The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion QAnon is an American invention, but it has become a global plague

How do conspiracy theories and racism move from the fringe to a political platform? The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has found the way. (Video: Parjanya Christian Holtz, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post, Photo: Markus Schreiber / AP/The Washington Post)

The outlandish conspiracies embraced by QAnon believers focus sharply on mythical events supposedly occurring in the United States. But this worldview has also made its way across the globe, infecting minds in scores of countries. Despite its very American DNA, QAnon is adapting, rapidly spawning new variants across the world.

The viral spread of QAnon, which has already prompted violence in the United States, would be unthinkable without social media — one more reminder of the urgent need for sensible regulation of social media platforms.

The dangerously bizarre far-right beliefs made a splash with Pizzagate, a 2016 conspiracy theory claiming that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats were running a pedophile ring from the basement of a D.C. pizzeria. Then this morphed into a much more elaborate and deranged ideology about a global cabal of powerful pedophiles, a “deep state” running the world and — borrowing from ancient antisemitic conspiracy theories — drinking the blood of children to stay young. Believers began to see Donald Trump as their savior, and he was happy to accept their praise.

The U.S. social media giants eventually tried to curtail QAnon’s spread, but that didn’t stop QAnon backers from being elected to Congress, while others joined the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

You might think that the entire QAnon construct is too U.S.-centric to garner much interest in other countries — but you’d be wrong. The covid-19 pandemic, which has turbocharged all sorts of conspiracy theories, has acted as a global accelerant. A non-exhaustive check by the Web watchdog NewsGuard found more than 448,000 QAnon followers in Europe alone last year. By one count, it has taken root in about 70 countries, sprouting local versions with their own mind-boggling ideas.

One of the most active QAnon networks is in Japan, where followers believe the imperial family has been replaced by body doubles and suggest that World War II-era Emperor Hirohito was a CIA or British agent who owned the patent for the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. QAnon fans claim that the 2011 tsunami was a deliberate act of terrorism overseen by then-Emperor Akihito. They also worry that the government has been infiltrated by ethnic Koreans, whom they view as an enemy. Like QAnon believers everywhere, they fear globalization, believe that pedophilia is everywhere and think that Trump, their hero, was robbed of a win in the 2020 election.

Japan even has special branches of QAnon, notably the QArmy Japan Flynn, with a passion for the retired lieutenant general who lasted three weeks as Trump’s national security adviser.

As others have noted, QAnon has uncanny parallels with the rise of Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult whose narcissistic leader lost an election, claimed he had been cheated and became a demigod to his followers, who ultimately spread sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 13 people in 1995.

QAnon also has enormous support in Britain. A survey by civic group Hope Not Hate last year found that 26 percent of Britons believed prominent public figures are part of a pedophile child-trafficking network, while an additional 17 percent said that the pandemic is part of a “depopulation plan” — another favorite QAnon belief around the world.

Protests against pandemic lockdowns in Europe and elsewhere have featured QAnon fans alongside other extremist groups. Interviews with protesters revealed a tangle of mind-boggling notions about the deep state and “pedophiles in our elite everywhere … in the U.S., in the U.K., and all over the world.”

In France (where the local QAnon website is subtitled “Make France Great Again”), the group obsesses over the “soldiers of evil,” its name for the alleged adherents of globalization. Their number apparently includes many of the international bogeymen of the far right — George Soros and Hillary Clinton — as well as specifically French figures such philosopher-activist Bernard-Henri Lévy. (French QAnon supporters appear to view Jews with particularly suspicion).

One favorite of French QAnon is physician Didier Raoult, a promoter of the drug hydroxychloroquine. (Scientific studies have shown that it is not just useless but also dangerous for treating covid-19.)

QAnon is thriving in Germany, where it’s promoted by the popular online TV channel Pravda TV. QAnon is growing in the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand.

It’s also making inroads in Latin America. A couple of weeks ago, a friend in Colombia sent me a lengthy, professionally edited “news” video that claimed to offer ominous evidence of a plot for world domination by nefarious forces. When I tried to track down its origins, I ended up at a Spanish-language disinformation website filled with news decrying pandemic restrictions, praising Russian President Vladimir Putin and providing copious “Revelations from Q.”

QAnon theories create so much horror and anxiety among their consumers that violence seems like a logical response; small wonder that the FBI has declared QAnon to be a significant domestic terrorism threat. Now that threat no longer appears to be restricted to the United States. There’s no limit to what conspiracy theorists can invent.

Having infused energy into these dangerous lies, the United States and its social media platforms have a unique responsibility to help stop them. But, much like the covid-19 pandemic, this plague already spans the globe. A truly effective response requires facing it down everywhere it emerges, countering deliberate disinformation designed to sow fear, chaos and violence. Surely we can find ways to defend free speech without allowing deranged lies to be promoted as truth.

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