Twitter owner Elon Musk’s boosting of far-right memes and grievances has injected new energy into the jumbled set of conspiracy theories known as QAnon, a fringe movement that Twitter and other social networks once banned as too extreme.
And on Tuesday, he tweeted a message with an emoji that many people interpreted as saying “follow the white rabbit,” possibly harking back to “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Matrix.” But many QAnon believers saw the rabbit as a wink to one of their foundational icons, a secret indicator shared in one of QAnon’s earliest online prophesies, known as “drops.”
Musk mocked the suggestion that the tweet could be interpreted negatively but offered no clarification. Among QAnon promoters, though, the message was clear: Musk was speaking to them.
One QAnon-amplifying account on Telegram with 118,000 followers, known for spreading a bogus claim that Russian fighters were targeting “U.S. biolabs” in Ukraine, said the tweet was only his latest flirtation with QAnon ideology.
“Elon called out Fauci for creating [covid-19], [is] calling out the woke hive mind, is paving the path for 2020 to be nullified and Trump reinstated … and now he’s directly quoting Q,” the account said. “Elon is an Anon,” the account added, using the term QAnon disciples call themselves.
Logan Strain, a conspiracy theory researcher who uses the name Travis View on the podcast “QAnon Anonymous,” said Musk’s “conspiracist dog whistles” have galvanized a group that was fractured after 2020, when major social networks including Twitter started banning QAnon accounts and Trump lost the White House.
“He’s responding to and validating a rogues’ gallery of right-wing conspiracists … [and] going through a checklist of far-right grievances in a way that has certainly energized them,” Strain said. For QAnon believers, “what they view as the major battlefield in the information warfare just opened up again.”
QAnon devotees had spent years arguing that Trump was winning a secret holy war against a global Satanist cabal that would culminate in the mass executions of top Democrats and other “deep state” elites. Online, they dissected thousands of cryptic prophesies from someone known as Q who called themselves a top-secret government operative but was quite possibly just an administrator of the fringe message board 8kun.
Musk has never explicitly supported QAnon, and some of his closest allies say they doubt he believes some of the wilder things he says online. One person in Musk’s inner circle, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Musk’s views, said he uses the claims merely to win the internet’s most prized currency: attention. “He wants to muck it up,” the person said.
But in QAnon circles, Musk’s ambiguity and plausible deniability have been seen as a strategic way for him to subtly push their dogma into the mainstream. A QAnon-boosting account with 165,000 followers on Truth Social, Trump’s social network, wrote Monday, “At this rate, Elon is on pace to start posting Q drops to millions of normies and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop him.”
Asked for his thoughts about QAnon, Musk responded in an email: “lol.”
Twitter has for years been one of QAnon’s most significant online spaces — an influential battlefield on which Q wanted “digital soldiers” to fight an information war. Before Twitter banned the conspiracy movement, QAnon believers used it not only to spin theories about Q’s secret influence on world events, but also to recruit acolytes to the cause.
Since launching his $44 billion takeover of the company, Musk has become so popular in QAnon circles that some regard him, not Trump, as the savior-like figure they had been waiting on to usher in “the Storm,” a quasi-biblical moment in which the cabal that runs the American government, media, technology industry and education system would be vanquished through public executions.
In 2017, Q had written that the brutal reckoning would be announced first on Twitter by someone saying, “My fellow Americans, the Storm is upon us.” “Q doesn’t ever say it’s going to be from POTUS [Trump],” one poster in a QAnon group wrote on Telegram, alluding to Musk. “Q said ‘Look to Twitter’. Oh happy day.”
Musk was once portrayed as a hero of the American left, an environmentally focused innovator who vowed to use science and engineering to take on Big Oil and save the world through ambitious ventures such as SpaceX’s reusable rockets and Tesla’s electric cars.
But in the years since, Musk has become one of the internet’s most prominent trolls, needling his enemies with extreme messages and off-color memes that often dovetail with far-right messaging.
Musk, who has said he is “neither conventionally right nor left,” has chatted and joked on Twitter with prominent right-wing influencers and commentators, sometimes expressing outrage about how they have been treated by the “woke mob.” Musk has said the “woke mind virus” — a vague term generally referring to liberal advocacy, social justice and political correctness — is “pushing civilization towards suicide” so that “humanity will never [reach] Mars.”
He has also echoed far-right causes, including saying Fauci should face criminal punishment for lying to Congress and funding infectious-disease research “that killed millions of people.” Musk’s claims lack real evidence, and the White House has said Musk’s attacks are “divorced from reality.” (“My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci,” Musk tweeted Sunday in a jab at transgender identity, which he has also criticized.)
After QAnon was banned on Twitter, its supporters flocked to the messaging service Telegram and to smaller right-wing platforms such as Truth Social, where they could discuss bogus theories about mind-controlling coronavirus vaccines and communist election-fraud algorithms without worrying about content-moderation rules.
Since Musk’s takeover, though, he has pushed Twitter to reinstate previously banned accounts under a policy of “general amnesty.” The site has already brought back Trump and a scattered crew of QAnon proponents, misogynists, white nationalists and other far-right provocateurs.
Online influencers who use QAnon to make money from their followers are eager to use Musk to fill a power vacuum in the far right, said Marc-André Argentino, an extremism researcher at Concordia University. Trump’s political clout has struggled, and Q, who disappeared for 18 months after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has posted only sporadically ever since.
Musk does not perfectly fit the QAnon mold. He tweeted Tuesday that he is “generally pro-FBI,” and he said last month he would not reinstate the Twitter account of Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist ordered to pay more than $1 billion in damages to the families of the Sandy Hook school shooting, which Jones had called a hoax.
But like Q, he has often framed current events as titanic spectacles of apocalyptic grandeur. Musk on Monday agreed that the world is facing a “mass awakening event or total collapse of society,” and he tweeted that buying Twitter is a way to combat the “woke mind virus,” which must be “defeated or nothing else matters.”
QAnon proponents have widely celebrated Musk’s impact at Twitter, including the “Twitter Files” cache showing how company officials made content-moderation decisions and Musk’s sudden dissolution on Monday of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, which civil rights experts had contributed to since 2016.
Musk said the council’s advisers deserved “shame” for being complicit while “children were being trafficked.” He also singled out former Twitter workers for condemnation, including Roth, who fled his home this week after facing violent threats.
But he has gained in other ways. On Twitter, he is now picking up an average of 200,000 followers every day.
Cat Zakrzewski contributed to this report.