On March 18th, just before lockdown was announced in the UK, I received a long (600 words or so) text from a family member. I have no idea where they had got it from, and I suspect they hadn’t read it; they certainly hadn’t read it carefully.
A new report from Logically and the Global Network on Extremism and Technology finds 135,000+ active QAnon members on Telegram.
This research, which is the first of its kind, assesses the size of active QAnon channels on the private messaging app Telegram. Although researchers have looked at other social media platforms to measure the scope of extremism communities, Telegram has until now remained mostly unexamined. Researchers from Logically and the Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET) selected 30 of the most influential QAnon chat groups, and measured user engagement of the group members.
They found that at least 135,150 accounts are currently active in QAnon communities on Telegram, while a total of 229,797 unique accounts are currently members of the groups. In total, 639,909 accounts have posted at least once into these 30 groups since their creation, with 24 of them appearing during or after August 2020. The active membership in these 30 groups alone makes the QAnon extremist community the largest on Telegram.
While this research is only a snapshot, it indicates that recent reports about how QAnon is dead are far-fetched.
While this research is only a snapshot, it indicates that recent reports about how QAnon is dead are far-fetched. As a number of conspiracy theory and extremism researchers have pointed out, the movement is simply evolving.
"While it’s a small-scale study compared to the thousands of groups and channels that contain QAnon messaging, the number of active members is still startling,” said Jordan Wildon of Logically. “Each one represents someone who has had their life upended by QAnon, and many have lost loved ones over this.”
After a mass exodus from mainstream social media platforms following the decision to ban QAnon content in January of this year, Telegram became one of the community’s main hubs. Rather than a single news feed, Telegram is organized into different message groups and channels. Channels are much like newsletters, and offer subscribers content from a single source, or group of admins. Groups are chatrooms, where anyone can post or share anything at all, including content forwarded from other Telegram groups and channels.
Unfortunately, the structure of Telegram channels makes it hard to assess exactly how widespread or exactly how active extremist communities on the platform are. There is no way to measure user engagement or individual user data in channels, due to technical restrictions as well as the lack of ability, in most cases, for users to participate. And while this leaves groups available as a place of study, it’s impossible to obtain accurate numbers of many there are -- nor does Telegram provide much help to anyone who might be interested.
“There's a big barrier to entry,” said Wildon. “Facebook and Twitter are generally easier to analyze because both platforms to a certain extent support researchers and journalists, with tools and well-documented APIs that enable analysis. Telegram as a company doesn't provide help or support for analysis, or even cooperate with researchers and journalists.”
“It's up to individual researchers and journalists to work out how to do it to themselves,” he said.
Researchers at GNET and Logically chose these 30 chat groups, mostly focused in the US and Europe with a few international branches, as a way of taking a baseline assay of how QAnon grew and developed as it moved underground. All of the groups either had explicit QAnon-linked titles, or consistent QAnon messaging across their chat histories. While there are plenty more QAnon-adjacent or affiliated groups, researchers felt it was best to take a conservative approach. That’s both to be certain that members of the groups had subscribed for QAnon content, and because there are only so many hours in the day — Logically and GNET had 3,500 QAnon groups and channels to choose from, with membership for each ranging from single digits to tens of thousands of people.
One of the key ways that researchers measured engagement wasn’t simply in registered accounts, but also in their post history. Through technical analysis, it was possible to measure how little or often little individual accounts sent messages or replies, or forwarded content from elsewhere. After all, plenty of people may have joined Telegram immediately after QAnon social media bans, but found the platform difficult to use, overwhelmed by constant message notifications, or been uninterested in the content, and logged off forever.
In total, 639,909 accounts had, at some point, posted to one of these groups, but only 135,150 accounts that are currently members of these groups had made at least one post.
As expected, GNET and Logically found a 78.19 percent dropoff in usership over time. In total, 639,909 accounts had, at some point, posted to one of these groups, but only 135,150 accounts that are currently members of these groups had made at least one post.
The vast majority of posts in these groups came from a handful of influencers – 1.68 percent, or 4,599 accounts, had made more than 100 posts. An additional 3.35 percent (9,219 accounts) made between 25-99 posts, and 20.36 percent (56,035 accounts) made 2-24 posts.
With an established baseline and a proof of concept, Logically researchers hope to repeat this research at regular intervals to assess how these communities grow and change. As the political situation in the U.S. changes, it’s important to have a representative picture on extremism. Not because of a return of Trump to arrest all of the democrats and Hollywood elite – but because QAnon is guaranteed to take new forms and select new targets.
“As the movement has fragmented and, in places, shifted focus to COVID conspiracy theories or climate change denial, being aware of where it can move next is crucial to ensure it doesn’t do more damage or pull more people further from reality,” Wildon said.
“While there has been a noticeable drop in the number of people who believe in the QAnon conspiracy ideology and some news outlets have been quick to declare that the movement is dying, it’s important to continue to monitor and research how it’s still evolving,” he added.
According to Media Matters, 41 candidates for 2022 congressional office had open QAnon affiliations.