The Right’s Disinformation Machine Is Getting Ready for Trump to Lose

QAnon has become a linchpin of far-right media—and the effort to preemptively delegitimize the election.

An illustration of newspaper print and the letter Q
Shutterstock / The Atlantic

About the author: Renée DiResta is the technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Whether President Donald Trump wins or loses, some version of QAnon is going to survive the election. On the day of the vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, the individual or group known as “Q” sent out a flurry of posts. “ONLY THE ILLUSION OF DEMOCRACY,” began one. “Joe 30330—Arbitrary?—What is 2020 [current year] divided by 30330? Symbolism will be their downfall,” read another, darkly hinting at satanic numerology in Joe Biden’s campaign text-messaging code. Vague, foreboding messages that could mean anything or nothing—these are the hallmarks of QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory, built around Q’s postings on internet message boards, in which Trump is heroically battling a global cabal of devil-worshipping pedophiles. But something noteworthy lurked in Q’s final post of the night: “SHADOW PRESIDENT. SHADOW GOVERNMENT. INFORMATION WARFARE. IRREGULAR WARFARE. COLOR REVOLUTION. INSURGENCY.”

Color revolution. This was the first time Q used the term. Originally a reference to mass protests such as the one in Ukraine in 2004, when citizens wearing orange clothes and carrying orange banners rallied to bring down a government, it became a catchphrase that authoritarian governments use to discredit pro-democracy movements as the handiwork of the CIA. Q was using color revolution in just that way.

My team’s research at the Stanford Internet Observatory tracks the way malign narratives spread online. The notion that so-called deep-state insiders and Democrats are orchestrating a color revolution against Trump had been rippling across various factions of the stridently pro-Trump media ecosystem since mid-August. Early claims appeared in pronouncements by the firebrand conservative blogger and former Trump speechwriter Darren Beattie, which were then repeated and shared by prominent right-wing influencers on Twitter and YouTube. These powerful voices claimed that street protests, ballot-mishandling incidents, and the like were not spontaneous or disparate events; rather, they formed a pattern of evidence revealing a plot to steal the election from Trump. Even presidential-debate commissioners were supposedly involved.

The theory leapt from blogs and a podcast with Steve Bannon to Fox News, where Beattie pushed it out to Tucker Carlson’s audience—4 million viewers on a typical night. The conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck dedicated entire episodes of his talk show to solemnly diagramming how the color revolution might unfold. Other conservative blogs, influencers, and YouTube channels began to broach the idea. So did ordinary people, who shared this media content on social networks, spreading the narrative across dozens of large right-wing interest groups on Facebook. Q was merely appropriating and amplifying a conspiracy theory invented elsewhere. But by picking it up, Q ensured that it would reach many more people.

All of this revealed a couple of things: First, the machine that moves information through the far-right ecosystem is preparing its audience for the very real chance that Trump will lose. Its goal is simple—to preemptively delegitimize any outcome but a clear victory by the incumbent. Second, QAnon, whose adherents have deep ties to countless other large communities, has become a linchpin in that ecosystem, and the absurdity of its claims in no way reduces its political influence.

QAnon is pure fantasy, but, when asked about it during his NBC town hall Thursday, the president of the United States conspicuously declined to condemn it.

Influence is now a function of the brute ability to propel information between broadcast and social-media channels, and across online factions. By that measure, QAnon is remarkably effective. Its supporters turned out for the Georgia congressional hopeful Marjorie Taylor Greene and other primary candidates who endorse it—a sign that QAnon’s influence has extended to conferring political power. And, as the general election approaches, the people behind QAnon are taking steps to ensure the continuation of this influence in some way.

QAnon has the outlines of a classic whistleblower tale: A bureaucrat with a high-level security clearance issued by the Department of Energy chose to reveal the secret workings of the U.S. government to the people. Unlike whistleblowers past, however, Q decided to deliver the truth on message boards, such as 4chan and 8kun, used by internet trolls. Building off the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, and speaking in short riddles, Q rallied these followers to cheer for Trump in his secret fight against a powerful cabal of devil-worshipping pedophiles who harvest the blood of children. These claims are obviously bonkers. Nevertheless, QAnon’s early disciples delivered the conspiracy theory to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, where it could reach a more mainstream audience.

