How did a conspiracy theory about US president Donald Trump and the so-called deep-state take root across the world? Blackbird.AI explores the dynamism and political relevance of QAnon’s very twenty-first century hoax.
(Rick Loomis/Getty Images)
In mid-May 2020 Blackbird.AI noted a sharp upswing in the manipulation of #WWG1WGA_WORLDWIDE and #WWG1WGA_GLOBAL hashtags on Twitter–an acronym for the rallying cry of ‘Where We Go One, We Go All’ used by followers of the QAnon internet conspiracy theory.
First surfacing online in 2018, QAnon’s core tenets—for which no proof exists—propose that a secretive deep-state of Democratic politicians and Hollywood celebrities embroiled in a global cannibalistic, Satanic pedophilia ring controls the world order. Only Donald Trump stands in their way, following his selection for US office by military generals (including the eponymous ‘Q’, a high-ranking intelligence officer close to the president) to take down the cabal and liberate the free world.
The appearance of these hashtags appeared timed to coincide with a rush of “Q Drops” (short posts that make up the canon of QAnon’s belief ecosystem, published on websites dedicated to the conspiracy) pushing numerous Tweets by the hoax’s supporters across the world, each one bearing the heading ‘WWG1WGA’ and their location – Germany, Brazil, Israel, Haiti and beyond. Another Q Drop promoted a video entitled THE GREAT AWAKENING WORLDWIDE featuring clips and photographs of international QAnoners with the tagline “Welcome to the Q Age”. The video amassed 27,000 likes, 18,200 thousand retweets and a Twitter warning for sensitive content before its eventual removal by the social media website several months later.
Blackbird.AI’s tweet count of the #WWG1WGAWORLDWIDE hashtag on Twitter, May 2020
The prevalence of spam-bots and manipulated content linked to this activity suggest this as an orchestrated push by QAnon conspiracy theorists to reify the hoax as a global phenomenon and reach new audiences. Organic engagement soon followed, with supporters buoyed by sentiments of international camaraderie and shared values. Indeed, the summer of 2020 has witnessed an explosion in QAnon activity, both online and offline, in countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil, New Zealand, Japan, Italy, Finland, Russia, Romania, Indonesia and beyond. In Iran, a QAnon-inspired political fringe group named Restart wants to ‘Make Iran Great Again’. In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison counts a major QAnon social media influencer as a close family friend. And in Canada, an armed QAnon supporter recently attempted to storm Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s home.
Although superficially rooted in the specificities of contemporary American politics, Blackbird.AI notes that international political causes as diverse as pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the French gilets jaunes labor movement have been linked to QAnon’s online disinformation campaigns. In order to unpack this seemingly disparate marriage of US interests and external world events, Blackbird.AI examines three geographic case studies of QAnon penetration beyond the United States, revealing the dynamism and political relevance of a very twenty-first century conspiracy.
Demonstrators at a political rally hold QAnon signs in Bucharest, Romania, August 10, 2020 (Shutterstock)
SPOTLIGHT 1-UNITED KINGDOM
The summer of 2020 witnessed a number of anti-lockdown protests across the United Kingdom in response to the British government’s measures to curb the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Demonstrations organized in London, Birmingham, Manchester and other major UK cities by groups such as StandUp X, Save Our Rights UK and the UK Freedom Movement have brought a rich tapestry of British conspiracy theories and fringe politics out of the woodwork. The August 29 “Unite for Freedom” rally in London is illustrative in this regard–thousands of protesters gathered in Trafalgar Square before a motley crew of key speakers including David Icke (bête noire of the British intellectual establishment whose publications have endorsed the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the theory that the world is controlled by a super-race of lizard people), Piers Corbyn (brother of erstwhile Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and prominent climate change denier) and Professor Dolores Cahill (chairwoman of the Eurosceptic Irish Freedom Party who was recently asked to resign from an EU scientific committee following her statements that vitamin supplements cure COVID-19). QAnon banners and symbols of support were reported as well-represented among attendees who represented socio-political causes ranging from support for Brexit, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and the British Union of Fascists, and opposition towards 5G telecommunications networks, face masks, vaccinations and pedophilia. The Trafalgar Square event is no anomaly: on August 22 a rally held in Nottingham in support of military veterans’ rights hosted a large QAnon turnout and an event organizer proclaiming correspondence with a “General from Q”. Given these developments, it is not surprising that the UK is now second only to the US with regards to its output and engagement with QAnon-related Twitter content. The trajectory is clear–QAnon inserts itself where it can engage and cultivate influence through proximity to prevailing conversations and amenable demographics, drawing individuals in slowly through its relatability to other causes which masks some of its more outlandish facets until its followers are more deeply entangled.
