As QAnon Spreads, Social Media Companies Finally Step Up
On Friday, Twitter announced the launch of a new campaign, in partnership with the United Nations’ UNESCO, the European Commission, and the World Jewish Congress, to combat conspiracy theories and disinformation.
The groundbreaking global campaign, anchored by the hashtag #ThinkBeforeSharing, offers a suite of educational tools and infographics to fight conspiracy theories. While the campaign is largely focused on combating disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, it also includes modules that address anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories more broadly.
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a press release, “Conspiracy theories cause real harm to people, to their health, and also to their physical safety. They amplify and legitimize misconceptions about the pandemic, and reinforce stereotypes which can fuel violence and violent extremist ideologies.”
With the launch of its new campaign, Twitter has solidified its place as a leader among tech giants in taking action to combat disinformation. Public outrage is reaching a fever pitch during the pandemic, and with the threat of real-world offline harm looming, social media companies are now mobilizing in earnest to fight conspiracy theories. And the most dangerous conspiracy theory right now is QAnon.
QAnon’s Infiltration Of The GOP
Here in the U.S., Republican QAnon-supporting candidates for Congress have faced escalating criticism after Marjorie Taylor Greene won her primary in Georgia last week. Although Greene has openly touted myriad racist, anti-Semitic, and other assorted QAnon conspiracy theories, President Trump tweeted after her victory, calling her a “future Republican Star.”
On Friday, Trump twice ignored a reporter’s question at a White House briefing about whether he supports QAnon.
QAnon is a wide-ranging conspiracy theory that posits a “deep state” of elites are running a global Satan-worshipping, child sex-trafficking ring, and are trying to take down Trump.
As Rantt Media Greg Fish wrote, “Millions of QAnon believers now agree that everything about the world is awful and that anyone who dares to disagree with the Republican Party on any topic or criticizes President Trump on anything at all must be part of this Satanic child molesting and devouring cabal, and that the Trump administration has been supposedly trying to stop it since January 2017 and — wouldn’t you know it — will need another four years to finish dismantling this villainous syndicate.”
The FBI named QAnon in a report last year as a potential domestic terrorism threat. As Yahoo News first reported, a Bureau intelligence bulletin stated: “The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.”
Disinformation researcher Molly McKew told Brian Stelter at CNN about QAnon:
“It is a dangerous, fully immersive alternative reality that is inspiring its followers to plan domestic terrorist attacks. It is, in other words, a system of radicalization. QAnon has been supported, amplified, and winked at enough by far-right Republicans — the president and his sons, Michael Flynn, the freedom caucus — that dozens of candidates for office are using it to reach potential voters.”
Media Matters has reported that 19 Republicans who have expressed support for QAnon are on the ballot in November. Forbes confirmed earlier this month that 14 QAnon supporting candidates have verified accounts on Twitter, and cited Rantt Media as being first to identify those accounts.
On Sunday, Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) said “it’s time” for leaders of both parties to denounce QAnon candidates who are running for Congress. Kinzinger said, “I think up to maybe about a week ago there wasn’t a reason to denounce it because it didn’t need the attention, but now that it’s made mainstream — we have a candidate that embraces it that won a primary,” as reported by Politico.
In an interview found by Media Matters and uploaded by the American Priority Conference in 2018, Greene referenced “the so-called plane that crashed into the Pentagon.” And “It’s odd there’s never any evidence shown for a plane in the Pentagon,” she said.
On Sunday, another Republican Congressman Denver Riggleman (R-VA) condemned a QAnon conspiracy theory claiming that the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were a hoax.
#QAnon has the same number of letters as Moron.
— Congressman Denver Riggleman (@RepRiggleman) August 16, 2020
While some Republicans are speaking out, social media giants are taking a stand against disinformation and conspiracy theories.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
How Social Media Companies Are Combating QAnon
Twitter announced a broad crackdown on QAnon accounts on its platform on July 21, when it banned 7,000 QAnon-related accounts. The company tweeted:
We’ve been clear that we will take strong enforcement action on behavior that has the potential to lead to offline harm. In line with this approach, this week we are taking further action on so-called ‘QAnon’ activity across the service.
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) July 22, 2020
NBC News reported that “Twitter will stop recommending accounts and content related to QAnon, including material in email and follow recommendations, and it will take steps to limit circulation of content in features like trends and search. The action will affect about 150,000 accounts, said a spokesperson.”
Twitter’s social media rival Facebook is lagging behind. Facebook told The New York Times it was preparing to take similar action. But a Facebook company spokesperson told Rantt Media there are no specific updates yet and shared the company’s statement on its approach:
“We take action against accounts, Groups, and Pages tied to QAnon that break our rules. Just last week, we removed a large Group with QAnon affiliations for violating our content policies, and removed a network of accounts for violating our policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior. We have teams assessing our policies against QAnon and are currently exploring additional actions we can take.”
Last week, Facebook banned Jewish and black stereotypes, updating its hate speech policy to include a ban on images of blackface and anti-Semitic tropes, as Politico reported. But NBC News reported that millions of QAnon conspiracy theory adherents were hidden in private groups and pages throughout Facebook.
To combat disinformation and election interference, a group representing tech companies including Twitter, Facebook, Google, and others met with government agencies last week to help protect the integrity of elections, as The New York Times reported.
The group, which previously included Twitter and Microsoft, met with “representatives from agencies like the F.B.I., the Office of the director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security to share insights about disinformation campaigns and emerging deceptive behavior across their services.”
