For all the damage the Hampstead SRA hoax has done to the parents, children, teachers, social workers, clergy, and businesses it targeted, we should probably be grateful that it was not engineered by people fluent in the true money-making potential of internet hoaxes.
While the combination of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress proved sufficient to push the videos of RD’s children into the millions of views, and Change.org plus an aggressive email campaign kept the money flowing to a few for a while, we think it’s fair to say the hoax was never able to generate nearly as much money as its creators initially envisioned.
Granted, people like Angela Power-Disney have continued to flog the very dead horse in vain hope that it will run one last race, but even Belinda McKenzie conceded in one of her emails to Charlotte Alton Ward that “everything that has happened since [the church demonstrations] has happened because certain parties took intemperate unilateral action without thinking things through properly. So we’ve now lost that case & battle effectively”.
In other words, show’s over, time to move on to the next conspiritainment production.
As it turns out, the fact that this hoax was engineered by older ladies, potheads, and news anchor LARPers whose idea of advanced tech skills was using multiple hashtags and harvesting email addresses from Change.org meant that the hoax remained much smaller than originally intended. Looking across the Pond, we can see how it might have been much, much worse.
How QAnon turned Trumpian fan fiction into cash
As we’ve looked more closely at coverage of the QAnon phenomenon, it has become clear just how many cash-harvesting opportunities were left on the table by the Hoaxtead mob.
In another article by NBC News reporters Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins (whose exposé of pedogate 2.0 we discussed yesterday) we were struck by the ability of a small group of “Q” promoters (one of whom might actually be the elusive “Q”, though that’s not confirmed) to successfully and efficiently monetise what amounts to Donald Trump fan fiction.
How to monetise a hoax: Six simple rules
1. Keep it small
Rather than relying on an unwieldy, obstreperous, and ultimately self-destructing group of “30+ professionals” as described by Angela, the QAnon promoters kept their operation lean and mean.
Three people seem to have been responsible for moving “Q’s” cryptic commentary from obscurity to viral conspiranoid phenomenon:
In November 2017, a small-time YouTube video creator and two moderators of the 4chan website, one of the most extreme message boards on the internet, banded together and plucked out of obscurity an anonymous and cryptic post from the many conspiracy theories that populated the website’s message board.
Over the next several months, they would create videos, a Reddit community, a business and an entire mythology based off the 4chan posts of “Q,” the pseudonym of a person claiming to be a high-ranking military officer. The theory they espoused would become Qanon, and it would eventually make its way from those message boards to national media stories and the rallies of President Donald Trump.
It’s difficult to summarise QAnon in any way that makes sense to non-conspiracy believers. At its core, it is a form of “internet prophecy cult“, with the mysterious “Q” delivering cryptic messages to eagerly awaiting followers, who interpret them to mean that Donald Trump is actually working alongside special counsel Robert Mueller in a secret battle against a massive, powerful paedophile ring which includes celebrities and “political elites”.
With its use of quasi-religious slogans like “The Storm is Coming” and “We Are the Storm”, QAnon appeals to those on the religious right who believe that the Book of Revelation is a literal prediction of the end of days. And QAnon’s underlying mythos helps Trump’s supporters explain away any gaffes their hero might make: it’s all part of the act, you see.
There are now dozens of commentators who dissect “Q” posts — on message boards, in YouTube videos and on their personal pages — but the theory was first championed by a handful of people who worked together to stir discussion of the “Q” posts, eventually pushing the theory on to bigger platforms and gaining followers — a strategy that proved to be the key to Qanon’s spread and the originators’ financial gain.
2. Build a following
Legend has it that when asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, illegal withdrawals specialist Willie Sutton answered, “Because that’s where the money is”. While there’s now reason to believe that the reporter invented the quote, the principle seems sound. And in the case of QAnon, if you want to give your loony conspiracy theory real internet traction, you need to go where the loony conspiracy theorists are.
In this case, that would be a combination of 4chan (or its younger sibling 8chan) and YouTube.
According to Zadrozny and Collins, in November 2017 two moderators of the 4chan board where “Q” posted predictions reached out to a “small-time YouTube star” with the goal of taking the message to a wider audience. The two mods, Pamphlet Anon (real name: Coleman Rogers) and BaruchtheScribe (real name: Paul Furber), along with Tracy “Beanz” Diaz, banded together with one goal in mind: to create a following.
On Nov. 3, 2017, just six days after the first 4chan post from “Q,” Diaz posted a video entitled “/POL/- Q Clearance Anon – Is it #happening???” in which she introduced the conspiracy theory to her audience.
