“There needs to be a real change in how these platforms think about conspiracy theories and the real-world harm they cause,” said Cindy Otis, vice president of analysis for Alethea Group, an organization that investigates disinformation. “Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen QAnon move much faster than the social media platforms to gain a following and push their content out.”
Facebook became increasingly concerned by QAnon’s presence in May, said two employees with knowledge of the efforts, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
That was when a video known as “Plandemic,” featuring a discredited scientist spreading a baseless conspiracy theory about the coronavirus, gathered steam on the social network, fueled by QAnon groups. New members also started flocking to the QAnon groups on Facebook.
QAnon activity also spilled out into the real world. In New York, a woman who had cited QAnon theories as a reason she wanted to “take out” the Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden Jr., was arrested on May 1 with dozens of knives in her car. The group has been linked to more than a dozen violent incidents over the last year, including a train hijacking; last month, a QAnon supporter rammed a car into a government residence in Canada.
The spiking activity on its network, combined with real-world incidents, pushed Facebook to discuss policy changes to limit QAnon’s spread, the two employees said. But the conversations stalled because taking down QAnon-related groups, pages and accounts could feed into the movement’s conspiracy theory that social media companies are trying to silence them, the people said.
Marc-André Argentino, a Ph.D. candidate who is studying QAnon, said part of the problem was that QAnon had absorbed members of other conspiracy groups into its pantheon. Even if Facebook removed the groups, they would likely find a foothold within other Facebook networks.
“QAnon is a super conspiracy,” Mr. Argentino said. “Various other conspiracies have various places in the hierarchy under the QAnon narrative, so it draws in people in different ways and gives them one central home. There is no easy answer about what to do about QAnon.”