(Reuters) — Facebook on Tuesday classified the QAnon conspiracy theory movement as dangerous and began removing Facebook groups and pages, as well as Instagram accounts that hold themselves out as representatives.

The step escalates an August policy that banned a third of QAnon groups on the platform for promoting violence while allowing most to stay, albeit with content appearing less often in news feeds. Instead of relying on user reports, Facebook staff now will treat QAnon like other militarized bodies, seeking out and deleting groups and pages, the company said in a blog post here.

Since the August restrictions, some QAnon groups have added members and others used coded language to evade detection, for example referring to “cue” instead of Q. Meanwhile, adherents have worked to integrate themselves into other groups, such as those concerned with child safety and those critical of restrictions on gatherings due to the coronavirus, according to researchers at Facebook and elsewhere.

“While we’ve removed QAnon content that celebrates and supports violence, we’ve seen other QAnon content tied to different forms of real-world harm, including recent claims that the West Coast wildfires were started by certain groups,” Facebook wrote.

“QAnon messaging changes very quickly, and we see networks of supporters build an audience with one message and then quickly pivot to another.”

Recent QAnon posts have spread false information about voting and about COVID-19, researchers said, with posts even claiming that U.S. President Donald Trump faked his diagnosis of COVID-19 in order to orchestrate secret arrests.

Classed as a potential source of domestic terrorism by the FBI, QAnon is driven by an anonymous internet poster nicknamed Q, who claims to be a Trump administration insider. The core nonsensical claim is that Trump is secretly leading a crackdown against an enormous pedophile ring that includes prominent Democrats and the Hollywood elite.

There has been no surge in arrests, and the fictitious Satanic rituals the group cites echo longstanding legends used to anger people for political reasons — and often used against minorities.

Trump has praised the group as patriotic, and more than a dozen Republican congressional candidates have promoted it.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn in San Francisco, editing by David Gregorio and Matthew Lewis.)


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