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22nd July 2020 Lydia Khalil
In Insights

QAnon conspiracies are a common thread between far-right extremists and online lifestyle and wellness influencers. Shared QAnon memes and hashtags between lifestyle and wellness influencers can be a bridge from conspiracies and extremist groups.

Numerous recent studies and news reports have shown that extremist groups are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic, whether to justify a wide variety of their narratives, recruit followers or incite violence. Extremist narratives have always contained strong conspiratorial elements and this time is no different. COVID related conspiracies are deftly interwoven through extremist narratives and mobilisation efforts.

But in a new twist, three formerly distinct online ecosystems – lifestyle/wellness, violent extremism and conspiracy promoting groups – have become intertwined through shared #QAnon related hashtags and conspiracy narratives on vaccines, 5G and the evils of the ‘Deep State’ during this pandemic.

Online lifestyle and wellness influencers, social media users who by virtue of their taste, niche expertise or marketing savvy, have developed a large online audience and have become the go-to place for people seeking inspiration and ideas. Through relatability, authenticity and savvy social media marketing skills, wellness influencers develop online audiences of thousands- sometimes millions- who seek to emulate their lifestyle.  In the process, they have dominated and transformed the marketing industry and powered the targeted advertising business model of internet companies by driving eyes and engagement to online platforms.

During the pandemic, some online lifestyle and wellness influencers and even former reality-tv participants, have increased their online followings by becoming entrepreneurs of conspiracy theories, using them to boost their profiles and to promote and validate their theories of wellness. One of the more dangerous conspiracies that these lifestyle/wellness influencers are promoting are QAnon conspiracies.

The QAnon movement has its origins in the Pizzagate conspiracy of 2016. In its current form, it believes that there is a high-level US government insider with a ‘Q level clearance’ who is communicating cryptically with his followers online. QAnon also believes there is a ‘deep state’ within the US government that is controlled by a cabal of Democratic and liberal Hollywood celebrities who are also Satan worshiping paedophiles.  Through Q, President Trump was manifested to expose and shut down these ritualistic paedophile rings. During the COVID pandemic, QAnon conspiracy groups and posts have also promoted the idea that the pandemic was alternately, another deep state plot, a hoax, and a Chinese bio weapon among other health disinformation.

However, QAnon is not only a conspiracy movement.  It has also been deemed a domestic terror threat by the FBI. An FBI memo written in May 2019 and later leaked, assessed that QAnon believers were “conspiracy driven domestic extremists” and that QAnon and other crowd sourced conspiracies would “very likely motivate some domestic extremists to commit criminal and sometimes violent activity.”  The memo cites two violent incidents linked to QAnon but there have been at least three other violent incidents since its publication. A separate GNET insight by Julien Bellaiche on QAnon also examined its links to violence and illustrated its spread beyond the United States.

An article by Insider magazine highlighted a number of lifestyle influencers who were posting QAnon conspiracies related to the pandemic and beyond. Outlets like Buzzfeed, Mother Jones and Huffington Post lifestyle sections have also revealed a string of other lifestyle, design and wellness influencers who have become vectors of COVID and QAnon conspiracies. These online lifestyle influencers identified have hundreds of thousands of followers. Some have latched onto the “plandemic” conspiracy and QAnon memes and theories, claiming the coronavirus is fake, or that the deep state is responsible for spreading the virus and that pandemic lockdown measures are a measure of psychological oppression and encouraged followers to attend anti-lockdown protests which have included a number of far-right extremists in their midst.

While some influencers have not explicitly shared QAnon hashtags or memes, they have nevertheless promoted QAnon conspiracies–that society elites were participating in paedophile rings or QAnon promoted pandemic related conspiracies – in their posts. Ironically, the memes about the virus being spread by Chinese people eating bat soup created and circulated by conspiracy theorists and extremists alike were themselves from a post appropriated from a Chinese online influencer and celebrity vlogger, who said that a video of her eating a local delicacy of bat soup in Palau for her vlog was “hijacked by accounts fanning out malicious panic.”

The intersection between wellness and violent conspiracies seems unexpected.  But it’s important to note that the wellness movement has its origins in anti-establishment and anti-mainstream medical circles. Scholars like Charlotte Ward and David Vaos have examined the confluence of new age wellness and conspiracy which they termed “Conspirituality” which is the intersection between new age wellness, belief in New World Order big pharma and “bio and geo-conspiracies” and a shared emphasis on “awakening” and revealing truths between new age wellness and conspiracy theorists. Until recently, the convergence of wellness and conspiracy in their push for awakening and societal change emphasised the non-violent and the peaceful. However, the emergence of the QAnon movement has pushed things in a more troubling direction as the online wellness and lifestyle influencer space has an emerging impact on extremism.

