In September, Twitter banned posts related to QAnon; in early October, Facebook and Instagram banned groups and accounts promoting the conspiracy belief , quickly followed by YouTube. So if you now want to exchange thoughts on groundless theories about paedophile networks that want to take over the world, where are you to go?
Andrew Torba has just the thing. Soon after Facebook’s announcement, he welcomed QAnon followers to Gab.com, the social network of which he is CEO.
Gab is part of the alt-tech (short for ‘alternative technology’) community: websites, social media platforms and internet service providers that challenge the large companies that dominate the business. With the big platforms becoming increasingly difficult intolerant of far-Right content, alt-tech’s lenient moderation policies has won it popularity among those who want to share and consume such material.
Torba posted a news release on Gab stating that the company “Welcomes QAnon Across Its Platforms #WWG1WGA”, aligning himself and the company with the conspiracy community. #WWG1WGA is one of the most popular hashtags related to the conspiracy belief, standing for ‘Where We Go One, We Go All’.
Joan Donovan from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School explains that the networks built around QAnon and its promotion are “the rails upon which misinformation is driven”.
The QAnon belief is essentially based on “a series of posts (‘Drops’) made to the image boards 4chan and 8chan by ‘Q’, an anonymous poster who claims to be a Trump administration insider”, as William Partin and Alice Marwick of the University of North Carolina put it. They are cryptic and warrant deciphering (or, in the terminology of the QAnon communities: they are ‘crumbs’ that require ‘baking’). The cryptic style and appeal to make sense of the puzzle has brought about a variety of communities across platforms and websites who collectively interpret the ‘crumbs’.
Despite the new technology on which the communities thrive, much about QAnon encompasses classic conspiratorial tropes. Followers believe in a cabal - in this case, one that is alleged to sexually abuse, torture and kill children, and harvest the chemical compound adrenochrome in the process, amongst other things. Members of the cabal are thought to be in powerful positions in the media, business, the entertainment industry, international organisations, foreign governments and part of the US government. There, they are believed to form the ‘deep state’: an illegitimate state within a state.
The QAnon conspiracy belief repeats antisemitic tropes and conspiracy beliefs. Suspecting a cabal and a ‘deep state’ is a new iteration of the belief in a ‘Jewish World Conspiracy’, propagandised, for example in the fraudulent documents of ‘The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion’. The allegations that this cabal commits ritualised murder of children is akin to the conspiratorial accusation of ‘blood libel’, that dates back to anti-Semitic conspiracy beliefs of the middle ages, and has been revived several times since.
QAnon believers see themselves as a movement that will help President Donald Trump to topple the imagined conspiracy, in the so-called coming ‘Storm’. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the conspiracy became more virulent and took root outside the US – QAnon posters appeared, for example, at so-called ‘anti-corona protests’ in Germany or the protests against lockdown measures in the UK. While there was a QAnon community in both countries before the pandemic, the anti-lockdown protests in Germany greatly boosted the popularity of the movement and anti-5G protests in the UK worked as a vehicle for the conspiracy myth.
QAnon on Gab.com
While QAnon followers have been present on Gab before, the QAnon-related groups there have grown noticeably since early October. For instance, one group named ‘QAnon and the Great Awakening’ became the 11th largest group on the website by member count at the time of writing.
Gab and other alt-tech websites have been promoting themselves as alternatives for right-wing social media users for years
But why is this growth in numbers of QAnon followers on Gab important?
First of all, banning these groups elsewhere means that the followers who were organized on the other platforms have had to reassemble. As Ofra Klein points out: “Shifting to more extreme platforms and using converted forms of hateful speech are tactics that underline the difficulties that platforms have with dealing with extreme content online.”
QAnon followers seem to have done just that: they first rebranded and later migrated to other, more niche and arguably more extreme platforms, where their audience is considerably smaller, including Gab. The increasing numbers of QAnon group members indicates that the conspiracy belief and its followers remain virulent, but their reach is curbed.
From an economic perspective, and Gab is very much a business endeavour, QAnon followers fit well in the corporation’s broader target group. Gab detailed in its 2018 annual report that it is seeking to attract users who rely on right-wing and conspiratorial news sources, like Breitbart and InfoWars. Gab is competing for these users with other alt-tech platforms, as well as with end-to-end encrypted messaging services like Telegram – another favoured online sphere for QAnon followers.
Unlike Telegram, however, Gab is a social network, where connections outside the designated QAnon channel are likely. What this means is that it affords a broader ‘intimate publicity’, a feature Ashley Mattheis describes as vital for understanding the formation of digital hate cultures.
Since its public launch in 2017, Gab has provided a safe space for all manner of online far-Right communities, a significant portion of which place themselves squarely in the ‘#MAGA’ camp. It presents itself as being at the forefront of the fight against large social media platforms, and routinely welcomes users who were banned on these larger platforms.
Decrying alleged censorship, including being banned from social media platforms, is one of the most common themes the Gab CEO addresses in his news release. This perception of persecution has long been a staple in the weaponised victimhood narratives of the far-Right and has considerable traction.
Gab’s ideological orientation and its showcased victimhood narrative resonate with those of QAnon followers. At the same time, alt-tech platforms offer an experience familiar from: often, they started out as imitations of these mainstream giants. The main distinction is that theyimpose very littlecontent moderation, while offering an audience that is more coherent, when it comes to political views.
Gab and other alt-tech websites have been promoting themselves as alternatives for right-wing social media users for years. With the new influx and activity of QAnon followers on their pages, the overall sense of victimhood and persecution, and the perception of fighting back against injustice, is likely to prevail.