QAnon supporter marches with a pro-Brexit rally in London on March, 29, 2019, the day the UK was originally cited to leave the European Union. (Shutterstock)
The seemingly arcane and impenetrable world of the British Royal Family has long proven itself as a lightning rod for popular intrigue in the UK, which QAnon supporters also appear to have eagerly adopted. Q Drops have promoted the proposition that Queen Elizabeth II ordered the murder of her daughter-in-law Princess Diana; a prominent fringe conspiracy long predating the QAnon movement since the latter’s death in a 1997 Paris car collision. In May 2020 QAnon supporters took up the cause of British man Joseph Gregory Hallet, the self-styled “King John III” and rightful King of England. Hallet has been plugging his claim to the throne—which rests on the averred chicanery of the Rothschild family, the illegitimate children of Tsar Alexander III, and the faked execution of King Henry VIII’s wife, among other things—on distant corners of the Internet for many years, but appears to have found new audiences for his story via a series of expository documentaries produced by the QAnon-affiliated Digital Warrior Productions and interviewer David G Mahoney.
Perhaps most concerning is the burgeoning ‘Save Our Children’ movement pushed by QAnon which has managed to capture legitimate conversations around the Royal Family’s seemingly untouchable status as above the law, as well as galvanize existing pedophile hunter vigilante groups, of which the UK has a long history. An August 22 rally coordinated by lobby group Freedom for the Children UK—an offshoot of a US-based group founded in June 2020—saw hundreds of protesters chanting “pedophiles” in front of the gates to Buckingham Palace in Westminster, central London, including large numbers of visible QAnon supporters. The Queen’s son Prince Andrew has been a previous target of Q Drops concerning his close friendship with the late Jeffery Epstein. Epstein has proved a rallying point for QAnon supporters in the US, given his status as a convicted pedophile and central figure to an international sex-trafficking network of underage girls linked to numerous high profile public figures. Although Epstein’s culpability is beyond dispute, this particularly nasty fact is easily grafted onto QAnon’s fiction–that the world is controlled by a secret global cabal of child abusers. With Prince Andrew—and many of Epstein’s other associates—yet to face legal interrogation despite significant evidence against him, this appears to only further corroborate the QAnon mythos, despite its inherently fabricated nature.
Barely existent when the pandemic first hit in March, Germany’s QAnon community is now one of the largest outside of the US according to The New York Times. The onset of COVID-19 again appears to have provided ingress for QAnon content to gain a foothold within growing popular discontent towards the German government’s measures to contain the virus. An August 29 demonstration organized by anti-lockdown activist group Querdenken 711 attracted 38,000 protesters to Berlin, where a break-away group attempted to storm the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building. Group members were identified as far right extremists, carrying the black, white and red flag of the pre-1918 German Empire vaunted in neo-Nazi circles, as well as QAnon symbols and paraphernalia. Tellingly, Querdenken 711’s founder, a Stuttgart-based entrepreneur named Michael Ballweg, is also an avowed QAnon supporter, proclaiming the movement’s rallying slogan of “Where We Go One, We Go All” as he addressed crowds at another antilockdown protest on August 1.
A QAnon supporter in Hanover, Germany attends an anti-lockdown rally, May 16, 2020 (Shutterstock)
Demonstrative of the new alliance between Germany’s radical right-wing and QAnon is the Reichsbürger political movement which rejects the existence and legitimacy of the present-day Federal Republic of Germany along pseudo-historical lines, instead claiming the borders of the now defunct German Reich (1871 to 1945) as the true sovereign territory of the German people. German political commentators have noted the growing links and merging ideologies between QAnon and Reichsbürgerbewegung groups, praising Trump as a new ally against the Federal Republic of Germany thought to be controlled by a global Jewish conspiracy embedded in the US deep state. Trump’s apparent enmity towards German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the European Union and NATO chimes with both QAnon and the German alt-right’s anti-globalist perspectives. Indeed, the veneration of Trump as a salvationary figure is not relegated to the fringe Reichsbürger movement alone. Popular celebrity vegan chef Attila Hildmann has been a reoccurring figure at Berlin protests calling on presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to liberate the German people from the Merkel administration’s “corona regime”. In addition to his support for QAnon, Hildmann counts himself as a far-right influencer, with more than 80,000 followers on the Telegram messaging app. A speaker outside the Reichstag on August 29 rallied the crowd with pronouncements that Trump had arrived in Berlin, prompting a group of farright protesters to attempt to gain entrance to the American Embassy later that day to seek his audience. With multiple Q Drops insinuating Merkel as part of the shadowy global elite, the nascent ideological enmeshment between Trump’s populism and the anti-establishment German right appears to provide the synergy that the QAnon conspiracy needs to thrive.
