In July, Twitter—after years of unheeded warnings—removed from its platform more than 7,000 accounts that were tweeting conspiracy theories from the QAnon universe, a move estimated to have affected more than 150,000 accounts related to those that were purged. National Public Radio called it “the most wide-reaching and aggressive response to the pro-Trump conspiracy theory that any social media platform has ever undertaken.”
And yet, QAnon’s presence remains robust, thanks in part to the work of Trump-enabling hard-right “Twitter verified” influencers who advance QAnon talking points, often minus overt QAnon branding.
To you, James Woods may just be that actor who’s played a bunch of creepy roles. But to people on the hard right, Woods is a digital warrior, and maybe even a friend of Q, the mysterious entity whose cryptic messages on far-right message-board channels form the core of the central QAnon conspiracy theory—the false claim that top Democrats and Hollywood figures are running a Satanic child-sex-trafficking ring, and that President Donald Trump is working behind the scenes to “save the children.” Woods has 2.6 million followers on Twitter, to whom he has tweeted messages remarkably similar to those of QAnon adherents. Consequently, his is the favorite among Twitter-verified accounts of those posting from QAnon-related accounts. The non-profit research group, Advance Democracy, Inc., found that more than 50,000 QAnon-related Twitter accounts either mentioned or retweeted Woods approximately 1.6 million times between Jan. 1 – Aug. 2020. The research organization says that, as of September, all of those 50,000 accounts remained active.
And Woods is not the only Twitter presence with more than a million followers who plays this game. ADI identified five key players in Twitter’s million+ club who are involved in the propulsion of false claims embraced by the QAnon community. Each account bears a blue checkmark badge next to the tweeter’s name—Twitter’s signal to its users that the account is somehow significant. Twitter executives define the blue checkmark in a more understated manner: “The blue verified badge on Twitter lets people know that an account of public interest is authentic.” Twitter users tend to view it a sign of prestige and credibility. After all, by Twitter’s own criteria, the blue-checkmark account is “of public interest.”
In addition to Woods’, the accounts of Donald Trump Jr., Turning Point USA Executive Director Charlie Kirk, radio personality Dan Bongino, Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton and BLEXIT Foundation principal officer Candace Owens are all Twitter-verified, have more than 1 million followers and advance QAnon messaging. With the exception of Trump Jr., each has been mentioned or referenced in a “Q drop,” one of the messages left by the enigmatic Q on the 8kun internet message board, a haven for those who wish to post anonymously. (Hence the “Anon” part of the movement’s name.)
Here are some of the public-interest bon mots offered by Woods:
Funny thing about that tweet: It’s a lot like a tweet linked to in a Q drop, and Woods’ tweet was made only an hour after the Q post appeared.
The Twitter link in that Q drop goes to this:
Then there’s Bill Mitchell, the Trump superfan with an online video show who got permanently booted from Twitter for creating a new Twitter identity in order to evade a previous Twitter suspension. He may not have had a million followers, but he had more than half that many, according to The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer, and he regularly regaled them with QAnon conspiracy theories—and, unlike others, freely bandied about the QAnon name. The QAnon community returned the favor, ADI found, yielding Mitchell thousands of retweets from QAnon-related accounts. One tweet featuring disinformation about the coronavirus—which Mitchell dismisses as a hoax—garnered more than 3,100 retweets from accounts in the QAnon community. Another favorite topic of Mitchell’s among QAnon adherents is the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, whom Mitchell tars with the usual tacit anti-Semitic smears one finds elsewhere on the right-wing internet. In a June 20 tweet no longer available on the internet, Mitchell wrote:
Arrest Soros, seize his records and freeze
his assets and 99% of this chaos you see on
our streets ends tomorrow.
Retweet if you agree.
That one got 1563 retweets from QAnon-related accounts. Until Twitter threw him out, Mitchell was a blue-checkmark tweeter. In July 2019, he was invited to Trump’s White House “social media summit,” which The New York Times’ Kevin Roose described as a gathering of “right-wing trolls.”
QAnon claims are so easily dismissed as too crazy to be believed that the danger posed by the movement, designated by the FBI as a potential domestic terrorism threat, is often overlooked. To understand the threat, one needs to focus on the second part of the narrative—the part that promises that all of these Democratic and Jewish leaders smeared by Q and Q’s followers will meet with bloody vengeance on the day that the hero Trump rounds them all up in mass arrests and executes them. Consider the impulses of some of the most unhinged of the conspiracy-minded. Remember Pizzagate? That was the internet conspiracy theory that posited a child-sex-trafficking ring involving top Democratic leaders that was ostensibly run out of the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. A man drove up to the nation’s capital from North Carolina to rescue the non-existent victims, having armed himself with an AR-15 assault rifle and a pistol. He shot a round into an interior door as the families who had been eating inside fled for the exits.
And those are just QAnon’s central claims. The QAnon network is a transmitter of all manner of conspiracy theories, many of them part of right-wing lore for years or even decades: The purported war of the “deep state” against Donald Trump, the anti-Semitic trope of Soros as a puppet-master, and of “spygate,” a fantasy about a “deep state” that had it in for Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign, the evidence for which is the fact that the FBI was keeping tabs on conversations between agents of the Russian state and Americans; some of those Americans, it turned out, were working with Trump campaign. Another common theme is that America is headed for civil war because of the savagery of the left.
Woods also advanced a phantasmagoric QAnon claim that the liberal Twitter influencer Chrissy Tiegen is linked to Jeffrey Epstein, and is a pedophile. The online assaults consequently endured by Tiegen made her “worried for my family,” she wrote on Twitter, so she deleted 60,000 of her own tweets, she said, and blocked some 1 million accounts from engaging with hers. (The QAnon spreaders had gone into her Twitter archives and pulled out tweets in which Tiegen stated her disgust with such exploitive television programs as TLC’s “Toddlers and Tiaras” in a sarcastic manner, promoting them as to be taken literally.)