It is one of the most remarkable triumphs of the COVID-19 pandemic: The conspiracy narrative* “QAnon”, which began in the US in 2017, achieved surprising popularity in Europe in 2020, while at the same time spreading ideas totally undocked from reality and rationality. How did this happen?
In 2020 we have all become painfully aware that a pandemic is a perfect biotope for conspiracy narratives; a global and potentially fatal threat, with an unclear origin and with no proven means to fight and overcome it, is obviously a challenge for many people. If you throw lockdown measures and social stagnation into the mix, threatening the professional and private existence of many people and giving them a lot of free time with few possibilities of distraction, you’re left with a volatile situation.
Quite a few people who have struggled with boredom, who couldn’t stand the uncertainty of the pandemic, and wanted more personal attention and meaning in their lives, have found a way out of their misery on the internet, through reading, interacting with and spreading conspiracy ideologies. It is easy to see why: such ideologies have the advantage of simplifying the inexplicable because they offer easy explanations. In a conspiracy world, nothing happens by chance anymore, everything is ascribed a reason. There are clearly defined notions of good and evil, and every believer can choose and fight for what he or she considers to be good and brave. Furthermore, these narratives allow believers to see themselves as people in possession of “the truth”, giving them a perceived mission and urge to spread the narrative by “waking up” their fellow citizens.
Sounds like a sect? There certainly are similarities in their strategies. But within conspiracy ideologies, “evil” is not merely an abstract idea. Instead, real-life “culprits” get the blame, which leads to threats and attacks against very real humans. For centuries, conspiracy ideologies – whether explicitly or implicitly – have repeatedly named Jews as the source of evil in the world. Usually, they are described as greedy “elites” who want to enslave the globe. These antisemitic narratives also function as an operating system for all conspiracy narratives and were the same ones that led to the Holocaust.
In the 2020 pandemic, we are witnessing a new of the mass dissemination of these antisemitic narratives. However, not only Jews are victims of these myths. The conspiracy narratives of 2020, for example, have also increasingly directed their attention towards governments, science and the media. These bodies are ascribed an open or hidden “Jewishness” – also meant as the embodiment of modernity, freedom, equality, liberality, rationality. In 2020, the conspiracy narratives on the COVID-19 pandemic began with racism against people perceived to be Asian (as the virus originated in China, Donald Trump fuelled this sentiment by repeatedly speaking of the “China virus”), the denial of the existence of the virus or false stories about alleged cures.
However, it was not long before strategically motivated reinterpretations of these narratives emerged. Anti-democratic groups recognied an opportunity to use conspiracy narratives not only to spread uncertainty within their societies (“Does the government really want the best for us or
are we just test subjects?”), but also to spread antisemitism (“Who is behind 5G masts and global vaccination campaigns, and which new world order will be introduced along the way?”). These groups also saw an opportunity to compel people to act and legitimise violence (“Nobody is doing anything, we have to act now before it’s too late for our children – if necessary armed with guns”), to stir up nationalism (“Our values and traditions are destroyed when everyone is made equal”) and to rally against the credibility of science, medicine and the press (“Who pays them? What plans are they pursuing?”).
In order to stir up this mood, numerous “alternative media” platforms were formed. YouTube and Telegram channels in particular also experienced rapid growth in both number and reach. In addition to newly established online presences – also from celebrities who hoped for a new role and meaning in their lives within the pandemic – existing channels also discovered COVID-19 conspiracy myths for themselves and reinforced them.
For example, right-wing populists and far-right channels, believers of alternative medicine and esotericists. The common denominator of all these various groups is antisemitism and the fight against parliamentary democracy.
