Disinformation and beyond: how the virus of QAnon spread to Europe

Gathering galvanized proselytes on popular image boards and online platforms, the QAnon quasi-religious conspiracy theory has eventually made its way to Europe. But what exactly is QAnon and why should it matter to us?

What you are about to read might resemble the plot of a dark fantasy B movie; in reality, it’s a narrative to which millions of people, first across the United States and now across the world, are rallying around.

QAnon dates back at least to 2017, when on the online imageboard 4chan – nest to far right extremists and birthplace of many alt-right symbols - an anonymous account named Q began posting brief and enigmatic messages known as Q-drops, because the information was dispensed in intervals through small texts. The “Q” stands for “Q clearance”, a hypothetical clearance level which would grant access to the most secret files of the U.S government.

Indeed, Q pretends to impersonate a U.S Intelligence official disclosing the existence of a powerful satanic cabal pulling the strings of global events; if this reminds you of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the biggest conspiracy theory ever conceived, you hit the mark. But there is more.

Q did not invent a whole new story; he built around contemporary conspiracy theories already interiorized by many far-right users. To them, the Q-drops were like missing pieces of a puzzle.

Notably, his texts were widely interpreted as a confirmation of the so-called Pizzagate; it refers to a conspiracy theory that emerged in 2016 after the leak of Hillary Clinton’s emails. A few imaginative minds claimed that the emails contained coded messages revealing the existence of a child sex trafficking ring managed by the Democratic Party which operated from the basement of a real Washington pizzeria called “Comet Ping Pong”. In particular, one email mentioned the word “Cheese Pizza”, which was interpreted as a coded message for “Child Pornography”. As the theory began to gain momentum among the most gullible Trump supporters, the owner and the staff of the pizzeria became victims of death threats. One day, the pizzeria was attacked: in December 2016 a person fired three assault rifle bullets. Apprehended by the police, the young man stated that he was trying to “self-investigate” the alleged crimes and save the innocent children imprisoned in the pizzeria’s basement.

Over the past year, the theory has been enriched by an even more macabre element: adrenochrome harvesting. Some followers believe that the cabal is extracting adrenaline from the blood of kidnapped children to produce adrenochrome, a psychoactive substance which once assumed would grant immortality. While this aspect of QAnon is relatively new, its roots can be found in old anti-Semitic myths where Jews are portrayed as monsters feeding themselves out of the blood of Christians.

It appears that QAnon may be something more than a simple conspiracy theory. Some argue that it has much resemblance to religious cults: there is a prophet (Q), a number of prophecies and myths (Q-drops) and thousands of disciples. But that’s not the whole picture. The QAnon doctrine also includes a long-awaited revealing and apocalyptic event called “The Storm” in which Trump will finally arrest and defeat the Satan-worshipping members of the cabal. All these things considered, it’s not surprising that the FBI designated QAnon as a “domestic terror threat”.

Undoubtedly, QAnon gained much foot thanks to the covid-19 pandemic: the appearance of a deadly virus on a global scale can be easily incorporated into the theory’s narrative as yet another evil deed planned by the all-controlling cabal; meanwhile, lockdown measures around the world created the social conditions for the theory to thrive among disillusioned people who lost their jobs and spent more time online.

This trend applies to Europe as well. Initially QAnon gained traction mostly in the United Kingdom and Germany; now his followers are scattered throughout the continent, although in considerably lower numbers compared to the US. The groups adapt their narratives to the different national contexts: in Germany, the followers of Q believe that Trump “will free the German people from Merkel”. Some even hope that the US President will help them re-establish the Third Reich.

Conspiracy theorists were also linked to the recent defacing of 63 artworks and artifacts displayed in three Berlin museums; according to German QAnon followers, those museums are the centre of the “global satanic scene”. Around 200.000 Germans are thought to embrace QAnon.

Generally, the set of beliefs of QAnon is now overlapping and integrating into mainstream anti-system movements, be it the Yellow Jackets in France or the widespread anti-vaccine and anti-5G fronts. Q’s doctrine is also reinforcing anti-lockdown protests, most likely encouraged by Trump’s careless attitude towards the virus. Between March and June of this year, at the height of the pandemic’s first wave, the number of online posts related to QAnon rose by nearly 175% on Facebook and by 77.1% on Instagram.

The increasing impetus did not stop at the digital space and did not limit itself to common citizens: more than 20 Republican candidates to the upcoming US elections have publicly voiced their support for the theory.

Compelling questions emerge after acknowledging QAnon’s growing popularity. Will turmoil and violence unleash should Trump lose the imminent elections? Will QAnon in Europe take on a more disquieting and alarming form should it continue to spread? The mystery over Q’s identity (the businessman and current operator of 8chan Jim Watkins might conceal behind it) has taken the backseat: whoever began dispensing the Q-drops sowed the seeds of a whole new movement, far bigger than he (or she?) could have imagined. QAnon assimilates existing conspiracy theories and draws from messianism. To some, it provides an easy explanation to complex and troubling events. To others, it reinforces pre-existing beliefs.

It is beyond question that QAnon is yet another testimony of the seductive power of ideas. And it does not matter how grotesque they are.