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In the United States, QAnon is struggling. The conspiracy is thriving overseas.
Carlos Barria Reuters
President Trump’s electoral defeat has shaken American followers of QAnon. International believers are mostly keeping faith — and taking the conspiracy in new directions.
In a Telegram channel for believers in Australia and New Zealand this week, a fabricated story about Democrats deliberately infecting tens of thousands of senior citizens with the coronavirus to use their identities to vote sat side-by-side with reports on domestic politics.
Canadian channels are circulating the false claim that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans “immediate military intervention on American soil” if Trump does not concede while also organizing protests against coronavirus measures in Canadian cities.
In Germany, where the pro-Trump conspiracy has found a home with far-right groups, some QAnon influencers are disillusioned by Trump’s defeat, but many are still hopeful. “As the American’s say, in God we trust,” one poster on a German Telegram group wrote. “Now is the time to trust.”
The resilience of QAnon narratives after the election shows just how far and deep this made-in-America conspiracy has spread — and hints at its staying power around the globe.
dpa/picture alliance/Getty Images
A man is led away by police officers in front of the Victory Column in Berlin in a protest of coronavirus measures on Aug. 30.
Q’s central lie — that Trump is secretly fighting a cabal of satanic pedophiles linked to government, the media and the Hollywood elite — may seem quintessentially, almost comically American. But as it spread, spurred by the pandemic, it mixed with local causes, spawning new communities abroad.
By October, Marc-André Argentino, a leading QAnon researcher who is a PhD candidate at Montreal’s Concordia University, had tracked QAnon to more than 70 countries and many types of users, including hardcore extremists and Instagram influencers new to the conspiracy world.
“Some experts out there were thinking that if the president loses the election in November, this might go away,” Argentino said, “but in reality, because it is transnational, it has legs of its own.”
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QAnon adherents have marched with far-right groups in Germany and protested lockdown measures in Australia. In England, they warn of vast child-trafficking rings that do not exist. Canadian followers conjure “deep state” plots out of basic public health measures .
They are shaking faith in science, flooding real child welfare hotlines with fake tips and spreading fear and doubt.
Those who study the movement are not certain what comes next, but they think Q narratives will stick around in some form, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic rages.
“It’s just this amorphous blob of conspiracy that can adapt to any situation,” said Kevin Grisham, the associate director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino. “When things change, the story changes, too.”
QAnon draws on ancient, anti-Semitic tropes about secret cabals and apocalyptic battles between good and evil, swapping details depending on the context.
Its most direct forerunner was “Pizzagate,” the groundless 2016 conspiracy that claimed that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats were trafficking children at a D.C. pizza shop.
A protester attends a “Save our Children” rally Oct. 10 outside London’s Downing Street, a government enclave that includes the British prime minister’s official residence.
In 2017, a user on the 4chan messaging board claimed that Clinton was about to be arrested. The arrest never happened, but the user, “Q,” went on to post thousands of times, claiming to be a Trump insider with high-level security clearance and an inside scoop on satanic crimes. (“Q” posted on election day, disappeared for more than a week, then posted again on Nov. 12, saying, “Nothing can stop what is coming.”)
In the United States, QAnon has become a political force. The conspiracy has reportedly inspired actual crimes, and the FBI considers it a domestic terrorism threat. Trump has retweeted QAnon content and repeatedly refused to denounce the movement. Two women who support the movement just won seats in Congress.
From the outset, QAnon attracted foreign followers. Some of the early German evangelists were members of the Reichsbürger or “Citizens of the Reich” movement, a mishmash of groups tied together by their rejection of the modern German state. Their apocalyptic, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories dovetailed with QAnon narratives.
At first, QAnon, “didn’t really take off” in Germany, said Miro Dittrich, who monitors online conspiracies and extremism for Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, a Berlin-based foundation. But when the pandemic hit, he said, “it exploded.”
In one week in mid-March, Dittrich watched one German-language QAnon channel jump from 20,000 subscribers to more than double that. It grew to more than 125,000 subscribers before being scrubbed in last month’s YouTube crackdown.
German QAnon devotees, like those elsewhere, believe that Trump not only is fighting the deep state in the United States, but also across the globe. When the U.S. military began a European military exercise in March, QAnon groups were abuzz with chatter of Germany’s “liberation.”
In late August, a massive rally in Berlin brought together the Reichsbürger, anti-vaccination advocates and others who oppose lockdown and mask mandates. One banner included the message, “Please, Mr. President, make Germany great again,” tucked between two giant Q’s.
