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In 2017, the year the QAnon conspiracy theory was born, most people in the UK would have cackled at the mere suggestion that such an outlandish set of lies would ever gain traction in the British isles. By summer 2020, people were waving Q-themed placards outside Buckingham Palace.
A study by anti-extremism think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue has found that Britain is the second country in the world for output of Q-related tweets: 309,652 tweets between November 2019 and June 2020. Granted, a distant second: the US was far ahead with over nine million posts; but the UK’s share of the Q pie had been growing from 2.1 per cent in 2019 to June 2020’s 2.8 per cent. And that is only Twitter, and that was only June.
If you turn to Facebook, the picture is similar. Data from CrowdTangle, an insights tool owned and operated by Facebook, shows that the membership of the top 20 open Facebook groups catering to a UK public and regularly posting about QAnon or QAnon-adjacent themes shot up about 800 per cent between March 1 and September 18 2020, to over 160,000 members. That chimes with the findings of a scholar who has been observing QAnon’s spread since its beginnings, but who is not authorised to speak on the record, who puts the overall number of UK-based QAnon believers at around 200,000, a 900 percent increase since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown. Between its publication in May and mid-September, UK’s Hidden Shadows, a YouTube video supposed to be the British version of the American Q-related “documentary”, Out of the Shadows, received over 52,000 interactions and was shared 17,000 times on Facebook, CrowdTangle shows.
The rise of QAnon in the UK has been as rapid as it is surprising. The conspiracy theory was born out of the 4Chan messaging board where a supposed intelligence agent (“Q”) maintains that Donald Trump is actually a white knight waging a secret war against a powerful cabal of elite Satanist paedophiles using a secret language involving pizzas and harvesting children’s blood to create an immortality elixir.
It is hard to attach a solid number to the British QAnon fandom – first of all because Facebook started cracking down on Q content in August, causing some groups to disappear, or to reinvent themselves as private invitation-only groups, or to decamp to other channels like Telegram or Bitchute. But it is also because – maybe exactly to dodge moderation – QAnon itself has shape-shifted, spreading under the guise of watchwords, mottos and themes rather than by mentioning Q itself. Now, for instance, QAnon has morphed into an anti-child-trafficking online campaign, alternatively called “Save our children” or “Save the children”; the elite cabal drinking kids’ blood is not written on the tin, and an unsuspecting parent wishing to save their children from something might legitimately join a relevant social media group, before being hurled down a rabbit-hole connecting everyone from Bill Clinton to Jeffrey Epstein to Prince Andrew to Lady Gaga to – surprise surprise – the Rothschilds.
The Q-UK Facebook group has over 3,000 members; Q Anon Updates is a public page with an UK-based admin, who has raked in 25,000 likes and followers since its inception in 2018. You can easily find a post explaining in detail why Boris Johnson is a “white hat”, a Trump ally pursuing the same paedo-élite-busting plan.
But most of the groups and pages are coy about their messaging. They are ostensibly about fighting paedophilia, or about law and order in general, with the odd Q-related slogan tossed in; they might be far-right or pro-Brexit groups; or be about other conspiracy theories, from 5G-causes-Covid, to anti-vaccination panic, and use QAnon as a new framework to connect all those baseless dots. Some of the most popular Facebook pages with UK admins posting about QAnon are ostensibly about energy therapy and New Age mysticism – a common enough junction that has led to the coinage of the term “conspirituality.”
QAnon has been latent in the UK for a while – and it has been given the occasional boost by people like singer Robbie Williams mouthing off on YouTube about Pizzagate, a debunked, Q-linked, conspiracy theory, or by the Daily Mail publishing a story on the connection between pizzas and child abuse. Between June and August 2020, 14 public UK “Spotted” pages – local Facebook communities reposting direct messages from their followers – published at least one QAnon post. But it was the collision of Covid-19 with the #Saveourchildren campaign, a worldwide effort whose origins have been chalked up to a beached-up actor in California, that spurred QAnon’s UK growth. “Conspiracy theories tend to flourish in times of crisis, when people are looking for answers and for ways to cope with difficult circumstances and challenging emotional conditions,” says Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. “People are frustrated and feel isolated, and they are looking for explanations that make them feel better and less powerless.” They end up spending a lot of time on social media, too.
The movement’s culmination was a series of #savethechildren marches taking places in various parts of the UK from August, including those near Buckingham Palace and the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London.
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The rise of, and the differences between, two major UK Facebook groups spreading the word about the marches is revealing. One, Eyes Wide Open, is a private group counting over 47,000 members, half of which joined since July. It makes very little mystery about its affiliation: there is a funny disclaimer in its “about” section swearing that it is neither a “pro-Trump” nor a “Q group”, but you just need to scroll down to find memes about pizza parlours and pictures baselessly claiming that US Democrat politician Joe Podesta kidnapped Madeleine McCann.
The other, StandUpX, is a generic protest movement – anti-everything from Bill Gates to facemasks. Fronted by weather forecaster and conspiracy theorist Piers Corbyn, brother of former Labour leader Jeremy, it started off as an anti-lockdown movement in late June, and for a while it seemed to be your standard fare of anti-vaxx, anti-lockdown, anti-corporate, anti-5G megagroup, prone to leaning left rather than Trump. But if you looked closely enough, you could see it soaking up QAnon under your eyes. A video of a protest posted on the group’s Instagram on July 10 features, fleetingly, one woman in the crowd waving a Q-slogan banner, and stating “we are run by paedophiles.” On July 23, a video of protesters besieging the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s London office ended with an interview of an activist discussing “elite paedophilia rings”. By August 22, a protest in Liverpool erupted with QAnon slogan “where we go one, we go all”. From then on, it was all David Icke, #saveourchildren and pizza slices. So much so that shortly after a big protest in London, in September, StandUpX’s open group – boasting about 40,000 followers – was shut down by Facebook. Its pizza-covered Instagram page survives.
Like a parasite, QAnon has latched onto other, vaguer conspiracies and cannibalised them. That, to an extent, is perfectly natural.”One underlying feature of most conspiracy theories is the secrecy – that is, something is being hidden or covered up. We’ve shown empirically that this is why people who believe in one conspiracy theory are also [likely] to believe in others.” says Douglas. “Because conspiracy theories share the overarching idea that something isn’t quite right, then the details of the specific conspiracy theories don’t seem to matter as long as you believe that basic premise.”
We are talking small numbers, though: the crowds at the protests are relatively puny and, online, QAnon’s British following amounts to a few hundreds thousand people. Should we be worried? Maybe we should. For one, because you only need one person taking the idea of a clandestine paedophile ring too seriously to end up with a tragedy. Fact-checking organisation Logically has counted already six Q-inspired cases of real-life violence in the US between 2018 and 2020.
Secondly, QAnon’s ease at using other conspiracy theories as trojan horses opens up a real can of worms. “The ‘save the children’ movement is ‘QAnon Light’,” says Aoife Gallagher, the author of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s QAnon report. “It is a simple and effective message that works as an entry point.”
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