Aoife Gallagher of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue: QAnon is a ‘delivery mechanism for many different disinformation campaigns’

A photo of a Donald Trump supporter wearing a QAnon t-shirt.

One of the more interesting and terrifying aspects of Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory has been the emergence of a conspiracy theory related to his presidency. QAnon, as it has become known, is now inherently tied to his office and the actions that he and his administration take. His presidency has given us many truly awful things, with some of them predicted. But a bizarre conspiracy theory originating online with millions of believers was not one of them.  

The theory goes that the Trump White House has been engaged in a secret battle against global elites and their worldwide paedophile network for the last four years. What’s the evidence for this? An anonymous poster on 4Chan, now known as Q, began writing that Hillary Clinton was soon to be arrested for her involvement in this global web of child abduction and torture.

The posts have continued over the years with more predictions of things to come. And there have also been justifications for when their predictions inevitably failed to materialise.

It has now morphed into something more grandiose. Everyone against Trump and his policies is seen as being involved in the conspiracy to introduce the so-called “New World Order”. They are called apologists for paedophilia or believed to be foot soldiers for the elites and their supposed plans.

Going global

It might seem ludicrous, but this conspiracy theory has become incredibly popular in the US. And now it appears to be going global. A recent report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) has shown as much. Although most discussion of the theory is driven by the US, it’s now becoming popular in the UK, Canada, and Australia.

The ISD report points out that there have been “major spikes” in QAnon activity since March. This could be a “by-product of people spending more time on social media as a result of the COVID-19 lockdowns”. But the report’s authors also suggest that it’s “evidence of a coordinated push” to promote QAnon to the wider public.

Understanding the conspiracy theory

We spoke to one of the report’s authors, Aoife Gallagher. She explained to The Beacon the ongoing popularity of the conspiracy theory as well as the Trump administration’s utilisation of QAnon for electoral purposes. Gallagher also argued that QAnon is not necessarily a far-right conspiracy theory and is, in fact, “difficult to define, especially along ideological lines”. 

Do you think there’s anything particularly unique about the QAnon conspiracy theory compared to others? It seems to have become very popular quite fast whereas other comparable conspiracy theories seem to be found more on the political fringes.

The cult-like quality of QAnon is what makes the conspiracy theory unique. The mantras associated with the movement, as well as the blind belief that people hold in the posts of an anonymous online user, coupled with the many stories that we’re hearing about people becoming disassociated with family and friends because of their belief in QAnon, are all the hallmarks of a religious-like cult. 

There are a number of reasons why this particular conspiracy theory has spread so fast. Because the theory incorporates elements of Pizzagate, there was already an audience willing to believe in Q’s theories. It was also aided in the earlier days by mentions of celebrities, either those targeted by the conspiracy, or those following it such as Roseanne Barr. 

In the last year, Jeffrey Esptein’s death and the unanswered questions surrounding it would certainly have attracted people into the fold. We have also seen an increase in political figures in the US espousing QAnon claims. The pandemic was also a major catalyst for increased interest in QAnon. The major upheaval that a lot of people saw in their lives in March and April this year meant that people were searching for answers, and conspiracies tend to present simplistic answers to complicated issues. People were also spending more time online as conspiracies about 5G and vaccines became more popular, leading people down an algorithmically-powered rabbit hole that could eventually lead to QAnon.  

I think it is also important to note when discussing QAnon that parts of the conspiracy are based on truths. I don’t think anyone can deny that there are many questions to be answered about Jeffrey Esptein, the plea bargain he received in 2008, and the relationships he built with his many powerful associates. Likewise, there have been many past claims about child abuse occurring in Hollywood circles. Because QAnon followers have thrown allegations of child trafficking and pedophilia around with very little evidence, it runs the risk of dismissing valid concerns that people have over allegations of pedophilia and child trafficking. 

The role of the QAnon theory in spreading disinformation is mentioned in the report and that this may be weaponised in the upcoming US elections. Is this something that QAnon proponents are actively planning for? Is it something that Donald Trump is banking on in order to attack his opponents, like Joe Biden?

I think members of the Trump team are almost certainly playing on QAnon as the election nears. We’ve seen people in his inner circle promote the theories, including his former national security advisor General Michael Flynn. Dan Scavino, the White House’s director of social media and deputy chief of staff for communications, has also been sharing QAnon memes online. 

QAnon followers tend to be dogmatic Trump supporters and the community that QAnon has built acts as a delivery mechanism for a wide range of disinformation beyond the core claims of the conspiracy. QAnon followers have been waiting patiently for the “storm” to come and act like an online artillery waiting to be called to action when the time comes. 

