The world’s most powerful, dangerous and fastest-spreading conspiracy theory has now infected British and Scottish society … and we should be very worried. Neil Mackay investigates
IT’S fitting that QAnon arrived in Scotland and the rest of Britain during coronavirus. This global conspiracy theory is as virulent and transnational as the pandemic. It operates like a virus – spreading from place to place, infecting one carrier after another, the sickness growing exponentially.
Like coronavirus it’s dangerous, and can be deadly – some people don’t even know they’re infected. It’s a threat to global order – just like the virus. And just like the virus, there’s no known cure. Both QAnon and coronavirus are rare and exotic contagions that have only recently been born.
When the world first learned of coronavirus a collective shudder went down the spine of humanity. Just a brief summary of QAnon’s core beliefs is likewise enough to chill the blood of any sane person.
If you haven’t heard of QAnon yet, then what you’re about to read isn’t a joke or exaggeration – it’s part of the belief system of millions of people around the world. Put simply, those in the QAnon cult have no doubt that the world is ruled by a monstrous cabal comprised of politicians and the media. This cabal is stocked with paedophiles and Satanists. Many think Donald Trump is the saviour sent to fight this evil.
The power of this belief system lies in its ability to metastasise and suck in just about any other conspiracy theory imaginable –including far-right hate tropes about Jewish influence over politics and the media.
QAnon is amorphous and ever-changing –like a virus. Most believers aren’t members of any formal organisation. Many hold beliefs in varying degrees of importance. It’s an ideological pick-and-mix -– acolytes can rally around one part of “the cause” while taking little interest in other issues. So some may be motivated by paedophilia allegations while not being drawn to anti-Semitism– and vice versa. However, all share the same hate and fear when it comes to the modern world, and the same religious zealotry when it comes to doing something about it.
QAnon, which thrives online, is fundamentally a psychological disease of the digital age. It’s almost apocalyptic in its vision.
With its focus on child abuse, it has managed to suck in many well-intentioned people. Hashtags and social media posts about “saving children” act almost like a gateway drug. Once the inquisitive are drawn in, though, they go “down the rabbit hole” – as families and friends of cultists describe the loss of their loved ones.
Try to reason with a QAnon believer and you’ll just entrench their paranoid and hysterical view of the world.
I’ve spent nearly 30 years investigating extremism, and I’ve yet to come across a belief system so impenetrable to reason. One QAnon follower I spoke to in this country countered every point I made about the absurdity of their beliefs with comments like: “Well, you would say that wouldn’t you – you and the rest of the media are part of the problem.”
I assured them I wasn’t a member of an evil international cabal and was told: “That may be true. You might not know that you’re doing their work, but you are.” This person has a family and responsible job. They earn a good salary. They have a decent education. They see themselves as trying to do good in the world. They could be your neighbour, relative or friend.
“If you think the world is as you see it, then you’re blind, I’m afraid,” they said. “Dangerous people are controlling things. You need to open your eyes and wake up before it’s too late.”
We should to be worried about QAnon’s arrival on our shores – but we also need perspective too. QAnon is rampant in America. Bumper stickers supporting QAnon are commonplace. It’s now part of American national politics. QAnon believers are running for office with the Republican Party and some may succeed. QAnon has spread to Europe but so far it’s nowhere near as virulent as in the USA.
When it comes to Britain, QAnon is so far most visible in England, but that’s purely a numbers game – England is bigger than the other three nations and so signs of QAnon were bound to be seen first in places like London. But it’s also here in Scotland – alive and well, although it’s still tiny and only just starting to take hold. Even small signs of QAnon arriving here, though, should scare us because once this very modern madness takes root, it seems impossible to either contain it, or remove it from society.
“The world will eventually come round to the truth,” the QAnon follower said. “We just need to wait for the rest of you to catch up.”
