June 25, 2021

IntelBrief: QAnon Continues to Innovate and Evade Deplatforming Measures

Photo by: zz/STRF/STAR MAX/IPx 2021 2/7/21 (Washington, D.C.)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • A new hashtag peddling QAnon narratives is gaining traction on traditional social media platforms as well as on encrypted chat applications.
  • “Operation 1009” describes itself as “God’s Army” to save children and encourages participation from “the Digital Warriors to the Boots on The Ground.”
  • The conspiracies peddled in “Operation 1009” forums illustrate the durability of QAnon narratives, as well as efforts by adherents to evade deplatforming measures.    
  • “Operation 1009” highlights the difficulty in eradicating potentially radicalizing content from social media platforms.

A new hashtag peddling QAnon narratives, disinformation, and conspiracy theories—particularly around child sex trafficking—is gaining traction on both traditional social media platforms and encrypted chat applications—illustrating the durability of the conspiracies associated with the far-right movement. “Operation 10-09, End Human Tr@fficking” originally appeared as a Facebook group on January 3, 2021, but changed its name on April 3. On March 12, 2021, a channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram was created using the hashtag, and its first post contained alleged court documents in which Ghislaine Maxwell, associated with Jeffrey Epstein, accused of trafficking, grooming and raping minors, implicates celebrities and multinational corporations in child sex trafficking crimes. The hashtag associated with “Operation 1009” has existed on Twitter since at least March 12, 2021. Posts shared in these online forums that use the hashtag tout well-established QAnon conspiracies alongside other QAnon hashtags, such as #WWG1WGA and #SaveOurChildren.

“Operation 1009” describes itself as “God’s Army” to save the children and encourages participation from “the Digital Warriors to the Boots on The Ground.” Analysis of posts in Facebook groups and on Telegram channels illustrates that while the operation is primarily concerned with conspiracies and disinformation that implicate the “cabal” or the “global elite” in child sex trafficking and pedophilia, other QAnon narratives and conspiracy theories are also frequently shared. For example, disinformation about the 2020 U.S. presidential election, as well as conspiracies about January 6, appear alongside vaccine disinformation and anti-LGBTQ+ conspiracies—all common QAnon narratives. Indeed, these other narratives are often grounded in a desire to protect children, appealing to the altruistic sentiment of followers in explicit calls to action. In addition to online activity, “Operation 1009” also appears to be engaged in selling branded merchandise and planning in-person events and protests, including a July 17 rally in Oklahoma City that welcomes “all patriots” to “Save Our Children.”

In the months since it first appeared in January 2021, the operation has gained more traction online, with one Facebook group boasting more than 1,800 members, and a Telegram channel containing nearly 3,000 subscribers. Of note, the size of these “Operation 1009” online forums is far less than the volume of members in QAnon-affiliated groups on Facebook from last year, or Telegram channels created following January 6, 2021, which number in the tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands. In addition, social media analysis suggests that the majority of online content utilizing the hashtag appears centered around encrypted chat applications instead of on traditional social media platforms. Between March 12 and June 22, 2021, over 650 posts on Telegram utilized #Operation1009 compared to only 57 posts on Twitter during the same time frame. This is yet another example illustrative of how many adherents of conspiracy theories, including QAnon conspiracies, migrated to more unregulated platforms following large scale deplatforming measures undertaken following January 6. However, the conspiracy theories proliferating in “Operation 1009” forums, coupled with planned in-person events, highlight the durability of QAnon narratives, as well as efforts by adherents to evade deplatforming measures while still promoting the movement’s narratives.

“Operation 1009” illustrates the difficulty in eradicating potentially radicalizing content from social media platforms—on both traditional platforms and in more fringe online spaces. This comes on the heels of a declassified Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) threat assessment on QAnon released in June, which warns that recent events may spur some domestic violent extremist (DVE) adherents of QAnon to engage in “real world violence.” At the same time, both the assessment and FBI Director Christopher Wray have underscored that the FBI is not investigating the QAnon movement itself—unless adherents are tied to a federal crime. Director Wray reemphasized that free speech, no matter how nonsensical that speech is in some cases, is protected by the First Amendment. The need to address the threat from online radicalization was also highlighted in the Biden administration’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism released earlier this month. The strategy noted the need for a whole-of-society approach in countering domestic violent extremism, which includes the federal and local government working with social media platforms, academia, and civil society.