Press Release

ADL & Moonshot Partnered to Reduce Extremist Violence During US Presidential Election, Redirected Thousands Towards Safer Content

Searches included “Join Proud Boys,” “QAnon plan to save the world,” “how to make napalm”

New York, New York, February 1, 2021— ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) and Moonshot today launched a joint report on their efforts to track and counter US election-related violence and disinformation from September to December 2020. ‘From Shitposting to Sedition: Tracking and countering conspiracy theories, disinformation and violence around the 2020 US presidential election’ details how they used advertising to reach individuals who searched online for violent extremist material and redirect them to non-violent content that exposed the falsehoods of extremist narratives. The project was funded with the generous support of Kathryn and James Murdoch’s Quadrivium Foundation.

Moonshot safeguarded over 34,000 searches related to violence or violence-inciting disinformation related to the election. Their advertising took users to safer content selected to help users disengage from harm - including harm caused by QAnon conspiracy theories. The recommended  content was viewed for more than 33 hours in total.

While the campaign was live, searches such as “how to join three percenters” (1,679 searches) redirected users to videos which talked about why people might feel hostile toward federal government; “how to make a molotov cocktail” (319 searches) redirected to videos which explained how rhetoric is used to normalize violence; and searches which included the phrase “kill Mitch McConnell” (361 searches) redirected to a local news anchor asking viewers to reflect on their mental health and wellbeing: “You don’t know what you’re carrying until you set it down [...] give yourselves a little grace.”

Moonshot also served ads that redirected users making QAnon-related searches (such as “qanon plan to save the world”, 816 searches) to videos on how to resist the appeal of conspiracies. A subset of searchers who showed clear engagement with the movement ("we are Q"; “where has Q gone”) were also redirected to r/Qult_Headquarters, a subreddit dedicated to debunking the conspiracy theory, which took center stage during the 6 January insurrection.

‘From Shitposting to Sedition’ presents new data from Google Search plus in-depth analysis of the rhetorical patterns, slang, memes, organizations, individuals, merchandise, iconography and events that were discussed and organized on Parler, Telegram, Gab, 4chan, MeWe, MyMilitia, and Zello, among others. Search data is available at the county level across all 50 states. The states with the highest search volumes per capita were, in descending order, Oregon, Arizona, Washington, Illinois, and Kansas, and the report provides specific analysis of each.

Throughout the reporting period, ADL routinely shared the data and insights gathered by Moonshot in threat briefings with civil society and government actors, including Governors, State Attorneys General, and over 100 mayors and county officials, as well as with law enforcement nationwide as they prepared to mitigate violence motivated by the election.

More than 35,000 searches related to conspiracy theories, including QAnon (24,000+) and election rigging (3,000+). More than 11,000 searches related to armed groups, which spiked after high-profile events: forums (such as “Proud Boys Twitter”), merchandise (“Proud Boys shirt”) and membership (“how to join Proud Boys”) collectively rose 138% following the Proud Boys’ mention in the first presidential debate on 29 September, and again around the Million MAGA Marches in November and December.

The report also provides rich qualitative analysis of armed groups, conspiracies, and targeted and political violence. It reveals that election fraud narratives were being propagated by armed militia as early as June 2020; that in the aftermath of the presidential election - and while “Q” went dark - the QAnon community began talking openly about suicidal ideation; and that parts of the QAnon movement are now deliberately aligning with anti-vax conspiracies in an attempt to maintain their relevance.

Moonshot’s Director of Product, Micah Clark, said, “The individuals who laid siege to the US Capitol have built a social movement that will outlast the political moment we are in. The most resilient and insidious parts of the movement are rooted in conspiratorial beliefs, mis- and disinformation, and white supremacy. These are long term problems that will require a comprehensive strategy. There’s never been a better time to start, but it will take years.”

On the spate of takedowns by social media platforms in early 2021, Clark said, “De-platforming extremists is a tactic, not a strategy. It breaks the momentum of the movement, but does nothing to rehabilitate the individuals who fill its ranks in the long term. This report demonstrates that many actors who make up these groups have significant vulnerabilities that have contributed to their participation. We need to find more ways to help these individuals make meaning in their lives in less destructive ways.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of ADL said, “This report demonstrates clearly that extremist violence, such as the attack that shook our nation on January 6, is being mainstreamed in online forums. Using cutting edge insights we are effectively preventing extremists from reaching and possibly radicalizing more Americans. We were excited to join with Moonshot on this project; a partnered approach to countering extremism is just one piece of a whole-of-society approach that our nation desperately needs.”

Notes to editors:

  • Moonshot CVE is a wholly independent and privately owned technology company based in Washington, DC and London, working to end online harms, applying evidence, ethics and human rights.
  • The Redirect Method forms part of a wider suite of methodologies and technologies Moonshot has developed and deployed online in over 30 countries to counter online harms. It was developed in collaboration with Google’s tech incubator, Jigsaw, in 2016.
    • When someone conducts a search via a search engine that indicates a desire to find harmful material or engage in harm, an advertisement is triggered, the ad copy invites them to click and when they do, they’re taken to positive, alternative content designed to disengage them from harm.
  • Moonshot measures and evaluates the efficacy of every Redirect Method campaign. The methodology was evaluated by RAND Corporation in 2018 and covered in the NYT in December 2019.

Moonshot CVE is a global social enterprise working to end online harms, applying evidence, ethics and human rights. We design new methodologies and technologies to respond effectively to harms that threaten public safety, including violent extremism, gender-based violence, disinformation, and serious organised crime. We deliver programs in over 30 countries to reduce violence and reach people engaging in or affected by online harms.

ADL is the world’s leading anti-hate organization. Founded in 1913 in response to an escalating climate of anti-Semitism and bigotry, its timeless mission is to protect the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all. Today, ADL continues to fight all forms of hate with the same vigor and passion. A global leader in exposing extremism, delivering anti-bias education, and fighting hate online, ADL is the first call when acts of anti-Semitism occur. ADL’s ultimate goal is a world in which no group or individual suffers from bias, discrimination or hate.