These online lifestyle and wellness influencers are spreading disinformation and prohibited content (as identified by online platforms in their terms of service) and are undermining deplatforming efforts of internet companies as they seek to address the spread of disinformation and dangerous content on their platforms.

Online influencers who peddle conspiracy theories can potentially drive online traffic through shared QAnon related hashtags to online extremist groups who have not yet been deplatformed or who have regrouped on mainstream platforms, or direct users to further darker corners of the Internet.

The lifestyle influencers of today can serve as a gateway into extremist groups because of the cross-promotion of QAnon.

And the online links between far-right, QAnon conspiracy groups and some online wellness and lifestyle influencers is growing during the pandemic, the ensuing lockdown and response to restrictions. Social media lifestyle influencers tend to present beliefs in conspiracy theories as a consciousness-raising exercise. But they also do so using the memes and iconography also appropriated by right-wing extremists – like red pill blue pill, falling down the rabbit hole or where we go one we go all. So the leap from following an influencer to encountering and understanding an online extremist group becomes a skip, since conspiracy posts and memes are cross-posted by influencers and extremists alike.

Far-right extremist groups are posting in online groups and forums devoted to conspiracy theories.  Online far-right extremist groups and forums have some of the same followers of the online conspiracy groups and forums and they drive online traffic to each other.  Influencers have now also entered into the mix and serve as a vector to both conspiracy and extremist online forums. In other words- online influencers who are posting about QAnon conspiracies can expose people who otherwise would not be in contact with dangerous extremist actors and groups.

By promoting conspiracies or ‘alternative’ information in the name of wellness and alternative lifestyles, they can serve as an unwitting link between conspiracy theorist narratives and extremist groups in the complex ecosystem of cyber-enabled communication. These can very well be parallel tracks of conspiracy flows online but there is emerging evidence to suggest that online influencers’ posts are being cross-posted and referenced on extremist groups and pages and forums online which can give greater credence to the narratives of extremist groups – particularly as they are coming from a more ‘mainstream’ source.

Other internet platforms like Reddit have banned QAnon subreddits for inciting violence. Facebook has banned a number of QAnon pages for inauthentic behaviour and Apple has removed a QAnon app from its store. But QAnon posts still flourish online. And now online influencers remain a stealth vehicle for the spread and promotion of QAnon and other conspiracies that have been linked to violence.

But because of the overlap of conspiracy and extremist far-right hashtags like #QAnon, #TheGreatAwakening, #Plandemic, #GermJihad #MAGA, #whitegenocide #WWG1WGA or #coronavirushoax, wellness and lifestyle influencers who have also used these hashtags for their QAnon related posts can lead their followers to extremist groups, introducing a cohort to extremist content beyond the typical audience or members of conspiracy-focused groups, posts and pages.

Influencers are particularly challenging because, as numerous surveys have found, influencer marketing has exploded.  More and more people are turning to influencers and online personalities for inspiration, recommendations and purchasing advice. The same skills that these influencers use for consumer brand marketing, are also being used for promoting violent conspiracies.

Influencers have honed a skillset that makes their posts more engaging and marketable to a wider audience. Online influencers and marketers are inherently more adept at presenting these conspiracies in an engaging and appealing and relatable manner, as posts promoting QAnon are interspersed with picturesque photos of fashion, workouts and recipes.  Online influencers have helped turn an outlandish conspiracy theory into an “acceptable option in the market place of ideas.”

Like many others, some online influencers have seen their income and livelihood impacted by lockdown measures and search for conspiratorial explanations.  At the same time, the pandemic and promoting associated conspiracies also provides opportunity for audience expansion. Unlike the rest of us, they have a vehicle to vent shared frustrations and theories to a wider public audience online.

This has a number of implications for online platforms’ attempts to weed out dangerous content and label misleading posts. Because lifestyle and wellness influencers generate substantial revenue, have helped build social media businesses and have not generally intersected with extremist movements before, there is a concern that influencers will escape extremist content reporting procedures. Furthermore, influencer posts are more likely to reach a wider audience than extremist group posts as they are less scrutinised by social media mechanisms monitoring extremist content.

Countering violent extremist practitioners, grasping their ability to sway and appeal, have highlighted how online influencers can be harnessed to counter extremist messaging and influence. Yet the same principle that allows influencers to ‘market’ CVE messages can also see those influencers ‘market’ conspiratorial messages that then can be co-opted and cross-posted by extremist groups.

The influencer space is an emerging trouble spot of the COVID-19 pandemic and QAnon’s impact on online extremism. How wellness and lifestyle influencers fit into the online extremist ecosystem is an under examined element in extremism studies. It is an area ripe for further investigation and research.