Here's what led up to a hoax about Oprah being arrested trending on Twitter
QAnon supporters and far-right conspiracy theorists helped spread the hoax
A far-right hoax targeting Oprah Winfrey trended nationally on Twitter, forcing her to issue a denial. It came after the hoax had been bubbling up for days around social media and far-right message boards.
During the night of March 17 and early morning of March 18, tweets circulated around a falsehood that Oprah had been arrested for supposedly being part of a child sex-trafficking ring. The falsehood eventually became the No. 1 trend nationally on Twitter, and Oprah was forced to rebut it.
A review by Media Matters found that before the hoax trended on Twitter, it had been circulating for days as part of a viral chain message going around social media and far-right message boards, led particularly by accounts supporting the QAnon conspiracy theory, along with some YouTube channels.
In late February, some users on Facebook and 4chan circulated an apparent tweet from Tiffany FitzHenry, a conspiracy theorist and QAnon supporter, claiming that “Oprah’s arrest for child sex trafficking is going to be one of the hardest for people [to] comprehend.”
A couple of weeks later, on the afternoon of March 14, a QAnon supporter tweeted that they had received “some inside info you won't hear on the news,” claiming that “this morning, at 4:30AM, [Canadian] Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was served a criminal indictment by the US for corporate & financial crimes.” The tweet said other celebrities -- including Tom Hanks, a frequent target among QAnon supporters -- and business leaders would be or have been arrested and that they would “claim Corona virus infections.” The user also posted that Oprah would be implicated in testimony from convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein and mentioned the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory and the “greater awakening,” likely a reference to a term used by QAnon supporters.
That false text then circulated on March 15 on multiple social media platforms, spread by QAnon supporters on Facebook (where one user connected the text to a list circulating among the conspiracy theory’s supporters suggesting the coronavirus targeted only public figures); on Twitter (where a QAnon supporter tweeted a screenshot of it at Hanks’ Twitter account); and on the conspiracy and “PedoGate” subreddits on Reddit. There were also multiple posts on 4chan’s “/pol/” message board and 8kun’s “/qresearch/” message board. It was even shared on Instagram by former TV personality Sofia Hayat.
On the evening of March 15, a YouTube channel called SPEAK Project -- whose Twitter account has also expressed support for QAnon -- posted a video baselessly claiming that police had been “excavating” Oprah’s home in Florida because it was “suspected to be ... some kind of child trafficking location.” The video has received nearly 50,000 views.
Meanwhile, as the hoax chain message continued to circulate on social media (including YouTube) and far-right message boards into the morning and early afternoon hours of March 16, another YouTube video was uploaded claiming Oprah’s home had been “seized” and “they are excavating the property and digging up the tunnels,” getting more than 70,000 views.
A few hours later, Adrienna DiCioccio, a frequent Infowars guest and Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist, tweeted similar language to that of the YouTube video and a Facebook post.
That evening, another YouTube channel -- which claims to be “a commentary on satire” -- reuploaded the SPEAK Project video and supposed bodycam footage of police entering Oprah’s home. The videos received more than 100,000 views combined and spread in QAnon Facebook groups, as noted by Mother Jones.
By March 17, more conspiracy theorists had tweeted about the falsehood, and by that evening there were thousands of shares on Twitter for posts about Oprah being arrested and her house being “raided,” with the false chain message and false bodycam footage cited.
Many on Twitter tweeted their confusion about the falsehood, helping to amplify it further and eventually getting it trending, as noted by disinformation researcher Renee DiResta.
The hoax’s virality is yet another example of how conspiracy theorists -- including QAnon supporters -- have been able to exploit tech platforms to spread disinformation.