Qoup d'état: What QAnon's Reddit Migration Tells Us About Misinformation

*epilepsy warning*|Hatemail: Newsletter and Intel from the LaBac Hacker Collective

This post is the first in an ongoing series about the history of Voat, a now defunct social media platform that previously hosted hate speech. This series is authored by members of Tech Against Fascism, a team of programmers and activists closely monitoring fascist internet communities, and references their research dashboard hosted on their website along with this and future posts.

The unfounded conspiracy theory known as QAnon has gained a lot of traction since its appearance in 2017. QAnon is a vague cluster of theories unified around the belief that former President Donald Trump is engaged in a secret war against “deep state” pedophiles and that a high-ranking ally called “Q” drops coded messages about this war online. QAnon has also been at the center of the American deplatforming debate as online communities proliferating the conspiracy theory have been successively removed from major social media sites over the past few years, with much speculation about how deplatforming will impact them. 

A Case Study of QAnon on Voat

On Sept.12, 2018, Reddit administrators banned r/GreatAwakening, a predominant QAnon-related subreddit, along with satellite communities. The ban followed several incidents of hateful and violent propaganda being shared by large swarms of r/GreatAwakening users. This was not an unexpected turn of events for r/GreatAwakening members as their sister community r/pizzagate had been banned two years earlier, and led r/GreatAwakening members to conclude that they were also in the admins’ crosshairs.

A few days later on Sept. 21, Q used one of their drops as a rallying cry to invite Reddit “refugees” to join forces on a platform called Voat. This Reddit clone, with a political stance centered on free speech, quickly became a safe haven for any fascist or hateful message board ousted by Reddit. Q aimed to centralize their community and thus invited one of their followers to create a new “subverse,” Voat’s equivalent to a subreddit message board, to welcome them. 

Voat, originally called WhoaVerse, was founded by a young student named Atif Colo in 2014. The site would become an incubator for several major conspiracy theories, especially Qanon and Pizzagate before its abrupt shut down on Dec. 25th, 2020 due to a lack of funding. Some of Voat’s most active communities had shared misinformation or hateful rants – chief among them were the message boards v/fatpeoplehate, v/GreatAwakening, and v/multiculturalcancer which were dedicated to fatphobia, Qanon, and white supremacy, respectively. By far the most active and vitriolic, however, was the Q-sponsored subverse v/QRV where every post is automatically anonymized and “Q scholars'' share their interpretation on the latest drops in all their alleged 5D-chess-level complexity.

Voat Migration and Community Transformation

Because Q drop #2269 invited users to join the QRV subverse, it caused user activity on v/GreatAwakening to skyrocket. However, the community quickly switched from the typical free-for-all conspiracy forum to an echo chamber. Before long, a handful of users started exerting an iron grip on the information being shared and amplified by their peers. Of the 100,000 v/GreatAwakening posts Tech Against Fascism has archived, roughly 25 percent were made by five unique accounts. (It’s worth noting that this phenomenon fits the superspreader model of how viral disinformation spreads).

What more can be learned about disinformation from these members who managed to post hundreds of submissions in the course of a month? Interestingly, superspreader users were also prolific in the comment section, indicating that they didn’t act as simple media broadcasters and were instrumental in guiding debates to reinforce the dominant Qanon narratives. Most of these superspreaders joined the subverse during or after the Reddit ban, which suggests that the social hierarchy of the community was toppled by the r/GreatAwakening mass exodus and from the surge of popularity Voat enjoyed after QAnon communities were ousted from Reddit.

An analysis of the main keywords appearing in the submissions of these five individuals indicates a strong tendency to simply repeat the major themes among Q followers, such as the existence of a deep state, interpreting every action made by federal agencies as purposefully conspiratorial, and casting Donald Trump into a messianic role.

This obsessive litany, coupled with an unchallenged control of the public speech on the platform by a few gatekeepers, might explain the tendency for the average Voat user not to challenge the overall consensus. Academic researchers (including this author) have been suggesting that a minority group can overturn a social convention by triggering a cascade of behavior change, thus explaining how these outlandish theories can be shared in a vast community without being challenged.

The following word clouds from v/GreatAwakening superspreaders, created with data collected by Tech Against Fascism, further highlight the catalytic role that the COVID-19 pandemic played on the grandiose scheme QAnon believers are still desperately trying to piece together. A conspiracy theory that combines an everlasting paranoia against domestic actors (such as the Center for Disease Control or the “Mainstream Media”) with similar paranoia of foreign nation-states like China.

