QAnon entered my life uneventfully as if it were there already.
Like many during this pandemic, my days are spent mindlessly scrolling on social media in between completing tasks for work or attending college classes via Zoom. Instagram and Twitter are my vices of choice. My friends’ Instagram Stories are typically peppered with purchases from small businesses and slideshows about racial justice in sans serif font. One of the Stories I see regularly is from an old high school classmate (we’ll call her Kate).
Kate is a devout Christian with conservative-lite politics (she stands against systemic racism, but not with the Black Lives Matter movement) and did her undergrad in nutritional science. Most of her Stories feature aesthetically pleasing vegetarian dinners and the occasional human-trafficking-awareness graphic. Nothing out of the ordinary—as far as I was concerned, College Grad Kate is just a more put-together version of the Kate I sat next to in AP Psychology in a simpler time.
Until a couple of months ago.
I was waiting for my morning coffee to finish brewing so I could serve some to myself and my working-from-home boyfriend. I tapped on Kate’s Story and a picture of a cashier behind plexiglass with the words “If you think this works, you’re an idiot” in bottom-text-meme-font popped up. I paused for a second. It’s true enough that people are skeptical (or at least confused) on the effectiveness of plexiglass against the spread of coronavirus. During this pandemic, we have seen companies from retail chains to the NFL perform displays of sanitization that have more in common with a Broadway production than actual public health-backed science, for the sake of making consumers feel safe. But the picture’s caption and mocking tone made me wonder where she was getting this from. She’d reposted it from an account called “redpillbabe.”
Redpillbabe, as the name suggests, is a right-wing meme page. Among pro-QAnon Instagram accounts (Insta-Q? Q-stagram?), it has one of the largest followings, and despite Instagram’s (and their owner, Facebook’s) purging and suspension of pro-QAnon accounts for containing disinformation, redpillbabe remained. When I first opened the account, the bio read “Latina. Conservative. Pro-Q” with emojis of the American and Cuban flags, respectively. Post-Instagram purge, as of early August, it reads, “[American flag emoji] Latina for Trump [Cuban flag emoji]. Patriot and thought provoker. This is a personal opinion page. God. America and My truth.” Below is a link to a website called traffickinghubpetition.com.
Perhaps it’s a good time to pause here and explain what QAnon is for anyone not caught up with all things 2020. QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory arguing that celebrities and Democratic politicians are part of a larger ‘Deep State’ who engage in a pedophile ring and that President Trump is the hero who will get rid of them and save the children who were victims of the aforementioned pedophile ring.
Q is an anonymous figure who claims to have insider knowledge of what is going on in the White House and of Trump’s plans against the Deep State (although some people claim he’s actually Jim Watkins, one of the founders of 8chan, who currently lives in the Philippines). QAnon followers tend to have some overlap with other conspiracy theories, and usually, a Q follower tends to believe in at least one other conspiracy theory. Some believe that the Deep State is controlled by George Soros or Bill Gates; others engage in anti-vaxx activism. Because they believe in a celebrity-and-Democrat-operated pedophile ring, Q followers are also concerned about the (real) issue of sex trafficking. As a result, online activism against trafficking is being taken over by Q followers, including the hashtag #SaveTheChildren, which was coined by a humanitarian group that has now abandoned the phrase.
It’s important to note here that Q’s messaging often appeals to conservative Christians by referencing scripture alongside a political agenda. Many churches (particularly evangelical ones) partake in anti-human trafficking activism and provide food and housing for victims through nonprofit organizations and donations, so it’s not uncommon for many Christians (like Kate) to be genuinely concerned about this issue and be familiar with humanitarian efforts related to it.
Maybe the owner of the account managed to evade the purge by taking any mention of QAnon out of her bio. Maybe Instagram missed her account out of pure coincidence. Either way, it’s not a matter of whether redpillbabe had a change of heart and is no longer part of the conspiracy theory — under her Featured Stories is one Story labeled “Q.”
This phenomenon — accounts avoiding the purge and suspension by altering a few things that would attract a social media site’s algorithm towards it and flag it — isn’t just redpillbabe alone. Like throwing a dog off the scent of a wanted man, pro-QAnon accounts are becoming savvier on how to avoid what social media platforms call ‘preventing the spread of disinformation’ and what they call censorship.
Take for example Instagram user wwgowga_q_backup. The initials WWGOWGA stands for “Where We Go One, We Go All,” a phrase used to bring together Q followers in solidarity. While less subtle than redpillbabe in that the word “QAnon” is featured in their bio, their username implies the owner operates multiple pages—and backups of those pages—lest one or more of them fall to a purge. Redpillbabe’s method is a bit savvier — posture as a regular conservative meme page until you see the nod towards Q in her Stories. Wwgowga_q and its adjacent accounts are bolder, but since there are so many of them, the next purge might miss a few spots.
On Oct. 6, Facebook announced once again that it would shut down pro-Q accounts on all of its platforms. “Starting today, we will remove Facebook Pages, Groups, and Instagram accounts,” the company said. I made my way to Instagram to see if the accounts I’d been tracking were still there. In short, most did not make it, except for one.
Redpillbabe went private and removed her Featured Stories. Wwgowga_q and its affiliates were deleted, to no surprise; the accounts, from the profile picture to all its posts, were blatantly pro-Q. Redpillbabe managed to stay on by modifying itself again and removing any mention of QAnon at all. Despite multiple rounds of Facebook’s account removals, redpillbabe still remains, like a Darwinian spectacle. As pro-Q accounts conceal their stances or state them subtly, Facebook will be compelled to respond and adapt accordingly.
I reached out to a Facebook media representative to ask about the deletions and why some of these accounts still remain, despite multiple attempts by the company to get rid of them. As of Oct. 17, I have not received a response.
It’s hard to tell why I fell into the rabbit hole of finding out where Kate’s Instagram Story came from. I hadn’t finished making coffee yet, so I can’t blame being wired from a cup of Counter Culture on my delve into the world of conspiracy theories made Instagrammable. It could have been the shock of seeing a meme calling anyone supporting an (albeit contested) form of virus protection an “idiot,” since I remember Kate as a kind person. This was the girl who always shared her AP Psych notes to any kid who missed class; who helped lead worship at our school’s weekly chapel and was on homecoming court. Maybe her heart for human trafficking victims, something she has always had, is what led her to pro-Q messaging and, eventually, the plexiglass meme.
Regardless, Kate’s (and my) foray into conspiracy shows one thing: the path to radicalization could be one tap away.