Oh Q, What art thou?

While it is unclear why the QAnon conspiracy theory began, what is clear is the cult’s rapid growth throughout the world. From the United States, France, and Australia to Germany and the UK, QAnon has become somewhat of a fixture of extremist politics. With the recent attack on United States Capitol on January 6, led in part by QAnon followers, I set out to further understand the movement.

Using website crawling and scraping, I created a list of 243 different domains that promote or are centered around the QAnon conspiracy theory. Note that this is not a complete list and I will be updating it as I find more (currently on 5/5/21 we have a list of 324 websites). These sites either sell QAnon merchandise, produce articles about the theory, or facilitate discussions among QAnon followers. In this blog post, we will look at QAnon’s reach vis-à-vis these 243 websites. I do not specify the names of these websites as I do not want this blog to become a way for people to discover radicalizing material. However, if other accredited researchers want this list, please message me at the email below.

Note: I just submitted a paper to a computer science conference specifically outlining my exact approach for identifying these websites. The full methodology will be thus published in March. If you are super curious, feel free to message me at the email at the end of the page. (Basically, my approach is to look for website domains that have links directing users to well-known QAnon websites [i.e. QAnon discussion forums].)

What is QAnon in the First Place?

QAnon” is a conspiracy theory premised on the notion that the world is run by a cabal of pedophiles whom former President Donald Trump will purge in a day of reckoning known as the “Storm”. The movement began in October 2017 when an anonymous 4chan user asserted that he was an official in the United States Department of Energy with high (Q-level) clearance. “Q” then outlined the QAnon conspiracy in a post titled “Calm Before The Storm”. “Q” asserted, with the world now privy to this cabal, he was sending the world and its people through a “Great Awakening”. Since then, “Q” has regularly posted on a site called 8kun where followers try to uncover meaning in cryptic messages (“Q drops”) and typically post memes and messages themselves anonymously (hence QAnon per Q + “Anon”).

QAnon supporters further have attempted assassinations of prominent political leaders including Justin Trudeau, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden. QAnon followers were most recently involved in the January 6, 2021, insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol.

There are dozens of articles logging QAnon’s role on Twitter, Parler, Facebook, and YouTube. I do not really want to rehash these massive social media companies’ roles in the spread of QAnon here. Further, each of these companies probably have a better idea of the scope of QAnon’s spread on their platforms anyway. We thus do not write about these sites but instead focus on sites that purposely support the QAnon movement. (If there is enough interest for QAnon’s role on larger sites like Twitter and YouTube, I might do an update in a separate blog post.)

QAnon supporter holding a "Q" sign while waiting to see Donald Trump at a rally in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.

--Rick Loomis / Getty Images

QAnon mug sold on Amazon.com. Amazon.com used to sell a plethora of QAnon merchandise before the January 6th attack on the US Capitol. (Amazon is not included in our list of QAnon websites.)

QAnon supporting Websites

The websites that I found that support the QAnon conspiracy theory are actually quite varied. I found 5 main types of QAnon websites. Many of these sites were actually fairly easily to identify given their use of QAnon or qanon related hashtags in thier domain names. However, to prevent their further spread online, I do not present the names of these websites.

1) Social Media Clones

Several of the sites that I visited are actually just social media websites rebranded with QAnon themed imagery (basically the equivalent of taking Facebook and creating a version called QAnon-Facebook). One of these sites was particularly strange as it was essentially a Facebook clone built on a blockchain. In all, I found 6 of these types of sites.

2) Merchandising Websites

One of the reasons why QAnon appears to have continued life even after departure of former President Trump appears to be that many individuals are making money off the conspiracy. Specifically, I found 17 sites that sell QAnon related products. These products include movies, podcasts, coffee, shirts, and dietary supplements. Interestingly enough, two of these websites advertise real-life QAnon conferences where followers can meet in person.

3) Q Drop Websites

I identified 14 sites that store “official” drops by Q made in an easy-to-read format. These sites typically allow users to view each “official” Q drop in succession. Many of the other sites in my list point directly to these sites when they want to reference Q.

