How QAnon conspiracy extremists Trump refused to condemn lure Brits with warped theories about Covid & tortured kids

IT sounds like the plot of a dystopian Hollywood film: thousands of mutilated, tortured and sexually abused children being saved from underground tunnels across the world.

Yet this disturbing 'rescue mission' is among the lurid claims of QAnon – a bizarre (and totally baseless) conspiracy movement that is spreading across Britain and peddling dangerous Covid myths.

Yesterday, in a televised interview in Miami, President Trump refused to denounce the movement, which claims he and senator Robert Mueller are waging asecret war against a dangerous paedophile ring.

The theories centre on a belief that Satan-worshipping elites – including Hollywood stars, philanthropists and Democratic politicians – are embroiled in a global child-trafficking paedophile ring, where kids are kidnapped, caged and tortured so their bodily fluids can be consumed in Satanic rituals.

Some of the captive youngsters, they allege, are subjected to horrifying human experiments and organ harvesting. Others are purportedly sacrificed or sexually abused on film.

Needless to say, experts insist the claims are nonsense. But that didn't stop an article about "tortured, malnourished children and corpses in the tens of thousands" being found in a "sophisticated network" of tunnels going viral on Facebook last month.

During the interview in Miami Town Hall, moderator Savannah Guthrie asked President Trump to "disavow" their belief "that Democrats have a satanic paedophile ring and you [Trump] are the savior of that."

The President replied: "I know nothing about it, I do know they are very much against paedophilia, they fight it very hard. But I know nothing about it."

When Guthrie explained the outlandish theories to him he replied: "Just because you tell me doesn't make it fact."

Kids 'saved from secret tunnels'

The report said special forces from different countries infiltrated a network "of Deep Underground Military Bases (DUMBS) that ran beneath the US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Asia and across Europe".

In further outlandish claims, it declared the hero behind the discovery was none other than President Donald Trump himself – whom Q followers believe is the only person who can stop the elites.

They’re convinced that Trump has dedicated his entire presidency to taking down the paedophile rulers and "saving the children" – despite an absence of any real evidence to support any of this.

As an outsider, the claims – and other Q theories – are laughable.

Yet as an analyst specialising in anti-extremism, I know only too well how dangerous such conspiracy groups can be – drawing in impressionable young followers, stirring up hate for so-called 'enemies', and tearing families apart.

It's not surprising then that Q's followers are now considered by many to be part of an online cult.

In the UK, they've already been seen attending rallies to "save the children" and waving Q signs at anti-lockdown protests as recently as this weekend – including placards displaying their rallying cry WWG1WGA (“Where we go one, we go all”).

Spike in UK members

And they've only grown in number during the pandemic. One recent analysis found that membership of UK-specific Q Facebook groups has shot up by a whopping 800 per cent since March this year.

And a study we carried out at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which works to counter extremism, found that Q conversation on Facebook grew by 175 per cent between March and June.

One British user recently described how a huge Q logo had been "meticulously painted on a gate down the road from us". Another commented on the UK movement: "This is scary."

Since the Covid outbreak began, Q has been linked to a number of alarming theories – including that the virus is part of a plot by the child-trafficking cabal to vaccinate the population.

Another promotes a toxic 'cure' for the virus.

While conspiracy theories have always been around, social media means that worried Brits have been able to access a plethora of information – both true and false – from their sofas during lockdown.

Q has been linked to a number of alarming theories – including that Covid is part of a plot by the child-trafficking cabal to vaccinate the population

And with the nation now going through another round of strict Covid measures, there's no doubt even MORE people will be accessing the web to answer the questions science has yet to understand.

But instead of the official NHS or Government websites, some will turn to conspiracy-ridden Facebook groups, featuring wild claims such as 5G technology playing a role in Covid.

On one such group, a woman wrote last week: "Thank you for accepting me… I slowly but surely am waking up to the truth." Another user posted: "So sick of these nasty paedophile satanists! Truuuump 2020 baby!"

Dark beginnings

Like many conspiracy theories, QAnon was born in the dark corners of the web, first emerging on an anonymous message board in October 2017.

A mystery person claiming to be a high-ranking member of the Trump administration, with “Q” level security clearance, started posting cryptic clues – which can be deciphered in countless ways by followers.

