For the past year, Twitter has censored tweets about a documentary exploring the origins of the QAnon movement.
The documentary, Q: Into the Storm, debuted as a six-part series on HBO Max in March 2021. Twitter decided to “limit the visibility” of the series on its social network shortly after the release, a Twitter spokesperson said.
Twitter admitted that it was restricting the reach of tweets about the series after the director, Cullen Hoback, tried paying to boost his own tweet publicizing the film’s iTunes debut on March 21. He was barred from buying promotion for his tweet. An email from Twitter’s ad department stated the film had been “manually reviewed” and deemed to be in violation of the social network’s “inappropriate content” policy. The documentary criticizes Twitter for the role it has played in the spread of QAnon.
Believing the response in error, Hoback’s production house, Hyrax Films, reached out to members of the Twitter communications team to request help. A response came three days later. To Hoback’s surprise, Twitter informed the suppression was intentional.
“In 2021, Twitter made the decision not to allow promotion of this documentary via advertising on the platform,” the company said. “This decision was aligned with the actions we took to suspend accounts dedicated to QAnon and to limit the visibility of QAnon-related content on the platform generally. As a result, the client will not be able to promote this content.”
It’s unclear what additional steps Twitter has taken to limit the visibility of Hoback’s account or others discussing the series. Since Jan. 2021, accounts sharing QAnon-related content have been excluded from features like “search” and algorithms that offer users personalized “suggestions,” the company said. According to Twitter, tweets about the series meet the definition of “related content” under this policy.
“Perhaps Twitter didn’t appreciate that we shined a light on their censorship practices in the series,” the director said. (Two of the six episodes raise questions about Twitter’s moderation efforts, including its role in promoting the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, and argue Twitter was key to spreading QAnon conspiracy theories.) The company began a crackdown on QAnon content in the weeks following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, part of a major effort to limit content with “the potential to lead to offline harm,” the company said.
Hoback told Gizmodo, “The way to unravel QAnon was to reveal the underlying mechanics and players behind it; not censoring all discussion around the topic.”
Executive producer Adam McKay, director of The Big Short and Don’t Look Up and producer of HBO’s Succession, blasted the decision ahead of the Oscars last month. “Human beings are really and truly having a hard time with free speech in the face of big tech,” he said. “It’s getting ridiculous.”
Hoback has long been critical of Twitter’s moderation practices, but said he was still shocked to learn the company had taken this particular approach to content that unsparingly assesses the movement. “To my knowledge, no one has watched the series and walked away suddenly believing in QAnon,” he said. “In fact, I received countless messages from folks saying it helped repair family relations and break some believers from the QAnon spell.”
An expert on conspiracy culture agreed. Mike Rothschild, author of The Storm is Upon Us, told Gizmodo, “Forbidding works like Q: Into the Storm gives people curious about Q only half the story, the half Q influencers want them to have.”
Q: Into the Storm is the culmination of a three-year effort by Hoback to “unmask and demystify” the forces behind QAnon, the conspiracy-based movement kicked off by an anonymous user posing as a high-ranking government official. The movement eventually wormed its way into the Trump White House, where the conditions were more than hospitable, and into the halls of Congress, where its adherents tried, failingly, to overturn the 2020 election. Hoback first rose to prominence with Terms and Conditions May Apply, a documentary about online privacy and the Patriot Act.
The director went in search of the people responsible for posting the cryptic, anonymous messages known as “Q-Drops,” which gave life to a variety of far-out conspiracies starting in 2017. Hoback’s main suspect—spoiler alert—is Ron Watkins, the 34-year-old admin of the forum that “Q” for years called home. (In one exchange, Watkins acknowledges spending years “teaching normies how to do intelligence work,” and in what Hoback frames as a major slip-up, appears to acknowledge he’s been doing Q’s work—right before he denies it.)
Roughly a year after the film’s debut and a few weeks prior to Into the Storm’s iTunes debut, The New York Times published a story on research carried out by two separate teams of forensic linguists: Both found evidence to support Hoback’s theory with the help machine learning tools that compare patterns in text “a casual reader could not detect.”
“The conclusions in the series were recently reinforced by The New York Times,” Hoback said. “Would [Twitter] allow the Times to promote that article?”
At the start of Twitter’s 2021 QAnon crackdown, more than 70,000 accounts were reportedly suspended. The company said at the time that its teams were “discussing ways” to “empower research into QAnon and coordinated harmful activity”on the platform. Other measures were taken against an unknown number of accounts the company described as not “predominantly engaged” in spreading QAnon content. They included limiting “visibility across search, replies, and on timelines” and a ban against being “recommended to others by Twitter.”
A Twitter employee told Gizmodo and members of Hoback’s production team in March that “generally,” allowing any promotion of Q: Into the Storm would not “be aligned with our previous actions as a company around QAnon.”
Into the Storm’s take on Twitter’s suppression tactics found them to be either useless or counterproductive. Hoback’s interviews paint the suspension of QAnon accounts as an energizing rather than demoralizing force for adherents. “If their website didn’t have such an outsized influence on public discourse, I would be less concerned,” he said. “In a way, their response has validated the case made in Q: Into the Storm.”
Twitter has been under increased assault in recent weeks over vague allegations of censorship flung with the support of Republican lawmakers. Beyond a handful of examples—such as Donald Trump, who was suspended for “incitement of violence,” or U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose personal account was suspended for spreading covid-19 misinformation—allegations of widespread censorship remain largely anecdotal. They also happen to form part of a broader, politically-useful narrative painting internet giants from Amazon to Facebook as deeply hostile to conservative views.
Earlier this month, researchers at MIT and Yale unveiled research aimed at uncovering the truth behind the claims of Twitter’s anti-conservative bias. Their analysis found that Republican accounts are, in fact, “much more likely” to be suspended compared to their Democratic counterparts. The Republican users, however, had posted misinformation at a rate “substantially” higher than Democrats, the researchers said. The same research revealed deep divides along partisan lines when it came to defining “misinformation,” as well as which actions taken by the social media companies actually constitute bias.
Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Monday struck a deal to purchase Twitter for roughy $44 billion after campaigning publicly against what he called “de facto bias” in the automated tools that moderate Twitter. In a tweet, Musk revealed that his plans for the company include making the algorithms behind these tools public and more open to audits: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
Sen. Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday that Twitter had so far outperformed its competitors in addressing “false, deceptive, and manipulated content.” A “backslide” by Musk, he warned, would do only harm to the “important discourse that takes place on Twitter across the world every day.”
For Republicans who participated in the MIT/Yale study, curtailed access to QAnon content was largely viewed as an act of political discrimination—even as those same respondents held that individuals should not be labeled “anti-conservative” for simply denouncing QAnon.