The movement also runs the risk of being taken advantage of by foreign actors who could use its followers to spread lies and disinformation that could harm geopolitical relations.

In the last few years we’ve seen a resurgence of far-right and nationalist ideologies. Is this partly why QAnon has become as popular as it has? On the other hand, political scientist Joseph Uscinski has said that QAnon crosses ideological lines and isn’t necessarily a far-right conspiracy theory. Would you agree with that?

I think it’s inaccurate to describe QAnon as a far-right conspiracy. The nature of QAnon means that it is difficult to define, especially along ideological lines. When QAnon first appeared in the US, it was confined to right-wing Trump supporters but this is changing as it evolves. Certain elements of the conspiracy do certainly draw on far-right and anti-Semitic tropes, such as claims that George Soros paid for a caravan of migrants to make their way to the southern US border in 2018, but defining the whole movement as far-right is problematic. 

We are seeing more often that QAnon is appealing to a variety of demographics, especially as it begins to spread outside the US. In recent months, videos about Pizzagate began to trend on TikTok, showing us that the conspiracy rabbit hole is capturing younger followers. The appeal of 5G and vaccine conspiracies to anti-establishment and new-age cohorts also shows us that this is appealing to a more left wing and liberal audience.   

The report mentions that most of the discussion around QAnon is “primarily driven from the US” with Russia, by comparison, not being a particularly large influence. Was this surprising given the known role of Russian bots in shaping online discourse? 

We certainly cannot dismiss the role of Russia in shaping the QAnon narrative, but the nature of analysing online posts geographically means it is often difficult to capture location information for an entire conversation. You are often at the will of social platforms and the information you can discern from them. Our geographic research was focused on Twitter data. For these kinds of analyses to present a clear picture, you are relying on large numbers of users to have their location information turned on. 

Our report did notice an uptick in conversation out of Russia in the first few months of QAnon, which I thought was interesting given that there were claims of Russian bot involvement in the spread of the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag at the start of 2018. No doubt, there is more research to be done here.   

Along similar lines, the conspiracy theory has become popular outside of the US, with the report noting that the UK, Canada, and Australia are major sources of QAnon discussion. But it’s also popped up here in Ireland with some anti-lockdown groups, as well as far-right figures, pushing QAnon talking points. Why do you think that is? What makes a US-based conspiracy theory popular on an international level?

As I mentioned before, QAnon acts as a delivery mechanism for many different disinformation campaigns. We’re seeing as QAnon evolves internationally that it is breeding localised disinformation and conspiracies. 

It appeals to the far-right, especially in Ireland, because it plays on the same narratives they push – distrust in media, institutions and government. It breeds the notion that these entities are trying to control people and are not being truthful with the population. No institution or industry is above scrutiny or free from fault, but promoting the belief that absolutely no one within these industries can be trusted is extremely reckless. 

Irish far-right circles are also deeply tied with conservative Catholic values, therefore building a QAnon movement in Ireland that promotes fear about satanism and paedophilia is beneficial to the far-right especially as we see them begin to target people within the LGBTQ community. 

The FBI took the step of classifying QAnon as “a potential domestic terror threat”. Is a classification of that kind warranted?

I believe that it is warranted. You certainly cannot label every QAnon follower as a potential domestic terrorist, but the paranoia that it promotes could certainly send certain people over the edge and lead to violence. In April, a women was arrested in New York after traveling to the city with knives and a plan to kill Joe Biden after watching a QAnon documentary online.  In Ireland, we have already seen a number of violent confrontations at QAnon-type rallies outside the GPO in Dublin in recent months.

It’s just been revealed in a report that there are millions of QAnon supporters on Facebook as well as thousands of QAnon groups active on the platform. Are those figures surprising to you? Should Facebook be doing more to clamp down on the spread of QAnon on its platform?

Those numbers are not in the least bit surprising to me. This report from the Guardian today puts the number at more than 4 million and shows that this community is continuing to grow exponentially. Facebook has said that it has stopped listing QAnon Facebook groups within its recommendations, however reports indicate that this is not the case.

Even on my own Facebook, I am consistently being recommended QAnon-related groups. The role that Facebook groups play in helping this movement to grow and the sheer volume of false information shared within these groups cannot be understated. It provides a community of like-minded individuals for QAnon followers and a place for them to rationalise and justify their theories. Facebook needs to act quickly to tackle this issue.

Featured image via Flickr – Tony Webster


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