For people around the world, the now-iconic images of a man in a horned headdress roaming the US Capitol during the 6 January insurrection came as a shock. For Kate Starbird, the images were frighteningly familiar. ‘QAnon Shaman’ — the online persona of Jacob Anthony Chansley, or Jake Angeli — is a known superspreader of conspiracy theories that her research group has been monitoring for years.
The storming of the Capitol was “this physical manifestation of all of these digital characters we’ve been studying”, says Starbird, a social scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, who investigates the spread of disinformation on social media. “To see all of that come alive in real time was horrifying, but not surprising.”
Starbird is among a cadre of researchers in the United States and abroad who study the way disinformation and conspiracy theories take root and spread through social and mass media. As US president and a prolific tweeter, Republican Donald Trump turned their research upside down when he helped to push typically fringe theories into the mainstream — most recently by downplaying the coronavirus pandemic and promoting the unfounded claim that the US presidential election had been stolen from him.
With Trump out of office, this group of researchers is now working to make sense of the deluge of data that they’ve collected from platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. It’s been a lesson in modern populism: a world leader amplified once-obscure conspiracy theories, with each tweet and retweet strengthening the ideas and emboldening their supporters. Now, researchers are retooling to understand — and prepare for — what comes next.
During his presidency, Trump frequently retweeted followers linked to the notorious conspiracy theory QAnon, a narrative that originated in 2017 and claimed that a powerful cabal of Democrats and elites are trafficking and abusing children — and that Trump is fighting them. Although Trump never endorsed QAnon, he repeatedly refused to condemn the conspiracy theory in interviews and once praised its followers for their support.
One debate in the conspiracy-theory research community is whether Trump has pushed more people into QAnon, or whether he just emboldened those who already believed. Polling suggests that QAnon adherents remain a small, if increasingly vocal, minority, says Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami in Florida who has been tracking public support for several years. Others argue that polls don’t necessarily capture radicalization at the extremes.
QAnon has clearly gained ground under Trump in recent years, says Joan Donovan, a disinformation researcher at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The activity that she and her team monitor online, as well as the real-world protests and political rallies taking place, add up to “a growing interest in or dedication to these ideas”, she argues.