QAnon conspiracy theorists pushed off of major social media platforms in the aftermath of the U.S. Capitol riot have a new problem: falling for obvious impersonators of their right-wing heroes on the messaging app Telegram.
A months-long purge of QAnon believers on sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter climaxed in the days following the Jan. 6 riot, with Twitter alone banning 70,000 QAnon-related accounts. QAnon believers’ attempts to organize elsewhere online hit another wall in January when Amazon pulled server support from conservative site Parler, taking the upstart social media network offline for a month.
Faced with few other options, QAnon believers and other Trump supporters opened accounts on Telegram, a social media network and messaging app that was already popular with conservative figures banned from more mainstream platforms.
Many of the Telegram newcomers found that some of MAGAworld’s biggest stars had joined them. Donald Trump himself was on the app, amassing more than 200,000 followers within a few days. So was Melania Trump, posting herself to Telegram as “Lady Melania Trump.” Air Force General John Hyten joined the app and began issuing cryptic, QAnon-style pronouncements that thrilled believers eager to see President Joe Biden arrested and Trump returned to power.
Except all of the accounts, including the accounts representing both Trumps and Hyten, were fake. Many of them were later removed, or marked as scams on the app. Despite that, QAnon believers soon started taking the fake accounts’ pronouncements as genuine, as though they really were coming from the Trumps or Hyten.
Attempts to convince QAnon believers not to follow have been inadvertently hindered by Lin Wood, the pro-Trump attorney whose legal attacks on the election results turned him into a MAGAworld star.
“Melania is a genius,” Wood posted on his genuine Telegram account on Jan. 18, linking his hundreds of thousands of Telegram followers to the fake Melania Trump Telegram account. “A beautiful genius. And she loves her husband and her son. They are geniuses too.”
Wood’s backing proved to be a powerful endorsement for some of the fake accounts. In QAnon chatrooms on Telegram, believers said they had been convinced the Melania Trump account was fake themselves—until they saw Wood post about it, persuading them that it was in fact real.
Wood, who has claimed the Georgia State Bar wants him to take a mental health evaluation to retain his membership, didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether he realized the Melania Trump account was fake.
Telegram didn’t respond to a request for comment about how it’s responding to the obvious impersonators. Telegram appears to have added scam warnings to at least some of the Trump-themed accounts — an account impersonating former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that has amassed more than 16,000 followers, for example, has a red “SCAM” warning attached to its profile page. The accounts impersonating Hyten and the Trumps, meanwhile, have been deleted.
Not every account, however, has been removed. The leading fake account belongs to a hoaxer impersonating Lt. Gen Tom McInerney, a retired Air Force general who has a post-military career as a conspiracy theorist through frequent appearances on Alex Jones’s InfoWars show.
McInerney, a leading proponent of the birther conspiracy theory about Barack Obama’s birthplace, is a powerful voice on the far right. Days after Trump’s election defeat, the real McInerney backed a conspiracy theory about nefarious computer programs named Hammer and Scorecard stealing the election. Thanks to McInerney’s credentials as a former general who ostensibly knows about high-level intelligence matters, the hoax exploded on the right, with many of its adherents citing McInerney’s endorsement as the only proof they needed.
On Telegram, the fake McInerney account has amassed more than 158,000 followers by playing off of the real McInerney’s reputation. McInerney himself disavowed the account in a January internet radio appearance, flatly saying it didn’t belong to him.
But that hasn’t stopped the account from growing increasingly popular. The remaining conspiracy theorists on Twitter, for example, cite the account’s claims as fact, or circulate screenshots of its Telegram messages as proof of a discredited hoax that Hillary Clinton was caught on tape terrorizing a child.
The account’s mysterious operator doesn’t appear to have an ulterior motive, aside from urging people to buy bitcoin and fire their liberal employees (“Terminate them immediately”). The McInerney account appears to be just another QAnon promoter using McInerney’s name to win more followers to the conspiracy theory. On Thursday, the account’s owner claimed that Trump’s upcoming speech Sunday at the Conservative Political Action Conference qualifies as a State of the Union address, meaning that Trump is still the president.
Still, the bogus accounts have proved to be more successful at attracting Telegram followers than genuine Trump allies on the platform.
The fake McInerney page has nearly 160,000 subscribers, with each post viewed more than 100,000 times. By comparison, former Trump adviser Roger Stone has less than 30,000 followers on his real Telegram page, while InfoWars figure Paul Joseph Watson has 43,000 followers. Former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, who met with Trump and his advisers in a heated meeting in the final days of the Trump administration and has since emerged as a leading election fraud conspiracy theorist, has 65,000 followers.
Better-known QAnon promoters who have now found their flocks swayed by even less credible voices have begged their followers not to follow the obviously fake accounts.
“Someone somewhere is trying to mind fuck us,” QAnon promoter Jordan Sather complained in a Telegram post.