Facebook finally took serious action this week to stop the spread of QAnon conspiracism on its platform by banning all accounts spreading the bizarre far-right theories—which stipulate that an array of Democrats and liberal media figures are being pursued by Donald Trump for operating a global pedophilia operation that consumes children’s blood. The change comes three years after the cult began infecting social media—and by now may be too little, too late.
“Starting today, we will remove Facebook Pages, Groups and Instagram accounts for representing QAnon. We’re starting to enforce this updated policy today and are removing content accordingly, but this work will take time and will continue in the coming days and weeks,” a Facebook press release said. “Our Dangerous Organizations Operations team will continue to enforce this policy and proactively detect content for removal instead of relying on user reports.”
The social media giant’s previous efforts to deal with QAnon—which originated on the far right-friendly message boards 4chan and 8chan, but has reached massive audiences during the COVID-19 pandemic through Facebook and Twitter—have been halting at best, including an April takedown that applied flimsy criteria in banning accounts, as well as a mid-August attempt that resulted in only a relatively small number of pages removed from the platform.
However, this week’s takedown appears to be significant and serious. Researchers who have been tracking QAnon pages on Facebook, such as Shayan Sardarizadeh of the BBC, report a “bloodbath”—“I'm down to 31 groups and 49 pages. I had 220 groups and 205 pages just last week.”
The situation at Instagram—a Facebook subsidiary—is rather less stark, on the other hand. Sardarizadeh reported a decline of less than 50% (from 400 accounts to 228). Moreover, as HuffPost reporter Jesselyn Cook reported, Instagram continues to recommend QAnon content to its users.
“This will do permanent damage to the presence of QAnon on Facebook, in my opinion, in the long run,” commented researcher Marc-André Argentino on Twitter. “Short term, what we will see are pages and groups poping back up and trying to game the Facebook algorithm to see what will stick. But with little presence on Facebook to quickly amplify new pages and groups and the changes to the search algorithm this will not be as effective as it was in the past.”
The effort to slow the deluge of disinformation and violent rhetoric that the QAnon conspiracy theories naturally generate, however, has only arrived after the cult already had grown beyond a mere fringe internet phenomenon into a massive following that now threatens to consume the Republican Party with its Trumpian authoritarianism. The GOP now has QAnon-promoting candidates for the U.S. Senate in two states: Oregon, where nominee Jo Rae Perkins has urged Trump to declare martial law in order to counter antifa; and in Delaware, where nominee Lauren Witzke has tried to distance herself from her earlier QAnon support by suggesting that the cult itself is a kind of “deep state” plot.
The spread of QAnon into the mainstream has included its seep into the ranks of law enforcement officers as well. One cop from New Haven, Connecticut, who retired in order to promote QAnon on his popular podcasts, has gained an audience by making the bizarre claims that are the cult’s bread and butter: “These elites are torturing these kids,” he said in a March 22 podcast. “Yes, there’s sex involved. They’re trafficking these children and all these other rituals that they do. They are Satanic worshipers. They are Illuminati. Deep state, all this.”
The cult’s growth has gone well beyond simply infecting politics, becoming a toxic presence in people’s personal, social, and familial worlds, destroying relationships and communities. It has also created a generational dilemma that is something of the inverse of the situation created by the rise of the alt-right, when parents frequently were forced to confront the online radicalization of the young, impressionable males it targeted for recruitment.
Teen Vogue’s Fortesa Latifi recently examined how teenagers now are having to deal with parents who have disappeared down the QAnon rabbit holes. It quotes a girl whose mother has become obsessed with the theories: “I hate it for me and I hate it for her. … It’s a spiral. A downward spiral.”
As the piece explores, pulling people out of these rabbit holes is both difficult and unlikely to succeed. The more people doing so try to use logic, facts, and reason, the likelier they are to drive them further down into the dark.
A QAnon believer featured in a recent Willamette Week piece about the cult’s spread in Oregon illustrated their intransigence: "They like to say it's a cult. It's not a cult," said the woman, a LaGrande resident. "They have tried to debunk it but they can't. It's a worldwide event—this whole plan to take down these corrupt people who've been running this world."