Shortly after Jarmo Ekman starts livestreaming his get-together, an older woman walks into view wearing something you wouldn't expect to see at a small Finnish hotel: a MAGA hat. She blows a kiss to the camera and shows off her hat like a model.
“What a beautiful hat,” Ekman says. “As you see there are a lot of Trump fans here, of course, as it is a Q meeting.”
It’s July 11 and around 50 people are meeting at a hotel in Dragsfjärd, a small community two hours west of Helsinki, for a weekend QAnon festival. While walking through the crowd, Ekman stops to speak to a man wearing a nametag made of duct tape with Bono written on it.
“This is the first Q weekend festival ever in this world,” says Bono. On his shirt are the words “QAnon Army Finland.”
“Armies” like this can be found in Germany, France, and the U.K., as well as in Canada, Japan, and Iran. All of them support QAnon, a vast conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is waging a war against the “Deep State” made up of elite families, politicians, and celebrities, which also just happens to connected a massive child sex trafficking ring and is currently using COVID-19 to entrench its power.
It’s a conspiracy that’s been able to reach new heights during the pandemic as people around the world desperately search for community and any way to make sense of the chaos. The QAnon community is welcoming to anyone as long as they believe in at least one of the many tendrils that branch out from the theory’s heart—that the world is extremely screwed because of bogeymen behind the scenes, and only those smart enough to see through the veil can fight them. While the actual details of the conspiracy are hyper-focused on the U.S., the broad strokes can be applied to almost anywhere, which helps to explain the rapid growth of QAnon across borders.
Marc-André Argentino, a PhD candidate at Concordia University who studies QAnon and similar far-right movements, recently did a data sweep of QAnon groups on social media. Based on his most recent analysis (which was taken before the Twitter crackdown last week), QAnon has had a 71 percent increase in Twitter content and a 651 percent increase on Facebook since March.
On Facebook, his data showed there were 179 groups with more than 1.4 million members—up from 60 groups and less than a quarter a million members in the same period. During that time, QAnon pages on Facebook doubled, from 63 to 120 pages. Facebook removed a small number of QAnon pages in April but the conspiracy is still growing quickly on the platform.
“Most of (the new groups and pages) appear to be international,” said Argentino. “There aren't a lot of new U.S. groups; the big groups have just grown more. It's places like Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia, and Israel.
“Germany recently had protesters asking for Trump to come and liberate them from the German deep state. That's fucked up,” he said.
Even Ekman’s Q meeting in Finland has grown. Ten months ago, he held another Q gathering in Helsinki where he was only able to get 19 people out.
Q and the ever-changing conspiracy
While it’s too complex to break down quickly, the broad strokes of QAnon follow that Trump can't explicitly state his plan to the public because he’ll obviously risk the mission. To remedy this an anonymous individual known as “Q,” who gets their name from the "Q-level" security clearance they claim to have, informs the public of the ongoings of the secret war against the deep state. This individual then posts cryptic messages on an online imageboard best known for its ties to neo-Nazis and child porn. Trump’s followers find these messages, known as Q-drops, and decode them.
The conspiracy started on 4chan, one of the more notorious imageboards, in 2017 and has grown mightily from there. The conspiracy has gained notoriety for not only its numbers but also for its elaborate and outlandish theories, including “mole children” being sex trafficked underground, and celebrities such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and actor Tom Hanks having been secretly executed and replaced with body doubles.
The movement is fluid and adaptable, so what's popular among the group today may very well be different months down the line. In the United States, 68 believers are running for Congress, some who even have a shot at winning. After coming in first in the primary, prospective Georgia GOP candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, a vocal QAnon supporter, is headed into a run-off vote. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Greene even offered to help her followers get acquainted with the confusing world of QAnon. The group and its unwavering beliefs have been described as cult-like by some experts, projecting Trump and Q as quasi-religious figures.
QAnon goes North
In Canada, QAnon recently gained the attention of the mainstream press after it was found that a heavily armed man who stormed the gates of Trudeau’s home had posted a QAnon meme. (He has been charged with uttering threats to kill or injure the prime minister; his motives have not yet been determined.)
Blain McElra runs the QAnon Canada page on Facebook as well as a few other Canadian-centric QAnon pages. McElra told VICE he went from 400 members to 2,800 members since the start of the pandemic.
He said he found QAnon shortly after one the first posts by Q in 2017 and helped "decode” it by telling the group the term “Can'' was shorthand for Canada. He's been hooked ever since. McElra said after he and his wife lost their 10-month-old baby, he felt compelled to do whatever he could to “help end the suffering, pedophilia, and trafficking of children.”
McElra views QAnon as a global movement whose first stop is the United States.
“I think of the U.S. as just the first domino and when Trump gets that squared away, the rest of the countries should see results—as the criminals, politicians, corporations, etc., are held to account—so it's just a matter of time,” McElra said.
McElra said he strives for the movement to be as peaceful as possible and is extra diligent when moderating posts. He said he reads and watches everything that is posted on the Facebook pages he moderates but admits it can be a struggle.
"I make a big effort to be a calming effect in my group and I have zero tolerance for anything violent or troublesome in that regard," McElra said. "The emotions are high, people are frustrated, and I feel it is very important to keep this all peaceful."
