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.
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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.
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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.