By the time Q’s first post appeared on 4chan in 2017, conspiracy theories of all sorts were multiplying and thriving on social media, as their adherents formed dedicated Facebook groups and YouTube channels. Algorithmic recommendation engines accelerated their growth and cross-pollinated their beliefs. Over time, these engines nudged anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers to join QAnon groups and pushed QAnon videos to far-right political communities. The algorithms didn’t comprehend what they were recommending; they detected the probability that an anti-vaxxer or a flat-earther would like certain postings and communities, but not whether those postings or communities were inherently harmful. The recommendations worked: People who followed other conspiracy theories often were receptive to QAnon, primarily because of a shared distrust of government and authority.

This algorithmic crossbreeding turned QAnon into a mutant omni–conspiracy theory that blended together the pet catechisms of its constituent sub–conspiracy theories. Anti-vaxxers noticed when Q included “VACCINES [NOT ALL]” in a post that began, “MONEY. POWER. CONTROL.”—and went on to list a litany of bad things, including wars, tobacco, and opioids. People who believe that shape-shifting lizards have infiltrated the political elite can find thousands of posts about the subject on QAnon-community research boards. Over a period of two years, QAnon groups evolved into a full-blown alternative reality in which John F. Kennedy Jr. lives and COVID-19 is a hoax. Individuals shared QAnon material with other communities they’d been part of for some time, including mundane, normally non-conspiracist groups devoted to wellness and parenting. Hundreds of thousands to millions of individuals gradually bought into some portion of the alternative reality as it traveled across the internet.

But QAnon Facebook groups and YouTube channels are only part of a more expansive game. Media and social media are no longer distinct; consequential narratives emerge from the bottom up, as well as the top down, and bounce back and forth among different channels. Positioned between internet message boards and mass outlets such as Fox News is a kind of demi-media—hyperpartisan outlets, such as Gateway Pundit and One America News, that have a significant following on social platforms, high engagement from audiences, and a history of boosting narratives that bubble up from internet users. These demi-media outlets, some of which have White House press credentials, routinely tell their audience that “the media” is lying, thereby positioning themselves as an entity apart. Years of repetition have seemingly rendered their audiences immune to any cognitive dissonance over this. Well-known news outlets make up stories, but a pseudonymous 8kun poster is a high-level pedophile-fighting bureaucrat who tells the truth.

In recent months, Facebook and YouTube have moved aggressively to interrupt the flow of disinformation, in part by banning QAnon groups and channels. More broadly, Facebook and Twitter have asserted their prerogative to slow the spread of iffy news stories and take down the musings of Holocaust deniers. But the moves against QAnon come too late. Even as the platforms have begun to take steps to limit the algorithmic amplification of content tied to QAnon-specific groups, already-converted true believers continue to act as pollinators themselves, pushing the QAnon view of current events into unrelated communities—Star Trek fans, essential-oil moms, the “reopen” groups campaigning against shutdowns imposed during the coronavirus pandemic. And in the right-wing demi-media, any actions by Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube against the QAnon groups are covered as further evidence of tech censorship run amok, and an ominous harbinger of the end of free speech.

This is how delegitimizing narratives spread. The threat of a “color revolution” is only the latest to expand through QAnon’s ready-made distribution channel. Amplifying prophecies about attacks on the legitimacy of the election ultimately positions QAnon to continue past November. If Trump loses, the prophecy of the deep-state color revolution will have come true, and Q will spin tales about the secret doings of an illegitimate new administration. If Trump wins, the exposure of the nefarious plot will have deterred the deep-state forces, and the battle against the cabal will continue.

The question isn’t whether QAnon will persist past this presidential term; it’s in what form. The Q community has recently begun splintering into denominations and regional flavors, and this will likely accelerate as platforms target the movement’s most easily identifiable activity online. Other countries have their own QAnon believers, such as those in Germany who think that Trump will save them from the deep-state agent Angela Merkel. Another variant, from France, has become deeply entwined with the Yellow Vests movement. Also in evidence are a growing number of “cafeteria” Q followers, including the Instagram moms and wellness warriors who find certain facets of the Q canon appealing even as they reject the surreal details of the origin story. They’re “allegories,” declared the editor of a German far-right magazine who put a big Q on the cover of its August 2020 issue but told The New York Times that he doesn’t believe the part about the pedophiles. Each subcommunity has influencers guiding members’ spiritual journey, producing content for them to share.

Social platforms will keep kicking out the Q communities they find, and media outlets are assessing how to cover the movement without encouraging it. Yet recent structural changes to the information ecosystem are permanent. “We are the media now,” Q’s adherents claim, but QAnon is only a symptom of a much larger transformation. If you can make color revolution or some other outlandish narrative trend, you can make it true—or at least true enough for thousands or even millions to believe. QAnon is just the start.