Emily* was apprehensive when she moved back to her parents’ house in Hertfordshire at the beginning of the UK’s lockdown. Like other freelancers in the creative industry, the 23-year-old had found her regular stream of work drying up, and was unable to afford the extortionate rent in her Highbury flat. It wasn’t the prospect of moving back into her childhood bedroom that she found daunting, though. Rather, it was the thought of being in the same house as her dad for a long stretch of time.
Emily’s responsibility wouldn’t just be ensuring her dad didn’t get the virus, but easing the pressure for her mum, who – for the past year – has had to navigate her dad’s obsession with vaccines, mind control and his belief in a secret paedophile network operating in every town and city in the UK.
“Sometimes,” Emily tells me over Zoom, “he’ll be up until 2, 3 in the morning, and then will storm into the bedroom, wake up my mum and demand that she listens to whatever theory he’s obsessed with.”
For the most part, the theories that Emily’s dad subscribes to concern secret paedophile rings and shady networks organising international human trafficking. But over the past few months, he’s also been convinced of secret warehouses across London that facilitate animal abuse; that British universities have been indoctrinating people with a “marxist agenda”; and that COVID-19 has been used as cover for the erection of thousands of 5G towers, designed to surveil every home in the UK.
If all of these theories sound familiar, it’s because at least one will have made its way to your Facebook wall or Twitter feed over the past few months. And pretty much every one of these theories has been incorporated into the broader conspiracy known as “QAnon”.
Describing QAnon can be tricky. For the most part, news outlets have described it as a “wide ranging conspiracy theory” or a “cult” that originated in 2017, following the election of Donald Trump. Its early subscribers – often conspiracy theorists in the first place – believed that Trump, having upset the US political establishment, was waging a secret war against a global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles.
In the beginning, QAnon felt like any other internet conspiracy theory, with its poorly made infographics, rambling videos and endless references to standard conspiracy subject matter, such as the New World Order, the Rothschild family and, of course, George Soros. Since then, however, QAnon has grown rapidly, and in such a decentralised manner that governments and technology companies are struggling to even comprehend its logistics.
Millions of people are now subscribed to QAnon-related Facebook groups as it expands in scope. QAnon isn’t just about Trump “draining the swamp” anymore, and it’s not just about paedophiles or #Pizzagate either. As QAnon grows in popularity, it has promoted conspiracies about climate change and the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as promoting Islamophobia and anti- Semitism under the guise of “warning” its adherents of “population replacement” sanctioned by global elites.
This growth isn’t restricted to the United States. Across the world, overt references to QAnon have been seen both online and offline. At a recent anti-mask protest in London, “Q” signs – as well as slogans such as “The Great Awakening” and “We are the Storm” – were present in the crowds. In Germany, where the response to the pandemic has arguably been the most effective in both economic and public health terms, groups of conspiracy theorists – including neo-Nazis – have frequently taken to the street brandishing QAnon placards and banners. Meanwhile, online, encrypted QAnon groups for dedicated followers in Europe contain memberships in the tens of thousands.
Nearly 5 percent of all public support for QAnon – hundreds of thousands of tweets, Facebook posts and message board entries – come from users based in the UK. A recent report in Wired estimated that around 200,000 British people are likely to support, or at least sympathise with, QAnon – a number that most analysts believe will grow exponentially in the coming months.
“QAnon isn’t so much a conspiracy theory as a collective network of conspiracy theories, beliefs and [social] anxieties,” says Annie Kelly, a co-host and UK correspondent for the popular QAnonanonymous podcast, which covers conspiracy theories. But, she adds, the growth of QAnon has less to do with it being “imported” from the US than it having a “national character” which “engulfs conspiracies that already exist, and have been peddled and exploited by tabloid media”.
While tracking UK-based QAnon groups, Kelly says, “I noticed that whenever something was posted about Trump, or even politics and elections, it doesn’t really get that much traction or attention. Members [of the group] don’t really respond to that. They usually were more interested in local events… one popular post was the theory that Jill Dando, the host of Crimewatch, was shot dead because she was going to reveal incriminating information about politicians”.
At the "Unite for Freedom" demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London – a mass gathering of COVID conspiracy theorists – two demonstrators hold QAnon signs. Photo: Guy Corbishley / Alamy Stock Photo
In a similar vein, Kelly adds, “A lot of the most popular posts on UK QAnon channels were about the grooming scandals in Rotherham, Jimmy Saville, Prince Andrew… there’s been a long history of moral scandals about child abuse and paedophillia which have been used to sell newspapers and get page views. So the UK version of QAnon just captured sentiments that were already common in the country.”
It’s the interplay of multiple grievances and moral panics, combined with a general and, crucially, understandable sense of helplessness that makes QAnon so appealing to people like Emily’s father. “He never used to spend that much time on the computer,” she says, recalling that he’d only check his emails a couple of times a day, and struggled to use the Facebook account Emily had made for him.
