On Sept. 16 at noon Eastern, Future Tense will host an online event called “How Should We Talk About QAnon?” For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
At the restaurant Pizza Girl, in Paris’ upscale Sixth Arrondissement, the items on the menu have cheeky names: “Norwegian Girl” comes with smoked salmon, “Mexican Girl” with spicy ground beef. The restaurant’s logo features a spiral, meant to represent a pizza topped with tomato sauce.
If you’ve been following American online conspiracy theories over the past few years, you’re probably already cringing. A few weeks ago, the newspaper Le Parisien reports, the owner of Pizza Girl was informed by worried customers that his restaurant had been accused online of being a front for a pedophile ring by conspiracy theorists who were taking the names of the dishes literally—a similar fate to the D.C. pizza place Comet Ping Pong, the epicenter of the bizarre “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton, satanic rituals, and child abuse. (In the Pizzagate universe, spirals are purportedly a covert symbol used by pedophiles.)
“I don’t know if they are sick, jealous, or comedians,” the owner told the newspaper, “but will it stop soon? Should we take this story seriously?” Given that Comet Ping Pong was visited by a heavily armed “investigator” in 2016, perhaps he should.
And perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that Pizzagate is now apparently a global franchise. In recent weeks, it’s become clear that QAnon—the distinctive conspiracy theory/collective delusion/political cult/alternate reality game of the Trump era—has taken root overseas. QAnon, which began with posts on the message board 4chan by a pseudonymous user (or users) known as Q, posits that a shadowy cabal of global elites—including the Clintons, Barack Obama, George Soros, Bill Gates, and others—are involved in child sex trafficking. The movement’s global reach was demonstrated most dramatically on Aug. 31, when far-right extremists, many of them carrying displaying QAnon flags and emblems, attempted to storm the Reichstag in Berlin in a protest against COVID-19 lockdown measures. The most popular German-language QAnon YouTube channel, QlobalChange, boats more than 105,000 subscribers; a similar French-language channel has more than 66,000 and has tripled in less than a month. While Germany and France have the largest movements, there are a significant number of QAnon followers in Italy and the United Kingdom as well.
QAnon’s spread at first seems unexpected, given its origins as a specifically American conspiracy theory deeply tied to recent political events in this country. According to the early versions of the theory, President Donald Trump was actually working alongside Robert Mueller to expose a conspiracy involving Clinton and Obama. But it has proved surprisingly adaptable to other concepts.
“What we’re seeing is that it’s adapting to local circumstances in Europe and tweaking the narratives around conspiracies about local elites,” says Chine Labbe, a managing editor at NewsGuard, a media monitoring group that produced a recent report on QAnon in Europe. “The reasons why it’s working is that it’s a meta-conspiracy. It revolves around very large concepts about a deep state and a cabal of elites. And then there are pedophile crime stories in every country, as well. So, it’s very easy to translate into the local context in every country.”
In Germany, the theory has caught on with the so-called Reichsbürgers, a fringe extreme right movement that dates back to the 1980s and holds that the modern German state is an artificial construct created by foreign powers and that the 1937 borders of the German empire still exist. Like “sovereign citizens” in the United States, the Reichsbürgers often refuse to pay taxes to a state they view as illegitimate, print their own identification documents, and have been linked to acts of violence. But whereas the American sovereign citizens are a bit more ideologically heterodox and include some Black nationalists, the Reichsbürgers are almost exclusively white, far-right, and virulently anti-Semitic. “For them, [QAnon] is just a natural addition to their mindset,” says Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies.
In France, QAnon has caught on with some of the fringier branches of the Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) protest movement, which began in 2018 in opposition to fuel taxes but has since grown into an all-purpose movement against the country’s political elite. Labbe says that as far back as March 2019, a Facebook group was created called “Yellow Vests Against Pedocriminality”—a topic that is “at the center of the QAnon framework but very far from what the Gilets Jaunes are about.” Many French QAnon supporters also back Didier Raoult, the controversial doctor who has been one of the world’s foremost proponents of using hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus—an unproven and potentially dangerous idea that has nonetheless caught on with the global right, from Brazil to the White House. In Italy, QAnon has caught on with the country’s large and influential anti-vaccine crowd.
QAnon has also dovetailed throughout Europe with other recent conspiracy theories involving the supposed dangers of 5G and Bill Gates.
But experts say that more than anything else, it’s the backlash to coronavirus lockdowns that have turbocharged QAnon in Europe. “If you had called me a few months ago I would have told it was just the Reichbürgers and the sovereign citizens movement and no one really cares about it. Now it’s much more widespread,” says Koehler.
Like their counterparts in the United States, European Q adherents see the coronavirus and the lockdown measures imposed to fight it as part of a plot by globalist elites to control the population. Perhaps more surprisingly, “these folks celebrate Donald Trump as much as the American QAnon followers do,” says Kohler. At the rally at the Reichstag, protesters carried pictures of Trump (as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin) and signs asking the U.S. president to “Make Germany Great Again.” One of the speakers at the rally gave a speech falsely claiming that Trump had arrived in Berlin that day to liberate the country from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. This, if nothing else, should give an indication of just how far outside the mainstream this movement is: Just 13 percent of Germans approve of Trump, according to a Pew poll from early this year, whereas Merkel’s approval rating is at an all-time high thanks to Germany’s mostly successful coronavirus response.
The conspiracy has also gotten a boost from celebrity adherents including the German R&B singer and reality show judge Xavier Naidoo, who has spread QAnon messages on his Telegram account, and the popular vegan chef Attila Hildmann, who called for U.S. intervention to “Demand the freedom of Germany and a military tribunal for Merkel.”* British pop singer Robbie Williams gave an interview in June suggesting that Pizzagate has not been properly debunked.
On the one hand, no major, or even minor, European politicians have embraced QAnon. This is in contrast to the United States where a number of candidates for Congress, some with very good chances of winning, have embraced the theory, where Q signs are a regular feature at Trump rallies, and where Trump has himself declined several opportunities to condemn or distance himself from the growing movement. Kohler notes that despite the global attention they have received, the anti-lockdown protests in Germany remain small and confined to the political fringe, though some politicians from the far-right Alternative for Germany party have backed them.
On the other hand, as Labbe notes, QAnon in Europe is “really new.” In the U.S., the first posts on 4chan by the pseudonymous user (or users) known as Q appeared back in 2017, and Pizzagate took off even earlier. By contrast, European QAnon content only started appearing online in late 2019, according to NewsGuard, and didn’t become widespread until this summer.
There’s still plenty of time for this latest American cultural export to catch on overseas.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.
Correction, Sept. 8, 2020: This post originally misspelled Xavier Naidoo’s last name and Attila Hildmann’s first and last names.