J.D. DURKIN (HOST): While 2020 and 2021 have been rough years for most of us, one group unfortunately does appear to be thriving, and that is QAnon. The community, which traffics in conspiracy theories, saw rapid growth thanks to people being stuck at homes with nothing better to do with their lives but go down conspiratorial rabbit holes. Then, as vaccines began to roll out, so did misinformation about them. Throughout the past year, numerous anti-vax figures made appearances on QAnon platforms to undermine vaccination efforts. The founder of a group that opposes vaccine mandates in the transportation industry even appeared on multiple QAnon-friendly shows. As a result, the QAnon and anti-vax communities have become increasingly intertwined, and the results could be costing lives. In July, polling showed less than half of QAnon believers had even gotten the vaccine, while nearly 40% said they will never get vaccinated.
Joining us now to discuss more, senior researcher at Media Matters Alex Kaplan. Alex, welcome to the show. So I think a lot of people that have even loosely followed the — this is such a weird world — have followed the QAnon drama the last several years may still think of this as kind of a fringe group hiding in the shadows, the corners of the internet. Is that an underestimation of the strength of QAnon today?
ALEX KAPLAN (SENIOR RESEARCHER, MEDIA MATTERS): Yes, it's an immense underestimation. The amount of people that followed QAnon content is immense. We saw, particularly since the pandemic started in 2020, we saw a boom essentially in content consumption of QAnon on social media platforms, on Facebook, on Instagram, on these platforms. We saw extreme climb in content consumption. We saw millions of people in Facebook groups dedicated to QAnon. And even with these social media crackdowns that came in 2020 through early 2021, we still see significant amount of people following and consuming QAnon content.
DURKIN: Alex, how are they talking today mostly, using what platforms?
KAPLAN: So they're using less mainstream platforms, so platforms like Telegram or Gab or Rumble or BitChute — platforms that, you know, a lot of people when they get banned from those mainstream platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter go to.
DURKIN: And -— yeah I'm not surprised, the Rumble, the Parlers, you went down the list and I was like, “Oh man, I know all these names far too well." Talk to me here about the overlap, the Venn diagram of QAnon espousers and anti-vaxxers.
KAPLAN: Yeah, so we saw really throughout the past year this increasing intertwine or combinator — coming together of these two groups, right? So you had QAnon figures in 2020 making conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, about how it came about, multiple conspiracy theories. And then, you know, when the vaccine started coming out [in] 2021, the QAnon community turned on the vaccines. You know, they started attacking the vaccines, tried to promote efforts to get around them, even at least in one case targeting a vaccination center in California. And in the meantime — and during that, you started seeing multiple anti-vax figures showing up on these QAnon shows, on QAnon events, collaborating essentially with these QAnon figures to attack vaccines. And you just saw these collaboration efforts. At least [in] even one case you saw a QAnon influencer helped a significant — a well-known anti-vax figure organize a Zoom call with multiple other anti-vax figures that aired on multiple QAnon shows, just to give a sense of how intertwined some of these efforts started becoming.
DURKIN: By the way, real quick on that, when we say QAnon shows, are those on sort of video fringy platforms? What are they on?
KAPLAN: Right. Yeah, so many of them are in places like Rumble and BitChute.
DURKIN: OK, Rumble. OK, that's why it always comes down to Rumble for the video for these people. OK, so there's another piece that you wrote here. And first of all, I could talk just QAnon straight up with you all day. There's a piece that you wrote, and this comes from a few months ago, so I wonder if these numbers have been updated here, Alex. You mentioned in a story from a few months back, I believe 52 current and former congressional candidates are linked to QAnon. What do those numbers look like and what does it mean here, Alex, when that many people, dozens of QAnon followers, are running for Congress? I'd imagine you increase the statistical probability that more of them are going to break through.
KAPLAN: Yeah, so it's still at the moment 52. That's still the same number. Yeah, so it is a significant amount of people so far. It could go up. We'll see. It does — that 52 number does include two incumbent members of Congress, Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose affiliations with QAnon are now well known. But the other 50, that's a significant amount of people, and it is possible that one of those 50 could break through. We'll see if any of them win their primaries — it's very possible — or make it to the general election ballot. And of those, it is possible that maybe one of them or more could wind up in Congress.
DURKIN: Alex, I always appreciate the work that Media Matters does. Before I let you go, what most concerns you about the QAnon conversation that you don't think enough people are paying attention to?
KAPLAN: Yeah, so I think what's significant is that — I think there was this sense, maybe by some, that QAnon would die out in, you know, after the 2020 election. Trump wasn't in office anymore, Biden was coming in, the crackdowns happened. Its central figure, “Q," has stopped posting. But even with all of that, the community is still extremely significant. It's been very influential. It's been very influential pushing false claims of voter fraud and influencing that movement. It's been very influential involving with the anti-vax movement. It's been increasingly involved with local politics. It's an extremely impactful movement in our political and public health and in society in the United States and worldwide, and it's not going away.