Along with a lethal global pandemic and an all-encompassing sense of existential dread, 2020 will be remembered as the year when an unhinged online conspiracy theory about a powerful global child abuse ring broke out into the real world, then went truly mainstream.
While coronavirus death tolls and a polarized U.S. presidential election race dominated the headlines, QAnon supporters took to the streets around the world, spreading disinformation during Black Lives Matter marches, agitating at anti-lockdown protests and egging on the anti-vaccine movement.
From Australia to the Balkans and even further afield, QAnon emerged from the bowels of the internet, morphing into a big tent conspiracy theory that offered an ideological home for a wide range of supporters. Right wing and populist politics have dominated, of course, but the theory’s alternate universe has also been embraced by wellness influencers, musicians and even celebrity chefs. Nowhere has been safe.
Australia and New Zealand
Over the past three years, QAnon has proved so sprawling and deranged a conspiracy theory that no idea is too outlandish and no location too far flung to be folded into it. After all, when a movement breaks into the global mainstream by proposing that a cabal of Satan-worshipping VIP pedophiles is using the non-existent basement of a Washington D.C. pizza joint to harvest a fictitious, eternal-life-giving enzyme from the blood of pre-schoolers, all bets are off.
Still, Australia and New Zealand’s adaptations of the Q doctrine are notably berserk. The region has lately established itself as an epicenter of the theory that grave threats are being posed to national sovereignty and personal liberty by Agenda 21 — a perfectly normal, 23-year-old non-binding U.N. resolution that aims to help governments and NGOs promote sustainable development. As wrongheaded as it may be, it’s a position that has been successfully mapped onto Q’s paranoid blueprint by numerous influencers, including celebrity chef turned one-man troll factory Paleo Pete Evans.
As with everywhere else it has gained a foothold, QAnon has been quick to take advantage of Oceania’s coronavirus denial movement. In September, protesters at an Auckland anti-lockdown rally were seen carrying placards that advanced its narratives, alongside images of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as Adolf Hitler and calls to “Ban 1080,” a reference to a government rodent extermination program.
Meanwhile, latching onto QAnon has rocketed Billy TK, a Maori blues guitarist who has played with Carlos Santana and supported Black Sabbath, to a level of fame he never quite achieved in music. Now, he is the country’s best-known conspiracist thinker and leader of the populist party Advance New Zealand.
Predictably, rumors of ritual child abuse have also abounded — some of them so inventive that they give the U.S. a run for its money. Claims have been made that numerous politicians, including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, have spent months under house arrest for such crimes. (Apparently, the proof could be clearly seen in the fit of their trousers.) However, most impressive was the idea that regional Covid-19 restrictions were, in fact, an elaborate ruse to facilitate the use of hundreds of miles of storm drains beneath the city of Melbourne to traffic underage sex slaves. Talk about going down the rabbit hole.
As we reported earlier in 2020, QAnon has found a welcoming home in Germany, spreading its bizarre theories within Covid-19-denialist and rightwing anti-government circles. A recent study of coronavirus-skeptic activity on the messaging platform Telegram identified 12 key channels, half of which have amplified QAnon narratives. The most prominent among them is that of Attila Hildmann, one of the nation’s best-known and strangest conspiracists.
As a far-right German nationalist of Turkish heritage, Putin fanboy and celebrity vegan chef, Hildmann is a baffling and troubling figure. He has also embraced many aspects of the QAnon belief system — particularly the notion of Satanic ritual child abuse carried out by a nefarious deep state elite.
As noted by Paul Thomas, chair of religious studies at Radford University in Virginia, such narratives of evil have the potential to spark acts of extremist violence by casting believers as “warriors of absolute good.” That point has already been proven in the U.S. by the likes of Edgar Maddison Welch, a father of two from North Carolina, who stormed Comet Ping Pong, the family restaurant in Washington D.C that found itself at the heart of the Pizzagate hoax, armed with an assault rifle.
Back in June, Hildmann used the public space in front of Altes Museum in Berlin as a rallying point for his followers. In July, the institution banned him for making a string of antisemitic remarks. He retaliated by telling his 100,000-plus Telegram audience that the Pergamon altar — an ancient Greek monument housed in the museum — was being used for rituals by powerful global Satanists. To back up his allegations, he added that Chancellor Angela Merkel lives nearby and takes part in the ceremonies. In October, an unknown assailant carried out what has been described as the biggest attack on art and antiquities in post-war German history, spraying 70 of the museum’s exhibits with an oily liquid.
Lately, Hildmann has taken an adversarial stance to QAnon. Echoing the theories of the sovereign citizen Reichsbürger movement, he has proclaimed that “the U.S. has occupied Germany since 1945” and that Q is a CIA plot to cover preparations being made by NATO for nuclear war against Russia and Turkey. An unexpected turn, but one that does nothing to lessen the influence the theory has had on this self-proclaimed “conspiracy preacher” and his devotees.
