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Will Facebook’s QAnon crackdown succeed? What people are saying so far

August 20, 2020, 12:01 AM UTC

Facebook is taking sweeping action against various extremist groups, including Qanon, the nonsense conspiracy theory movement that claims President Trump is battling a global cabal of pedophiles.

On Thursday, Facebook announced it has removed “over 790 groups, 100 Pages and 1,500 ads tied to QAnon” from the site, and imposed additional restrictions on accounts and hashtags on both Facebook and Intagram.

The move comes after numerous media reports about how Facebook’s quest for viral “engagement” has fanned extremism in the U.S. political system, and helped QAnon’s deranged and much-debunked ideas to flourish. A recent NBC report, for instance, describes how QAnon groups radicalized a woman into attacking a mask display at Target, and another into going berserk about masks at a Florida city government meeting.

In announcing its new anti-extremism efforts, Facebook said it would allow users to continue to voice non-violent support for QAnon and other fringe movements, but that it was changing its “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy” to undercut their ability to organize.

In practice, this means Facebook’s algorithms will no longer recommend users join QAnon groups, and will downgrade the prominence of QAnon in its news feed. Meanwhile, it will also bar people from using terms like QAnon to sell merchandise.

The question is whether any of this will actually do anything to check the rapid spread of the QAnon movement, whose adherents include a Florida GOP nominee who is expected to win a seat in Congress this November.

The initial response by many on Twitter to Facebook’s announcements was decidedly skeptical, reflecting the deep levels of mistrust the company has engendered after years of privacy scandals and a reluctance to police its platforms.

The advocacy group Sleeping Giants was quick to dismiss Facebook’s new initiative, citing examples of the company’s earlier missteps.

Other users panned the initiative as an insincere measure to deflect political and media criticism:

Meanwhile, a number of other Twitter users—many of whom lean left compared to the general population—did not focus on the QAnon announcement, but instead blasted Facebook for also including the radical Antifa group in Thursday’s crackdown.

Despite widespread cynicism about Facebook’s announcement, it’s notable that some of those most familiar with the spread of QAnon cited Thursday’s move as significant, including journalists who have covered the movement extensively.

The most realistic assessment may have come from New York Times journalist Kevin Roose, who has long reported on social media problems, and who warned that any crackdown by Facebook could be undermined if the QAnon groups reorganize under different labels:

Facebook’s appeared to acknowledge that its new measures against Qanon may only have a temporary effect, noting in its statement that these “movements and groups evolve quickly.” And in a comment to NBC, a company spokesperson predicted a longer term challenge.

“We 100 percent know that they’re going to change their terminology. We don’t think we’re flipping a switch and this won’t be a discussion in a week,” said the spokesperson.