PizzaGate's unfounded claim emerged during the 2016 election. Later that year, a gunman appeared and fired an AR-15 inside the pizzeria, saying he was trying to rescue non-existent child sex slaves.
Now, a report from the Internet trust tool NewsGuard has found that the coronavirus pandemic is clearly helping this American ideology establish itself in Europe.
In the report, NewsGuard sees an increase in QAnon groups and social media pages in April, as the blockages caused by the new virus left millions of people practically confined to their homes.
Coronavirus conspiracies increased along with increased infections.
Such claims acted as a "gateway drug" to QAnon, providing Europeans with the "perfect way to" the online sect, Chine Labbe, managing editor for Europe at NewsGuard, told CNN.
QAnon started out as a one-time conspiracy with a cryptic anonymous post on the 4chan online forum in 2017. The person behind this, who followers would later call "Q", made the false claim that Hillary Clinton was going to be arrested. There was no such arrest.
But similar posts fueling other arrest claims and "deep state" actions continued to appear on 4chan. It is unclear who was behind the posts, or whether the same person posted the ones that followed.
QAnon supporters have compared the early posts, and the later posts, with breadcrumbs or "drops," like Hansel and Gretel, as they refer to them.
Followers of QAnon, whose online behavior has been compared by analysts to a virtual cult, spread the unfounded claims, amplifying them with manipulated or out-of-context evidence posted on social media in an attempt to back up the allegations.
Experts fear that the "dedication QAnon supporters have to their beliefs also provides an opportunity for foreign interference to use these narratives to their advantage," Aoife Gallagher, an analyst with the Institute's Digital Research Unit for CNN, told CNN the Strategic Dialogue (ISD).
The move has raised concerns about online bullying. Twitter banned more than 7,000 accounts, citing its policy of taking action on accounts with "the potential to cause harm offline."
But while QAnon has its roots in the US, supporting and disseminating unsubstantiated theories of mass shootings and elections, it has since become an amorphous ideology, appropriating conspiracies from elsewhere that sit with its anti-elite message. .
"It is such an easily translatable framework, because it is so meta," said Labbe. "It is about world elites having a Machiavellian plan, and every country in the world has elites."
This ability to assimilate old hoaxes with new conspiracies around the coronavirus outbreak has found QAnon "a broad group of supporters" beyond the US among some New Agers and the conservative right, Gallagher told CNN.
"It is tangential to the extreme right in the United States, using anti-Semitic tropes and attacking the same people as the extreme right, (but) as it spreads, we are also seeing that it is attractive to (the) left anarchist side, " she said.
QAnon's ability to evolve is not only at risk of seriously "undermining" democracy, due to its damaging narrative about individuals and institutions, but it also "undermines the disclosed official information and could hinder the effort to control the virus." Gallagher added.
QAnon has managed to incorporate the local socio-political concerns of Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom into its anti-elite "deep state" narrative, according to the NewsGuard report.
European QAnon groups have gained a large online presence, with the report identifying "448,760 followers or members" on the social media groups it analyzed.
Memberships began to increase in late 2019 and early 2020, particularly once the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold, according to NewsGuard.
According to the report, a French YouTube channel with videos about QAnon has amassed 21,500 subscribers since its inception in April this year. A QAnon Facebook group in the UK, created in the same month, has garnered more than 18,000 followers, according to the report.
National political complaints have found a sounding board in QAnon.
German social media accounts portray Chancellor Angela Merkel "as a 'deep-state puppet' that needs to be overthrown," the report says.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron has been dismissed as "a pawn" in QAnon's French publications.
And QAnon's Italian supporters praised former far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini, but treated the country's centrist prime minister Giuseppe Conte with contempt.
Meanwhile, debates are raging over British QAnon groups on Facebook over whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been "installed" by "Q" and is draining the "British swamp" along with United States President Donald Trump.
"In such panel discussions, Brexit and the British government's decision to ban Huawei from UK 5G networks are cited as evidence of Johnson's loyalty to Q," the report writes.
The report finds that QAnon is thriving in Germany. Local ideology-linked social media accounts hit the scene as early as 2018, including what is now a German-language YouTube channel of 99,600 followers and a Facebook group with 30,100 members.
German celebrities have also joined the nexus of conspiracy.
Berlin-based vegan chef Attila Hildmann, who has posted on social media about his support for theories in the QAnon constellation, implored the United States to "liberate" Germany in June 2020, according to the report. Her post, on the Telegram messaging app, falsely claimed that Merkel was working "alongside Gates, the Zionists, the Transhumanists and the Communists" to plan the "genocide of the Germans".
In a statement to CNN, Hildmann said he is not a follower of "Q", but watches the movement "and supports it." He added that "Germany is not a free country, but it is still occupied by the Americans and, therefore, only the great nation of the United States has the power to liberate the Germans from Merkel's reign of terror!"
According to the NewsGuard report, singer Xavier Naidoo has been a "driving force" behind the spread of the conspiracy in Germany, routinely sharing QAnon content with his 84,000 Telegram subscribers. CNN has seen at least five posts it has shared from QAnon groups on Telegram.
When asked to respond to allegations that Naidoo has fueled the spread of QAnon in Germany, a Naidoo spokesman said: "Xavier has nothing to do with QAnon."
A separate analysis by Gallagher at ISD found that QAnon's popularity in Germany coincides with Trump's attacks on NATO and the European Union, a sentiment that draws anti-Atlantic conspiracy groups.
"There is a good appetite for that kind of rhetoric," Gallagher said, adding that German QAnon groups on Telegram, "have seen a huge increase in membership by tens of thousands" since the beginning of 2020.
The theory remains on the fringes of European discourse, but analysts worry that adherents ally with more conventional movements.
According to the NewsGuard report, Facebook groups supporting France's yellow vest movement, or Gilet Jaune, a campaign that began protesting against rising gas prices and has since turned into a larger rally against Macron, "have been particularly interested in Q's narratives recently," the report wrote.
A group from Yellow Vest, which has 196,000 members, shared a QAnon video in July from a French QAnon site, which was created in May. "This shows how in some circles the two fights are interconnecting," Labbe said.
Social media companies have targeted the conspiracy. Three sources familiar with Facebook's work on misinformation told CNN in mid-July that the company plans to take action on QAnon. When CNN contacted this week, Facebook declined to comment.
But the jury does not know if it will stop the spread of ideology. Many say the genie may already be out of the bottle.
Labbe argues that "censorship fuels conspiracies, as soon as you remove the websites, you will find an alternative media platform."
But the opposite is also true. "QAnon flourishes because it is a community where everyone can reinforce their beliefs," said Gallagher. "Facebook groups are one of the main places" where QAnon thrives, he explained. "So it will be interesting to see the next move that Facebook is making."
CNN's Donie O & # 39; Sullivan and Paul P. Murphy contributed to this report.
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