Political Marketing aims to be relevant and may sometimes be more successful at this than some academic disciplines. If we want to be relevant it seems like there is a great opportunity to study QAnon and Political Marketing.
QAnon And Academic Study
If anyone does not know QAnon is a conspiracy theory popular amongst some supporters of Donald Trump. It emerged from the posts of an anonymous source, Q, claiming to have high level security clearance. This clearance involved knowledge of work by Donald Trump to counter the plans of an evil cabal.
To an outsider the claims seem outlandish and even dangerous. Those who believe all that is associated with Q will see the Democracts not as wrong but as fundamentally evil. So this leads to some obvious questions:
- What exactly do QAnon followers believe?
- Why do people believe it?
- Why has the ideas of QAnon spread so successfully?
QAnon On Voat
Antonis Papasavva and colleagues take, what they call, a first step towards understanding the QAnon movement. They analyzed threads on a fringe platform called Voat. This claimed, it shut down on Christmas Day 2020, to provide a space where writers could post freely without censorship. (This included judgment of whether a post was truthful or offensive). Voat is a site similar to Reddit and it gained a boost when Reddit banned some of the most egregious subreddits in September 2018.
The academics looked at the Great Awakening subverse (think subreddit) on Voat. They first analyzed the level of activity and engagement with the posts. There clearly is substantial activity although this always remained modest compared to the larger social media sites.
Analyzing The Text
To understand the content they use a variant on Latent Dirichlet Allocation, see here and here for more about this topic modeling technique. LDA classifies content by topic/theme. The authors then compare the themes to those on other Voat subverses. Interestingly, the main QAnon subverse is a bit less offensive than other Voat subverses. (This is not much to boost about given the language on all the subverses). The QAnon subverse is more overtly political in the sense that it focuses on things such as Donald Trump and his actions. Indeed, Donald Trump, the hero for the QAnon conspiracy, is the most named entity. The QAnon subverse compares to more general discussions on other subverses including hatred towards specific groups, e.g., anti-semitism.
But Do The Followers Believe It
One of the interesting things I always wonder about is whether people really believe this stuff. You often see supporters mention a sympathy with the goals but not necessarily that they buying into everything. I have seen people contrast their moderate beliefs in a bit of conspiracy with others who accept everything. Some of this may be self-presentation but some may well be scepticism from people who are already on a conspiracy theory site. So how do people decide which bits to buy into and which bits to reject?
We can’t get that deep from what is posted but we can see some initial evidence of scepticism. The authors do an analysis of words associated with Q, the shadowy figure supplying clues to help unravel the conspiracy. See attached figure.
Apparently the term ‘LARP’ is associated with Q. To see this in the figure look immediately below Q. This stands for live action role playing.
“[LARP is] …sometimes used in a derogatory fashion to imply that Q is just a troll playing a game. This indicates that even on a community devoted to the QAnon conspiracy, there is at least some degree of push back or dissent within the user base”.Papasavva et al. 2020, page 9
There is clearly some scepticism in the community. But how much? QAnon is a descendant of Pizzagate – a belief that Hillary Clinton ran a paedophile ring from a DC pizzahouse. This eventually led to an armed man storming the restaurant. Thankfully no-one was hurt and the armed gunman was given help but the danger that people will literally believe what is alledged is obvious.
Implications: QAnon and Political Marketing
The QAnon conspiracy is a major issue in the United States. It clearly has great potential to motivate voters, as well as to stir hostility and create division. Those who believe Q will have a hard time compromising with Democrats. They will see Democrat leaders not just as wrong but as shockingly evil. In return it is hard to see how the Democrats can productively work with people who believe such baseless allegations against them. A better understanding of how such social media activity motivates political action, at the link between QAnon and political marketing, would be very welcome.
Read: Papasavva, Antonis, Jeremy Blackburn, Gianluca Stringhini, Savvas Zannettou, and Emiliano De Cristofaro. “”Is it a Qoincidence?“: A First Step Towards Understanding and Characterizing the QAnon Movement on Voat. co.” arXiv preprint arXiv:2009.04885 (2020).