March 4, 2021

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Stop. Go. Technology

QAnon and pro-Trump forums in disarray online

Experts say the communities are likely to recover — a new website already has replaced TheDonald.win, albeit with a somewhat broader focus — but it’s less clear whether online activists central to President Donald Trump’s rise and political power will remain a large, coherent force in the years ahead.

“This has been a bad month for the radical right on the Internet,” said Will Partin, a research analyst at the technology institute Data & Society.

A report evaluating Twitter’s Jan. 11 enforcement action against QAnon accounts, released by network analysis firm Graphika on Friday, underscores the power mainstream social media sites have to squelch hateful, violent and conspiratorial conversation when they choose to. Graphika found that more than 60 percent of a densely clustered network of nearly 14,000 QAnon accounts are now inactive.

The number of tweets from these accounts nearly doubled on the day of the siege before steeply declining when Twitter banned Trump two days later. It fell further after Twitter closed more than 70,000 accounts a few days later, and the content from core QAnon accounts fell by more than 70 percent, Graphika found.

But Graphika’s researchers also found signs of resilience among QAnon communities in other nations, especially in Japan, where the impacts of Twitter’s enforcement action were less severe.

“It’s not a question of if the QAnon community will persist — it certainly will,” said Melanie Smith, head of analysis for Graphika and co-author of Friday’s report. “Regardless of what happens with Donald Trump, the community has outgrown the theoretical, has entered the mainstream, and has sewn roots globally.”

The impacts described by Graphika broadly echo other recent research, including a report last weekend by analytics company Zignal Labs that documented a 73 percent decline in misinformation claiming electoral fraud after Trump’s ban from Twitter.

The action caused corollary damage to the anti-vaccine community on Twitter, with nearly half of the QAnon accounts that previously were active in conversations opposing the coronavirus vaccine now offline, Graphika found. Scientific studies have shown the vaccine to be both safe and effective, contrary to the claims of its online critics.

The Graphika report also found that calls to move to alternative platforms such as Parler, Gab and Telegram spiked on the day of the Capitol siege.

But Parler got removed from Apple and Google’s app stores a few days later and knocked offline entirely on Jan. 11, when Amazon Web Services withdrew its hosting services because of Parler’s failure to moderate hateful posts, many of them advocating violence and renewed attacks.

As Parler has worked to get back online, the House Oversight and Reform Committee has asked the FBI to examine Parler’s role in the attack on the Capitol and announced that it would be starting its own committee investigation into Parler’s moderation policies, ownership and alleged ties to Russia. Parler has said it welcomed the probes.

But Parler has struggled to get back online and now operates only a static webpage featuring posts from company officials and prominent conservative supporters promising the return of full operations and decrying what they called assaults on their right to free speech.

A federal judge on Thursday dashed Parler’s hopes of quickly overturning the Amazon ban, however, writing that the site’s systems for addressing “abusive, violent content” remain insufficient in light of the Capitol riots, which she called “a tragic reminder that inflammatory rhetoric can — more swiftly and easily than many of us would have hoped — turn a lawful protest into a violent insurrection.”

Interpersonal squabbles also threaten how far-right online communities are organized and run. The message board 8kun, QAnon’s online home, was riven by infighting this week after an outgoing moderator wiped a main QAnon forum in what he called an attack on the site’s leadership and the “poor dumb cattle” who frequent the site. Deleted material was restored soon after by other moderators, but the incident unleashed a torrent of angry posts, including calls for the moderator’s death.

QAnon’s central prophet, Q, has not posted any messages for 45 days, and it’s unclear if or when the online figure will return.

Followers of the QAnon extremist ideology believed then-President Donald Trump would hold onto power after 2020. With him gone, they struggle with what’s next. (The Washington Post)

“The most hardcore QAnon followers are in disarray. After years of waiting for the ‘Great Awakening,’ QAnon adherents are struggling with the fact that President Biden was successfully inaugurated,” said Daniel J. Jones, a former FBI analyst and Senate investigator who heads nonpartisan research group Advance Democracy.

Still, Jones was not writing QAnon off. “The key point here is that we still have an uncomfortably large percentage of Americans that believe that the November election was ‘rigged,’ and they are going to find online spaces to connect,” he said.

TheDonald, an offshoot of a pro-Trump forum that Reddit banned last year, this week shifted its operations entirely to another site, Patriots.win, following what moderators called a “precarious situation” with its old domain.

The rebranding sparked some anxiety among the forum’s fan base, with one user, “DonJr2032,” writing in a comment, “Trump is our party. Trump is our brand. Trump is everything to this movement.”

The site’s leaders said a conflict with a moderator who recently left the team “out of fear for himself and those around him” has undermined the site, because the unnamed “rogue individual” has declined to redirect visitors to the site’s new home and stopped relaying information to the companies that serve the site.

The site’s leaders also have voiced some notes of paranoia since the siege. On Monday, one moderator posted an “important note” warning users that interlopers could attempt to transform the site into “an FBI honeypot.” They have also cautioned that “the number one threat was a backstabbing by our own people.”

TheDonald’s traffic in the U.S. soared to 13 million website visits last month, up from 500,000 in December 2019, data from the online-analytics firm SimilarWeb show. Traffic peaked on the day of the insurrection and has generally slowed in the days since.

And while TheDonald.win is now a dead link, the site’s moderators say the new domain has retained “at least 75% of our traffic.” “We’re incredibly important to the MAGA movement, and it would be a great disservice to try to take us down, especially during this tumultuous time,” one moderator wrote.

Other far-right groups have resettled on messaging apps such as Telegram: Several Proud Boys and QAnon channels on Telegram have grown by thousands of members since the siege. The service announced last week that it had removed dozens of neo-Nazi, white nationalist and other channels that had publicly called for violence.

Partin, the Data & Society analyst, called the fragmenting of the hard-right community on the Web a “double-edged sword.”

“Every time this group loses access to a service, they get pushed further underground, where it’s a little bit harder to regroup,” he said. “When you’re pushing the extremists away from mainstream visibility, you’re also pushing them closer together.”