Twitter has permanently banned some of the most high-profile promoters of the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, including Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, and the pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell.
The move comes as social media platforms respond to claims that they facilitated a pro-Trump mob’s assault on the US Capitol this week by allowing the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation by far-right groups, and the president himself, as well as allowing domestic extremist groups to recruit and organise.
Twitter said on Friday that it had suspended the accounts for breaching policies that ban users from engaging in “co-ordinated activity” that results in both online and real-world harm.
“We’ve been clear that we will take strong enforcement action on behaviour that has the potential to lead to offline harm,” Twitter said.
It added that it would “permanently suspend accounts that are solely dedicated” to sharing content from QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory whose members were among those who attacked Capitol Hill on Wednesday, citing “the renewed potential for violence surrounding this type of behaviour in the coming days”.
Both Mr Flynn — who received a presidential pardon from Mr Trump — and Ms Powell have become prolific supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which believes the president is fighting a Satanic, Democratic deep state.
Twitter also suspended the account of Ron Watkins, administrator of the imageboard 8kun where QAnon’s posts are hosted.
Twitter temporarily blocked the president himself on Thursday for 12 hours for breaching its rules around election integrity, and threatened to suspend him permanently if there were future violations of its rules.
Larger rival Facebook went further, banning Mr Trump from posting “at least” for the remainder of his term, as fears grow that there could be a repeat of Wednesday’s unrest around the inauguration of US president-elect Joe Biden on January 20.
Twitter now faces calls to follow suit, from both outside experts and internally. On Friday about 350 employees wrote to Twitter’s leadership demanding that Mr Trump’s account be permanently suspended, according to a report by The Washington Post.
QAnon emerged in 2017 and saw a meteoric surge of interest last year, linked in part to the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdowns. Social media platforms such as Facebook also initially directed users towards its pages and content in its recommendations algorithms.
More recently members have been among the most fervent believers in Mr Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud perpetrated by his opponents. Members of the conspiracy theory were visible at the riots in Capitol Hill which led to five deaths, including one US Capitol police officer.
Last July Twitter announced a crackdown against QAnon, seeking to reduce the reach of content and accounts linked to the conspiracy theory. Experts have criticised its approach towards its chief proponents as too lax, especially around the 2020 US presidential election.
“QAnon influencers such as Ron Watkins, Sydney Powell and [pro-Trump lawyer] Lin Wood have played instrumental roles in disseminating disinformation and conspiracy theories related to the election,” said Aoife Gallagher, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
On Friday Ms Powell, who has championed Mr Trump’s failed legal effort to set aside election results in key swing states, was sued by Dominion Voting Systems, which manufactures voting machines, for defamation. The company alleged she had made “demonstrably false” claims that it was involved in electoral fraud against Mr Trump.