The conspiracy theory QAnon — which started on 4chan in the fall of 2017, then bubbled up across Reddit, YouTube, Twitter, and the celebrity sphere — is now topping some of Amazon’s best-sellers lists, NBC News reported Monday.
QAnon followers claim to believe, among other things, that Hillary Clinton is the leader of a Satanic cabal that feeds on the blood of children and profits off sex trafficking, and that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election is actually a ruse designed to cover up his close friendship and partnership with Donald Trump. The two are supposedly working together to take Clinton down and her various demonic helpers.
The book QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening was supposedly written by 12 anonymous members of the group promoting the theory, and presents their ideas in what one customer review calls “a gentle way for uninformed ‘normies’ to find out what is really going on within the political class that have been ruling over us for decades.” The book has been listed on Amazon since February 26, and climbed the Amazon charts astoundingly quickly thanks to concerted efforts by conspiracy theorists to rack up positive reviews.
Algorithmically suggested additional purchases at the bottom of its page included QAnon-related merchandise — stickers, hats, window decals — a major way, in addition to PayPal and Patreon donations, that the anonymous conspirators make money. (So far, it’s unclear exactly what that money is being used for, but we can assume anything it would be spent on would be with the aim of broadening QAnon’s audience.)
At the time of the NBC report, QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening was No. 56 on the overall top sellers list, and No. 1 on the list of books about censorship. As of this writing, it’s No. 2 on the algorithmically generated “hot new releases” and best-sellers lists, and remains No. 1 on the list of books about censorship. The book’s purchase page features a sticker labeling it a “#1 Best Seller in Censorship & Politics,” as well as more than 100 five-star reviews that say things like “The time is now. We can no longer be lukewarm. We must decide the path of Light and all things good, or the path of Darkness.”
QAnon was published by the Dallas-based company Relentlessly Creative Books, which also publishes boxing manuals, brochures about medical care in Mexico, and a My Little Pony rip-off series called Tiny Horsies. NBC News reports that the full book contains a number of outlandish and potentially dangerous claims, “including that prominent Democrats murder and eat children” and that the US government “created AIDS, polio, Lyme disease, some natural disasters, two Indiana Jones movies and the Pixar movie Monsters Inc.”
The free-to-read sample starts with a poem called “The Plan to Save the World.” The intro to the book explains the group’s slogan “WWG1WGA” (“Where We Go One We Go All”) and specifically shouts out Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter as platforms where more information can be found, and where readers can connect with the authors to “support their ongoing work.” (Reddit banned the main QAnon subreddit last fall, and YouTube recently announced plans to make conspiracy theories slightly harder to find. Twitter is a mess!)
CaptainRoyD, a QAnon figurehead who was suspended from Reddit for espousing these conspiracy theories, is listed as one of the book’s editors.
Gaming the Amazon lists is as simple as a little coordinated effort: A rash of early sales is exactly what the algorithm looks for. Even if QAnon’s book doesn’t continue to sell well, it’s been seen by an unfathomable number of people now who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. So far, Amazon has declined to comment to media outlets on whether QAnon is being recommended to shoppers outside of the various top-sellers lists, or on whether it feels it has any responsibility to deprioritize malicious disinformation in its algorithm. Amazon did not respond to a Vox request for comment by press time.
In an August 2018 report on the QAnon conspiracy theory, Vox’s Jane Coaston tracked its rise from 4chan and adoption by far-right celebrities like Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, and even former Roseanne star Roseanne Barr. QAnon is tightly related to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory that took hold of the seedier parts of the internet in 2016 (and led one man to walk into a pizza shop in Washington, DC, with an assault rifle), and views of its explainer videos on YouTube are fueled by algorithmic recommendations and cross-pollination.
At the end of her report, Coaston concluded, “Most people have never heard of QAnon, or Q — and that includes most of Donald Trump’s supporters.” That’s still the case, but the fact that this book is at the top of some of Amazon’s most prominent recommendation lists means that a far larger share of the population will — at a minimum — stumble across these ideas.
This incident comes less than a week after Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) publicly asked Amazon to do something about the rise of anti-vaccine materials on its platform, pointing out that an advertisement for a free Kindle e-book called Vaccines on Trial appears at the top of the site’s “vaccine” search results, and writing, “Every online platform, including Amazon, must act responsibly and ensure that they do not contribute to this growing public-health catastrophe.”
There are millions of books available on Amazon, as well as hundreds of thousands of new self-uploaded e-books every year — meaning Amazon is the world’s largest retailer of the printed word and its biggest publisher but has none of the responsibilities of a traditional publishing house or bookstore. The company has financial and legal incentive to prevent plagiarism and other commercial scams, but not to prevent the spread of conspiracy theories. It’s so big, it’s not clear it would be able to police itself even it wanted to.
Correction: The algorithm behind the best-seller list takes only sales into account.