This piece originally appeared in LaBac’s Hatemail Newsletter, we strongly suggest subscribing to their bi-weekly posts!
The far-right and unfounded conspiracy theory known as QAnon has gained traction since its appearance in 2017. QAnon is a vague cluster of theories unified around the belief that former President Donald Trump is engaged in a secret war against “deep state” pedophiles and that a high- ranking ally called “Q”, who drops coded messages about this war online. QAnon has also been at the center of the American deplatforming debate as QAnon communities have been removed from major social media sites with much speculation about how deplatforming would impact them.
A Case Study of QAnon on Voat
On Sept.12th, 2018, Reddit administrators banned r/GreatAwakening, a predominant QAnon-related subreddit, along with satellite communities. The ban followed several incidents of hateful and violent propaganda being shared by large swarms of r/GreatAwakening users. This was not an unexpected turn of events for r/GreatAwakening members as their sister community r/pizzagate had been banned two years earlier, and led r/GreatAwakening members to conclude that they were also in the admins’ crosshairs.
A few days later on Sept. 21, Q used one of their drops as a rallying cry to invite Reddit “refugees” to join forces on a platform called Voat. This Reddit clone, with a political stance centered on free speech, quickly became a safe haven for any fascist or hateful message board ousted by Reddit. Q aimed to centralize their community and thus invited one of their followers to create a new subverse on Voat to welcome them.
Q Drop #2269 dated Sept. 21, 2018
Voat, originally called WhoaVerse, was founded by a young student named Atif Colo in 2014. The site would become an incubator for several major conspiracy theories, especially Qanon and Pizzagate before its abrupt shut down on Dec. 25th, 2020 due to a lack of funding. Some of Voat’s most active communities had shared misinformation or hateful rants – chief among them were the message boards v/fatpeoplehate, v/GreatAwakening, and v/multiculturalcancer which were dedicated to fatphobia, Qanon, and white supremacy, respectively. By far the most active and vitriolic, however, was the Q-sponsored subverse v/QRV where every post is automatically anonymizsed and “Q scholars” share their interpretation on the latest drops in all their alleged 5D-chess-level complexity.
Voat Migration and Community Transformation
Because Q drop #2269 invited users to join the QRV subverse, it caused user activity on v/GreatAwakening to skyrocket. However, the community quickly switched from the typical free-for-all conspiracy forum to an echo chamber. Before long, a handful of users started exerting an iron grip on the information being shared and amplified by their peers. Of the 100,000 v/GreatAwakening posts Tech Against Fascism has archived, roughly 25 percent were made by five unique accounts. (It’s worth noting that this phenomenon fits the superspreader model of how viral disinformation spreads.)
Heat map of the monthly submission count per user of the most prolific v/GreatAwakening accounts. The map spans from October 2019 to December 2020.
What more can be learned about disinformation from these members who managed to post hundreds of submissions in the course of a month? Interestingly, superspreader users were also prolific in the comment section, indicating that they didn’t act as simple media broadcasters and were instrumental in guiding debates to reinforce the dominant Qanon narratives. Most of these superspreaders joined the subverse during or after the Reddit ban, which suggests that the social hierarchy of the community was toppled by the r/GreatAwakening mass exodus and from the surge of popularity Voat enjoyed after QAnon communities were ousted from Reddit.
An analysis of the main keywords appearing in the submissions of these five individuals indicates a strong tendency to simply repeat the major themes among Q followers, such as the existence of a deep state, interpreting every action made by federal agencies as purposefully conspiratorial, and casting Donald Trump into a messianic role. This obsessive litany, coupled with an unchallenged control of the public speech on the platform by a few gatekeepers, might explain the tendency for the average Voat user not to challenge the overall consensus. Academic researchers (including this author) have been suggesting that a minority group can overturn a social convention by triggering a cascade of behaviour change, thus explaining how these outlandish theories can be shared in a vast community without being challenged.
The following word clouds from v/GreatAwakening superspreaders, created with data collected by Tech Against Fascisim, further highlight the catalytic role that the COVID-19 pandemic played on the grandiose scheme QAnon believers are still desperately trying to piece together. A conspiracy theory that combines an everlasting paranoia against domestic actors (such as the Center for Disease Control or the “Mainstream Media”) with similar paranoia of foreign nation-states like China.
The gold trophy for disjointed comments goes to influential Voat user Patriotknife100, who seems to be the embodiment of the alt-right persona with their strong commitment to Q-related messages (such as WWG1WGA which is an acronym particular to QAnon) as well as popular alt-right slangs such as “kek” and “3 days and 3 nights.”)
Word clouds of the submissions of v/GreatAwakening’s nine most prolific users.
Did this violent rhetoric lead to a backlash from their peers? Judging by the comments they wrote in answer to their submissions: No. These users did not regularly appear to adopt a defensive stance. As the word cloud below testifies, most of their answers include QAnon’s usual war cries mixed with praise for (and from) their readers. Members of the community appeared to be endlessly trapped in a positive feedback loop where nobody comes to point out the fallacies in their thinking and everyone feeds upon their peer’s twisted and typically deranged conspiracy theories.
Word cloud of the comments in answer to Patriotknife100’s submissions
Following Voat’s shutdown in December 2020, many v/GreatAwakening users started drifting towards alternative social platforms such as Gab, Telegram, and the .win boards. A small cluster managed to stick together and create their own private Discord channel with a user count around 200. But with the lack of a proper infrastructure and the absence of new users, the community is quickly running out of oxygen and new posts are becoming rare.
However, deplatforming should not be considered as a victory: We are still living in a fractured society where a non-negligible number of people are ignoring any expert advice related to the global sanitary quagmire, and with a common quest against the all-powerful enemy they call the deep state.
-Amin Mekacher, Tech Against Fascism