Many experts have warned that the pandemic has created a conspiracy boom of sorts. On every social media platform, conspiracy communities are growing. Even TikTok has reportedly been dealing with an explosion of young users spreading Pizzagate-style theories in the past few months. Anna Merlan, VICE News reporter and author of Republic of Lies, a book about modern day conspiracy culture, recently wrote that we're experiencing a "conspiracy singularity" that has allowed movements like QAnon, the UFO truthers, and the anti-vaxxers to coalesce.
“This pandemic has created an environment of uncertainty and powerlessness within many aspects of human life today,” says a Media Diversity Institute report from June. “Unfortunately, QAnon has successfully taken advantage of this atmosphere by expanding the scope of the conspiracy theory and using it to spread misinformation and fake news about an already complex and unsolved public health crisis.”
Travis View, co-host of the popular U.S. podcast QAnon Anonymous, said he’s been watching groups pop up all over the world during the pandemic and sees it as a result of people needing community. At the end of the day, that's what QAnon is: an online community.
“This is a function of fact that QAnon seems like a primarily U.S. conspiracy theory but is actually a big-tent conspiracy theory movement,” said View. “So whatever sort of conspiratorial beliefs that you happen to latch on to, you're going to find a home within QAnon."
“What people get attached to more than anything else is the online community of people who don't trust any kind of institutional knowledge,” he added.
'Domestic terror threat'
QAnon growth isn't benign. Followers have been linked to several deaths and crimes over the past three years, such as the killing of an underboss in the New York mob and of a woman who livestreamed her attempt to "take out" Joe Biden. Other believers have gotten into standoffs with police, derailed trains, and conspired to bomb places they believed to be satanic.
According to an intelligence bulletin by the FBI, the feds deemed "fringe conspiracy theories," which includes QAnon, as a domestic terrorism threat. “The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts,” reads the bulletin, first reported by Yahoo News.
The international QAnon groups aren’t siloed. They work together to produce content. Argentino said he's seen cases of international pages translating propaganda, like popular Q “documentaries,” to provide to other regions. For example, the Quebec QAnon community plays a role in translating propaganda to French and working with groups in France but the French propaganda is also translated for the Italian groups—as French is easier to translate to Italian than English. The German QAnon community helps translate and disseminate propaganda in Austria and Denmark content. In each case the propaganda was adapted for its audience, with more socialist and secular propaganda in France than in the U.S., for example.
“These hub communities are starting to influence their own regions and we’re seeing large growth,” said Argentino. “It's creating different communities still based around this Trump movement.”
A QAnon film, Out of Shadows, was recently translated to other languages and has now been viewed hundreds of thousands more times. Other social media accounts or websites have been set up entirely to disseminate translated articles about QAnon, including one on Twitter whose bio explicitly states in French that it was set up to “allow non-English-speaking Patriots to follow Q.” The account has accrued almost 10,000 followers in less than a year.
A recent report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a counter-extremism research group, found that while the hashtags are still predominantly posted in the U.S., their prevalence has dropped, which suggests “the conspiracy theory is spreading and taking hold internationally.” The ISD found the top four countries amplifying QAnon conspiracies were the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Australia, followed by Russia, Indonesia, and Germany. The Media Diversity Institute report found content posted in Dutch, French, German, Greek, and Hungarian, and an increase of support on social media in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Canada, Germany, Greece, and Hungary.
QAnon around the world
Some of the international followers of Q aren’t exactly the rubes that come to mind when discussing outlandish conspiracy theories.
In October 2019, the Guardian found that one of the friends of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was a well-known QAnon conspiracy theorist whose wife worked in the PM’s office. Earlier this year a psychologist was removed from Australia’s medical registrar for writing over 300 blog posts promoting Q theories about pedophilic sacrifices and an attempted coup on the U.S. by the Queen of England on his practice’s official blog.
In Germany, an investigation by the German outlet the Local showed that a popular German QAnon YouTube page had grown "exponentially" since March and a Telegram channel grew from 20,000 to 110,000 followers. Recently a German QAnon believer was spotted at a far-right anti-immigration rally organized on Hitler's birthday. Controversial German pop singer and influencer Xavier Naidoo was recently found to share Q theories.
In Iran, a political opposition group called Restart has connections to QAnon. QAnon followers have also popped up in Japan and South Korea.
Mike Rothchild, a U.S.-based journalist who covers QAnon and has written a book on the subject, said he’s seen QAnon hashtags from all over the world and in many languages. However, he is unsure if international followers understand the minutiae of the conspiracy or if they’re just gravitating towards a sentiment like the well-known QAnon slogan, “Where we go one, we go all.” Rothschild told VICE News that he feels international QAnon followers are taking the key QAnon concept—fighting back against the elites and globalists—and applying it to their situation.
“I never expected this to get any international reach,” said Rothschild. “What does some U.S. military intelligence role-playing game have to do with life in Japan or Finland where you have different problems and a much different Bogeyman? I think maybe what we're seeing is that the Bogeyman is always kind of the same for a certain online right-winger.”
Not everyone is surprised. Ekman said he’s not shocked he could get 50 people to a Finnish hotel to celebrate something whose true epicentre is over 7,000 kilometres away. Like many within the Q movement, he believes it's part of something bigger.
"I disagree that Q’s messages have been only centred around U.S. politics. There is great diversity on the covered topics," Ekman said. "There is a global spiritual awakening unfolding, of which Q and Trump are a major component."
Even though he says he was “awakened” to ideas like Q in 2014, he believes he's part of something that's only just begun.
Correction: Dragsfjärd is two hours west of Helsinki, not east.
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.