Let’s go back to the beginning so we can get a handle on the origins of QAnon. The conspiracy theory seems to have started with an internet posting in October 2017 by just one individual on the 4chan website – a place for all things bizarre online. The poster called themselves “Q Clearance Patriot” – a reference to US government “Q Clearance” allowing access to top-secret information. The post was called “Calm Before the Storm”. Not long before the posting, Trump had referred to a meeting with US military chiefs as “the calm before the storm”. When asked by reporters what he meant, Trump would only say: “You’ll find out.” The Q post is seen as a reference to Trump’s comments.
The Q poster went on to claim that Trump was planning a countercoup against the “deep state” – conspiracy-speak for the US government. Soon, the conspiracy sprouted deranged arms and legs. People like the Clintons were accused of being Satanic paedophiles and child killers. In “the Storm”, these enemies of the people will be rounded up and dealt with. However, just like religious death cults which promise an end of the world that never comes, dates for the coming of “the Storm” have been and gone without undermining QAnon in the minds of believers.
Within months of the first Q posting, up to 200,000 people were watching its propaganda videos online. QAnon’s paranoia found fertile ground in America. Less than a year before the first Q posting the so-called “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory exploded into real life. Pizzagate involved online claims that high-ranking Democrats were involved in paedophilia and child trafficking. One of the bases of this criminal enterprise, in the minds of conspiracy theorists, was the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington DC. It was, of course, utter nonsense but, in December 2016, a 28-year-old man entered the pizza parlour with an AR-15 style rifle and opened fire. He told arresting officers he was there to save children. In January 2017, another man rang up the Besta pizzeria, on the same city block as Comet, saying he wanted to “save the kids” and promising to “finish what the other guy didn’t”. In January 2019, Comet Ping Pong suffered an arson attack.
Coronavirus has driven QAnon out of the internet and on onto the streets. Distrust over how Western governments have handled the pandemic has slowly merged with the QAnon belief system as some people, angered and suspicious about masks and lockdowns, found themselves slowly but surely exposed to paranoid conspiracy theories online.
In America today, 56 per cent of Republicans believe that QAnon is mostly or partly true. More than a dozen candidates running for Congress have promoted QAnon. Rabid Trump supporter Jo Rae Perkins, seeking election in Oregon, has said: “I stand with Q and the team. Thank you Anons, and thank you patriots. And together, we can save our republic.”
Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican nominee in Georgia, said: “There’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping paedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it.” Trump endorsed her nomination and referred to her as a “future Republican star”. Media analytics show that Trump has amplified QAnon messaging on social media at least 200 times. When asked in August about QAnon, Trump said: “I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much. Which I appreciate.” When Trump was asked by a reporter if he supported a theory which wants to save “the world from this Satanic cult of paedophiles”, the president replied: “Is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?”
By this August, QAnon had millions of followers across thousands of pages on Facebook. Social media organisations are now clamping down on the cult. The FBI sees QAnon as a domestic terror threat. In 2018, an armed man motivated by Q postings online blocked the Hoover Dam in an armoured van. In 2019, a member of a Mafia family was killed, allegedly by a Q supporter who thought the gangster was part of the “deep state”. The gunman is said to have thought he “was enjoying the protection of President Trump himself”.
There have been kidnappings, arrests for various crimes ranging from the petty to the extremely serious, as well as threats and abuse all linked to QAnon.
At the end of August, a rally protesting coronavirus restrictions in Berlin had prominent QAnon – and far right – support. In Britain, the first obvious sign of QAnon’s arrival came in January 2020 when the QAnon flag was flown over Camelot Castle in Cornwall. The castle is owned by John Mappin, a supporter of Nigel Farage. Mappin is a key figure in Turning Point UK, the British wing of a pro-Trump American organisation that’s been endorsed by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Priti Patel.
This August there were some 96,000 social media interactions related to QAnon in the UK, and there have been more than a dozen protests in England, Scotland and Wales, which have had some link, connection or association with the conspiracy theory. It’s growing here fast.
QAnon in the UK – as in the States – overlaps with anti-lockdown protests, the anti-vaccination movement and anti-paedophile or “paedophile hunter” groups. There is also a distinct crossover with the far right.
