Reddit Squashed QAnon by Accident

Two years ago, Reddit had the internet’s biggest QAnon problem. Today, that problem is gone—but the company can’t really explain why.

An eraser with the Reddit alien erasing a Q
The Atlantic

Two years ago, most Americans knew nothing about QAnon, the ever-growing, diffuse, and violent movement devoted to a loosely connected set of conspiracy theories, most of which tie back to the idea that Donald Trump is leading a holy war against a high-powered cabal of child traffickers, some of whom drink blood. But at the time, it was a massive problem on Reddit, where conspiracy-minded members of the Trump-themed subreddit r/The_Donald had long stoked theories such as Pizzagate, and where a QAnon subreddit called r/TheGreatAwakening had racked up 70,000 subscribers, some of whom posted hundreds of times.

Last week, new polling showed that nearly half of Americans have now heard of QAnon. But on Reddit, the movement no longer has any meaningful presence.

Reddit is where QAnon first went to attract a mass audience when it left the dark, unnavigable threads of 4chan, and Reddit is where it found a new group of people who were willing to spend hours a day doing “research” and analyzing “clues.” QAnon’s presence on Reddit ballooned throughout 2018. By August of that year, the 70,000 members of r/TheGreatAwakening had misidentified a mass shooter and doxed an innocent person. They also started posting threats to murder Hillary Clinton, inspired, they said, by their rage over her superhuman ability to make military planes fall out of the sky.

Today, the QAnon problem is everywhere. The New York Times speculated last week about whether Facebook “will be locked in an endless fight with QAnon,” as the platform’s latest and most dramatic efforts to slow the movement’s spread through groups with millions of members seem to be failing. Twitter is similarly struggling, despite a significant overhaul to its “coordinated harmful activity” policy that gives the company more latitude to slash-and-burn clusters of QAnon-related accounts. On Instagram, QAnon theories have been so thoroughly laundered and mainstreamed by wellness and lifestyle influencers, they’re almost impossible to separate from aestheticized “sponcon.” But on Reddit, new discussion threads don’t take off, and the major subreddits are gone.

In 2018, Reddit and Facebook both had QAnon-related groups with numbers in the tens of thousands. Yesterday morning, the most popular post about QAnon on my Reddit homepage was from r/conspiracy—a large and sometimes dicey community where truly anything goes, the wilder the theory the better. It read, “Q-ANON … i want to believe, but let’s be honest, it’s bullshit.” Reddit has plenty of problems, but QAnon isn’t one of them. Understanding why could be a valuable first step in dealing with the broader problem, one of the biggest and strangest that social-media companies have yet to face.

Unfortunately, Reddit is not particularly good at explaining how it accomplished such a remarkable feat. Chris Slowe, Reddit’s chief technology officer and one of its earliest employees, told me, point-blank: “I don’t think we’ve had any focused effort to keep QAnon off the platform.”

He suggested that Reddit users are more skeptical and discerning than other people online, making it difficult for conspiracy theories to gain traction on the platform. When I reminded him that the Pizzagate subreddit grew to 20,000 subscribers in its first 15 days, he conceded that November 2016 was a “dramatic period in history,” during which a number of communities took off with surprising speed. Reddit banned r/Pizzagate “pretty rapidly,” he added. This is true: r/Pizzagate was created in early November 2016 and was banned by Reddit the day before Thanksgiving. But to see that as a success story, you do sort of need to excise the chapter in which a man deluded by the online conspiracy community stormed into a pizza restaurant with an assault rifle 11 days later.

So here are the basic facts of what Reddit did to quell QAnon, whether it meant to or not: In March 2018, the site shut down the original QAnon subreddit, r/CBTS_stream, which had about 20,000 subscribers. It was banned for inciting violence and for sharing people’s personal information without their consent, a harassment tactic known as doxing. In September 2018, r/TheGreatAwakening was banned as well, along with the 17 other major QAnon subreddits, for similar reasons. Only a handful of small and largely inactive communities were left behind, as was one oddly dedicated poster. The last remaining somewhat-Q-related and somewhat-significant subreddit, r/Pedogate, was banned last week.