The fact that social networks are the main engine of these debates not only led to a rapid radicalisation of these discourses and their supporters, but also to an internationalisation. Various elements of conspiracy narratives emerged around the world – and a particularly inventive American conspiracy tale made its way to Europe: QAnon. This conspiracy narrative, originally centred on Donald Trump as a saviour in the fight against evil, AKA “the elites”, with explicit antisemitic elements (including paedophile elites who drink children’s blood), was created in the USA in 2017. An anonymous 4chan account, “Q”, claimed to be an informant from the innermost circles of the White House and provided his followers with mysteriously incomprehensible, but very meaningful short statements – known to the fans as “Q-Drops” – which could almost be described as clickbait for the conspiracy industry (“Do you feel a plot twist coming?”). Again and again, Q urged followers to wake up, think for themselves and participate. This technique brought believers to common exegesis, to a collective interpretation, welding them together to form a community – which is also reflected in the slogan “WWG1WGA” (“Where we go one, we go all”).
Through this, QAnon developed into a super- conspiracy of sorts that could easily absorb existing conspiracy narratives and integrate local conditions and situations. There was even an in-built solution within the Q-ideology for the development that its narratives became increasingly bizarre and contradictory. “Trust the Plan” is a key motto of QAnon: what you don’t understand now is still correct because there is a plan. Even months after the election, Trump fans who are believers of QAnon think that Joe Biden’s victory is either not real or part of “the plan”. These are distinctly sect-like features and demonstrate that QAnon fans have consciously shunned reality to live in a delusional world that can hardly be corrected from the outside.
The sense of community, the participative character and the integration of local players and existing conspiracy narratives make QAnon attractive to non-American anti-democratic movements in the pandemic as well. The spread of QAnon narratives began in anti-EU, Islamophobic, populist-right and far-right groups in Europe. They have enriched the antisemitic and anti-establishment narratives of the ideology with their own anti-government and anti- lockdown narratives. They mix a rebellious attitude with the certainty of victory that, as one of “the initiated”, you are doing something good for society if you behave in a self-centred, unmotivated and anti-rational manner.
QANON SPREADS ACROSS EUROPE
Initially, QAnon spread to other English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. In the UK, it has mostly been Brexit fans who have adopted the conspiracy tale. Many groups use QAnon elements, such as the stories of global elites or paedophile rings, to discredit the government and ostensibly to criticise its anti- corona measures. However, for some British Q fans Prime Minister Boris Johnson is exempt from such criticism, alleged to have been “installed” to save the world together with Trump.
Soon after, however, the “Q-Drops” were translated into various European languages. The largest QAnon community among the non-English speaking countries currently exists in Germany. Due to the size of Telegram groups, experts assume at least 150,000 followers in Germany. The majority of the far-right and conspiracist Reichsbürger movement has put its own conspiracy stories under the Q banner; they claim that the Federal Republic of Germany is an illegal state and not sovereign, has never signed a peace treaty after the Second World War and has never given itself a constitution, which is why the “German Reich” from pre-Nazi times allegedly still exists. Reichsbürger proudly combine Q flags with “Reich” flags in black, white and red at large demonstrations in Germany and ask Donald Trump – as well as Vladimir Putin – to sign the allegedly missing peace treaty and assist with the expulsion of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is an archenemy figure for far-right groups.
The alleged child protection of Q (“Save the Children”) has also resonated strongly within the German conspiracy world. Many “Q” supporters style themselves as “concerned parents”. For decades, the alleged commitment to protecting children from paedophilia has been an issue with which the far- right scene has tried, not unsuccessfully, to impact society as a whole with, in order to spread racism (because they argue, in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary, that the perpetrators are always migrants). Celebrities have also played their part: the well-known pop singer Xavier Naidoo cried in a YouTube video in May 2020 for the children who were supposedly being held captive by elites for blood production – thus making QAnon known to the broadest possible mainstream audience in Germany.
In France, the populist Yellow Vest movement, which is critical of the government, is interested in the rhetoric and narratives of QAnon – especially the conspiracy narratives of the “Deep State”, which supposedly holds the true reins of political power. “Yellow Vests against Pedocriminality” groups are also being founded, as well as groups that want to combat the “New World Order”, an antisemitic trope revolving around secret plans for a (often Jewish) world domination. Members of the French anti-vaccination scene are also vocal participants within the movement. Telegram groups have up to 20,000 fans, in which the doctor Didier Raoult, for example, who recommends hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 drug, is celebrated as an anti-lockdown fighter against President Emmanuel Macron. The French church is also suspected of being “evil”. French Q groups describe themselves for example as “a group of French, anti-globalization patriots, who campaign for the waking up of Nations”. Their stated goal is to “inform French people, and more generally, all Francophones that are manipulated by traditional media, about today’s worldly stakes”. Some Q groups use references to French royalty (e.g. the Fleur-de-Lys, a symbol of the French monarchy, or references to Joan of Arc and Charles Martel).
