YouTube is the gateway to almost any video content you can think of. From compilations of otters holding hands to outdated DIY documentaries speculating on whether Michael Jackson is dead or not, there are very few topics you won’t be able to explore on the video-sharing platform. And while gaining such access has undoubtedly made everyone’s life easier, the rise of YouTube has also helped the rapid spread of conspiracy theories. Among some of the most famous conspiracy theories is Frazzledrip, one that became so big it even got Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, in trouble. What is the Frazzledrip conspiracy theory about and how did it take over YouTube?
The conspiracy theorists behind Frazzledrip believe that Hillary Clinton and former Clinton aide Huma Abedin were filmed ripping off a child’s face and wearing it as a mask before drinking the child’s blood in a Satanic ritual sacrifice. Supposedly, the Hillary Clinton video was later found on the hard drive of Abedin’s former husband, Anthony Weiner, under the code name ‘Frazzledrip’.
Frazzledrip is just an addition to two other popular conspiracy theories: Pizzagate and QAnon. QAnon followers believe that a group of Satan-worshipping Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and billionaires run the world while engaging in paedophilia, human trafficking and the harvesting of a supposedly life-extending chemical from the blood of abused children. Of course, this satanic clique includes Hillary Clinton.
QAnon is actually basing all its beliefs on previously established conspiracy theories, some new and some a millennium old. One of them is Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that went viral during the 2016 US presidential campaign, when rightwing news outlets and influencers promoted the idea that references to food and a pizza restaurant located in Washington DC in the stolen emails of Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta were actually a secret code for a child trafficking ring.
While many politicians have shown questionable pasts, especially when it comes to paedophilia, it should be noted that the three conspiracy theories mentioned above are completely unfounded. There isn’t a video out there that depicts Hillary Clinton ripping off a child’s face or drinking blood, simply because no such thing ever happened. Yet, multiple conspiracy theories of the Trump era seem to believe that Hillary Clinton is a secret paedophile and murderer. And, up until the end of 2018, Frazzledrip videos had taken over YouTube completely. So what happened?
More than one billion hours’ worth of content is viewed on YouTube every single day. About 70 per cent of those views come from YouTube’s recommendations, according to Algotransparency, a website that attempts to track “what videos YouTube’s recommendation algorithm most often recommends.”
If you had typed “Frazzledrip” in YouTube’s search bar at the beginning of 2018, you would have found thousands of videos on Hillary Clinton’s alleged murder and child trafficking. Previous users from Gab.ai, 4chan and 8chan had also flocked to YouTube to share their views with users from these sites linking to YouTube more than to any other website—thousands of times a day, according to research from Data and Society as well as from the Network Contagion Research Institute, both of which track the spread of hate speech.
Now, while it remains possible if you’re willing to put some effort into it, finding videos about this specific conspiracy theory has become harder on the platform. That’s because, on 11 December 2018, while Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai was testifying before lawmakers in Washington about different matters, one lawmaker asked him about the way YouTube’s algorithms could be used to push conspiracy theories and highlighted how urgent it was for this problem to be regulated.
Congressman Jamie Raskin said, “The point at which it becomes a matter of serious public interest is when your communication vehicle is being used to promote propaganda that leads to violent events.”
Raskin added, “Is your basic position that [Frazzledrip] is something you want to try to do something about, but basically there is just an avalanche of such material and there’s really nothing that can be done, and it should be buyer beware or consumer beware when you go on YouTube?”
In other words, Raskin shed light on the fact that YouTube, which Google purchased for $1.65 billion in 2006, had a major conspiracy theory problem—and technically still does today, only not as much with Frazzledrip. And at the time, it looked like neither Congress nor YouTube were anywhere near solving it.
YouTube’s content algorithms determine which videos show up in your search results, in the suggested videos stream, on the homepage, in the trending stream, and under your subscriptions. When you go to the platform’s homepage, algorithms dictate which videos you see and which ones you don’t. Same applies when you search for something.
As common as this sounds in today’s digital world, YouTube’s algorithms had an extremism problem. Whether you were previously watching a right-leaning, left-leaning or even non-political video, YouTube’s algorithm would always recommend increasingly more extreme videos in order to keep users’ attention and push them to watch as many videos as possible.
As Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina The New York Times in March 2018, the YouTube advertising model is based on you watching as many videos as they can show you (and the ads that appear before and during those videos).
Because of this algorithm, people who watched videos of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ended up being recommended videos featuring “arguments about the existence of secret government agencies and allegations that the United States government was behind the attacks of Sept. 11.”
Back to 2020, and while the problem has been slightly diminished, it remains present. It isn’t easy to balance a platform that claims to be for freedom of expression with societal responsibility. It’s not illegal to believe in conspiracy theories or to think that Michael Jackson didn’t die (he did) or that Hillary Clinton is a child-eating pedophilic cannibal (she’s not).
YouTube previously said in a statement, “False information is not necessarily violative, unless it crosses the line into hate speech, harassment, inciting violence or scams. We’ve developed robust Community Guidelines, and enforce these policies effectively.” Yes, YouTube’s algorithms have been tweaked slightly but changing the way they work altogether would be bad for business.
