Daisy Richards is a 33-year-old mother of two, from Birmingham, whose WhatsApp group chats centre mainly around her kids, with conversations typically ranging from school runs to outbreaks of nits to play dates. But in recent weeks, Daisy has become shocked and bewildered to read many of the fellow mothers ranting about utterly bizarre – and deeply worrying -theories they have read on social media that COVID-19 is actually a ploy to get governments to control us. One in particular sticks to mind: “You all need to wake up before it’s too late” she wrote, much to the shock of the rest of the class.
“The government are stopping us from breathing, stopping us from being human beings all because of some invisible virus that only affects people with severe underlying conditions which I doubt is even true! One day you’ll all realise this was just the government’s way of controlling us and replacing us with robots.” She is not alone - another school mum friend of Daisy's has been posting videos of herself on Facebook, saying things like “You have to understand this [pandemic] is all to hide the fact the world’s governments have for years been abusing children.”
"It's like these women - previously not particularly interested in news or politics - have been brainwashed and have become possessed. It's very upsetting to see."
What these women in Daisy's life – and thousands like them – are speaking of is the powerful and dangerous far-right U.S conspiracy theory, QAnon, currently spreading like wildfire in the UK – where it now has the second largest following on the planet. Experts claim that this is due to anxieties and suspicions about the pandemic, and people falling down various Internet conspiracy rabbit holes during lockdown. In fact, it has been considered such a threat to society that Facebook has now banned all forms of content related to it with the exception of posts from individual profiles, marking the social media network’s most dramatic escalation in the fight against misinformation and what they are calling “militarized social movements.” And yet, in encrypted groups like WhatsApp groups and Facebook Groups, the conspiracies continue to be shared.
In essence, " what many QAnon followers believe – wait for it - is that the world is being run by a cabal of elite Satanic-worshiping paedophiles (including Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen DeGeneres amongst others) who harvest and drink children’s blood for its elixir-like properties as well as raping and murdering them. In this scenario, Donald Trump is the ‘White Knight’ saviour (Boris Johnson often his ‘White Hat’ cohort) who is working undercover to rescue the millions of trafficked children. Trump is also battling a ‘Deep State’ who are concealing the child-abusers’ nefarious activities through controlling the media, Hollywood and other major global institutions, including governments; and that one day soon a ‘Great Awakening’ will happen when all this will be exposed and figures such as Hillary Clinton (a prominent ‘baddie’) will be arrested and executed.
“I believe all royal families are involved, as well as the Vatican, religious organisations, certain children’s charities, United Nations, Red Cross, politicians, government and famous celebrities” claims Melissa Townsend*, 30, a mother of two, from London, who regularly promotes such beliefs on her social media. “They are powerful, wealthy and famous. The elite of society is hiding a disgusting secret. It’s one big paedophile club and QAnon are doing a great job [at exposing it.] They are just ordinary people who have united to expose the filth and truth of our society.”
Fuelled by social media, various popular YouTube conspiracy documentaries and even Donald Trump himself, these theories have now morphed and are luring in new believers, often unwittingly, under the guise of raising awareness of the highly emotive issue of child-trafficking. Throw into the mix legitimate concerns surrounding the death in custody of convicted child sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein, the subsequent arrest of his ex-girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, and his numerous high-profile associates and it is perhaps easy to see why so many are falling prey to the theories.
“Difficult times like these are threatening and people are looking for explanations that make them feel better,” explains Karen Douglas, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kent. “Conspiracy theories typically accuse a secret and powerful group of doing corrupt, evil things behind the scenes and QAnon is no different in this respect.”
Under the banners #SaveOurChildren or #FreedomForTheChildren the associated groups in the UK claim to want to raise greater awareness about the sex trafficking of children. But scratch the surface and you will find QAnon theories – that often connect conspiracies on Covid-19, antivaccine, anti-5G as well as anti-Semitic and antimigrant tropes - festering.
Amy Brill, 20, who works in a nursery and is one of the moderators of the UK Facebook group SaveOurChildren, which had over 5,800 members and is still allowed by Facebook, says. “I believe this movement and everything around it is a LOT bigger than we could ever imagine. One of the videos I had watched mentioned a lot of mind control which then led me to believe that maybe half of these celebrities and other influential people are being controlled into taking part in these horrific things! I think QAnon are amazing and I think they are onto something big!”
