Last year, QAnon was on the ropes.
The pro-Trump conspiracy theory had been left homeless by the disappearance of 8chan, the message board where “Q,” its pseudonymous central figure, posted cryptic clues about a cabal of child-eating Satanic pedophiles. The message board had been cut off by its security provider after the El Paso mass shooting, and while 8chan’s owner, Jim Watkins, was struggling to bring a replacement site online, some QAnon believers appeared to be losing interest.
Then, the pandemic hit — and with it, a new wave of misinformation that QAnon could incorporate into its overarching narrative, from false claims about mask-wearing to conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and a Covid-19 vaccine. The Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd in May also provided new fodder for QAnon’s “bakers” — the amateur sleuths who gather in private Facebook groups and chat rooms to decode Q’s latest posts and discuss their theories about the global cabal.
But new research suggests that the biggest jolt to QAnon came from the so-called “Save the Children” movement. It started out as a fund-raising campaign for a legitimate anti-trafficking charity, but was then hijacked by QAnon believers, who used the movement to spread false and exaggerated claims about a global child-trafficking conspiracy led by top Democrats and Hollywood elites. This hijacking began in July, around the same time that Twitter and Facebook began cracking down on QAnon accounts.
Marc-André Argentino, a doctoral student at Concordia University who studies QAnon, has been tracking the growth of “Save the Children” Facebook groups, many of which operate as soft fronts for the movement.
Mr. Argentino identified 114 groups that bill themselves as anti-trafficking concerns, but are actually dominated by QAnon content. Since July, he found, these groups have increased their membership by more than 3,000 percent — yes, 3,000 percent — with a corresponding surge in activity within these groups.
“Save the Children really revitalized the community after Twitter and Facebook took action against QAnon,” Mr. Argentino said. “It’s introduced an entire new population to QAnon.”
Mr. Argentino also found that traffic to several pieces of core QAnon content — such as “Fall of Cabal,” a YouTube video that many QAnon believers have credited with spurring their interest in the group — has surged in recent weeks, after months of decline.
Facebook, Twitter and other social networks have tried to limit the spread of QAnon, shutting down some accounts and pages associated with the movement. But “Save the Children” is a fuzzier area for platform enforcers, because it can be difficult to tell who is genuinely concerned about child exploitation and who is taking advantage of those concerns to sow misinformation. That vagueness has helped QAnon believers avoid a total crackdown, and has given them venues to discuss their theories that aren’t as vulnerable to being taken away.