QAnon conspiracies go global in pandemic ‘perfect storm’

HONG KONG (AFP) – Powered by fear, anger and big tech’s algorithms, the QAnon conspiracy movement has exploded from the United States (US) political fringe into the global mainstream during the pandemic.

Its influence can be seen at anti-lockdown and anti-mask rallies from Los Angeles, to London, Berlin and Melbourne – with protesters warning, without evidence, that the pandemic is a conspiracy by people who control the world. Experts said QAnon has grown sharply during the pandemic because it acted as a binding force – mixing its core tenet with long-running conspiracy theories about vaccines and 5G mobile technology, anti-Semitic and white supremacist tropes.

“In some ways, the pandemic has created the perfect storm for conspiracy theories like QAnon to grow,” Mackenzie Hart, a disinformation researcher at the London-based ISD think tank, told AFP.

“Not only are people stuck inside and spending more time online, but people are scared. When people are scared, conspiracy theories provide easy answers.”

ISD’s analysis of QAnon-related posts on major social media platforms showed explosive growth between March and June this year – nearly 175 per cent on Facebook, 77.1 per cent on Instagram, and 63.7 per cent on Twitter. This rise happened as coronavirus infections were spiking around the world, forcing governments to tighten social distancing rules and impose lockdowns of varying intensity.

While QAnon content has remained most dominant in the US, researchers have found related social media content originating from around 70 countries.

Many QAnon followers believe the coronavirus is a conspiracy to take away people’s liberties and control them using 5G and vaccines. Some have branded it a ‘Plandemic’, accusing prominent figures such as Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton and even Tom Hanks of involvement. Its adherents have offered no credible evidence for any of it. Social media giants, who had been grappling with QAnon in the US well before the pandemic, have now been forced to take even stronger measures as it has mushroomed into an international issue. Their actions include tweaks to the recommendation algorithms that helped boost such content in the first place, according to tech analysts.

Experts warned that QAnon could cause serious damage to the fight against the pandemic by undermining confidence in an immunisation campaign. “What we’re seeing is a globalisation of the anti-vaccine movement, the anti-science movement,” said Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist at the Baylor School of Medicine. “That would be a threat to public health.”