Analysis: Russian state-owned media outlets published thousands of articles promoting QAnon talking points

Media outlets directly owned or operated by Russian agencies have been spreading QAnon themes to gullible Americans
A demonstrator at an anti-Covid safety protest holds a QAnon flag, March 20, 2021. Photo: Marc Nozell/Flickr

First published at Right Wing Watch

The FBI may have labeled QAnon a domestic terror threat, but Americans aren’t alone among the bad actors pushing the far-right conspiracy theory​. A new report by Advance Democracy, Inc., a nonprofit research organization, finds that Russian state media outlets are promoting QAnon rhetoric on their platforms. 

Followers of the ​baseless QAnon conspiracy theory believe that a satanic cabal made up of leaders in the Democratic Party, business, and Hollywood are running a global child sex-trafficking ring, and former President Donald Trump—their hero whom they regard with theological reverence—is waging a behind-the-scenes war against a “deep state” government controlled by the cabal. The conspiracy theory has turned into a movement, with countless ​long-standing conspiracy theories​ and tropes falling under the umbrella of QAnon. 

Such an opportunity to stir up chaos in the United States appears to have been too good to pass up for Kremlin-supported media.

ADI looked at Russian state media articles over a span of two years, from Jan. 1, 2020 to June 1, 2021, and found that the outlets consistently pushed QAnon talking points. In 2020, Russian state media—defined as RT ​(including its six different language channels​), TASS Russian News Agency, Sputnik News, and Ruptly—published approximately 5,970 QAnon-related articles. 

(QAnon-related articles are defined as those that use such key words and phrases as cabal, human trafficking, QAnon, globalists, pedophilia, Deep State, General Flynn, and New World Order, among others.)

QAnon-related social media accounts reacted in turn by sharing disinformation pieces produced by Russian state media. Roughly 1 in 7 QAnon-related Twitter accounts shared links to Russian state media last year, and QAnon-related accounts were, in fact, responsible for nearly 15 percent of all shared links to these outlets, according to ADI.

Most of the QAnon-related articles identified by ADI share narrative threads or rhetoric of QAnon but fail to reference the conspiracy theory directly. Of the more than 8,000 articles identified by ADI, only 192 directly discuss QAnon.

A handful of those that directly mention the conspiracy theory downplay the threat posed by it, with headlines like “Twitter’s ban of QAnon conspiracy theory for vague ‘offline harm’ link only makes them stronger, & the censorship won’t stop there” and “Elite exponents of the politics of fear are deliberately exaggerating the terrorist threat of QAnon to spread alarm across the US.” 

The latter op-ed suggests that elites—including government and media figures—are scaremongering about QAnon as part of a broader plan. “The elite’s scaremongering about QAnon is designed to increase fear of the far right and drive demand for more aggressive policing,” it claims. It also stated that “branding these individuals as bloodthirsty terrorists constitutes a dangerous distortion of reality,” making it “an officially sanctioned conspiracy theory that serves the project of promoting the politics of fear.” The author goes on to claim that “Given the resources that support it, this conspiracy theory is far more insidious than that of QAnon.”

Largely, however, the articles identified by ADI are not overt in their reference to QAnon and use terms that suggest a shadowy “deep state” with nefarious plans around child sex trafficking or vaccines. 

The third most shared QAnon-related article in 2020, for example, discussed a child trafficking ring; “Ukraine busts ‘human trafficking ring’ that sold BABIES to Chinese ‘single men of certain orientation,’” read the RT headline. Twenty percent of that article’s shares on Twitter came from QAnon-related accounts. Another headline read, “Unsealed docs say Bill Clinton was on ‘pedophile island’ w/ ‘young girls’ & cite Epstein saying former president ‘owed him favor.’”

Headline from an article on rt.com.

Some articles that directly mention QAnon suggest that “antifa”​—shorthand for anti-fascist activists—and Black Lives Matter are more dangerous threats than QAnon, and that any links between QAnon and acts of violence are “tenuous at best.”

There have also been numerous cases of violence committed by those who have gone down the QAnon rabbit hole​: In Texas, a QAnon supporter used a car to attack strangers she believed were pedophiles, and in August, a father of two murdered his two children because his absorption of QAnon claims convinced him that they were going to “grow into monsters” because of “serpent DNA” he believed had been passed onto them by their mother. QAnon adherents were also among those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to stop the counting of electoral votes won by Joe Biden.

Undeterred by their hero’s loss in the 2020 ​presidential election, QAnon supporters have continued to move the goalposts on when, as they claim, Donald Trump will return to the White House​. Many in the movement believe ​that Trump may even be running a shadow government. In their minds, it’s all part of the plan. And with its promotion of QAnon rhetoric continuing into 2021, Russian state media seems keen to continue stirring the pot.