The Challenges QAnon Candidates Pose
Republican QAnon candidates for Congress remain the GOP elephant in the room. There’s no shortage of examples of dangerous disinformation and conspiracy theories tweeted by QAnon candidates for Congress.
Mike Madrid, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, tweeted a thread identifying QAnon candidates and detailing disinformation and conspiracy theories they espouse. Madrid’s thread begins:
Trump & QANON: A new danger to America.Republicans have taken up the QAnon conspiracy that a “deep state” is plotting against them. 18 GOP HOUSE CANDIDATES who have received the party’s nomination have drunk the kool-aid as well.
Many have taken OATHS to the conspiracy.
— Mike Madrid (@madrid_mike) August 15, 2020
John Molnar, a QAnon supporting congressional candidate from Utah, tweeted anti-mask messaging, along with a conspiracy theory about child abduction. He tweeted on August 10th:
“Seeing lots of posts about #HumanTrafficking and #SaveTheChildrenWorldWide. Are we ready to start talking about actual issues like how #WearADamnMask is enabling human trafficking?”[Rantt Media will not publish links nor graphics from QAnon candidates’ tweets, in order to limit the spread of dangerous disinformation.]
The New York Times reported that QAnon followers have been hijacking the hashtag #SaveTheChildren, undermining the real child saving movement.
The non-profit organization Save the Children, which has been in operation for more than 100 years, tweeted about QAnon supporters hijacking their trademark. In a statement, Save the Children said:
“In the United States, Save the Children is the sole owner of the name ‘Save the Children’ which is a registered trademark. While many people may choose to use our organization’s name as a hashtag to make their point on different issues, we are not affiliated or associated with any of these campaigns.”
Josh Barnett, QAnon candidate from Arizona tweeted on August 14th: “Why do we need a vaccine when we have a combo that’s 100% effective early onset? Why are governors signing EO’s to stop the use of hydroxychloroquine prophylactically & early onset? Ask yourself, WTH is going on!!?”
The new #ThinkBeforeSharing campaign largely addresses disinformation related to the pandemic, but also tackles anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Marjorie Taylor Greene has tweeted multiple times, advancing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish philanthropist and Holocaust survivor George Soros, calling him an “ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.” Several of her tweets have been in all caps, a style popularized by Trump.
Greene falsely tweeted: “George Soros funds the destruction of America by supporting BLM / Antifa / Fake News Media, the true enemy of the American people.”
The #ThinkBeforeSharing initiative mentions Soros in one of its infographics titled “CONSPIRACY THEORIES: The link to antisemitism.” The graphic says:
“Some of the most common antisemitic narratives include claims that ‘Jews’ control the government, the media or banks for malicious purposes.” The graphic further states “What to watch out for: Linking an alleged conspiracy to Jewish individuals or groups (e.g., the Rothschild family or George Soros, a philanthropist).”
About Marjorie Taylor Greene’s anti-Semitic tweets targeting George Soros, the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect told Rantt Media in a statement:
“The Anne Frank Center USA denounces hatred and division in its various forms, including political candidates who actively promote racism and anti-Semitism. We strive to teach tolerance and, like Anne Frank herself, believe that ‘people are truly good at heart’ — all people. Extremist tropes promoted by fringe groups must be called out for their ignorance in our mission to educate against hate.”
In 2018, the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooter killed 11 people, apparently motivated by conspiracy theories targeting Jews.
As I reported at the time for Rantt Media, “The shooter frequently wrote on the social network Gab where he threatened Jewish groups.” And this:
“The night before the Pittsburgh shooting, at an event in the White House, Trump chuckled and echoed the shout of ‘lock him up’ at the mention of George Soros’ name.”
Roz Rothstein is co-founder and CEO of Stand With Us, an international educational organization that challenges misinformation and fights antisemitism. About Greene, she told Rantt Media in an email:
“There is no place for spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories or posing with white supremacists on social media, as this candidate has done. We encourage Twitter to follow their new education campaign by removing lies and bigoted content from their platform.”
Twitter told Forbes earlier this month it was considering expansion of its QAnon policy to include political candidates and elected officials. In a statement to Forbes, Twitter said: “We are constantly iterating on our policies and are evaluating the expansion of this policy to include candidates and elected officials.”
Some experts think that the social media giant should enact corrective measures to address QAnon candidates’ tweets containing disinformation and conspiracy theories.
David Neiwert, author of the book Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, messaged Rantt Media:
“Not only should Twitter take such steps, it’s vital that they do so, because these figures in positions of authority — particularly as candidates endorsed by the GOP — can play a key role in spreading and legitimizing the disinformation inherent in these conspiracy theories.”
But not all experts think that banning Qanon candidates’ accounts is a good idea. “Blocking candidates is not effective. Seeing their tweets is in the public interest,” said Zarine Kharazian, assistant editor at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which studies online misinformation. In an interview with Rantt Media, she said, “There are intermediate steps that can provide context. Labeling tweets can be helpful and warranted.” She added, “With COVID misinformation, there’s a threat to public health and potential for real offline harm.”
Kharazian suggested that Twitter’s labeling policy for elected and government officials could be deployed for candidates. The policy, which Twitter has enacted on several of Trump’s violative tweets says: “As a result, in rare instances, we may choose to leave up a Tweet from an elected or government official that would otherwise be taken down. Instead, we will place it behind a notice providing context about the rule violation that allows people to click through to see the Tweet.”
As for the #ThinkBeforeSharing initiative, Kharazian said, “The campaign is definitely a step in the right direction. It can definitely be helpful to raise awareness.”