Online and in real-life demonstrations, two viral conspiracy theories are increasingly coming together.
At first glance the only thing they appear to have in common is their vast distance from reality.
On one hand, QAnon: a convoluted conspiracy theory that contends that President Trump is waging a secret war against Satan-worshipping elite paedophiles.
On the other, a swirling mass of pseudoscience claiming that coronavirus does not exist, or is not fatal, or any number of other baseless claims.
These two ideas are now increasingly coming together, in a grand conspiracy mash-up.
It was apparent on the streets of London last weekend, where speakers addressing thousands of followers at an anti-mask, anti-lockdown demonstration touched on both themes. Posters promoting QAnon and a range of other conspiracy theories were on display.
On Sunday, President Trump retweeted a message claiming the true number of Covid-19 deaths in the United States was a small fraction of the official numbers. The tweet was later deleted by Twitter under its policy on misinformation.
The account that posted it – “Mel Q” – is still live, and is a copious spreader of QAnon ideas.
QAnon’s main strand of thought is that President Trump is leading a fight against child trafficking that will end in a day of reckoning with prominent politicians and journalists being arrested and executed.
Mel Q is just one of many QAnon influencers who have also been plugging coronavirus disinformation.
The merger between QAnon and Covid-19 conspiracies is also apparent in a number of emails received by the BBC.
“Coronavirus is a cover-up for… child sex trafficking – a major issue in this world and nobody wants to report about it,” one typical email read.
Another man got in touch to explain how his mother – who attended the protests – has been led down the rabbit hole over the course of the pandemic, taken in first by coronavirus conspiracy theories and now by QAnon.
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There has long been overlap between QAnon influencers and pandemic conspiracists, but the weekend protests in London and other cities around the world were the biggest offline demonstration to date of their increasing ties.
“Proponents of Covid conspiracies have found ready-made audiences in the QAnon crowd and vice versa,” says Chloe Colliver, senior policy director at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a think tank focused on extremism.
“In the face of the pandemic, conspiracy theories paint a world that is ordered, and controllable,” explains Open University psychologist Jovan Byford. “Conspiracy theories flourish when social machinery breaks down and available ways of making sense of the world prove inadequate for what is going on.”
While the pandemic has increased the overall potential audience for such ideas, the QAnon and coronavirus strands are also linked by a preoccupation – or obsession – with children and their safety.
That explains why we’ve seen these theories spread in local Facebook groups where more benign discussions cover which cafes are baby-friendly or which local schools make the grade.
“Child abuse is the epitome of sexual and moral depravity and something that is indisputably evil,” Jovan Byford says, “so its incorporation into the theory helps take the idea of the conspirators’ monstrosity and iniquity to the absolute, unquestionable extreme.”
Some of those in Saturday’s crowd were presumably drawn by legitimate concerns about mental health, the economy, criticism of government policy or by questions about still-evolving science.
But, overwhelmingly, what attendees heard from the speakers was a steady stream of bad information (about coronavirus death rates), groundless speculation (about child abuse and “mandatory” vaccinations) and baseless assertions (about the pandemic being planned by governments or shadowy forces – or in the words of the conspiracy theorists, a “plandemic”).
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“The overwhelming majority of the content was about conspiracies,” says Joe Mulhall, a senior researcher at Hope Not Hate, an advocacy group which tracks far-right and conspiracy movements.
“Very little of it came from a constructive viewpoint. There were no speakers talking about, for instance, the impact of the lockdown on small businesses,” says Mulhall, who was at Saturday’s event.
And conspiratorial thinking wasn’t limited to the UK – similar signs could be seen in weekend demonstrations in Boston, Berlin and elsewhere. QAnon and coronavirus conspiracy theories have truly gone international.
One man who contacted the BBC says his mother attended the London demonstration and carried two posters. One featured a coronavirus conspiracy theory: “Arrest Bill Gates for crimes against humanity”. The other had a QAnon hashtag: “#SavetheChildren”
The man, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of falling out with his family, explained how his mother adopted conspiratorial views after becoming increasingly obsessed with YouTube videos of a number of the protest speakers.
“She’s become so into these different conspiracy theories, it’s becoming difficult to pin down what she believes. Everything contradicts each other,” he explained.
His mother’s transformation has put a huge strain on their relationship.
“She’s always sending videos and messages promoting these conspiracy theories on the family WhatsApp chat now,” he says. “It’s so hard to have a normal conversation.”
The organisers of Saturday’s rally declined to comment for this story.
“What worries us is that these lines of thought are being linked into a super-conspiracy with QAnon as its backbone,” says Joe Mulhall of Hope Not Hate. “Q allows you to join the dots between all different conspiracies – there’s a secret cabal doing things behind the scenes. And as soon as you talk about super-conspiracies and secret hands, it is a short step to the ‘other’ and in many cases, that means ‘Jews’.
“Anti-Semitism is never far from the surface of these conspiracy theories,” he adds.
“The potential audiences for dangerous disinformation are growing and harder to isolate and contain,” says Chloe Colliver of the ISD. “They are becoming so inter-connected that it is hard for tech platforms at this late stage to now get a grip on limiting the reach of potentially dangerous disinformation.”
In recent weeks, Twitter has acted to remove a number of big QAnon accounts; Facebook has closed large many QAnon groups; and thousands of QAnon Instagram pages have been removed. TikTok has also blocked hashtags linked to the conspiracy theory.
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In response, the conspiracy theorists have pivoted to new slogans and hashtags – for instance, #SaveTheChildren.
The growing conspiracy movement – while still at the fringes – seems to be picking up momentum on the streets.
“We can’t pick up all the events that are being organised,” Joe Mulhall says. “They’re being set up too fast.”