His habits gradually changed in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. “When the Brexit deal wasn’t getting passed through Parliament, I remember my dad was obsessed with things he saw his friends sharing… about how politicians were trying to stop Brexit because they wanted to get rid of all the borders,” she says.
Emily, not being particularly political, initially brushed it off – at least, until her dad started sharing conspiracy theories too: “He was sharing [posts] which would claim that the UK was letting in over a million refugees a year, and that eventually became sharing things about schools promoting ‘trans ideology’ and George Soros trying to get rid of war memorials.”
“There has been no way to get through to him.”
No matter how much Emily tried to convince him otherwise – through long phone calls and on his Facebook wall – nothing was effective. “I would tell him something was false, show him the evidence, and he would either say that I was lying or show me links he found on Facebook from conspiracy clickbait websites that his friends had shared,” she says. “There has been no way to get through to him.”
Part of QAnon’s huge growth is linked to its lack of centralisation and objective. While journalists and analysts have been able to track popular Q groups on Facebook and Instagram, on encrypted chat platforms like Telegram and right-leaning platforms like Parler, there is no QAnon leader or figurehead.
Public figures like the climate change denier Piers Corbyn and the former New York Times journalist turned anti-mask activist Alex Berenson have been influential figures in Q-related groups, but have not endorsed or publicly supported QAnon as a theory. Even in the most popular QAnon Facebook groups – such as the UK-based “Eyes Wide Open”, which, until its recent deletion, had close to 50,000 members – QAnon was never explicitly endorsed. Rather, the group positioned itself as a neutral community simply looking to “find the truth”.
A man at an anti-mask protest in Trafalgar Square, London wearing a T-shirt bearing the letters "WWGIWGA", or "Where We Go One We Go All", a QAnon slogan. Photo: Aiyush Pachnanda
“It makes regulating Q groups online a lot more difficult, and you have to pay a lot of attention to know where Q supporters and sympathisers are going and who they are listening to,” says Kelly, who adds that this kind of structure often works to the advantage of QAnon’s proponents. “When I went to the gathering in Trafalgar Square, one thing people told me was that they weren’t a protest group like Black Lives Matter… they saw themselves as ordinary people who had ‘woken up’.”
Moreover, Kelly adds, the lack of structure in QAnon also means people can participate – by sharing memes, posts and buying products like nootropics or crystals – without needing to endorse anything or promote any single person.
“A lot of QAnon groups consist of people who are having fun… they’re meeting new people, making friends and also participating in a kind of game where they feel like they’re solving crimes and uncovering secret paedos,” she explains. “They don’t think they’re part of an organised mass movement with a political purpose.”
Crowds at UK-based Q protests are still relatively small, especially in comparison to the US. But it’s not unfeasible that, as the lockdown continues and we near the 2020 US election, a surge of conspiracy theories will emerge and engulf social media platforms. It’s one reason why security analysts, like the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s Jacob Davey, believe that technology platforms have a greater responsibility to, at the very least, slow the spread.
“As a very first step, platforms have to be more effective at enforcing their existing policies,” says Davey. “The QAnon community is using every trick in the bag to spread the conspiracy, including coordinated inauthentic activity [bots, sock puppets, etc]. If platforms actually met up to their commitment as stated in pre-existing policies, and enforced against inauthentic activity, this could help limit the impact of this network.”
One thing that might hinder this, Davey points out, is the dependence platforms have on implementing algorithms to weed out conspiratorial content – which are limited in their effectiveness, and can be easily bypassed. What might be more effective, Davey suggests, is “independent oversight and transparency around how the companies are designing and enforcing their policies” – something that, even post-Presidential election, would be necessary to prevent other online fringe groups “metastasising into a major global phenomenon”.
Kelly, meanwhile, is more optimistic about the abilities of platforms to curb groups like QAnon from engulfing digital spaces. Citing Reddit’s recent crackdown on QAnon – which involved deleting tens of subreddits from the platform – Kelly suggests that social media platforms like Facebook could “implement teams of human moderators that are dedicated to tracking these groups”. Ultimately, she says, “Social Media platforms have to get away from thinking that they are just mediators of the human condition if they actually want to do something effective… even if that means taking cuts to their profits.”
If that doesn’t happen, it falls on people like Emily to try to stop their loved ones from getting lost in online rabbit holes that end up totally consuming them. In the past few months, Emily has seen see some change in her dad, but only because she’s forcibly reduced his screen time and placed blocking software on his internet browsers. Still, she says, just a couple of hours is enough to be distracted by new conspiracy theories.
“The most recent one was a theory about how the UN had passed a law to protect paedophiles,” she says. “He went on about that for a couple of days, but I was able to convince him that the UN can’t actually pass laws like that.”
Even after that minor win, Emily knows that it wouldn’t take much to see her dad return to square one.