QAnon has spread far beyond its base of die-hard Trump supporters — and now it’s making serious inroads to the world of wellness, spirituality and alternative medicine.
In September Marc-André Argentino, a PhD researcher of right-wing movements at Concordia University in Montreal, coined the term “pastel QAnon.” He was referring to online posts that peddle outlandish conspiracy theories, couched in the delicate-colored aesthetics and ethereal language typical of the wellness industry. “This branding is the polar opposite of ‘raw’ QAnon,” he tweeted.
As QAnon has moved from the political fringes to the mainstream, some high-profile wellness figures have jumped on board. For instance, the well-known U.S. obstetrician and alternative medicine practitioner Christiane Northrup has posted QAnon-related content on social media, using phrases such as “The Great Awakening” — the belief that there will come a moment when all of the movement’s pronouncements will be revealed to the world as true — and promoted the coronavirus conspiracy “Plandemic” video.
Q’s proliferation has created a schism within the wellness community. In September, more than 100 prominent accounts in the U.S., including the yoga teachers Seane Corn and Hala Khouri, shared a joint statement on Instagram.
“We are aware that QAnon originated on the dark web of hate and white supremacy, and have repackaged their message to appeal to spiritual communities,” it read. “Don’t be fooled. The true intent of QAnon is to spread misinformation, blame, conflict, and sow racial division in our country.”
Influencers and practitioners trying to counter disinformation have been met with a vicious backlash from online commenters.
Researchers and members of the wellness community are not surprised by QAnon’s advance within it. The lifestyle particularly appeals to women and young mothers seeking self-improvement. QAnon portrays itself both as privy to vital secret information and bravely battling child sex abuse. Many of the soft-hued social media posts feature hashtags such as #savethechildren, #endsextrafficking and #dotheresearch.
The wellness community is also often skeptical about Big Pharma and conventional medicine, instead advocating that its members find their own personal paths towards healing. QAnon’s extreme anti-coronavirus-vaccine stance knits into that position seamlessly.
“Traditionally, the wellness industry has been quite inclusive for alternative worldviews and belief systems,” said the Finnish yoga teacher and wellness practitioner Mia Jokiniva. “I think it’s the same language that QAnon is using and sounds familiar to many people who are in this industry, because it has always been a part of what we do.”
Across the Balkans, QAnon offshoots are latching on to a number of already popular anti-vaccination and coronavirus denialist narratives. In Serbia, one-third of people polled in October by the Belgrade Center for Security Policy said that they do not believe in or have serious doubts about the existence of the coronavirus. A broader Western Balkans survey — taking in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia — showed that more than 75% of people believe in at least one of several prominent Covid-19 conspiracy theories.
The results are “alarming,” according to Marija Ignjatijevic, a researcher at the organization. “It speaks to how much people are confused right now during this pandemic.”
Such thinking has given QAnon a foothold in the region, albeit modest compared to other parts of Europe. Followers of “BalkAnon” Facebook groups have only ever numbered in the tens of thousands and nearly all such pages were successfully shut down in the platform’s recent purge.
However, supporters have attempted to co-opt activism surrounding a chilling story closely linked to one of QAnon’s signature obsessions. Since the 1960s, thousands of newborns have disappeared from maternity wards in Serbia and the wider region. Just this year, the nation’s government passed a bill to finally investigate claims by parents who believe their children were victims of a criminal group collaborating with doctors to sell babies to adoptive parents. Pressure groups have organized protests in Belgrade to draw further attention to the issue, with QAnon supporters joining under the slogan “For our children.” In this rare instance, the movement’s fixation on child trafficking is backed up by overwhelming evidence and a government inquiry that has the support of the Council of Europe.
Overlapping with mainstream right-wing organizations, Q adherents are also busy whipping up long-standing animosities toward the region’s migrant and refugee population. In October, one of the most popular Balkan QAnon Facebook pages posted a code of ethics, referring to its followers as patriots and promising to “clean our countries of scum.”
QAnon and hip hop
For a once marginalized genre like rap music, niche interests and wild theories are often the key to success. The hip-hop group Public Enemy once endorsed the teachings of the black separatist group the Nation of Islam. Jay Electronica is a follower of the Five Percent Nation, a group that believes the world is run by one tenth of the population.
Unsurprisingly, a shapeshifting conspiracy theory in which President Donald Trump is portrayed as a lone warrior fighting a shadowy network of powerful individuals engaged in Satanic pedophilia, has attracted no shortage of commentary. Earlier this summer, rapper Ice Cube shared a photograph showing a banner on a bridge above a highway. It read, “MEDIA IS COMPLICIT #TREASON Q.”
In fairness, Cube, who has previously used his influence to highlight a range of issues, including police brutality and racism, may not have noticed the “Q” when he shared the image. The same can’t be said of Dutch rapper Lange Frans, a Trump supporter, who released the QAnon-referencing track “Lockdown” earlier this year. While the song doesn’t mention the movement by name, its lyrics don’t require sophisticated code breaking skills to decipher: “Welcome to the most fun festival/ You don’t need a ticket because you’re already there/ This is the fall of the cabal.”
