Have QAnon claims been proven true

Fiction instead of facts - QAnon and the danger of corporate conspiracies

Is the coronavirus just an invention of the pharmaceutical lobby or is it perhaps triggered by 5G technology? In view of the corona pandemic, conspiracy theories have not only come more into the public eye, but are also finding a growing number of supporters. The conspiracy movement QAnon is also currently gaining popularity in Germany. QAnon is a special case among the conspiracy myths: QAnon is not only extremely successful, the movement can also be seen as an example of a new dimension in digital opinion-making and mobilization, as it makes use of the functional mechanisms of the social web in a highly elaborate way . In this article we explain what the QAnon movement is, how it works and what dangers and implications it can lead to for business and politics. Because one thing is clear: online movements can only turn against a fictional conspiracy, but also against companies, institutions and individuals.

What is QAnon?

The origins of QAnon lie in the dark depths of the internet in October 2017. At that time, an anonymous user spoke up on the 4chan online platform. 4chan is a so-called image board on which users can exchange information publicly without registering or having an account - i.e. completely anonymously. Due to the few community rules, 4chan is known, among other things, for serving as a meeting place for internet trolls and the starting point for (right-wing extremist) hate and propaganda campaigns. At the time, the user claimed on 4chan to be a member of Donald Trump's closest circle of government and to have access to top secret government information and plans. His pseudonym “Q” refers to the highest clearance level in the US Department of Energy, the Q-Clearance. Q quickly found a growing number of followers on the Internet who from now on follow his posts attentively and are convinced of their truthfulness. The fact that announcements from Q - such as the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton - are not materialized does not bother the users. Soon the online community around Q and its posts will call itself QAnon. Q based on the name of the user and Anon with reference to the term "Anonymous", which appears on imageboards instead of a user name.

QAnon and the Deep State

Q continues to post allegedly secret information from the White House (so-called Q-Drops) and users quickly spin crude conspiracy theories from the information: In summary, it is about a secret elite of corrupt politicians, stars as well as representatives from the press and business who the United States would control. This so-called Deep State, to which e.g. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton belong, is preparing, according to the users, a coup to turn the USA into a dictatorship. In addition, this "deep state" is satanistic and pedophile, kidnaps children, keeps them prisoner and tortures them. The aim is to "extract" the metabolic substance adrenochrome from the children in order to consume it as a life-extending elixir. The only "savior" who fights against this criminal machinations is Donald Trump, so the QAnon supporters. In addition, there are set pieces of various other conspiracy myths as well as the inclusion of current social developments. The QAnon community is also taking up the corona pandemic. According to the QAnon supporters, this does not exist - the Covid-19 lockdown is merely a pretext to free the captured children from the hands of the Deep States.

Nobody believes that !?

I thought wrong! Even if the content of the QAnon story sounds absurd, it is not only brief, but rather dangerous to simply dismiss the movement as nonsense or a conglomerate of nuts. This is supported by the success of the movement: In recent years QAnon has led to a large number of online content and offline demonstrations, the Times named Q one of the most influential people on the Internet in 2018 [1] and a book called QAnon - Followers wrote about worldview and movement, reached number 2 on the Amazon bestseller list in the USA in 2019 [2]. Overall, it seems, QAnon is more than a conspiracy community - scientists are also convinced of that. They increasingly describe the movement as a kind of religious community or sect. How dangerous the QAnon belief can be is shown by terrible events outside of the digital space: For example, the assassin in Pittsburgh, who killed a total of 11 people in 2018, is believed to be a supporter of the QAnon movement.

If one becomes aware of the extent of QAnon, the question quickly arises: How did the posts of a single user become such a thing? The answer to this question lies somewhere between content and distribution. It is clear, however, that the QAnon movement and its international success illustrate a new dimension of opinion-making and mobilization via digital and, above all, social media. If QAnon is abstracted from the way it works, the content of the narrative seems secondary and interchangeable: QAnon's "methodology" could also be used to propagate other content and generate a large following for it - as long as it is mysterious, sensational and, above all, emotional enough are. And this content can be directed against a large number of actors such as companies, industries, people or political institutions.

Old content, new paint?

Let's take a closer look at QAnon. In many ways, the QAnon story is similar in both content and structure to other well-known conspiracy myths: The story is not only exciting and mysterious, but also offers its followers a simplified explanation of the highly complex happenings in a constantly dynamic world. In addition, it defines an actor who is responsible for all the suffering in the world and thus conveys the feeling of regaining control over one's own living environment. At the same time, QAnon conveys positive feelings such as hope, sublimity and meaningfulness: on the one hand, the "great awakening" of the general population and the rescue by Donald Trump are announced again and again and on the other hand, the followers are simply given the feeling of being something special. Because they alone have recognized the truth and fight - like secret agents, so to speak - against the evil in the world. In addition, QAnon follows a superordinate master narrative that mixes facts with fiction, unites many other conspiracy narratives and immunizes itself against any form of criticism due to its density and interweaving. Arguments against the truthfulness of QAnon can thus always be used for advocacy For QAnon to be turned over. This self-immunizing effect also occurs, for example Misinformation and disinformation campaigns for use.

