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Two new reports this week have offered seemingly contrasting data about the resiliency of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which helped inspire the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab on Wednesday reported that after last spiking in the days before the Capitol attack, catchphrases associated with QAnon have now slowed to a tiny “murmur” on the mainstream internet — a decrease attributed, in part, to a crackdown on conspiracy content by the major social media sites. But on Friday, the Public Religion Research Institute released a survey conducted in March showing that 15 percent of Americans believe QAnon’s central notion that the government and media “are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” The findings were very similar to a Morning Consult poll from January.
“Thinking about QAnon, if it were a religion, it would be as big as all white evangelical Protestants, or all white mainline Protestants,” PRRI’s Robby Jones told The New York Times. “So it lines up there with a major religious group.”
Taken together, the reports suggest QAnon retains a potent following, even as it has largely disappeared from public view. How — in our internet-driven age — is that even possible?
One possibility is that the social media giants were too slow to move. Twitter and Facebook started modestly restricting QAnon-related content last summer, during the George Floyd protests, but really cracked down after the insurrection. Twitter alone deleted 70,000 Q-related accounts in the days afterward. By then it was arguably too late — the conspiracy theory had already reached a critical mass.
But it’s also true that censorship — even well-intended censorship — doesn’t really end ideas so much as it pushes them underground. In the pre-internet era, Soviet dissidents passed around samizdat. These days, activists abroad use VPNs and other tools to get around the Great Firewall of China. Something similar (though less noble) may have happened here: The Atlantic Council’s report didn’t monitor private messaging apps like Telegram, which is known to be popular among QAnon followers.
The good news is that Q’s growth has been curtailed. But the hard-core adherents probably aren’t going anywhere. “Public posts are where fringe groups gain new adherents, but private discussions are where their most dedicated followers end up,” Axios pointed out. Ideas are hard to kill. Even really bad ideas.