An equally paranoid view of the world can be heard in “Fuck System” by Polish rappers Kali x Major, released earlier this month. In one verse, which compiles a rogue’s gallery of bad actors, the rappers take aim at all our corporate and religious overlords: “One thing is certain, we serve the Freemasons/ Big Pharma, Monsanto, the Vatican, the QAnon elite, the luminaries, Valhalla, Trump.”
With the defeat of President Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, it is difficult to predict what happens to the QAnon conspiracy — its followers could see the victory of President-elect Joe Biden as confirmation of their ideas, or they could stratify into new and separate groups. As attention has diverted to the beginning of the end of the pandemic and the mass rollout of vaccines across the world, some musicians seem to have already found new causes to rail against.
Earlier this month, Pete Rock, a widely respected DJ and producer, came out as one of hip-hop’s leading vaccine skeptics. “Vaccine shit is real stupid. How you giving vaccine to people who arent sick???” he asked, in a now deleted tweet. Rock later doubled down, “Where is the vaccine for A.I.D.S./HIV? Where is the vaccine for cancer? Diabetes?? Smh.”
One social media user came up with a well-aimed response. “Seat belt shit is real stupid. How you giving seat belt to people who aren’t in a car crash?”
At first glance, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil is a perfect fit for QAnon. The president, a staunch Trump ally, came to power on the back of a right-wing movement with a longtime fixation with pedophilia, childhood sexuality, and conspiracies. During his campaign, Bolsonaro supporters accused the opposition of spreading “gay kits” in schools and distributing penis-shaped baby bottles in order to advance a homosexual agenda.
So analysts of far-right politics weren’t really surprised when Q flags and slogans were seen at rallies in the run-up to municipal elections in November. A few candidates were open QAnon adherents; none of them won elections.
QAnon’s arrival in Brazil has been greeted with debate as to how much attention the movement should be given.
“My worry is the very few activists who are trying to promote QAnon in Brazil, who are really small, they become middle-size or maybe big because of Brazilian press coverage,” said Pablo Ortellada, who runs a lab at the University of São Paulo analyzing online political discourse.
“We’re in that dilemma. Do we make a bigger deal of this and make exposure, or is this really a threat?” said David Nemer, a Brazilian researcher on fake news at the University of Virginia. Nemer added that, despite the risk, he believes there is a public-interest case for exposing the sometimes subtle QAnon messages embedded in the rhetoric of Brazilian politicians.
Perhaps the biggest threat to actual public safety is the Bolsonaro-promoted misinformation regarding Covid-19 vaccines. Possibly still traumatized by his encounter with a mob of emus, the president recently mused that the Pfizer vaccine could turn people into alligators. Some saw in his bizarre remarks an echo of a QAnon-linked theory that vaccines cause genetic mutations.
Populism and QAnon
Long before the pandemic and the rise of QAnon, elements of the reactionary right and anti-establishment movements were busy preparing the ground with vaccine skepticism, climate crisis denial and all manner of other conspiracy theories. Now, while support for political populists is apparently declining, belief in shadowy plots and clandestine schemes is becoming ever more widespread. Accordingly, demagogues around the world are embracing an array of bizarre ideas in the hope of electoral gain.
In the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, QAnon followers became an important part of Donald Trump’s base. As a result, his campaign was filled with dog-whistles and nods to them, from sharing delusional conspiracies that Barack Obama’s administration killed Navy SEALs to retweeting 14 QAnon social media accounts in a single day.
Now, Trump’s European counterparts are following his lead. In the U.K., Brexit figurehead Nigel Farage has founded a new party focused on fighting coronavirus restrictions, albeit in a slightly milder way than some hardline conspiracist thinkers might like.
Activists who cut their teeth in Italy’s Five Star Movement, such as senator Bartolomeo Pepe and congresswoman Sara Cunial, are also crossing over into QAnon territory. In the spring, Cunial made a speech to parliament calling Bill Gates a “vaccine criminal.” Pepe has been sharing Q drops on his Facebook page since 2018, and former communications director Claudio Messora now runs a blog that is one of the main sources of Italian QAnon content.
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, the upstart Forum for Democracy party has collapsed amid allegations of antisemitism and far-right extremism, prompting its flamboyant leader Thierry Baudet to parrot a list of Q-related talking points — including the idea that George Soros created the coronavirus to “steal our freedom.”
The movement’s growth is easy to explain. QAnon is even more seductive than populism, offering its followers secret knowledge and a feeling of belonging to an exclusive club. “It’s very empowering, especially right now, for people who have been out of work for a long time or who are locked down because of the pandemic,” said Mike Rothschild, who is writing a book about QAnon. “They’re very isolated, they’re disconnected, and here’s Q, and it’s giving them this sense of self-importance.”
As we enter the post-Trump era, some believe that populism’s days are numbered. But it may just be giving way to murkier political currents, in which delusion reigns supreme.