Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
An app promoting a conspiracy theory featuring Hillary Clinton and a child sex ring lingered at the top of Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store for months, with both tech giants receiving a cut of the revenue in the process.
The app, called “QDrops,” sends alerts about a conspiracy theory called Qanon, an offshoot of the “pizzagate” fiction that claimed Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of a Washington pizza shop that didn’t even have a basement. Like many conspiracy theories, Qanon got its start on 4chan, an anonymous posting site that is a seedbed for extreme thought and a large number of online subcultures.
Apple removed the QDrops app from its app store on Sunday after inquiries from NBC News.
“The App Store has always supported all points of view being represented, as long as the apps are respectful to users with differing opinions and the quality of the experience is great,” Apple spokesperson Stephanie Saffer said in a statement. “We have published clear guidelines that developers must follow in order for their apps to be distributed by the App Store, designed to foster innovation and provide a safe environment to all of our users. We will take swift action to remove any apps that violate our guidelines or the law — we take this responsibility very seriously.
Launched in April, the app helped the Qanon conspiracy theory gain traction on the far right. Some followers of the theory have taken real-world action that has caught the attention of local authorities.
A group of believers in Tucson, Arizona, have been arguing with police over the last month at an abandoned homeless encampment, claiming with no evidence that the site was used as a child sex trafficking camp. In June, an armed Q follower blocked an entrance to the Hoover Dam with his vehicle. At recent Trump rallies, families and children have been pictured wearing Qanon merchandise. Billboards promoting websites selling Qanon apparel and other items have sprouted up in Georgia and Oklahoma.
QDrops was built by a husband and wife team out of North Carolina, whose dedication to the Q cause is unknown.
The app peaked not long after it launched in April when it was No. 10 of all paid Apple iOS apps and No. 1 in the “entertainment” section. The app was surrounded by blockbuster games often tailored to kids like Minecraft, and was one spot ahead of the Major League Baseball-licensed game RBI Baseball ’18. Both Apple and Google take a cut of each 99-cent download of QDrops.
Since then, QDrops has largely remained in the top 200 of paid iOS apps, including a run in the top 10 in the entertainment section in the past two weeks, according to two third-party companies that track app rankings using Apple and Google’s RSS feeds.
Apple has previously touted that apps appearing in its store are approved by a staff of moderators. Apple CEO Tim Cook has railed against platforms such as Facebook that did little to stop disinformation from spreading at alarming rates.
“We carefully review each app, and we don’t subscribe to the view that we have to let everyone in that wants to, and if you don’t, you don’t believe in free speech. We don’t believe that,” Cook told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Recode’s Kara Swisher in April.
“We’re like the guy in the corner store. What you sell in that corner store says something about you.”
Justin Hendrix, executive director at NYC Media Lab, a university consortium focused on media technology, said that the app tarnishes Apple’s otherwise sterling reputation of limiting propaganda on its platform.
“There was an argument to be made that Apple was the only major technology company that did not directly profit off misinformation,” he told NBC News. “But this app diminishes it substantially.”
According to the app ranking analytics firm Applyzer, users searching for “Trump” on the Apple App store would receive QDrops as a top-30 suggestion this month.
The app remains live on Google’s Play Store. Google did not respond to a request for comment.
Cashing in on ‘Q’
The fringe Qanon theory has gained enough momentum on the far right to receive promotion from some conservative celebrities, including Roseanne Barr, who repeatedly pushed the Qanon conspiracy on Twitter in the days before ABC canceled her titular sitcom.
The central theme of the Qanon conspiracy theory purports that Clinton and many of the world’s politicians and celebrities are members of a murderous child sex ring who have been covertly arrested by a secret police force created by President Donald Trump and are forced to wear ankle bracelets instead of being imprisoned.
Details of the theory are released in “crumbs” by someone purporting to have a top-secret government classification called “Q clearance.”
Those crumbs — there are now 1,681 of them — are short sentences littered with vague code words that are pushed out as alerts by QDrops after they’re posted to 4chan.
Richard and Adalita Brown, the people behind Tiger Team Inc., which created QDrops, seem to have had the most success in making money through the burgeoning Qanon economy.
Richard Brown declined to share numbers with NBC News, but QDrops “has done rather well,” according to a job posting he wrote in June while looking for a freelancer to make an Android version of the app. (The Android clone now sits in the top 25 in the Entertainment section on the Google Play Store.)
Until April, Tiger Team had two poorly reviewed and considerably less successful apps in Apple’s App Store. One provided an expensive way to access publicly available court documents in North Carolina; the other was an animal sounds app for children.
“We both hold down day jobs, then come home and pour more energy and creativity into our personal passion, writing mobile apps that people truly find useful,” one of the Browns wrote in 2013 as part of a product update.
With QDrops, an app they claim is “BY Patriots For Patriots,” the Browns had a winner.
When reached separately by email and text, both Richard and Adalita Brown declined to comment on their app.
It’s unclear whether the Browns are true Q believers or just profiting from the movement. The Twitter timeline for @qdropsapp promotes far-right publications and tweets conservative talking points. A blog that was registered to Adalita Brown and was active in 2017 is full of posts about tech issues, along with anti-trans and anti-immigrant writings.
The world according to Q
Many adoring fans of ‘Q’ congregate in Facebook groups, and their members seem to use and appreciate Tiger Team’s contribution to the cause.
Connie Rose Steinhauser-Hahne, a small-business owner from Pontiac, Michigan, and member of a closed Facebook group with over 35,000 members called Qanon Follow The White Rabbit, told NBC News she loves getting the alerts that signal a new message from Q.
Since discovering the theory, she has painted a Q-themed mural on a concrete slab off Interstate-69 in Flint, Michigan, and begun selling Q T-shirts and merchandise.
“I started reading it and it made sense to me,” she said. “We weren’t getting news from the mainstream media, but this person or people were giving us the real story.”
But not every Q follower is a fan. In one Qanon Facebook group, Richard Brown, who belongs to five Qanon Facebook groups, spends a good deal of time not just pitching his product, but defending it. Unsurprisingly, many members of the conspiratorial group are suspicious of the QDrops app.
“It’s not malware, data mining, stealing your bank account numbers or any of the other silly things uninformed folks like [another user] accuse it of,” Brown wrote.
In June, Brown complained of “paranoia” and “false rumors” that had spread about the QDrops app in the Facebook group.
“All I see is extreme paranoia on your part. Do you not see that?” Brown wrote.