Facing crackdowns from tech companies that limit the reach of their content, leaders in the QAnon conspiracy theory movement have been urging their followers to drop the “QAnon” label from their wide-ranging conspiracy theories and simply refer to their fight against a fictitious cabal of powerful baby-eating politicians without their increasingly problematic branding.
The shift in tactics comes the same week as Twitter released new data stating that their ban on QAnon-related accounts was severely limiting the reach of the conspiracy theory.
A Twitter spokesperson said that QAnon-related tweets had been cut in half in the two months since the company banned high-profile QAnon Twitter accounts and surfaced QAnon-related tweets lower in search results.
In many ways, the QAnon movement has already spread well beyond its name. Growing momentum behind events and groups that purport to be against pedophilia and human trafficking have gained traction in recent months. But QAnon references have remained reasonably common on the social media profiles of event and group organizers.
QAnon is a baseless conspiracy theory that posits that an elite group of President Donald Trump’s enemies are secretly kidnapping and eating children, and the president is secretly stopping them. Adherents of the QAnon conspiracy rely on posts from a fictional government insider, who goes by “Q” and posts on the fringe internet message board 8kun.
The anonymous Q account, which frequently writes in fake code so that followers can attempt to decrypt messages, wrote an uncharacteristically unambiguous message to adherents last week.
“Deploy camouflage. Drop all references re: 'Q' 'Qanon' etc. to avoid ban/termination,” the Q account wrote. “_censorship install. Algos [sniffers] bypass.”
Some high-profile QAnon influencers with hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers took their Twitter accounts down and scrubbed all mentions of QAnon in an effort to avoid a ban.
“I’m still active on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, but the information I provide there will change. It must be camouflaged,” said one prominent QAnon influencer in a post to his followers. “Despite these changes, I want you to know my source has not changed.”
Disinformation experts say the strategy to disassociate QAnon from the myriad pro-Trump conspiracies it’s producing is important in the run-up to November’s election.
“YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are part of QAnon’s broadcast infrastructure," said Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. "It’s too late in the game, and they’re good at manipulating trending algorithms and search algorithms, to lose it all before the election."
Donovan said she believes the rebranding isn’t happening solely to skirt bans and algorithmic downranking. It also helps to push conspiracy theories without the risk of alienating average users who might be put off by an increasingly toxic QAnon affiliation.
“Like a good meme does, it drops the brand. It’s interesting to view QAnon as an open-source brand because, if you drop the brand, people will be more inclined to share it,” Donovan said.
Q and QAnon devotees have broadened their conspiracy recently to include more standard conservative talking points.
On Thursday, Q posted conspiracy theories claiming a mysterious group was funding a U-Haul rental van filled with signs and shields that appeared at a protest in Louisville, Kentucky, this week. Last week, Q pushed conspiracy theories that left-leaning militant groups known as antifa were setting fires in the Pacific Northwest. Those rumors were repeatedly debunked by local authorities and the FBI.
Mike Rothschild, a researcher of conspiracy theories and author of “The World’s Worst Conspiracies,” said that the conspiracy movement’s shift toward more on-message pro-Trump content is proof that followers are noticing that the Q brand is “becoming toxic and a magnet for bad press,” and that their messages are less likely to be believed by average people if they’re presented as part of the conspiracy theory.
“Q is getting more mainstream, more acceptable, and more vanilla," he said. "Rebranding as '#Savethechildren,' 'wake up,' or 'fight the deep state' are all messages that a lot of people can get behind without the weird numerology and belief that JFK Jr. is coming back to life."