Disinformation experts aren’t happy about the trailer for HBO’s QAnon series

The teaser video for Q: Into the Storm, an upcoming documentary series from HBO about the QAnon conspiracy movement has a lot of deplatforming experts concerned; it looks more like a preview for a spy thriller than a careful examination of the umbrella group of conspiracy theories.

The breathless tone might be effective at building hype, but it has many disinformation experts concerned. Ben Collins, one of the leading journalists covering online radicalization, tweeted that the trailer was “being marketed in a way that could recruit more people.” Promoted by HBO as a series that “charts a labyrinthine journey to unmask the mastermind behind QAnon,” critics pointed out that the trailer felt a lot like “a recruitment video for Q.”

disinfo community: *soberly* how do we balance coverage and inadvertent amplification of QAnon? How do we bring people back to reality in a smart, empathetic way?

HBO: *BRAAAAM (inception sounds)* watch our $30m documentary on how QAnon is HARDCORE and FUCKING CRAZY!!! https://t.co/HXfoDPPzjr

— Emerson T. Brooking (@etbrooking) February 26, 2021

Joan Donovan, research director at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, told The Verge that, by portraying Q as edgy and exciting, the trailer risked attracting even more people to the cause.

“The most concerning aspect to me is that the reuse of footage found online pieced together in 6 hours of conspiracist content will be validation for the contemporary movement and drive more content/interest,” Donovan said in a message to The Verge. “It’s not like we are 5 years from the insurrection. Q influencers will use the fact of their participation in the documentary to sap more people for donations and build a more loyal audience at a time when many are struggling to contain this anti-Semitic and racist networked conspiracy.”

It’s hard to say how much of those concerns will carry over to the documentary itself. The trailer is less than a minute long, and the docuseries was the result of a three-year global investigation, according to HBO. So it’s possible the series strikes the right tone in how it presents QAnon and its origins, as well as its future. The press release announcing the series says it will “examine the influence of QAnon on American culture and question the consequences of unfettered free speech permeating the darkest corners of the Internet.”

Donovan said she hoped the trailer was a hoax, and that the actual film will show people speaking about how believing in QAnon ruined their relationships with their families and friends, but she wasn’t optimistic. “Somehow I doubt that will be the case,” she said.

QAnon began on 4chan in 2017, when an anonymous person posting as “Q Clearance Patriot” said they had access to classified information showing then-President Donald Trump was fighting a global cabal of pedophiles, whose ranks included celebrities and Democratic politicians. QAnon’s followers also strongly ascribed to the view —falsely pushed by Trump— that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and many Q proponents have been linked to the January 6th attack on the US Capitol.

Journalists have struggled with how to best cover QAnon; reporting on it without being adequately up to speed, news outlets ran the risk of amplifying and legitimizing some of the group’s more dangerous views. At the same time, ignoring QAnon’s followers or dismissing them as fringe could allow it to metastasize. One of HBO’s promotions for Q: Into the Storm promised that the series will “pull back the curtain” on the group, but without the right context, could further muddy the public’s understanding of QAnon and its reach.

During its heyday, there were thousands of Q-related Facebook groups and Q-related accounts on Twitter and Reddit. Most platforms have banned, or tried to ban, Q-related content and hashtags, but with mixed success. “QAnon depends on centuries-old anti-Jewish tropes and anti-Black narratives about the modern civil rights movement,” Donovan says. “But it’s not that complicated.”

HBO declined to comment.

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