Over the past few months Brazil has become one of the biggest epicenters of growth for new online engagement with QAnon material and communities. Although public displays of support for the conspiracy have not been as pronounced as those witnessed in Germany and the UK, perhaps due in part to the relative paucity of Portuguese-language QAnon content, momentum appears to be gathering around the hoax as Brazil continues to experience wide-scale sociopolitical disruption due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In early September 2020 Facebook reported the removal from its website of a number of Brazilian pages promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory with nearly 600,000 followers. For context, this roughly corresponds to 60-percent of the Wall Street Journal’s daily print readership. According to Brazilian media reports, typical content included anti-lockdown sentiment amplifying the dangers of wearing face masks and use of forehead thermometers. Furthermore, an August 2020 investigation conducted by major Brazilian newspaper Estadão identified a cumulative 1.7 million followers connected to Portuguese-language QAnon-related Facebook groups and YouTube channels-the same number as the Wall Street Journal’s full online readership.
The same source also reported the presence of QAnon banners and slogans at a June 21 political rally in Brasília held in support of President Jair Bolsonaro. Since the beginning of the pandemic large-scale political protests have taken place in major Brazilian urban centers both defending and condemning Bolsonaro’s response to controlling the virus. The strong-man Brazilian president cuts a divisive figure, having clashed with state governors and sacked ministers who backed lockdown measures for the country, while appearing in person without a mask at antilockdown rallies, the attendees of which he has praised as patriots in their fight for individual liberties.
The response within Brazil’s growing QAnon communities has been the elevation of Bolsonaro as the singular champion of freedom and justice for the nation. Despite no mention of Jair Bolsonaro within the US-centric QAnon canon, his veneration by Brazilian QAnon supporters appears to have taken on a similar trajectory to that of Donald Trump. Bolsonaro is invariably presented as a key ally to the American president in the fight against the global deep state, mirroring the real-life admiration and stylistic similarities between the two statesmen. Those in opposition are tarred with the same recriminations as Trump’s Democratic critics-global nepotism, elite treachery and pedophilia. Bolsonaro’s ongoing tension with the Supreme Federal Court is a case in point: Brazilian QAnon followers have promoted online disinformation campaigns erroneously linking court ministers to orgies with underage girls organized by notorious convicted sex offender João Teixeira de Faria. QAnon appears to have provided a template for a new type of political conversation, onto which Brazil’s domestic contextualities are easily deposited.
Demonstrators at a pro-Bolsonaro rally in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 15, 2020. From left to right, their banners read “The media is the enemy” and “I am an American-I support Bolsonaro” (Shutterstock)
WHAT CAN THESE THREE CASE STUDIES TELL US ABOUT QANON?
Conspiracy and disinformation thrive in these unfamiliar realities, engendering the shifting coalitions of disparate fringe ideas as exemplified in Trafalgar Square, where children’s rights activists, Brexiteers and Holocaust deniers gather under the banner of anti-lockdown sentiment. That QAnon has found a place among this obscure ideological soup is therefore unsurprising, aided along its way by the COVID-19 pandemic’s parity as a truly global event without comparison in recent history. This goes some way to explain the QAnon community’s growth both inside and outside of the US during the summer of 2020.
Hillary Clinton, Hollywood and armed invasions of Washington DC pizzerias may suggest all the trappings of a Very American Conspiracy, but only inasmuch as they provide local color to a grander foundation. At its core, QAnon is the ultimate meta-conspiracy: a hoax about a hoax which is as broad as it is specific. Global cabals, deep state apparatus, and shadowy underworlds provide the scopic concepts within which extant localized conspiracies and political agitations can easily take root. This has proven to be anything from the minorly ridiculous—the revisionist ramblings of a man who believes him to be the rightful King of England—to the demonstratively dangerous: QAnon’s insertion within Germany’s far-right aligns itself with a movement that draws upon a deep historical national consciousness and experiences with imperialism, fascism, anti-Semitism and ethnic cleansing during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When faced with a real life issue that demands outrage and scrutiny (such as the genuine connections between convicted pedophile Jeffery Epstein and prominent public figures), QAnon can leverage this factuality as proof of its own credibility. The gamification of conspiracy that QAnon encourages is central to this process, exhorting followers to “piece together the puzzle” and “do the research” for themselves as each cryptic Q Drop is published-a perverse empowerment that self-affirms and perpetuates the movement as new followers find recourse for their own worldviews and experiences within the QAnon mythos. In doing so, potential followers are slowly drawn into QAnon’s worldview, building off its relatability to adjacent causes which serves to veil some of the hoax’s more radical hypotheses until individuals find themselves more deeply ensnared, resembling the manner in which terrorist cells or cults seek to recruit new members.