4) Foreign Language/non-US QAnon Websites

Despite QAnon being a US based theory, there are a variety of QAnon groups abroad (Karlssson 2020). In my search, I found 33 non-US focused QAnon sites. Germany has the most QAnon sites after the US, with 11 of these sites targeted at a German audience. Other countries with QAnon sites include Japan (4 websites), Sweden (1 website), the UK (3 websites), France (7 websites), the Netherlands (2 websites), Australia (1 website), and Canada (1 website). I further found 2 different Spanish language QAnon sites. Probably somewhat more chilling was a site that translated all of Q’s official messages into English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish.

5) Personal Blogs and Alternative "News" Sites

This category contains the vast majority of the QAnon websites that I found. A lot of different people seem to have been sucked into the QAnon universe and have taken to blogging about it. In all, I found 173 QAnon sites that fit in this category. These sites range in their devotion to QAnon, with some merely espousing support of the theory to others creating QAnon trading cards, and finally to others that give marching orders to real world QAnon followers. All these sites though market and drive the QAnon conspiracy discussions. They appear to be where QAnon followers seek to espouse their views outside of popular social media platforms (and thus are useful for study). For example, a direct quotation from Jan 6 on one of the most popular of these sites is as follows:

“I hereby call for the immediate arrest of Michael Richard Pence, 48th Vice President of the United States, for Treason.

Patriots- you are all in DC today for a reason.

Make it count.

(And maybe now this all helps explain why Pence got an envelope, too)”

This particular website was at one point in January the 3000th most popular website on the Internet (according to the Amazon Alexa Top 1M List).

QAnon's popularity over time

Having given you a least a little taste of the variety of QAnon related websites, I want to show you how popular they have been and continue to be.

In order to approximate QAnon’s relative popularity during the last 3 and half years, I cross checked the list of QAnon domains with Amazon Alexa Top 1M sites. The Amazon Alexa list basically gives the 1 million most popular popular website domains on any given day. In the plot below, I show the amount of my QAnon domains that are in the top 100,000 and top 500,00 most popular websites on the Internet at given moment of time. For reference for scale, the website for Columbus, Ohio, columbus.gov, was the 180,000th most popular while the UK's national career services website nationalcareers.service.gov.uk was the 530,000th most popular in late November 2020.

QAnon, as seen above, has actually varied in popularity since 2018. As seen, there are several events that preceded drop offs in the popularity of QAnon. The largest was when 8chan (the original stomping grounds of QAnon) was kicked off the publicly accessible Internet. 8chan was removed when it was discovered that it was used to spread the manifestos of the Christchurch, Poway synagogue, and El Paso shooters.

From the graph, we can further see the ascendance of QAnon during the summer of 2020 as often noted in traditional media outlets. Following the advent of coronavirus lockdowns across the globe, QAnon exploded in popularity. One study found that 3 million people were members of QAnon related Facebook pages at its peak during the summer of 2020. This is mirrored in the major jump we see starting around April 2020. We also start to see the effect of some crackdowns implemented by social media companies later in the summer.

However, disturbingly, since a nadir in early fall of 2020, QAnon (as measured by these sites), continues to grow in popularity. The events of January 6 and subsequent crackdowns, appear to have had very little effect in stemming the movement’s popularity. One of most popular of these websites (the one that that I quoted in the above section) was actually around the 3000th most popular website in the world at one point in January.

WHat next?

Having said this all of this, from these initial results, it is unclear how much QAnon continues to spread on traditional social media platforms and thus the full scope of QAnon's influence. The increase in popularity of QAnon domains could simply be due to users finding other places to discuss the theory after being kicked off Twitter or Facebook. Or it could be a result of people searching for other QAnon sources following the downfall of the social media app Parler (a hotbed of for QAnon) in recent weeks. Or simply it could be that more people are searching for and finding these websites after hearing about QAnon for the first time from traditional news outlets.

This first post is one in a 3- or 4-part series. In my next post, I am going to share how people are potentially finding these domains and which Internet companies are hosting them. Given this list of websites, I am also compiling information about the exact topics shared on these sites, which I will share with you hopefully in the 3rd post.