(Image: Sipa USA/Graeme Sloan)

Australians have been perplexed by the dark arts of media manipulation as outlined in the recently leaked activist manual of the far-right extremist group the National Socialist Network (NSN). But the NSN are boy scouts when compared with the breadth and scale of the digital illusionists from Russia and China that continue to amplify QAnon conspiracy theories.

A new report from US-based consultancy The Soufan Center points to Russia and China as being heavily involved in leveraging the QAnon conspiracies to promote division in the United States, with cameo appearances from players in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

QAnon is a shorthand reference to a mixed bag of conspiracies that include — but are not limited to — belief in voter fraud and a rigged US election, disbelief in the existence of the coronavirus, and child sex trafficking among elites.

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There are also QAnon adherents that borrowed a conspiracy theory from the sovereign citizen movement, which had as its centrepiece a return to power by Donald Trump on March 4 this year based on claims that there were laws passed that turned the US government into a corporation in 1871.

These sovereign citizen types believe that anybody who became president of the US after 1871 was illegitimate.

Ill-intentioned interlopers

According to The Soufan Center, these conspiracies been given further oxygen by the activities of ill-intentioned, state-based interlopers. A review of 166,820 Facebook posts published between January 1, 2020 and December 31, 2020 reveals that almost a fifth of posts indicate dabbling by foreign actors.

Posts originating from Russia made up 44% of foreign-actor-generated posts analysed, while 42% were linked to China. Iran was identified as a source for 13% of QAnon-related posts and Saudi Arabia’s contribution was 1%.

“Throughout 2020, the consistent foreign amplification of QAnon narratives online illustrates that externally driven disinformation efforts have contributed to the efficient spread of conspiracy theories,” the report states.

“Indeed, the level of foreign influence during January and February 2021 continues this trend — at an average of almost 20% of all posts analysed.”

China has overtaken Russia as a key source of disinformation campaigns during the first two months of this year, with 58% of posts analysed coming from China.

“China’s goal, most likely, is to sow further discord and division among the American population,” the report states.

Saudi Arabia and Iran accounted for a combined 20% of QAnon-related posts reviewed during January and February — an increase on the 14% observed during the preceding 12-month period.

What’s in it for China?

Why is China supercharging its efforts in disinformation campaigning? The Soufan research team offers three reasons for the increased use of this tactic.

Beijing’s disinformation campaigns increased during 2020 in part because of the tussle between the US and China over the origins of COVID-19 and related matters.

China has also taken a leaf out of Russia’s book and opted to use disinformation campaigns to further polarise the American community.

“China’s apparent prominence in the QAnon space could also indicate that social media platforms are not equally well-versed in identifying disinformation campaigns of Chinese origin, compared to those from Russia,” the report observes. “And because China controls its information environment, Beijing does not consider itself vulnerable to a tit-for-tat escalation in this area with the US and other Western democracies.”

The Soufan Center also outlines the danger that QAnon adherents continue to pose in the US. It points to the fact that the movement, which uses methods of radicalisation that are similar to those of Islamic State and al-Qaeda, has the potential to become more violent.

Far-right extremist groups see QAnon supporters as ripe for the picking, given that elements of the QAnon canon (which has spread even more rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic) align with anti-Semitism.

Report recommendations

The report’s authors recommend several ways in which governments, social media companies and the broader community can act to minimise the impact of the widespread disinformation.

Conspiracy theories thrive during times of crisis and controlling the pandemic better will, the report observes, remove a key trigger for the spread of QAnon propaganda.

There has been movement on the part of social media companies to de-platform certain groups and individuals, but The Soufan Center suggests that social media companies should review their de-platforming policies and their algorithms given the way QAnon material is being both published and distributed.

Development of digital and media literacy programs is another way in which the report suggests that the influence of the QAnon trope peddlers can be dampened. It also proposes that the Biden administration should, in concert with community groups and Congress, consider whether an interagency body set up to fight disinformation online is necessary.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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