“I do not typically do videos like this,” she said, but citing Q’s “very specific and kind of eerie” posts, Diaz explained that she would be covering the 4chan posts, “just in case this stuff turns out to be legit because honestly it kind of seems legit.”
This video took off, receiving 250,000 views. Diaz, who emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, has stated that she now makes a living from people who donate to her “research” via a PayPal account on her YouTube channel.
3. Broaden your reach
While the core consumers of “Q’s” message were initially confined to the “chans” and YouTube, those promoting it knew they needed to reach out to “normies”, people who don’t self-identify as conspiracy theorists.
In a post on Steemit, Diaz states that she recommended a move to the more user-friendly Reddit. From Reddit, the hoax spread to Facebook, where it could be shared via dozens of public and private groups by an older, less tech-savvy audience. Many of these “new adopters” were intrigued enough to circle back to 8chan, where “Q’s” posts had been relocated following a post claiming the original board had been “infiltrated”.
(Hint: claims that you have been “infiltrated” will lend your conspiracy theory that certain frisson of danger; remember, paranoia is essential to successful conspiracy promotion.)
By December 2017, just weeks after it began, QAnon had broken through to “mainstream” conspiracy culture, with Rogers and Furber making appearances on Alex Jones’ InfoWars.
As the hoax expanded, it moved into other online spaces, such as the gamer messaging app, Discord. where rooms are devoted to decoding and interpreting “Q’s” “crumbs”.
4. Profit from adversity
In March, their Reddit board, which boasted some 20,000 subscribers, was shut down by Reddit for “encouraging or inciting violence and posting personal and confidential information,” and the moderators — Diaz and the rest — were banned from the site. Furber had already been booted from the site for allegedly threatening to reveal the personal details of another user, and was pushed out of the private Q discussion groups he had helped form.
Kicked off Reddit, Furber and his wife, Christina Urso, created an “all QAnon, all the time” live-stream channel on YouTube, devoted to 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week broadcasting of “Q’s” message.
Needless to say, the channel, which broadcasts to 46,000 subscribers, 2,400 of whom were tuned in when we looked, is liberally larded with donation opportunities:
5. Sell all the things
The marketing opportunity represented by QAnon has spread from monetising videos to hawking more than 1,000 “Q”-related products: t-shirts, mugs, hats, books, bumper stickers, and jewellery are all available on Amazon.com, although the company did remove its “Amazon’s Choice” label from QAnon merchandise when queried about it by NBC News.
Meanwhile QDrops, an app which notified users about new posts from “Q,” was developed by another husband/wife team, Richard and Adalita Brown from North Carolina.
Released on Apple iTunes, QDrops quickly reached #10 of all paid iOS apps, and held the #1 position in the Entertainment section; after this, it remained in the top 200 of paid iOS apps, until NBC News asked Apple for comment on its decision to sell the app. At that point the app was removed from iTunes. However, the Android version remains on the Google Play Store.
6. Don’t get careless
In an interesting twist, it seems that the QAnon hoax may be on the brink of collapse under its own weight. Hoaxtead followers are well aware of the acute paranoia that rules within the conspiracy community, and eats away at the foundations of group cohesion like an infestation of demented termites.
Sure enough, report Zadrozny and Collins, some of the key QAnon groups are showing the tell-tale signs…and possibly outing the Great and Mysterious “Q” in the process:
As Qanon picked up steam, growing skepticism over the motives of Diaz, Rogers, and the other early Qanon supporters led some in the internet’s conspiracy circles to turn their paranoia on the group.
Recently, some Qanon 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.
While both Diaz and Rogers have denied involvement, sceptics have pointed to a video which seems to show Rogers logging into “Q’s” 8chan account.
In another livestreamed video, Rogers begins to analyze a supposed “Q” post on his livestream program when his co-host points out that the post in question doesn’t actually appear on Q’s feed and was authored anonymously. Rogers’ explanation — that Q must have forgotten to sign in before posting — was criticized as extremely unlikely by people familiar with the message boards, as it would require knowledge of the posting to pick it out among hundreds of other anonymous ones.
Schisms have grown between QAnon’s promoters and other pro-Trump groups: Reddit’s 640,000 member r/The Donald now auto-deletes any posts mentioning QAnon. However, QAnon believers continue their passionate sharing and decoding of “Q’s” messages, and it’s unlikely that the hoax will die down any time soon.
And while it lives, its original trio of promoters, as well as others seeking to make a few dollars on QAnon’s popularity, will continue to find ways to sell both the hoax and its spin-off products.
We think it’s fair to say that had the organisers of the Hampstead SRA hoax been this adept at “growing” and maintaining its audience, as well as attracting new entrepreneurs eager to profit from the pain inflicted on others, we’d be looking at a very different picture today. For that, we are profoundly thankful.