QAnon spreads across globe, shadowing COVID-19

The QAnon movement is spreading around the world, turning an outlandish conspiracy theory revolving around President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE into one of the nation’s most dangerous exports.

Flags and banners brandishing one of the conspiracy’s mottos — “WWG1WGA,” an acronym for “where we go one, we go all” — dotted the crowd at a rally against lockdowns in Germany last month.

And when Trump visited Japan in 2019, he was greeted by cardboard cutouts of the letter Q.

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These aren’t just isolated instances either. Researchers have found large QAnon communities in more than 70 countries. 

The original conspiracy theory was tightly focused on an alleged cabal of deep state figures and Hollywood elites running child trafficking rings that Trump was working with the military to expose. But it has since evolved into a meta-conspiracy theory that pushes its anti-institution and anti-Semitic strains more explicitly.

Experts who spoke with The Hill about the theory’s spread said it has become worse because of the coronavirus, which itself is the subject of many conspiracy theories. This helped create a perfect storm fostering distrust in established government and public health institutions.

“Pandemics fuel a lot of questions and make people very skeptical, especially in cases when what we would consider to be credible and trustworthy institutions all of a sudden themselves don't seem to have the right answers or are not aligned on how to manage the situation,” Anna-Sophie Harling, head of media evaluation startup NewsGuard’s Europe team, said in an interview.

“Conspiracies are rooted in the idea that we're all being lied to by some greater authority or voice and QAnon perfectly ties into that.”

The hyper-viral short documentary “Out of the Shadows” fueled baseless theories linking the coronavirus’s origins to Bill Gates, 5G towers and the World Health Organization, Alex Newhouse, digital research lead at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute, told The Hill.

And as institutional distrust grew, QAnon, which pushed a lot of the disinformation in the first place, was able to grab a foothold.

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Another way that the pandemic has contributed to the international spread of QAnon is by isolating people and leaving them with little to do but go online.

“As a consequence of people not working as much, people are spending a lot more time online and they started going down these rabbit holes,” said Travis View, co-host of the "QAnon Anonymous" podcast.

Social media has been the biggest vector for QAnon’s international growth.

In a report released last month, NewsGuard found QAnon Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages with thousands of followers emerging across Europe. Many of these hubs for the QAnon community used the COVID-19 pandemic to expand their reach and tie the virus to the “deep state,” one of the theory’s primary enemies.

QAnon’s presence online has also been seen in Australia, Russia, Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela. Followers have also spread in other communities distrustful of the government, from anti-vaccinations groups to people who oppose wearing masks that help limit COVID-19’s spread.

The proselytizing for QAnon can be subtle. A post this week in a British anti-mask group that celebrated not wearing masks in stores was met by a long comment in agreement that ended with “I am declaring that Jesus is my Lord and not Satan,” a nod toward QAnon’s Satanic panic messaging.

“Mommy bloggers” and Instagram influencers have also started parroting QAnon talking points alongside their normal meditation or spiritual energy posts, according to View.

Many social media platforms have taken some steps to slow this spread.

Twitter in July banned thousands of accounts affiliated with QAnon and instituted policies meant to limit its spread. Facebook last month removed 900 groups and pages from its platform in a crackdown on QAnon and expanded its policy on violent extremism.

These efforts have fallen short, however. A cursory search for terms associated with QAnon on either platform yields hundreds of results. The challenge of identifying and taking down these groups is made even harder when they’re international, given the comparatively limited number of content moderators that social media companies employee with native languages other than English.

Other social media platforms, like the messaging app Telegram, that spread QAnon content abroad have done little to rein it in.

“Telegram is much more popular in certain countries in Europe, especially around the post-Soviet world ... it's a little bit more lax in terms of content moderation,” Zarine Kharazian, assistant editor at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told The Hill.

It’s difficult to know just how many QAnon adherents there are abroad, or in the U.S. for that matter. The size of foreign Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages identified by experts and The Hill give enough evidence to suggest the number is likely in the tens of thousands.

The versions of QAnon abroad are fairly similar to the theory in the U.S. It is deeply anti-Semitic, casting Jewish Holocaust survivor George Soros as the puppeteer behind politicians and clearly takes inspiration for its “global cabal” from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fake document historically used to smear the Jewish community.

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QAnon abroad also still keeps Trump as an important figure, although to varying degrees. In countries where the leader has close ties to the American president, they are often considered white hats, a term used by the community to describe those working within the government to expose the deep state.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was referenced in a “Q drop,” the cryptic messages posted by an unknown figure who purports to have insider information on image board 8kun that make up the basis of the conspiracy.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is another figure considered by many in the community to be a white hat because of his ties to prolific QAnon poster Tim Stewart, who was banned from Twitter this week.

The belief that elites, the specific examples of which vary by country, are running child trafficking rings appears to be present in every iteration of QAnon. The allegation that they’re running them to harvest “adrenochrome,” an easy to obtain chemical compound, to keep themselves young has become a particular obsession of the community abroad, according to Newhouse.

The international spread of QAnon has also started to manifest itself physically. 

In addition to the presence of QAnon signs and supporters at anti-lockdown protests, experts believe the community was also a driving force behind the “Save the Children” rallies that have occurred all over the world. QAnon adherents flooded social media for weeks with posts about child trafficking, a legitimate concern that deserves attention. 

QAnon supporters, however, used that real problem as a way to suck people into their conspiracy while doing little to address trafficking and often obfuscating actual solutions.

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No cases of violence abroad have been linked to QAnon yet, unlike in the U.S. where it has been tied to several cases of criminal activity.

But observers say they are worried about violence, saying the fact that proponents of the conspiracy eagerly anticipate the execution of political opponents underscores how it could become a global threat.