Foreign-based actors, principally in China and Russia, are spreading online disinformation rooted in QAnon conspiracy theories, fueling a movement that has become a mounting domestic terrorism threat, according to new analysis of online propaganda by a security firm.
The analysis by the Soufan Center, a New York-based research firm focused on national security threats, found that nearly one-fifth of 166,820 QAnon-related Facebook posts between January 2020 and the end of February 2021 originated from overseas administrators.
An advance copy of the report, which is being released today, was provided to Yahoo News.
“It’s very alarming,” said Jason Blazakis, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center and a former State Department counterterrorism official who is one of the authors of the report. “We have enough problems without the amplification of conspiracy theories by foreign actors, and that foreign impact really does stir up a hornet’s nest.”
The report injects a new element into the debate about how to counter QAnon — a bizarre but increasingly widespread conspiracy movement that has pushed the idea that the U.S. government is secretly run by Satan worshipers involved in a global sex trafficking ring.
Speaking to lawmakers last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray expressed concern that the extremist nature of the movement could lead to violence, citing as an example the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. He said the bureau is preparing a formal “threat assessment” of QAnon that he expects to share with Congress “very shortly.”
Despite the outlandish nature of QAnon claims, the report also suggests that adherents to the movement’s conspiracy theories may be far more prevalent than some previous studies have shown. A new poll of 9,308 U.S. adults, conducted for the Soufan Center by Limbik, a data analytics firm, found that between 20 and 23 percent of respondents self-identified as a QAnon believer, member or supporter — figures far higher than in some earlier surveys.
The numbers became even higher when those polled were asked about specific issues that QAnon has emphasized. For example, when asked whether they believe “elites, politicians and/or celebrities are involved in global pedophile rings,” 35.8 percent said they did, up from 26.7 percent from a similar sample last December.
Asked whether they believe COVID-19 was created in a lab, 30.6 percent said they did in February compared to 29.1 percent in December. The survey in February also found that 25 percent supported the actions of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.
These data points, the report concludes, suggest that there may be a “significant cognitive opening” among the U.S. population “that makes Americans more susceptible to further radicalization within the QAnon movement.”
If true, it is an opening that, according to the report, foreign actors are aggressively seeking to exploit. Limbik, which uses artificial intelligence and other techniques to sift through huge volumes of data, analyzed Facebook content that pushed QAnon-related content and concluded a significant portion was coming from overseas, apparently for the purpose of sowing societal discord or distrust about the American political process.
Zach Schwitzky, the founder of the firm, acknowledged in an interview that identifying foreign content was not “an exact science” since there is rarely publicly available account information about individuals or groups who post on Facebook. But by conducting linguistic analysis of the posts and logos or photos posted, the firm was able to unmask Russian, Chinese, Saudi and Iranian actors who were posting messages or stories that advanced QAnon beliefs about child sex trafficking rings, election fraud, vaccines and COVID-19 and related issues.
For much of last year, the report found, Russian actors dominated the foreign QAnon space on Facebook. But they have been overtaken in recent months by those based in China as the government there has ramped up its disinformation efforts in response to increased tensions with the United States, the report says. From Jan. 1 to Feb. 28, 2021, 58 percent of foreign-based QAnon posts came from administrators in China — more than double that from Russian administrators, the Limbik analysis found.
The Limbik analysis was unable to say whether the Russian or Chinese administrators posting the material on Facebook were acting as part of a government operation. But Blazakis, the former State Department official, said: “Do I think the Russian and Chinese governments have awareness of this? I think the answer is absolutely yes.” He noted in particular the “firewall” the Chinese government uses to block foreign content it disapproves of from penetrating the internet in that country, while tightly monitoring content within the country.
“In China, nothing is going to be done without the Chinese government being aware of it,” he said. “I think there is at a minimum tacit support for the amplification we’re seeing.”
A Facebook spokesperson said the company couldn’t comment on the report because it hadn’t yet had a chance to review it. But the spokesperson said it took “aggressive action” to stop the spread of dangerous content on its platform last year by expanding its “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” policy to include foreign conspiracy networks. This has resulted in the removal of about 3,300 pages, 10,500 groups and 27,300 Instagram accounts that were spreading QAnon content. “We remain vigilant to this evolving threat so we can stay ahead of it and keep people safe,” the spokesperson said.
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