At an anti-lockdown protest outside the Scottish Parliament earlier this month, placards were on display promoting QAnon conspiracy theories. One of the biggest worries around QAnon centres on it luring in ordinary people genuinely concerned about the protection of children. At a demonstration in Glasgow this month by the organisation “Save Our Children”, speakers, concerned about child trafficking, stood in front of a banner bearing the QAnon slogan ‘WWG1WGA’ – which stands for ‘Where We Go One, We Go All’.
At a recent demo in London, protesters linked to the group “Freedom for the Children UK” (FFTCUK) chanted “paedophiles” outside Buckingham Palace. Some had QAnon signs, and some supporters of FFTCUK have voiced QAnon ideas. Self-evidently, claims about Prince Andrew feed into the QAnon worldview. At the recent anti-lockdown rally in Trafalgar Square, attended by 10,000 people, QAnon placards were on show.
In Manchester, an FFTCUK event was supported by another new outfit called Stand Up X (SUX) which is anti-5G and anti-lockdown. FFTCUK and SUX are apparently planning future events together.
Some groups similar to these in Scotland, with supporters who have apparent QAnon sympathies, have around 5,000 members online. In the UK, the number can be anywhere between 12,000-40,000. Some online Scottish supporters of similar organisations believe the SNP Government is trying to silence dissent by enforcing lockdown. One said it “wants to divide us so we can’t stand up” to stop child abuse.
There are claims that it’s “time to act” and calls for supporters to move from the online world to the real world. “If you want to sit back and watch your own enslavement that’s fine. We need to step up,” one said.
There’s a lot of money to be made from QAnon madness. Just go to Amazon online and search for QAnon. There’s page after page of merchandise from hats to books, T-shirts to mugs. Someone is getting rich.
There’s a site online for the families of cultists called QAnonCasualties. Some postings are heartbreaking. People talk about their parents getting “sucked into the Q bulls**t”, of families torn apart, friends falling out. Online there’s testimony after testimony of real despair as loved ones are lost to conspiracy theories surrounding government cabals, child abuse, Covid, lockdown, Jews, vaccines, 5G, chemtrails – a whirling mess of every modern paranoia, hysteria, bigotry and delusion that’s out there.
A Scot posting on another social media site said that their friend had “fallen into the QAnon rabbit hole” and now thought coronavirus quarantine was a cover for paedophiles and sex traffickers in the Scottish Government.
David Lawrence, a researcher with the anti-extremist watchdog Hope Not Hate, has spoken of how “belief in one conspiracy theory can open the door to many more”. The line, he says, between anti-lockdown conspiracies and QAnon is “blurring”.
Lawerence warns that “these loose movements are still in their infancy, and are likely to continue to gather momentum as Covid-19 measures continue, and the US election approaches”. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which studies extremism, says Britain ranks second in the world when it comes to QAnon-related tweets. There were 309,652 between November 2019 and June 2020.
Chloe Colliver, the think tank’s senior policy director, says believers in Covid conspiracies have found “ready-made audiences in the QAnon crowd and vice versa”.
Organisations like the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right worry that QAnon could start to influence UK politics once it gains a foothold among vocal conspiracy theorists, and begin to erode the foundations of liberal democracy – just as it’s doing in America.
There’s a school of thought that in the era of internet pranksterism the first Q poster could have been a performance artist – and their joke, aimed at mocking gullibility in the digital age, quite simply went viral, accidentally infecting millions around the world. Given the absurdity of QAnon beliefs the theory makes sense.
The only alternative is that the first poster was just a far-right nut trying to stir up hate who succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
Whatever lay behind that first post, what we have on our hands today is very real – a dangerous and potentially deadly cult that’s gone global, is backed by millions, and is causing real harm to real human beings. It’s now here on our shores, and it’s starting to get a foothold in British and Scottish culture and society.
We need to be worried. We need to be vigilant. Remember the old adage: where America goes, the rest of the world follows.
One can only hope that the conspiracy destroys itself through its own dangerous absurdity. Considering the future of QAnon brings to mind a comment by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges about Nazi Germany. “Nazism,” he said, “suffers from unreality … it is uninhabitable.”
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