By Raquel Miguel, External Researcher at EU DisinfoLab
- Despite the recent measures taken by Patreon to combat QAnon-related disinformation, EU DisinfoLab has found that content linked to these theories continues to circulate and be monetised on the crowdfunding platform in Spain.
- Recent measures taken by Patreon are exclusively targeting QAnon creators, but do not cover disinformation in a broader sense. We observed that other conspiratorial content on COVID-19 denialism or 5G is also being monetised
- Some users claim explicitly to use Patreon as a secondary channel to evade “censorship” by other platforms such as YouTube. Therefore, Patreon seems to become a safe haven for disinformation and extreme content that have been removed for violating the policies of other platforms.
- Not disclosing the money collected by some creators prevents researchers to investigate the scope and monetisation of disinforming content on crowdfunding platforms such as Patreon. This problem frames a more general issue of a lack of transparency in measuring the profitability of disinformation.
- Recently a debate has also arisen as to whether the policies implemented by the platforms to combat disinformation cover all languages equally or whether they focus only on English and leave other languages aside. We wonder if this factor could have had an influence in the case of our findings about Patreon.
- In the context of negotiations on the Digital Services Act (DSA), the EU’s co-legislators must account for the role of crowdfunding platforms in helping to finance the disinformation ecosystem, and identify measures to increase transparency in this domain.
The role of two crowdfunding platforms (Ulule and Tipeee) in the recent creation, dissemination, and funding of the COVID-19 conspiratorial documentary “Hold Up” in France, highlighted once again the importance of such platforms in the production, spread and monetisation of disinformation.
In the context of the US elections and the COVID-19 infodemic, the EU DisinfoLab and several other organisations have underlined the need for these platforms to act on content moderation and the enforcement of their terms of service to avoid being hijacked by conspiracy movements such as QAnon.
As part of their response, one of the largest micro-funding platforms, Patreon, announced on October 22nd a new policy that consists of the removal of creator accounts that “advance disinformation promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory”. Consequently, accounts owned by some well-known US QAnon activists were removed rapidly along with others that promoted this conspiracy theory. Days before the new regulation came into force, EU DisinfoLab had spotted a user named Ameli A. spreading QAnon’s conspiracies theories in Spanish. This account was suspended as part of the new policy put in place.
However, this measure didn’t succeed in fully stopping the spread and monetisation of Qanon conspiracy theories on Patreon. In a specific study on Spanish disinformation accounts present on Patreon, EU DisinfoLab found that content linked to these theories continues to circulate and be monetised in two ways:
- Isolated accounts with explicit reference to QAnon and claiming affiliation to the movement. This is the case of the creator Marta S., whose account was still active on the 17th of December despite the measure announced by the platform on 22nd October. In her account’s biography she claims: “I enter into the conspiracy theories landscape in search of the truth, enthusiastically supporting the QAnon phenomenon and denouncing the Satanist perversions that seek to lead us to destruction and slavery”. This explicit support to QAnon does not seem to have been sufficient for the suspension of the account, neither does the implied content such as the three levels of membership proposed by this account: Red Pills (a term that QAnon supporters use to mean whose who want to awaken to truth, as in the film “Matrix”); Q-stions and Anons (as direct literal references to the name of the movement).
The author also makes explicit references to QAnon theories in a post titled “Extraction of Adrenochrome” which is tagged with keywords like “Pizzagate”, “Qanon España”, “Spanon” (local terminological versions referring to the conspiracy movement in Spain). The adrenochrome refers to one of QAnon’s main theories which claims that this drug is extracted from children who have been kidnapped and tortured by an international elite paedophile network. On other social networks such as Twitter or YouTube, the author also openly defends QAnon.
- Accounts with non-explicit affiliation to QAnon, but references to its theories, language and narratives, such as the alleged consumption of the adrenochrome drug by the elites. This particular conspiracy theory is mentioned by creator Alpha Mind in a video title “Adrenochrome and its consumption by the elite”. His account is dubbed “the channel of awakened minds” and was still active on the 17th of December. The idea of awakening is also quite present in QAnon’s narratives which regularly refer to the awakening to the truth. “The awakened ones” for Alpha Mind are the donors who are willing to pay 2 euros a month.
Also, other conspiracy theories are interwoven with QAnon narratives. Some COVID-19 denialists, for example, adopted part or the totality of the anti “new world order” (NOM in Spanish) discourse and there are connections between these types of narratives and QAnon conspiracy theories (“alleged elites’ desire of controlling the world”). These kinds of theories have often also an antisemitic dimension. Even when they do not contain any direct references to QAnon, anti-new world order activists often ended to spread similar messages.
A Patreon creator that spreads such eclectic content is La Verdad nos hará libres (Truth will make us free, active on 17th December). He publishes diatribes against the “genocide from new world order”, or attacks Jeffrey Epstein. Although the accusations against Epstein are a fact, QAnon and conspiracy theorists have instrumentalised them to reinforce theories such as paedophilia as a widespread practice among the world’s elites. To fight the new world order, La Verdad nos hará libres enters several “thematic arenas” such as music or even food, but also the economy and the monetary system, spreading multiple conspiracy theories and fringe content on Patreon.
These examples illustrate that the measures implemented by Patreon are not fully enforced and still leave room for the circulation of QAnon theories on the platform, especially as this policy is only addressed to “QAnon-dedicated creators”, but not to those who “propagate or analyse the theory without specifically dedicating themselves to its dissemination. This ambiguous formulation allows QAnon conspiracy theories and other controversial content to continue to be present on Patreon. Moreover, the criteria used by the platform to define what is “QAnon dedicated creators” also appeared to us not transparent enough to evaluate whether their policy is implemented properly.
