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Twitter cracks down on QAnon threats

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump fly a U.S. flag with a symbol from the group QAnon as they gather outside the U.S. Capitol January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump fly a U.S. flag with a symbol from the group QAnon as they gather outside the U.S. Capitol January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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Twitter announced Monday that it was shutting down 70,000 accounts associated with the conspiracy movement QAnon whose adherents were identified as participating in and helping orchestrate the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

It was one of the largest purges of a single group by Twitter since the company removed close to a quarter-million ISIS accounts in 2016. In a statement, Twitter said the enforcement action was meant to target online behavior "that has the potential to lead to offline harm." The announcement came as the FBI warned of armed protests being planned in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. leading up to the Jan. 20 inauguration and beyond.

According to counterextremism experts, limiting QAnon's access to traditional social media platforms will help stop the spread of the ideology to a wider audience, but it will not stop the group from continuing to organize and finding new ways to recruit.

"I get a sense that this is going to cripple the movement's ability to accrue new followers who are only following things on major social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook," said Jason Blazakis, director of the Middlebury Institute Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism.

That may have only a short-lived impact on the group, Blazakis continued. "I think they'll find another home somewhere else."

Twitter's purge started Friday and coincided with Twitter's decision to suspend President Donald Trump's account permanently. The action targeted accounts dedicated to spreading QAnon-related material "at scale" across the service. In some cases, a single individual was responsible for multiple accounts.

This resulted in some Twitter users losing thousands of followers overnight. The Verge reported that prominent Republicans including Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas lost tens of thousands of supporters. So did Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the QAnon supporter elected in Georgia.

Twitter previously identified QAnon as having the potential to lead to real-world harm back in the summer, prompting them to remove 7,000 accounts and implementing protections to prevent QAnon-related content from appearing in the trending section.

Other leading technology companies followed Twitter's lead in cracking down on online extremism. Parler, an alternative social media network that prides itself in free speech with minimal content moderation, was taken offline amid concerns that it was unwilling or technically unable to identify and remove incendiary content. Apple and Google announced they would no longer offer Parler on their app stores and Amazon Web Services stopped hosting the site, which boasts 8 million users.

Parler CEO John Matze told Fox News that he is struggling to find a vendor to host the controversial service. "Right at the last minute, they just bail," Matze said.

Along with other alternative sites like Gab, Parler was being used to plan future demonstrations, including a "Million Militia March" on Washington to coincide with Joe Biden's Jan. 20 inauguration. The New York Times reported users on those sites were discussing ridesharing options and packing lists that included baseball bats and assault rifles.

"We took the building once," one commenter wrote, "we can take it again."

It's a concerning sentiment, said Blazakis. "I think the events of Jan. 6 will be perceived by these groups as a success and something they can build on," he noted. "I think that will embolden them and that is really dangerous."

State and federal authorities are taking precautions ahead of the inauguration. The National Guard plans to deploy 15,000 soldiers in and around Washington, D.C. State police across the country are preparing to bolster their presence at statehouses.

With the near-term threats around the inauguration, the social media blackout could "take some steam" out of the movement, said David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University. Removing popular accounts and shutting down an entire platform will constrain their ability to organize and spread their message.

In the longer term, the threat of QAnon and similar groups is evolving from individual incidents of homegrown extremism to a mass movement, Schanzer explained.

"This is not just an ideology that may inspire certain individuals to take violent action," he said, citing the ideologically-motivated mass shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 or the El Paso shooting in 2019. "I think what 1/6 showed, is this has really transformed into a large-scale movement that needs to be addressed more comprehensively."

Federal authorities started narrowing in on this threat in 2019. The FBI issued a bulletin published by Yahoo News warning of the growing national security threat posed by QAnon and other "conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists." Fueled by an online information environment and partisan political developments, like elections, the FBI cautioned that the group could inspire more individuals to carry out violent acts.

The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point made a similar assessment, describing the group as a "novel public security threat" with the potential to become "a more impactful domestic terror threat."

The group, whose adherents frequented Trump's political rallies, also appears to have been aided by the president during his term in office. Trump rejected several opportunities to denounce the group or distance himself from it and at times shared QAnon content on social media. Eric Trump, as well as Trump's former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn have also courted the conspiracy movement.

Schanzer explained that terrorist movements are based on a set of grievances, and in the Trump era, the president has amplified many of the grievances voiced by QAnon and other extremists.

"You don't have to say, 'Go out and shoot people for me,' but what you do say is, 'Your way of life is at stake. The things you love and care about will be taken away, your country will be gone,'" he explained.

People become convinced that they lost something—the election, power, their identity—and it was stolen unjustifiably. "Those are the kinds of things that can motivate people to cross the threshold from just being angry to being willing to take action and engage in violence," Schanzer said. "That's the danger of the moment we're in."

Several violent criminal incidents have been tied to QAnon adherents, including the "Pizzagate" shooter in 2016, the man in an armored vehicle who barricaded himself on the Hoover Dam bridge in 2017 and the man who murdered alleged Gambino family mob boss Frank Cali in 2019.

QAnon supporters were also among the dozens of rioters arrested in the U.S. Capitol last week. The woman who was fatally shot by police trying to force her way into the House chamber was also a QAnon conspiracist.

The conspiracy group is organized around the belief that a shadowy cabal of Democratic politicians, celebrities, "deep state" operatives and "global elites" are running a pedophiliac sex-trafficking ring and that Trump is leading the charge to stop them. Some adherents believe Q is a high-level government official, others believe Trump is Q.

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The impact of "storming the Capitol" had particular resonance with the group that has asserted for years that there would be a coming "Storm" of retribution against Trump's enemies, marked by mass arrests of public officials involved in the cabal and even a military coup. The beliefs are fabricated.

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