The development of the right-wing conspiracy ecosystem known as QAnon in and around the US elections has been witnessed with equitable interest and alarm world over, as candidates from the Republican party openly highlighted their endorsement for the “movement”. According to some reports, at least 25 candidates with links to QAnon will be part of the US elections on 3 November.
While social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have been steadfast with respect to their policies aiming to tackle QAnon promoted online conspiracies, fake news and disinformation, the fact remains that technology itself always outpaces policy. The pace of QAnon’s movement from online to offline has been alarming, with its support base piggybacking on the COVID-19 pandemic and governmental response to the same, specifically in the Western world.
The year 2013 was a considerably less problematic time for social media and extremism, with those propagating violent extremism, whether ideologically or militarily, having relatively free access to the same platforms and the normal public used to share what they had for breakfast, or wish a happy birthday to family across the ocean. The ‘weaponisation’ of social media happened at a quick pace, catching both platform developers and law enforcement off-guard in unison. The ‘social’ part of social media has been perhaps the problematic juncture, with the terminology being destined to mean that the platforms are only for the good, tools to bring together societies. However, terror groups, beginning from the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, which was live tweeted by Al Shabaab, saw the potential of such platforms as massive force multipliers and have since used them to much success.
In 2012 – 2013, as the so-called Islamic State (IS) gained strength in Iraq and Syria, a Twitter account called @ShamitWitness (SW) was one of the terror group’s biggest online propagators. With over 30,000 followers, the account openly shared information about the development of the pre-caliphate IS, that is before 2014. However, in 2014, after a hunt by British law enforcement who earlier thought the account was run by a South Asian origin person from one of London’s neighbouring boroughs, the Twitter persona was found to be an IT engineer in India’s hi-tech capital Bengaluru (then known as Bangalore). The persona belonged to a man called Mehdi Masroor Biswas, who worked at a multinational corporation in the city. The Indian security establishment was not aware that SW was an Indian until British TV station Channel 4 exposed his identity.
Biswas was not an exclusive terror propagator online, and in fact was receptive to debates and used to openly talk to everyone from academics to journalists. He was a largely self-styled and self-proclaimed member of IS, a growing cohort of the group’s online support ecosystem. He opined about most of the extended Middle East’s conflict zones, such as the Libyan war and happenings in places such as Yemen and so on. Out of his 124,000 total tweets, 15,000 directly dealt with IS related materials. However, via private messaging on Twitter, he helped guide youths from around the world on how to join IS in Iraq and Syria and built networks of likeminded people from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and so on. Even this author had run-ins with him on Twitter, as SW openly discussed IS related news and views and the unfolding crisis in Syria.
There are distinct similarities between SW and entities that are promoting, propagating and perhaps more worryingly, mainstreaming QAnon conspiracies that have in the past and could in the future lead to violence. QMap, recently identified as one of the more popular propagators of QAnon was a senior IT executive at a financial services firm. Jason Gelinas’s QMap page was attracting 10 million visitors every month. However, it was largely off mainstream social media sites that have been under public and judicial pressures to crack down on extremist content online although the content invariably found its way on mainstream social media as well. While the inception of QAnon and the following movements happened off mainstream social media, the speed with which it metamorphosised under the garb of a ‘religious’ movement amidst COVID-19 related conspiracies, magnified by the US elections’ ecosystem, was a troubling trend. It is arguable that even a contested online entity such as SW which propagated IS based on theological undertones did not come anywhere close to such offline mobilisation. Another example here of the obfuscation between a ‘religious’ and ‘extremist’ online ecosystem that could be highlighted is the use of social media by the Taliban, which has increased manifold since the US – Taliban agreement in February 2020, and the following Afghan – Taliban talks in Qatar. In fact, the Taliban now actively uses its spokespersons on Twitter to undermine and challenge negotiation outcomes that are discussed behind closed doors in Doha. They exist somewhere between a terror group and a ‘Sunni fundamentalist Islamic movement’, and happily exploit this grey area.
The movement from offline to online in studying online radicalisation and terrorism is a critical one and can be seen on a similar scale of movement between ‘thought’ and ‘action’ as far as committing an act of terror is concerned. It is widely theorised in terrorism scholarship that the opportune time to stop a terror strike is for law enforcement to place itself in between an individual’s movement from thinking to action, however, while SW comparatively failed to orchestrate large-scale mobilisation, especially in India where he resided, the fact that the QAnon movement succeeded in the same in the Western world raises many questions and concerns alike.
Even if viewed through the lens of state-backed or political legitimisation rendered to extremist movements both online and offline, QAnon’s mainstream appeal, with US politicians’ openly promoting the same and President Donald Trump lending weight to QAnon conspiracy theories via his own Twitter handle brings the debate on online space and extremism to a starkly different pedestal from the usual, both from public and platform policy perspective.
The evolution of QAnon from one post online to a radicalised big-tent ecosystem that involves everything from conspiracy theorists to white supremacists, anti-science and anti-establishment ecosystems converging into a larger political movement using a global pandemic and the Internet as a launchpad into orchestrating major disruptions within mainstream politics and democratic political processes has repercussions far beyond the US, Europe and so on. In Asia for example, where social media users are increasing exponentially in places such as India, which is now Facebook’s largest user market today, debates around disinformation, online extremism and so on are in their very nascent stages, and legislative and judicial protection against these in the form of targeting certain online content are not yet on the horizon.
Within the ecosystem of studying online extremism, the movement between online and offline needs more academic and policy attention. Why SW largely failed, and why QMap succeeded with 10 million visitors has arguably more to do with the offline world rather than the online one as has almost always been the case with radicalisation on the Internet.
Both public and platform policies must take note of what examples such as SW and QMap have brought in the form of policy gaps when dealing with online extremism. The role QAnon has played in and around US elections in 2020 should act as a springboard to increase efforts on digital literacy that begin at the schooling level, especially in countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and so on, where majority of social media users reside today, digital literacy is yet to be conceptualised and institutionalised. Susceptibility to misinformation, disinformation and propaganda is very high amongst the population in these geographies, both those educated or otherwise.