In the liberal market economies of the US and UK, neoliberal reforms have provided new opportunities for the very few to become very rich during the last part of the twentieth century. Policies of austerity and privatization have dismantled sources of social stability, further undermined by the reconfiguration of local modes of production into globalized supply chains and international labor markets. Normative late capitalism and its blurring of the lines between business and politics has engendered an inert political class held hostage to Big Enterprise and self-interest. On a global scale, the international political community as represented in institutions such as the United Nations, European Union and World Bank has failed to adequately address world issues in recent decades, such as humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, the climate change emergency and refugee crises in European and Africa.
It is from these growing feelings of democratic disenfranchisement, socio-economic polarization and anti-globalization sentiment that events such as Brexit, far right nationalism and the election of Donald Trump arise. The popularity of QAnon is born from this same reactionary trend-in its own poisonous, paradoxical way, it claims to strive for a better, righteous world through dismantling unfair elite systems, taking back control and stepping back from an international order it perceives as broken (“Independence is a beautiful thing. Globalism dead?” reads a Q Drop celebrating the UK’s January 2020 withdrawal from the European Union, while online pro-Brexit communities align themselves with QAnon content). It is therefore unsurprising that the UK should host one of the largest QAnon populations outside of the US-the shared politico-economic histories of the Atlantic powers gives rise to similar recent trends towards anti-globalization and populist right-wing bombast. In Brazil too, Bolsonaro’s incendiary anti-establishment stance has capitalized on fears around recession and rising crime statistics, bolstered by the politically-motivated imprisonment of former president and left-wing heavyweight Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. QAnon Germany’s vilification of Chancellor Angela Merkel is also illustrative in this regard, manifesting as a rejection of her status as one of the last great internationalists and humanitarians (her leadership during the 2015 European refugee crisis and subsequent conspiracy-laden backlash is a case in point) and Germany as the de facto leader of the EU.
The most concerning matter is therefore not that QAnon exists, but that the confluence of political, social and economic ills that precedes and produces QAnon has been able to fester, unchecked by any governmental mechanism to address legitimate feelings of injustice and deprivation. In liberal market economies, the Left has been enfeebled by late capitalism’s centrist normativism, divesting mainstream left-wing politics of meaningful social currency or practical efficacy. Attempts to assert a more robust, socially-minded leftist agenda are unable to gain mainstream purchase, as exemplified by the relative failures of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. The Right is similarly devoid of content, ruling through scaremongering and fear-Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the recent civil unrest in American cities or Jair Bolsonaro’s castigation of pro-lockdown politicians are a case in point. This reduces political debate away from theory, ideology and causal reasoning to pitched identity-driven battles between Us and Them-a cosmic dramaturgy easily transposed onto QAnon’s Manichean reading of world politics.
Thus QAnon does not only exploit the political strife it reflects, but is born from it: it is a product of the post-neoliberal moment we now find ourselves in, characterized by dislocation, precarity and exhaustion. If this can be understood, QAnon loses its power to shock and fascinate-its perverse magnetism is dismantled and its purported answers to legitimate political grievances lose authority in the face of actual historical causation and critical logic.
QAnon is not—as some may believe—really about Satanic worship and cannibalistic baby farms, as much as this may grab headlines and imaginations. Although the COVID-19 pandemic may provide the flashpoint the hoax needs to expedite its transition into the mainstream, at its heart QAnon is about empty political discourse, alienation from the democratic process, capitalist exploitation and unanswered global challenges.
Qanon ideas finds its traction among disaffected voting classes who no longer feel that conventional party politics can offer a meaningful way to engage with processes of representation and change. This is not just America’s problem-these are issues which affect all countries and contextualism which citizens organically engage with; QAnon spam-bot campaigns act merely as a force multiplier rather than a singular driver of engagement. To assume otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of QAnon as the premier political conspiracy of our times and its damning commentary on our extant systems of government.
In the US, QAnon continues to successfully exploit fissures within American society along partisan, racial, religious and geographic lines through its subversion of narratives and calls for true patriots to defend their individual rights. The stakes are high, with rising civil conflict in the culture wars to come as Americans prepare to vote in November’s fiercely contested presidential election giving rise to speculation on a breakdown of democractic processes and the seeds of a potential second civil war. There is everything to suggest that as QAnon expands its international base it will deliberately seek to replicate these tactics elsewhere: a tangible manifestation of online antagonism writ in real-life blood and violence. Until we can internationalize the fight against disinformation and galvanize news forms of political expression that provide robust answers to local and global challenges, QAnon will continue to find its recourse in broken statecraft and social disenfranchisement across the world.
Disinformation Analyst at Blackbird.AI
Blackbird.AI’s Disinformation AI Platform provides Fortune 500 and National Security customers with automated defensive and offensive capabilities to defend against a new generation of disinformation driven threats.