German QAnon believers live-streamed the U.S. election for 12-hours straight on Nov. 3, anticipating a Trump victory. “There was huge euphoria,” said Josef Holnburger, a data research scientist who tracks online conspiracies.
A protester is wrapped in the imperial German flag in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin at the end of a demonstration staged by far-right and coronavirus deniers on Aug. 29.
As it began to become clear that former vice president Joe Biden would win key states in the following days, “things got a bit rough for QAnon followers,” Holnburger said.
Attila Hildmann, a vegan chef who has spent months amplifying QAnon narratives on Telegram, took Trump’s defeat hard. In a voice note posted to his nearly 114,000 Telegram followers this week, Hildman called QAnon a CIA “psy op.”
“Don’t fall for it,” he said. “Speculation, analysis, secret plans by Trump and Q. Who is interested in this crap? What has that changed for Germany? Nothing.”
From now on, he said, Germans should focus on Germany and stop waiting for an American savior.
The QAnon conspiracy theory faces a post-Trump identity crisis
QAnon has a way of bursting into public view, then retreating, only to emerge anew.
As social media companies started to target Q content, some adherents swapped references to satanic pedophile rings for vague calls to “save our children.”
Using made-up or misleading figures, the movement hijacked legitimate anti-trafficking hashtags and formed new groups that purported to be doing child-welfare work.
“Instead of talking about Hillary Clinton eating children, they were talking about child trafficking,” said Aoife Gallagher, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the author of a recent report on QAnon. “And who doesn’t want to save the children?”
Many did. “Save our children” content spread widely, including on Instagram, where pastel-hued memes were picked up by yoga influencers and mom bloggers, bringing new people to the movement.
“Facebook’s and other algorithms were a big part of it,” Gallagher said. “People were joining trafficking or anti-lockdown groups and were getting fed QAnon.”
Many posted their stylized content in Instagram live streams or on the platform’s “stories” feature, making it harder to track. The mixing of real and conspiratorial child-welfare content also made it hard to block.
A report by Hope Not Hate, a London-based advocacy group, documented dozens of QAnon-linked rallies across Britain.
Piers Corbyn speaks to demonstrators as a man holds up a QAnon sign behind him during a StandUpX March for Freedom protest in London on Oct. 17. The rally called for an end to coronavirus restrictions.
“People who seemed to be highly impassioned activists for child welfare were seemingly oblivious to the fact they are rubbing shoulders with hardcore conspiracy theorists,” said David Lawrence, an author of the report and a researcher in the organization’s conspiracy theory and misinformation unit.
“QAnon is so nonspecific, people can see in it what they want to, making the movement very resilient and hard to stop,” said Rhys Leahy, a senior research assistant at George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics who studies Q networks. “It takes on a life of its own.”
The movement’s most lasting impact may be on the response to the pandemic.
In the early days of the outbreak, QAnon played a key role in spreading conspiratorial, anti-vaccination content, including a video, “Plandemic,” that claimed the pandemic was a hoax.
The California-made film went viral and was translated into at least 10 languages, bouncing from anti-vaccination groups to anti-lockdown groups, spreading among “Make America Great Again” enthusiasts and QAnon communities.
In Brazil, where Q narratives have flourished, President Jair Bolsonaro amplified the U.S. president’s false claims about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that experts consider ineffective, or even dangerous, for the treatment of covid-19.
These inaccurate claims were then seized on by QAnon influencers who see Bolsonaro as a savior fighting the “deep state” alongside Trump.
The Washington Post
A Trump banner at an “anti-lockdown” protest in Toronto on Oct. 24.
Efforts to limit QAnon content on social media platforms have not stamped it out.
Travis View, a QAnon researcher and co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, said that because Q followers believe they are in an information war, any restrictions on their communications “only validate their beliefs.”
The purges pushed some communities toward alternative platforms in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election. Now, in the election’s fraught aftermath, they are a conspiratorial stew.
The Australia and New Zealand Telegram channel has this week pivoted from a prediction that the financial system will collapse on Nov. 11 to classic QAnon fare about satanic pedophilia rings and the covid-19 “hoax”.
One user forwarded a post from a different channel baselessly asserting that Trudeau, like Biden, did not actually win his last election. “USA/Canada swamp is one and the same,” it read.
QAnon’s adaptability is why Argentino believes it will stick around. “It will metastasize, it will mutate into something else,” he said, “But it’s not something that’s going to go away.”
Heloísa Traiano contributed to this report.
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