In Italy, it is anti-vaxxers in particular who want to use Q to rebel against the plans of the government. Here too, Telegram groups have up to 20,000 members. Q fans attack Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who allegedly wants to establish a dictatorship, and praise the far-right politician Matteo Salvini (League Party). Nationalism is also a topic under the guise of “liberating Italy from the EU”.
In the Netherlands, Islamophobic accounts that sympathise with Geert Wilders use elements of the QAnon narrative and compel their followers
to act: “Doing nothing is no longer an option”. In addition, one of the most important European QAnon influencers, Janet Ossebaard, comes from the Netherlands. In her film “Fall of the Cabal”, which went viral in March 2020, QAnon motifs and European conspiracy stories were combined for the first time.
The Q-reception in countries of the former Republic of Yugoslavia – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia – is also interesting. Here, there are nationalist Q groups, but the largest is called “QAnon Balkan” and wants to use QAnon to unite the people in the region: “We do not divide people by religion and nation, because we are all hostages of a handful of globalists, dangerous psychopaths, who have placed their puppets at the head of our states and institutions.”
In Greece, there are not many active QAnon followers. If, however, posts use the relevant hashtags, they blend Q-narratives with anti-Roma prejudices and racism against black migrants. In Hungary, there is a strong connection to antisemitism: Q is of interest to followers of conspiracies revolving around Adrenochrome, the Illuminati, Satanism, the “Deep State” and a hatred of George Soros. In Lithuania, there is a QAnon Facebook group with 7,300 members – in a country with just 2.7 million inhabitants. In August 2020, the Canadian researcher Marc-André Argentino investigated European Q-groups in social networks. Only in Estonia, Montenegro and Albania did he find none.
The danger with QAnon and other conspiracy worlds lies, on the one hand, in the constant radicalisation, as well as the dramatisation of a compulsion or urgency to act, which can end in a readiness to use violence. Then, “Trust the Plan” suddenly becomes “Be the plan”. Even if this does not happen, however, another danger remains: once people have become accustomed to the anti-rational and anti-democratic mechanisms of conspiracy ideologies, there is a good chance that they will retain them, even if they abandon QAnon. Instead of qualified and experienced scientists, they believe in self-proclaimed video bloggers, instead of media platforms that conduct thorough research, they tend to believe in blogs that spout lies, and instead of trying to work on building a better world, they believe in “guilty people” who just need to be tried, imprisoned or defeated – and thus conveniently hand over any and all responsibility for their own lives. Many people are currently experiencing the consequences of this radicalisation in their families or within their social surroundings. They have to deal with these people on their own, because in most countries, there are no counselling services for dealing with believers of conspiracy ideologies.
* In Germany, there has been a shift in terminology when talking about conspiracy movements: The term “conspiracy theory” is being increasingly replaced by “conspiracy ideology” for a closed conspiracy dominated worldview and “conspiracy narratives” or “conspiracy myths” for single stories with conspiracist elements. This terminology is considered to be more exact, as the word “theory” contains the idea that something can be proven right or wrong by facts or empirical evidence. This is not the case when people cling to conspiracy ideologies.
Simone Rafael studied art history and journalism in Berlin. She worked as a journalist for several media in Germany before joining the Amadeu Antonio Foundation in 2002 to work for a democratic society and against far-right extremism, racism and anti-Semitism. She developed several web magazines and projects for the Amadeu Antonio Foundation. Since 2009 she is editor-in-chief of the online magazine www.belltower.news – Network for the digital civil society. In addition, she leads the digital team of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, develops ideas against far-right extremism and hate speech on the Internet in the form of campaigns, argumentation training and project work and advises organizations, politics, media and civil society on dealing with far-right extremism, racism and anti-Semitism online