While explaining that YouTube takes problematic videos on a case-by-case basis, Pichai said “Freedom of speech is at the foundation of YouTube. As such, we have a strong bias toward allowing content on the platform even when people express controversial or offensive beliefs. That said, it’s not anything goes on YouTube.”
Yet today, Frazzledrip and Pizzagate on YouTube have simply been replaced by QAnon. Even though YouTube removes millions of videos on average each month, it is slow to identify troubling content and, when it does, is too permissive in what it allows to remain. We’ve seen the likes of 4chan, 8chan, 8kun and Voat make it to the top only to quickly crash and burn. What’s next after YouTube? Should we be worried?
Until we get an answer to this precise question, there is already something else we should all be worried about. The Pizzagate shooter reportedly had watched a YouTube video about the conspiracy days before heading to Washington from his home in North Carolina, telling a friend that he was “raiding a pedo ring… The world is too afraid to act and I’m too stubborn not to.” Let’s not forget that US citizens have guns, and most of them are not scared to use them—be that for the right reason or not.
We’ve all been spending a lot of time online—more than in our lifetime for most of us during these last few months thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. This means that you’ve probably heard of QAnon, the viral, controversial conspiracy theory that reached the American mainstream and took over Trump supporters in August. But while we’ve heard about it, QAnon remains a constant question mark for many of us. Here’s everything you need to know about QAnon.
It all started in November 2017 on 4chan, one of the most extreme message boards on the internet along with Reddit and Voat, when a YouTube video creator named Tracy Diaz and two 4chan moderators, one named Paul Furber and the other still unnamed, got together to shed light on one specific anonymous user and his posts which were originally lost in the sea of conspiracy theories that populated the website. These were the 4chan posts of ‘Q Clearance Patriot’, the pseudonym of a person claiming to be a high-ranking military officer and who later became known as ‘Q’.
Shortly after that, the trio started creating videos, a Reddit community, a business and an entire mythology was started based off of Q’s 4chan posts. The theory they adopted would become QAnon, also spelled Qanon, and it would eventually make its way from those relatively secret message boards to national media stories and Trump supporters.
QAnon followers believe that a group of Satan-worshipping Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and billionaires run the world while engaging in paedophilia, human trafficking and the harvesting of a supposedly life-extending chemical from the blood of abused children. They also believe that Donald Trump was recruited by top military generals to run for president and fight a secret battle against this society and its “deep state” collaborators to expose the culprits, then send them all to Guantánamo Bay detention camp and military prison.
According to QAnon followers, this satanic clique includes top Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros, as well as a number of entertainers and Hollywood celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres and religious figures including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama.
In 2017, Q confidently asserted that Hillary Clinton’s “extradition” was “already in motion” and her arrest imminent. Q also predicted that this war against that cabal would soon culminate in ‘The Storm’, an appointed time when Trump would finally unmask the secret society, punish its members for their crimes and restore America to greatness.
In other words, QAnon is a wide-ranging and baseless internet conspiracy theory that has been festering on the fringes of rightwing internet communities for years. Its visibility only exploded in recent months amid the Black Lives Matter protests and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wait! There’s more. QAnon has also incorporated elements of many other conspiracy theory communities, including claims about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and whether he is still alive, the existence of UFOs, and the 9/11 Truth movement, which is a group that disputes the general consensus of the 11 September attacks and suggests a cover-up, and the Rothschild family controlling all the banks.
Even the podcast QAnon Anonymous, which is based on the QAnon movement calls QAnon a “big tent conspiracy theory” because it is constantly evolving and adding new claims to its beliefs. But, just to keep things clear, the existence of a global, satanic, paedophile cabal is the main theory of QAnon and the one that most of its followers believe.
If you feel like you’ve already heard these strange conspiracy theories somewhere, it is because QAnon is actually basing all its beliefs on previously established conspiracy theories, some new and some a millennium old. Do you remember Pizzagate? The conspiracy theory that went viral during the 2016 US presidential campaign, when rightwing news outlets and influencers promoted the idea that references to food and a pizza restaurant located in Washington DC in the stolen emails of Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta were actually a secret code for a child trafficking ring.
The theory led to harassment of the restaurant and its employees and culminated in a December 2016 shooting by a man who had travelled to the restaurant believing there were children there in need of rescue. Well, unsurprisingly, QAnon based many of its own conspiracy theories on the same structure Pizzagate showed—characters and plotlines remain quite similar and the provable specifics are yet to be seen.
Only QAnon has taken it even further. The movement has its roots in much older antisemitic conspiracy theories. After all, the idea of the all-powerful, world-ruling group comes straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fake document claiming to expose a Jewish plot to control the world that was used throughout the 20th century to justify antisemitism.
Furthermore, the idea that members of the secret group extract the chemical adrenochrome from the blood of their child victims and ingest it to extend their lives is a modern version of the old antisemitic blood libel, which accused Jews of murdering Christian children in order to use their blood as part of religious rituals.