To date, the identity of ‘QAnon’ remains a secret – adding to the theory’s appeal. The anonymous leader ‘Q’ is believed to potentially be ex-military with high-level security clearance in government, giving them access to classified information. QAnon first emerged in October 2017 when a user calling themselves Q first posted a series of cryptic messages on the website 4chan claiming they are working covertly to inform the world of President Trump’s ongoing battle with the ‘Deep State’. Users claiming to be Q have since made over 4,000 posts.
While no one has ever come forward as Q, an investigation by NBC in the States pointed to two 4chan moderators calling themselves Pamphlet Anon and BaruchtheScribe who had once reached out to the minor YouTube star, Tracy Diaz, who helped popularise the 2016 PizzaGate theory.
The theory took hold following the leak of Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails in 2016 and alleged that Clinton and her 2016 Presidential campaign manager, John Podesta, were running a child sex-trafficking ring out of Washington D.C. pizza parlour, Comet Ping Pong. These unfounded claims were based on 4chan users spotting recurring uses of the word ‘pizza’ in Clinton’s hacked emails (‘c.p’ meaning cheese pizza is sometimes used in paedophile chatrooms to denote explicit images of children.) So potent did the theory become, that on the 4th of December that year, vigilante gunman Edgar Maddison Welch showed up at Comet Ping Pong with a military-style assault rifle, and opened fire at a store cupboard. He found no trafficked children and the restaurant does not have a basement. Welch was sentenced to four years in prison.
But it still holds power today. “It was after doing my own research on PizzaGate and everything going on in this world with child sex trafficking and paedophiles, I decided to create my group on Facebook to help others find more information,” says Amy Brill.
As the Comet Ping Pong incident shows, it is important to recognise that QAnon is not a harmless delusion, but a powerful movement with links to the far right that now encompasses other forms of political thinking. Last year the FBI classed QAnon a domestic terror threat and it has been reportedly linked to violent crimes, including two murders and a mass-murder in Germany. In April, Jessica Prim, an alleged QAnon devotee was arrested after driving to New York City with 18 knives allegedly to assassinate Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. A reddit forum ‘QAnoncasualties’ offering support for those whose loved ones have fallen prey to the theories currently has over 27,000 members.
It is also a highly effective piece of Trump propaganda because at its core the community seeks to denigrate the President’s opponents while idolising his supporters. Q believers can be seen at Trump rallies carrying banners and wearing t-shirts emblazoned with ‘We are Q’. The President himself has refused to denounce the movement.
Jacob Davey is a Senior Research manager at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD) a think-tank that investigates extremism and who led a recent report into the rise and effect of QAnon; he likens it to a cult.
“When you see a new community emerge who are so heavily indoctrinated into a worldview as upside down and detached from reality as QAnon is, the conspiracy theory itself becomes virulent,” he tells me.
He also points to the specific and subtle dangers of UK groups such as #SaveOurChildren. “They tend to frame themselves in a slightly softer way and are not so explicitly affiliated with QAnon,” he says. “So, they could potentially bring in well-meaning people into the sphere of influence…But that can [also] provide an avenue for further indoctrination into deeper, more concerning conspiracy theories.”
According to the ISD, this particular strain of conspiracy thinking is emerging as a female issue, especially with mothers.
Rachel Reins*, 38, from Manchester is one such mother who has found herself getting lost in QAnon theory since the beginning of lockdown.
“It’s been really stressing me out,” she says. “I know that it is controversial, but there’s a lot out there that really does point to Trump working to expose this elite trafficking ring. When the time comes and all this gets exposed, it will change the world.”
Rachel is a yoga instructor whose social media pages display inspirational quotes and an interest in New Age thinking, and certainly not someone who would ever be associated with a far-right agenda. But, according to Davey, women like Rachel are the perfect candidate for a new brand of customised QAnon messaging that has been dubbed ‘pastel QAnon’.
“It’s interesting because the imagery which ‘pastel QAnon’ use looks slightly different from the usual QAnon, in-your-face, hardcore stuff. It’s material which has been adopted to suit an aesthetic, it’s basically Instagram influencing, but for QAnon.”
“Conspiracy theories can make people become disengaged with important facets of society,” says Professor Douglas. “We need a lot more research, critical thinking and digital literacy.”
Davey agrees and points out that while social media platforms are claiming to try to tackle disinformation, proper regulation of the industry is needed. “Because conspiracy theories such as these are completely aiding the degradation of trust in all our key institutions,” he says. “And if we live in a world where nothing is true, and you don’t have any faith in our institutions anymore, then that opens up the door for a new generation of despots.”
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