Emotionalization and participation as success factors on the internet

At the same time, QAnon differs from other conspiracy myths and communities, because QAnon makes use of two factors that work particularly well in digital media: emotionalization and interaction or participation. For a long time now, the Internet is no longer just about the rigid reception of informative content, but rather about a reciprocal exchange in which every user can participate. Classic gatekeepers lose their relevance and the individual user becomes an information producer and trader himself. Content is published, shared, liked, commented on or remixed and can quickly achieve an enormous reach. This in turn is reinforced by new gatekeepers such as search engines and algorithms. In this context, social media are not only becoming visible, but also reinforcing opinions and stories that would probably have received little or no attention in the traditional media system. And what works particularly well in social networks? Emotional, exciting and polarizing content. It generates clicks, triggers discussions and manages to attract attention in the outrage economy of the Internet.

Conspiracy theories á la social media

The large following and strong mobilization of QAnon can be attributed to these factors, among other things: the content is not only mysterious and exciting, it also creates a strong emotional impact, after all, it is about the well-being of children, among other things. In addition, they strongly encourage participation and conspiracy: the cornerstone of QAnon - the Q-Drops - are usually short and cryptic and therefore have to be deciphered, interpreted and put together by the online users themselves. This makes QAnon a kind of collaborative conspiracy narrative, in which not only a guru sets the story, but each follower can contribute his part. In addition, the process seems almost gamified: deciphering and interpreting vague and cryptic hints and posts is fun. In addition, active Q-Drop interpreters receive recognition from their colleagues. QAnon becomes a kind of online game, in which the aim is to find the most conclusive explanations and to convince as many users as possible of their truth. It follows that the followers of the QAnon movement are also interested in spreading their opinions and interpretations as far as possible in order to awaken and convince the unbelievers. Because those who do successful persuasion will be rewarded by the community with respect and confirmation.

(Mis-) information overload

QAnon also works so well because in the digital age certain framework conditions have developed that promote the spread of and belief in Rumors and disinformation or favor conspiracy myths. Through digital media, we are constantly confronted with a multitude of (incorrect) information and opinions from different sources. Tracking whether the sources are reputable and valid information is not only difficult, but also time-consuming and exhausting. Our convenience favors that alleged facts are not always checked and false information is taken at face value. In addition, the dissemination of (false) information in a pseudo-news framework is becoming ever easier for the individual user. Anyone with Internet access can quickly and easily express and disseminate information or their own opinion on social networks or news-looking websites.

After all, in the so-called “post-factual age” we experience a permanent state of doubt. Because: We know about the attempts to manipulate elections or the targeted dissemination of disinformation and ultimately this leads to the feeling that we can never be quite sure what is true and what is wrong. Even scientific facts can be questioned or even produced pseudo-scientifically (fake science) and the basis of our debates no longer seems to be a common consensus of facts. Rather, the seemingly strongest arguments are not constituted by their truthfulness and their factual basis, but by the emotional connectivity (such as the potential for outrage). The dangerous thing about the post-factual age is therefore not only the massive spread of disinformation, but rather the resulting consequence: Nowadays every claim, regardless of whether it is based on true or false facts, initially seems legitimate and convincing - as long as it is a highly emotional one Has persuasiveness.

This emotionality leads to attention and allows information, a conspiracy myth or a story to stand out from the abundance of (false) information available and leads to the fact that we do not pay any attention to other contradicting information, actively hide it or ignore it. At QAnon, for example, the followers are strongly emotionalized by the component "child abuse" - according to the motto "This is so bad, we have to do something about it immediately" the believers then ignore counter-arguments.

Companies as enemy images in conspiracy campaigns

Conspiracies against companies or entire industries are in principle nothing new - just think of the pharmaceutical industry, for example, which repeatedly turns into the enemy of various conspiracy supporters. It is no surprise that companies as enemies can easily be inserted into such narratives: on the one hand, corporations and large companies in particular are attributed both greater power and greater responsibility due to their resources. This, in turn, leads to corporate missteps being judged more morally and the suspicion that companies are abusing their power to pursue secret goals is much more obvious than, for example, for ordinary consumers. On the other hand, corporations and large corporations virtually represent the Goliaths of our time: They embody greedy and ice-cold power machines that are in direct conflict with the well-being of the common man and thus invite a large number of online Davids to fight against great evil.

