A Cross-Platform Analysis of the QAnon Conspiracy Theory
The results from this project are also uploaded on this webpage.
Sal Hagen, Daniel de Zeeuw, Stijn Peeters, Emilija Jokubauskaite, Ángeles Briones, Rachel Blennerhassett, Carmen Ferri, Flora Woudstra Hablé, Esther Blokbergen, Birgitte Haanshuus, Marlou Poncin, Willem Hilhorst, Ryan Tsapatsaris
Visualizations by Ángeles Briones
Summary of Key Findings
Normiefication is a vernacular concept that describes a process of normalization where “underground” content from fringe subcultural online communities travels to and is popularized on mainstream social media platforms and news media. The concept borrows from subcultural actor language where “the mainstream” is said to be populated by “normies”: regular people that are not familiar with the Internet’s latest subcultural trends. Our research explores the various pathways of normiefication in an empirical manner, inquiring whether such a process can indeed be said to exist, and how exactly it works in a particular case. To this end, it takes the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory as a case study. Does this case warrant the concept of normiefication?
To a large extent, our findings can be said to confirm the “normiefication thesis”. We found that the QAnon conspiracy first appears on the imageboard 4chan (28 October 2017) before migrating to Reddit and 8chan (November 2017), more “mainstream” platforms (YouTube and Facebook), and eventually news media (New York Times, Washington Post, CNN). The results imply that platforms like YouTube and Reddit could operate as “bridges,” forming intermediaries that connect the “deep vernacular” with the “surface” web. Further, the findings suggest a slight “Streisand effect” after mainstream media covered the conspiracy, since it aligns with increased mentions of QAnon on other platforms, thus providing “oxygen” to once-fringe ideas (Phillips 2018). This reverberation occurred on more mainstream platforms like YouTube and Reddit, but also on QAnon’s birthplace, 4chan. As an exception to this finding, QAnon-related activity on 8chan seemed less affected by mainstream media coverage, implying a core group of somewhat isolated yet strongly committed Q-theorists.
The QAnon conspiracy was born on 28 October 2017 with a 4chan post alleging that a “deep state” is working against Trump and his supporters (Bank, Stack & Victor, 2018). The name of this conspiracy derives from author of the original post, who claimed to be a White House insider with “Q level security clearance”. The actual contents of the deranged conspiracy are not of interest here. Rather, of interest is how it spread across the Internet. While from the outsider’s perspective, it initially seemed like the far-right conspiracy theory lived and died on 4chan, on 31 July 2018, “offline” QAnon supporters suddenly appeared at a Trump rally in Tampa, Florida. Subsequently, news outlets like CNN started reporting on the once-fringe idea. How did such an unexpected diffusion transpire?
Figure 1: The first ‘Q’ post on 4chan/pol/, retrieved from archive.4plebs.org.
This diffusion of subcultural ideas can perhaps be captured with the notion of normiefication. Normiefication has its roots in the actor-language “normie”, a word often used on the imageboards 4chan and 8chan to describe people who are not part of their online subculture and remain within the realms and discourses of the “mainstream” (Nagle, 2017). In light of the growing influence of these sites on various world-historical events like Trump’s election as US president, the purpose of this project is to test and better understand this process as one of normiefication, where content travels across different platforms. This is especially interesting when deeply vernacular concepts and conspiracy theories, which have extremely convoluted explanations and origins, start to appear among people attending Trump rallies.
Figure 2: Initial representation of the different layers from the deep vernacular to the mainstream surface web (De Zeeuw, 2019).
The notion of normiefication reflects an heuristic that conceptualises the lower layers of a “deep vernacular Web” that boil up to and eventually popularise on the mainstream “surface Web” (De Zeeuw and Tuters, 2019 [forthcoming]). We also suggested that some platforms (e.g. Reddit and YouTube
) act as intermediaries between the deep and surface layers, exercising a “bridge” function. Since this cultural divide between Internet layers exists in the domain of the imaginary (in the sense that it is not at all technically or institutionally specified, but reflects the way users imagine the space they inhabit), the process of normiefication could perhaps be empirically grounded using digital methods.
The curious fringe-to-mainstream path that the QAnon conspiracy took forms an interesting case study into how a niche concept can move through the different strata of the Web and ends up being reported on by the mainstream media. Tracing such diffusion might shine light on how fringe areas of the Web might form hotbeds for the spread of outlandish ideas and their subsequent normalization. It also shines light on the role of the “mainstream”, which might willingly or unwillingly provide oxygen to fringe ideas. Uncritical reporting on antagonistic web communities, “trolls”, or the so-called “alt-right” has been criticised by Whitney Phillips for unintentionally amplifying the often harmful messages of fringe actors (2018). This has led her and others to call for a more informed mapping of the various collective configurations that exist within these online spaces:
Taking the time to map — to accurately map — the repeated, fractured, reconfiguring mobilizations emerging from anonymous and pseudo-anonymous spaces online allows us to understand where we are and how we got here. [...] fully contextualizing our present moment—particularly given how tenuous facts in our present moment have become—puts us in a better position to safeguard the actual record, and to carefully parse symptom from disease. (Phillips, Coleman & Beyer, 2017)
Instead of focusing on anonymous and pseudonymous spaces (like 4chan and 8chan) as isolated spaces, here we aim to assess the “actual record” of their alleged influence (or a lack thereof) through a comparative cross-platform approach. To do so, we compare QAnon-related data from 4chan, 8chan, Reddit, Youtube, Facebook, and online news media.