The most obvious—and least replicable—factor in Reddit’s success is its timing. Reddit’s QAnon problem started several years ago, before QAnon became as much a part of offline culture as it was a part of online culture. Reddit was able to isolate QAnon’s influence on its platform before the community grew too large to control. Now Facebook has to deal with QAnon as a full-fledged social movement. It reemerges on the site, over and over, because it has such life off the site, James Grimmelmann, a professor of digital and information law at Cornell Law School, told me. “It’s a problem on Facebook because it’s a problem in society,” he said. The mostly boring, basic facts of Reddit’s infrastructure play a role too, says Robyn Caplan, a platform-governance researcher and doctoral candidate at Rutgers University. Though conversations on Reddit are open to all users, they are somewhat siloed in that they have to occur in a specific subreddit. There are no viral retweets and no trending hashtags. “The subreddit structure,” Caplan told me, gives Reddit an advantage because “at least things are discrete and you can restrict and ban.” Twitter, which has to track and ban QAnon adherents one by one, on a decentralized platform where anyone can easily see anything that’s been publicly posted, has a much taller order.

Though Reddit is sometimes criticized for its short list of rules, the company has in some respects given itself more enforcement latitude than the other big platforms. The most significant rule is a policy on ban evasion. Reddit prohibits not just individual users from trying to create new accounts and get back on the site after they’ve been kicked off, but also entire communities. If a subreddit is shut down, the same people can’t create a new subreddit discussing the same topic. So in effect, even though Reddit has never come out and said, “QAnon is against the rules,” once the major QAnon communities broke the rules, re-creating them became against policy. That’s not something Facebook has ever attempted, or that Twitter realistically could.

“When we ban a community, the first thing that happens is a bunch of copycats appear,” Slowe said. “It’s probably five minutes between us banning [The Great Awakening] and The Great Awakening 2 getting created.” Reddit quickly takes down such copycat groups, but more importantly, for several weeks after any major punitive action, Slowe’s team will monitor the site for more subtle attempts to regenerate toxic spaces, paying attention to who is creating new communities and who joins them. (Reddit has about 430 million active users, so some of this is automated. The company declined to provide more details about the monitoring process, citing security concerns.) When someone does start a suspiciously similar page, Reddit doesn’t have to wait for them to defy any policies against violence or doxing or harassment. The new subreddit just gets removed for ban evasion on the spot.

Reddit also has a powerful sitewide norm—what Slowe referred to as a “hard line”—against doxing, a fundamental QAnon tenet. Because the site was founded as a place for pseudonymous and anonymous discussion, this is one of its core values. “The kinds of behaviors QAnon promotes are kinds of behavior that Reddit polices pretty closely,” Grimmelmann said. “Doxing in particular is something that is a huge no for Reddit and is not as high up on the priority list for other platforms.”

The tale of how Reddit squashed QAnon seems like it must hold a tangible lesson for the rest of the social web, but the internet is messier than that. The particularities of Reddit, its culture, and the timing of its QAnon purge cannot be replicated by other companies. QAnon has found fertile ground on even more mainstream sites than Reddit. It simply doesn’t need the platform anymore.

Slowe summed up Reddit’s stance on QAnon as follows: “They can believe whatever crazy shit they want. But they started harassing users and doxing them, so that’s something we banned.” Today, the concept of QAnon as a coherent and sanctionable group is almost quaint. QAnon is dangerous precisely because it isn’t hanging out in isolated subreddits, full of people who are committing obviously bannable offenses. Its hashtags are floating around otherwise-normal-looking Instagram posts. Its general philosophies—about the media covering up innumerable evils, the Democrats conspiring to harm children, a global cabal that wants you to suffer—are lacing your mom’s friend’s Facebook updates. Its supporters are retweeted by the president.

Reddit’s approach may have kept QAnon out of one corner of the internet, but QAnon still spread into the real world. Now that it’s become irreversibly baked into American culture, that style of banning simply won’t do much good. It’s not too late to do something, but it’s too late to do something as simple as this.