In a more exhaustive analysis about the monetisation of disinformation on Patreon in Spain, EU DisinfoLab has also found accounts that disseminate disinformation and harmful conspiracy theories about a range of topics such as the COVID-19 pandemic or 5G. This is the case of Trotapoker, who claims to have opened their channel to denounce the PLANDEMIA (a term used by virus deniers who claim it is an excuse for a global population control plan coming from Judy Mikovits’ controversy and debunked video “Plandemic” ); or YoM-5, who published on Patreon: “The reality of 5G that they don’t want you to know”.
These examples show that the problem of disinformation monetisation on Patreon is wider than simply QAnon and that more actions are needed against the spread and monetisation disinformation in a broader sense on the crowdfunding platform.
Overview about the use of Patreon to monetize disinformation in Spain
Overall, EU DisinfoLab has identified at least 17 Spanish accounts that monetise and/or spread QAnon content or other conspiracy theories on Patreon. As it is not possible to access part of the content without funding the creators, our findings rely on aspects such as disinforming or QAnon-related titles and tags used for the publications. We also examined the accounts’ biography and went to search for similar content published by the creators on other platforms since the monetisation often involves the use of platforms (YouTube, Vimeo…) Here are some of our key findings:
- In most cases, the creators monetise the content directly on Patreon (posts are only accessible for people sponsoring the creators) but there are also cases of indirect monetization (monetization through links leading to other platforms), an aspect that was flagged and analysed by Eu DisinfoLab in the mentioned previous report.
- Some creators display links that redirects users to other platforms such as YouTube or LBRY where they can monetise their content. Some even offer almost all of their videos for free by redirecting to their YouTube channel.
- Another modus operandi is for the creators to advertise on Patreon that they are looking for financing through PayPal or provide the author’s email to explore other financing alternatives.
- Only a few accounts manage to attract a substantial number of “patrons” or funders. In most of the cases, when the information is available, the income from financing is relatively modest and Patreon seems to be a secondary or complementary form of financing. The revenues of the studied accounts that make public their data range from €7 to €262 collected per month. But many others hide this information. This makes it difficult to assess the role of this platform in their activity, but according to the numbers of patrons and sponsorship options, this could reach up to €62,300 per month for one of the identified accounts. More transparency is probably required for this kind of data.
- For disinformation actors, crowdfunding platforms like Patreon are often part of a wider scheme to finance their activities. A good example is how Jorge Guerra, who publishes extremely regularly content that accuses the “elites of controlling the world”. He advertised on social media multiple means to finance his activities including Patreon, although he claims that his intention is not to monetise.
- Sometimes the content offered for a fee on Patreon is freely accessible on other platforms. Creators openly explain that they seek voluntary donation on Patreon, but that their creations will be public on YouTube. This means that the model of these platforms does not always involve a direct monetisation of the content. Creators who have built a strong reputation previously on other platforms can use Patreon as a platform to get some sponsorship which is not related to the content and give them more freedom to create.
- Some users explicitly claim to use Patreon as a secondary channel to evade “censorship” by other platforms such as YouTube. Patreon seems to be perceived as a safe haven for disinformation and fringe content that has been suppressed for violating the policies of other platforms. For example, Jorge Guerra points out how Patreon acts as a back-up channel to go to in case of censorship by YouTube. Meanwhile, Alfa Mind openly claims to use Patreon to publish content that is not allowed on YouTube. “Exclusive access to videos that are prohibited on YouTube. These videos are only accessible on Patreon, as their content is very explicit and shocking”, are offered to the patrons who pay €3 per month.
Conclusion and recommendations
- Despite the recent measures taken by Patreon to combat QAnon-related disinformation, this kind of content continues to circulate and be monetised.
- Instead of focusing on content moderation, Patreon actually applies its moderation to the nature of the creators. We consider that the criteria used by the platform to define who are “QAnon dedicated creators” are not transparent enough to help external researchers to evaluate if policies are enforced properly.
- Recent measures taken by Patreon exclusively target QAnon content, but fail to address disinformation in a broader sense: on Patreon, it is still possible to monetise both indirectly and directly harmful disinformation on topics such as COVID-19, as we have stated in our previous publication.
- The study finds that conspiracists and fringe movements are investing resources to be quite present on crowdfunding platforms. They often turn to this method of funding as a way to support their activities on social media and often turn to Patreon as an alternative channel when they feel censored on other platforms, in line with our earlier conclusions.
- As a result of the disinformation that has circulated in the Spanish language in the United States, the debate has also arisen as to whether the policies and enforcement of those policies implemented by the platforms to combat disinformation address content in all languages equally or focus mainly on English language content. We raise this important question in relation to our research findings here of Patreon.
- In the absence of adequately clear, transparent, and enforced terms of service, disinformation can survive and even thrive on crowdfunding platforms like Patreon.
 Pizzagate is a conspiracy theory claiming that Hillary Clinton leads a pedophile network based in a pizza restaurant in Washington, see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pizzagate_conspiracy_theory
 This conspiracy theory was debunked by fact-checkers, see here: https://archive.is/2Xqjh
 From Spanish users or managed from Spain
 Discovery methodology: To find the accounts we use Google dorks searches on Patreon including keywords such as “QAnon” and others used in conspiracy theories against Soros, Bill Gates or anti-vaccines, such as “NOM” (new world order), or terms used by COVID-19 denialists or false cures transmitters.
 At the time of the publication, the account had hidden the money collected. It is no longer publicly visible
 https://www.disinfo.eu/publications/how-covid-19-conspiracists-and-extremists-use-crowdfunding-platforms-to-fund-their-activities/ (archive: https://archive.is/lamFG)
 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-disinformation-spanish-idUSKBN27N0ED (archive: https://archive.is/Dz0RC)