreading and takinghold internationally.YouTube plays an important role in the sharing ofQAnon-related content: The analysis showed that 20.4% of all QAnon-relatedFacebook posts contained links to YouTube, whileon Twitter 5% of QAnon-related posts containedYouTube links. Matching bursts in activity seen elsewhere inthis study, a significant increase in YouTube linksharing on Twitter and Facebook was observedin March 2020.DateTwitterTo better understand the sorts of events whichcorrelate with spikes in QAnon activity we searchedfor mentions of a series of QAnon-related hashtags onTwitter, Facebook and Instagram using Brandwatch,a social media analytics tool, and CrowdTangle, aFacebook-owned social monitoring platform.5From 27 October 2017 to 17 June 2020, ISD recorded69,475,451 million tweets, 487,310 Facebook posts and281,554 Instagram posts mentioning QAnon-relatedhashtags and phrases. Across all three platforms, a cleartrend exists showing a notable increase in conversationvolumes coinciding with periods when lockdownswere issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic inMarch 2020.This also revealed several moments where QAnonactivity spiked in correlation with particular events.An analysis of these moments reveals the types ofactivity which power the QAnon community.Unique authors discussing QAnon onTwitter, Facebook and InstagramIn addition to looking at overall volumes of QAnonrelated discussion, we also examined the number of% /-Facebook% /-Instagram9,8813,640% /-Oct 2017 Feb 20185,051,813Mar 2018 Jun 20189,269,890 83.520,662 109.18,754 140.5Jul 2018 Oct 20189,322,087 0.639,114 89.318,869 115.5Nov 2018 Feb 201910,704,279 14.840,621 3.826,581 40.9Mar 2019 Jun 20199,190,980-14.151,997 2831,771 19.5Jul 2019 Oct 20196,566,724-28.567,473 29.840,341 27Nov 2019 Feb 20207,344,348 11.868,707 1.8354,704 35.6Mar 2020 Jun 202012,025,330 63.7188,855 174.996,894 77.1Table 1 Volume of QAnon posts by the platform.5

6The Genesis of a Conspiracy TheoryFigure 1 The volume over time of QAnon posts 2017 – 2020. Left-hand side y-axis is the volume of Twitter posts;Right-hand side y-axis is the volume of Facebook and Instagram posts.Volume of QAnon discussion over 00100,0001,00050,00050000Oct '17Oct '18Oct '19Jun '20— Twitter — Facebook — InstagramFigure 2 Unique authors discussing QAnon per day. Left-hand side y-axis is unique authors on Twitter.Right-hand side y-axis is unique authors on Facebook and Instagram.Unique authors per day discussing 050100,00070050,00035000Oct '17Oct '18— Twitter — Facebook — InstagramOct '19Jun '20

The Genesis of a Conspiracy Theoryunique users, or individual accounts, interacting withthe conspiracy theory.An examination of these figures shows that usernumbers increased in line with spikes in conversation,and often coinciding with media attention given to theQ community.Similar to trends seen in conversation volume, numbersof individuals discussing QAnon increased significantlybetween 31 July and 2 August 2018, when Q followerswere first spotted at a Trump rally in Tampa, Florida. Inthis instance, unique Twitter users rose above 100,000for the first time. A similar trend was observed onFacebook, where user numbers more than doubledduring those dates. Additionally, new users engagingin the conspiracy grew on both Twitter and Facebookthroughout July 2019, with the arrest and subsequentdeath of Jeffrey Epstein.As with the general volume of QAnon-related posts,March 2020 saw some of the most striking increasesin the number of unique users becoming involved inconversation across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.In March, unique users discussing QAnon increased by161%, from an average of 344 per day in the first weekto 898 in the last week. Similarly, average Twitter usersgrew by 139% from 37,302 in the first week to 89,338in the last. Although user numbers involved in thisdiscussion are much lower on Instagram, there wasalso a notable increase on this platform by 77%, froman average of 103 unique users per day at the start ofMarch to 183 by the end.Volume of Facebook group membershipOn Facebook, we also analysed 109 popular QAnongroups for growth in membership and interactions withposts since 2017. Again both of these figures show asimilarly stark increase in March 2020.7and groups and public Instagram. All of this materialpoints towards YouTube being an essential hub for theQAnon community.On Twitter, more than 3.5 million mentions or 5% of alltweets in our set contained links to YouTube videos.On Facebook, this number was much higher, with 30%of all posts containing links to YouTube. An analysis ofthe volume of link sharing points towards an increasein activity in March 2020, matching trends seen onother platforms.The highest peak in activity occurred on 9 February2020, when YouTube link sharing increased by 389%above the median daily mention on Twitter. This wasdown to the widespread sharing of a video detailing thetheory from a popular QAnon YouTuber.6The most-shared YouTube link over the entire timespanfrom Twitter was a link to the 1hr 17 min QAnon filmOut Of Shadows, which was released in April 2020 andhas so far amassed more than 15.5 million views onYouTube, despite being demoted by the platform.7We found that posts containing links to Out of Shadowson Facebook have received almost 2 million interactionssince it was released.The second most-shared link from Twitter to YouTubewas a 10-min video released in February 2020 titled“QAnon - Ask the Q”.8 The video says it provides a broadscope look at the growing QAnon movement throughthe lens of the mainstream media, and it has beenviewed more than 470,000 times.On Facebook, it is worth noting that several of thetop-shared YouTube videos have since been deletedfrom the platform. The third-highest shared link fromFacebook to YouTube is a 40-min video released inMarch 2020 that details coronavirus conspiracies linkedto QAnon.9 It has so far amassed almost 300,000 views.Geographic spread of QAnon Twitter contentLinks to YouTubeTo better understand the role YouTube plays in thepromotion of the QAnon theory we analysed thevolume of YouTube links being shared within QAnonconversations on public Twitter and Facebook pagesTo better understand which countries are driving QAnoncommunities we examined 39,839,607 tweets (57% ofour total set) which could be geolocated, either throughexamining the location tags of the tweet or throughinferences made from a twitter user’s profile and time

8The Genesis of a Conspiracy TheoryFigure 3 Membership and interaction numbers with QAnon Facebook groups.Facebook group membership and interaction 00600,0003,500,000300,00000Oct '17Oct '18Oct '19Jun '20— Total interactions — Total member countFigure 4 Volume of QAnon content from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram linking to YouTube.Posts containing YouTube links over 03,00020000Oct '17Oct '18— Twitter — Facebook — InstagramOct '19Jun '20

The Genesis of a Conspiracy Theory9zone. We then broke our dataset down into three sevenmonth blocks and one eight-month to detect any shiftsin the demographics producing QAnon-related tweetsover time.Through this, we found that the US was consistently thelargest QAnon content-producing country, followed bythe UK, Canada and Australia. The fifth-lar

QAnon conspiracy theory from 2017 to 2020. Crucially it points to major . observing that conspiracy theories have the potential to encourage “both groups and individual extremists . disinformation around COVID-19 and the protests around the death of George Floyd.

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