By Deepa Seetharaman
Groups espousing conspiracy theories associated with the group QAnon have exploded in popularity on Facebook Inc. and its Instagram unit since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a new analysis finds, a sign that the far-right network is gaining traction on mainstream social media.
The group's growing popularity shows how social media can accelerate the spread of such theories and misinformation, even as Twitter Inc. and others ban some users associated with the group.
In an analysis of Facebook data conducted by social-media research firm Storyful, the average membership in 10 large public QAnon Facebook groups swelled by nearly 600% from March through July, to about 40,000 from about 6,000. The average follower count of some of the largest public Instagram accounts promoting the group's ideology more than quadrupled in the same period, the analysis found.
Membership in one Facebook group -- called "QAnon News & Updates-Intel drops, breadcrumbs, & the war against the Cabal" -- grew by more than 10 times from Jan. 1 to Aug. 1 of this year. It isn't clear what percentage of those followers, if any, were bots or automated accounts.
QAnon stems from a conspiracy theory started by a person who claimed to be a highly placed government official dubbed Q, who first emerged in the fall of 2017 on the fringe site 4chan. According to Q, a powerful group of child traffickers control the world and is undermining President Trump with the help of other elites and mainstream news outlets. Believers regard Mr. Trump as a messianic figure fighting against these dark forces.
In 2016, a man was arrested with a gun inside a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant that had been at the center of a conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate, which is considered a precursor to QAnon. Comet Ping Pong was the subject of fake-news stories falsely alleging that it was the site of a child- abuse ring run by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John Podesta.
In the years since, Mr. Trump, members of his family and others, such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn, have sometimes retweeted popular Twitter accounts that use QAnon slogans or promote QAnon theories.
Some popular QAnon posts include hashtags against social ills, such as child trafficking, leading some people to like or share the posts without realizing the core ideology.
Posts using the hashtag #wwg1wga, short for "where we go one, we go all, " a common refrain of the QAnon movement, have climbed on Facebook and Instagram since March, Storyful found.
This week, QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene won a Republican House primary in Georgia, making her likely to secure a congressional seat in the fall. Colorado Republican Lauren Boebert, who upset a five-term incumbent in the June primary, has also expressed support for the movement.
There are dozens of congressional candidates who could be elected this year who appear to believe in QAnon, according to Molly McKew, an independent disinformation analyst and author of Stand Up Republic's Defusing Disinfo blog. That makes it increasingly likely that there will be "a de-facto QAnon caucus" in Congress after November, she said. Stand Up Republic was founded by an independent who ran against Mr. Trump in 2016.
Some Republicans have criticized the network and its increasing visibility. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois wrote on Twitter this week that there is no place in Congress for these conspiracies. "QAnon is a fabrication," he wrote.
Several Instagram accounts of QAnon supporters post frequently about child sex trafficking, calling attention to the need for children to be protected. This month some QAnon posts using the #SaveTheChildren hashtag, usually identified with the Save the Children charity, attracted thousands of likes, helping push these QAnon accounts into more users' feeds, some unwittingly.
Alongside those comments, QAnon users have promoted false theories that the e-commerce site Wayfair was involved in trafficking children. They also accuse prominent Democrats of being pedophiles or participating in trafficking.
A post last month from the Instagram account @qthewakeup repeated the Wayfair theory and racked up nearly 200,000 likes and thousands of comments. Wayfair has refuted the claims.
Multiple factors have fueled QAnon's recent growth, according to researchers who study the movement. The public-health lockdowns have forced people to spend more time at home and in front of screens, increasing the chances of exposure to misinformation online. Researchers also say social media makes it easy for people to find these posts because their sensational content makes them more likely to be shared by users or recommended by the company's algorithms.
Facebook groups have been central to building the QAnon network, said Chloe Colliver, head of digital policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a U.K.-based think tank that researches extremism.
"That's definitely a strong cultlike element to being part of the QAnon environment and feeling like you are in the know as opposed to those who aren't part of Q's efforts -- that's what gives them recruitment power," Ms. Colliver said.
"The platforms have allowed this audience to grow and exist, which will make it extremely difficult to dislodge," she added.
A Facebook spokeswoman said the company has banned some groups and pages tied to QAnon for breaking the company's content policies or rules regarding inauthentic coordinated behavior. Facebook took action against some accounts last week, she added.
"We have teams assessing our policies against QAnon and are currently exploring additional actions we can take," the Facebook spokeswoman said. She added that Instagram accounts and Facebook groups found to repeatedly violate Facebook's rules won't be recommended to users.
Twitter, along with Reddit, has taken more-aggressive steps to curb the QAnon-affiliated groups.
The Storyful analysis doesn't include private Facebook groups or Instagram accounts, which researchers say could account for an even larger amount of QAnon-related activity. This week NBC News reported that internal Facebook research shows that millions of its users belong to private QAnon groups.
Storyful is owned by News Corp, the parent company of The Wall Street Journal.
QAnon has also grown to encompass a broad range of conspiracies built around antivaccine, anti-Semitic and antimigrant tropes, according to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Last year an FBI field office warned that QAnon and other conspiracies could spark violence in the U.S.
Write to Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com