Corporate conspiracies: from attackers and profiteers

These points not only encourage companies to be (made) the focus of a conspiracy campaign organically, but also in a targeted manner - that is, with a specific intention. If individual companies come into the focus of such a campaign, one can speak of “corporate conspiracies”.

There are usually two groups of actors behind such corporate conspiracies: attackers or profiteers. For attackers, the aim is usually to inflict (financial) damage on a company or an industry with a targeted campaign. There are many reasons for this: As a competitor you want to gain a competitive advantage, for example, as a dissatisfied ex-employee you want to damage the company or as an interest group to advance a certain economic, political or social agenda. It is not difficult for attackers to spread false information about companies or industries and to manipulate relevant stakeholders in a targeted manner.

Profiteers, on the other hand, have recognized that spreading conspiracy myths can be lucrative. For example, there is a large number of merchandising items such as t-shirts or mugs related to the QAnon movement. Furthermore, content on QAnon ensures a large number of clicks by QAnon followers. Convincing more people of the QAnon story brings YouTubers, influencers or online media simply more traffic and thus more advertising income. In the corporate context, this aspect leads to a greater risk for well-known corporations. These attract attention and, if mentioned, ensure more clicks and traffic and thus also greater margins. If profiteers themselves are the initial disseminators of disseminators of corporate conspiracies, they precisely calculate the chance that conspiracy stories about a company will ensure a wide reach. If profiteers jump on the bandwagon of an attack by a third party, they also usually increase the impact of the attacker's campaign.

Is my company at risk?

This question can hardly be answered across the board. It is true that there are factors that increase the likelihood of falling victim to a conspiracy campaign (e.g. the size and notoriety of the company). However, this does not guarantee that companies that do not meet these factors are out of danger. A corporate conspiracy can, in particular, also affect small companies at local or regional level, as follows: “There are always so few customers in this small restaurant and yet it has been around for many years ... there is sure to be money laundering!“.

Don't you think something like this will happen? And if so, what's so bad about it? Here is a brief real-life example to illustrate the seriousness of such a situation. A conspiracy theory was shared on the Internet for the US presidential election campaign in 2016, which eventually resulted in an event known today as the Pizzagate. At the center of the theory was a small pizzeria in Washington D.C .. The online users were convinced that a child porno ring from the cellar of the pizzeria was operating. Part of the criminal network - note the strong similarity to QAnon - include Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Lady Gaga. The theory was shared by both real users and social bots on social networks, found many followers and finally ended with an assassination attempt in December 2016. An armed man stormed into the pizzeria to rescue the allegedly abused children there and fired two shots ab - luckily nobody was injured. This example tragically illustrates what a conspiracy tale on the net can lead to and that it can simply hit anyone.

In order to find out individually to what extent your company is at risk or already affected, a targeted one is suitable Risk assessment. Such a risk analysis should, on the one hand, examine how high the chance is of getting at the center of a digital smear campaign. On the other hand, it should be determined how great the resulting damage would be.Possible questions here are, for example: Could such a campaign have a negative impact on my reputation? Could policymakers let themselves be influenced to my disadvantages? What are the consequences if my entire industry is the target of such a conspiracy attack?

In order to keep the risk permanently in view, it is also worthwhile Web monitoring. After all, who wants to lend a hand every week and search the depths of the Internet for new conspiracy myths? In order to achieve the greatest possible benefit, the monitoring should be set up specifically for defined topics or channels. That is, based on the risk assessment, certain trigger keywords and sources are defined and monitored. Typical platforms or well-known groups, in which conspiracy theories often find their origin, are suitable here. These include e.g. Reddit, 4chan, Telegram or the Russian Facebook VKontakte. Furthermore, influencers of the conspiracy scene can be identified and indexed on an influencer map. The map then helps to classify certain monitoring findings more quickly and easily.

How can I protect myself from corporate conspiracies?

At this point there is good news and bad news. The bad first: you can never completely prevent a negative campaign from spreading online. Especially if it is a direct attack. Because there are many people working to ensure that rumors, false reports or conspiracies about you and your company spread online.

Now the good news: you can mitigate the risk and potential impact of such a campaign. Risk analysis and monitoring help to identify emerging campaigns at an early stage and to take timely action against them. A comprehensive strategy helps to act appropriately in an emergency, to initiate the right measures and to minimize consequential damage. And sensitized and trained employees reduce risks and independently contribute to greater crisis resilience.

Do you need support and advice on this topic? We'll help you.

Better be safe than sorry.

[1] https://time.com/5324130/most-influential-internet/

[2] https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/3/6/18253505/amazon-qanon-book-best-seller-algorithm-conspiracy