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. [Continue reading…]