The gold trophy for disjointed comments goes to influential Voat user Patriotknife100, who seems to be the embodiment of the alt-right persona with their strong commitment to Q-related messages (such as WWG1WGA which is an acronym particular to QAnon) as well as popular alt-right slangs such as “kek” and “3 days and 3 nights”).

Following Voat’s shutdown in December 2020, many v/GreatAwakening users started drifting towards alternative social platforms such as Gab, Telegram, and the .win boards. A small cluster managed to stick together and create their own private Discord channel with a user count around 200. But with the lack of a proper infrastructure and the absence of new users, the community is quickly running out of oxygen and new posts are becoming rare. 

However, deplatforming should not be considered an end-all victory: We are still living in a fractured society where a non-negligible number of people are ignoring any expert advice related to the global sanitary quagmire, and with a common quest against the all-powerful enemy they call the deep state.

– Amin Mekacher, Tech Against Fascism

“Q: Into the Storm” and Digital Disinformation 

  • [HBO]  [Wikipedia]: When QAnon started gaining popularity in 2018, Cullen Hoback decided to investigate and document the movement, its roots, and its mysterious guru Q. Hoback spent three years traveling between Asia and the U.S. to understand the origins of the phenomenon, from 4chan to 8chan to 8kun. He interviewed 8chan founder Fredrick Brennan and even managed to follow Brennan’s growing feud with Jim Watkins and Ron Watkins, the current owners of the site. With a cast of characters as varied as can be, Hoback’s six-part documentary follows several "Qtubers" and other QAnon believers, including a remarkable cameo of the QAnon shaman in full garb. The series also chronicles the ascension of Q – a Nostradamus-like figure who seems to be just as “accurate” in his predictions as the 116th-century astrologer himself. And, not unlike the astrologer, QAnon’s followers end up performing the most extreme acts in "His" name. Of course, the end goal is to unmask Q. The list of suspects is extensive and, while the sense of closure doesn't feel like the end of a feel-good Hollywood movie, there are some strong hints towards the perpetrator.

  • [The Guardian] New reporting shows that Facebook knew about an online manipulation campaign orchestrated by Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado, whose 2017 reelection is widely disputed, and let the campaign continue for 11 months despite alerts and warnings.

  • [The Daily Beast] Excellent reporting from The Daily Beast reveals that a shady Israeli private intelligence firm disguised themselves as journalists from Fox News in order to gain information related to a lawsuit affecting the United Arab Emirates.

On Our Radar...

  • [U.S. DOJ] [Related Warrant] [Vice] The Justice Department disclosed this week that the FBI hacked into American servers, with oversight from a U.S. Court, in order to patch the critical vulnerability in Microsoft Exchange software. Their actions, they argue, are justified by the national security risk the exposed servers posed.

  • [New York Times] Emi Nietfeld worked as a software engineer at Google for four years. In this opinion piece, she describes the excess, gaslighting, and mental ire that the company operates on in order to convince employees that it’s more than “just a job.”

  • [Reuters][Bleeping Computer] Hundreds of millions of users on LinkedIn, Facebook, and OnlyFans have had their data scraped, according to reports from earlier this month. Regulators in Ireland have now opened a case to investigate, and potentially charge, Facebook’s mishandling of data.

  • [DefenseOne][FCW] NSA Director Nakasone recently said nation-state adversaries in cyberspace could potentially slip past U.S. defenses to exploit a major loophole in the American legal system.

Hate speech website: voat[.]co - Now Defunct

Who hosted: Cloudflare, Level 3 (Lumen)

Today’s site is voat[.]co, which shut down in December 2020.

Voat used Cloudflare to protect the site. However, we have observed previous DNS records for voat[.]co pointing to IP address 8.7.198[.]45, infrastructure owned by global hosting and services provider Level 3 (doing business as Lumen).

From New Delhi to New York: The Global State of Local Facial Recognition Regulations (Friday, April 16, 9:00 am ET) - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is hosting a panel on “the evolving regulatory environment for facial recognition technology in the United States and around the world. [RSVP]

Weaponized Media: Politics of Affect & Propaganda (Tuesday, April 20, 11:30 am ET) - This panel hosted by the University of Toronto will examine “how sophisticated digital practices and technologies exploit and capitalize on emotions, with particular focus on how social media are used to exacerbate social conflicts surrounding racism, misogyny, and nationalism.” [RSVP]