In 2017, after Q emerged from the message board 4chan with a post in which he confidently asserted that Hillary Clinton’s “extradition” was “already in motion” and her arrest imminent, he then established his legend as a government insider with top security clearance who knew the truth about the secret struggle for power between Trump and the “deep state.”
In all his posts (there have been more than 4,000 so far), Q used a ‘trip code’ which allowed followers to distinguish his posts from those of other anonymous users known as ‘anons’. Q switched from posting on 4chan to posting on 8chan in November 2017, went silent for several months after 8chan shut down in August 2019, and re-emerged on a new website established by 8chan’s owner, 8kun.
Q’s posts are very cryptic. They often consist of a long string of questions designed to ‘guide’ readers toward discovering the “truth” for themselves through “research.” Many of Q’s predictions have failed to become true, yet believers tend to simply adapt their narratives to account for inconsistencies.
According to The Guardian, close followers of QAnon have a very organised way of justifying Q’s false predictions. The posts (also called ‘drops’) contain ‘crumbs’ of intelligence that they ‘bake’ into ‘proofs’. For ‘bakers’, QAnon is both a hobby and a deadly serious calling. It’s like an internet scavenger hunt with incredibly high stakes.
As a 2018 investigation by NBC News uncovered, the fact that the trio of 4chan users worked together to promote and profit off QAnon might actually be why it is what it is today, which is a multi-platform internet phenomenon. Without this help, Q would have probably been just another anonymous internet poster who claimed to have access to secret information. There now is an entire QAnon media ecosystem, with video content, memes, e-books, chatrooms, and more, all designed to attract potential recruits.
Because there isn’t an official membership directory, it remains unclear exactly how many people consider themselves QAnon followers, however, the number must be quite impressive. If you only count the ‘hard-core’ QAnon believers, the number may be at least in the hundreds of thousands.
Some of the most popular QAnon groups on Facebook have more than 100,000 members and Twitter recently announced it was taking actions to limit the reach of more than 150,000 QAnon-associated accounts. A recent report by NBC News found that Facebook had conducted an internal study of QAnon’s presence on its platform, and it concluded that there were thousands of QAnon groups, with millions of members between them.
However, conspiracy theory experts point out that belief in QAnon is far from common. While at one point, 80 per cent of Americans believed a conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination, a poll by Pew Research in March 2020, found that 76 per cent of Americans had never heard of QAnon and just 3 per cent knew “a lot” about it.
QAnon appears to be most popular among older Republicans and evangelical Christians but it has also spread to Latin America and Europe, where it appears to be catching on among certain far-right movements. The number of QAnon followers has also probably grown during the pandemic, as people stuck indoors spent more time online. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal found that membership in 10 large Facebook groups devoted to QAnon had grown by more than 600 per cent since the start of lockdowns.
QAnon owes much of its popularity to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which have amplified the movement’s messages and spread its reach through their algorithms. QAnon followers have also used social media to harass, intimidate and threaten their ‘enemies’ and to promote other types of misinformation. Several of the most popular conspiracy theories on the internet this year such as Plandemic, a documentary containing false claims about COVID-19, as well as the viral conspiracy theory that claimed that the online furniture company Wayfair was trafficking children have been amplified by QAnon believers.
Some social media platforms have started trying to remove QAnon content such as Twitter, which recently banned thousands of QAnon accounts, saying it had engaged in coordinated harassment. Facebook has also taken down nearly 800 QAnon groups and restricted thousands of QAnon-related groups, pages, and Instagram accounts.
As you might have realised by now, Trump is QAnon’s main heroic character—the one who will save the US and the world. That’s why QAnon believers analyse Trump’s words and actions closely, looking for hidden meanings. When Trump says the number 17, they take it as a sign that he is sending secret messages to them only because ‘Q’ is the 17th letter of the alphabet. When he wears a pink tie, they interpret it as a sign that he is freeing trafficked children as some hospitals use ‘code pink’ as a shorthand for a child abduction in progress.
Although it remains unclear whether Trump knows the details of the QAnon theory, he has embraced the movement’s supporters by saying in a White House press briefing that “I’ve heard these are people that love our country.” He also declined to denounce the movement when asked about his support for Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon-affiliated congressional candidate. Last but not least, he has shared posts from QAnon followers many times on his Twitter.
As QAnon picked up steam, growing scepticism over the motives of Diaz, Rogers, and the other early Qanon supporters led some to turn their paranoia on the group. Recently, some followers have accused Diaz and Rogers of profiting from the movement by soliciting donations from their followers.
Other pro-Trump online groups have questioned the roles that Diaz and Rogers have played in promoting Q, pointing to a series of slip-ups that they say show Rogers and Diaz may have been involved in the theory from the start.
Then again, it seems like QAnon believers don’t really care about who Q is or how he knows all these things. “The funniest thing about those who try to discredit Q. They focus on whether Q is real or not, instead of the information being provided,” tweeted one follower. “NO ONE cares who Q is. WE care about the TRUTH.”