These clues have ultimately implicated many of Trump’s biggest 'enemies' – such as the likes of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros – in satanistic paedophilia. There is no proof of this at all.

Instead of acquiring actual evidence, QAnon followers come to their outrageous conclusions by tying coincidences together with strings of illogical reasoning.

They also look for meanings in symbols they have been told represent paedophilia (one such symbol is a spiralled love heart, a common shape seen in many logos such as the ice cream brand, Walls).

As Q has spread internationally, its core beliefs have remained the same – but 'believers' have also created region-specific conspiracy theories.

In Britain, this often involves attempting to link people to known child abusers like Jimmy Savile to imply that large numbers of people were complicit in his crimes.

On the other side, it has also seen Facebook commenters insist that Boris Johnson – like Trump – is a secret Q evangelist.

Facebook commenters have insisted that Boris Johnson – like Trump – is a secret Q evangelist

Conspiracy theories often have a snowballing effect: if someone believes in one, they’re more likely to believe in others. And the algorithms that control social media platforms know this.

This means if a Facebook user has expressed interest in 5G conspiracies, they are likely to be recommended content about other conspiracies.

This, in turn, creates a rabbit hole effect, where users are bombarded with similar content that is in line with their own confirmation biases.

Worryingly, these platforms seemingly have no power to stop this spread of false information – with anti-lockdown Facebook groups, such as Save Our Rights UK, now awash with an array of Covid conspiracies.

Hindering anti-trafficking groups' efforts

But why is QAnon so harmful?

To peddle their sick claims and attract new followers, the cult has hijacked the hashtag #SaveTheChildren – a widely-known phrase used at anti-trafficking rallies in cities around the world.

However, its followers tend to have a deep misunderstanding about the realities of child trafficking.

Organisations who work to tackle these issues say QAnon is hindering their efforts and making their jobs more difficult due to its false messages.

One senior staffer working for a national anti-trafficking organisation in Washington recently said that Q “definitely impedes our work when we’re getting harassed and trolled over misinformation campaigns”.

Another remarked: “Our staff are now busy correcting falsehoods and lies instead of handling the important work that they would otherwise be doing".

For the families of people sucked into QAnon, the impact can also be devastating.

They have told of "losing" their loved ones to the movement, similarly to a drug or booze addiction.

Shooting fears

"I lay awake at night and worry if my brother’s going to shoot a bunch of protesters,” one relative admitted to The Guardian, adding: “He couldn’t tell what reality was."

In the US, there have been more than a dozen incidents where people have resorted to violence due to their QAnon beliefs.

In April this year, a woman was arrested after driving to New York with knives in her car. She had allegedly planned to kill Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and rescue children from tunnels under the city, after being inspired by a Q documentary she'd watched.

Those who believe in conspiracy theories tend to have a blanket distrust in expert opinion, especially when that information is coming from a Government, the media, or a global institution like the World Health Organization (whose advice is so vital at the moment).

And while social media companies have made efforts to tackle these movements – such as Facebook removing over 700 Q groups last month – they have been, so far, nowhere near effective enough.

QAnon groups still thrive online, often changing their names ever so slightly or making their pages private to avoid detection. Like Facebook, Twitter removed some Q accounts recently – yet followers continue to poison users' minds on the platform.

In my view, there's one key thing that needs to happen to bring the truth back to the surface: better regulation of social media. If not, we risk living in a world where lies, outrage and rumours persist over science and facts – and where more families "lose" loved ones to QAnon.

We risk living in a world where lies, outrage and rumours persist over science and facts – and where more families 'lose' loved ones to QAnon

For some, sadly, it's already too late.

As one woman recently posted on Reddit's 'QAnonCasualties' page, which has amassed 25,000 members: "Today I filed for divorce from my QAnon obsessed husband."

She added: "It was/is a hard decision to make. But if my kids grew up to think or act like QAnon followers it would be my fault and I would be devastated."

Aoife Gallagher is an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a global organisation dedicated to powering solutions to extremism, disinformation, and polarisation

'I spent all night scouring the dark web for torture video'

A busy mum-of-two working around the clock in a care home, Kat Davie is far from your typical conspiracy theorist.

But at the height of lockdown, the 31-year-old found herself spending all night surfing the dark web, desperately searching for a bogus video of Hillary Clinton torturing a young girl and drinking her blood.

"Obviously I couldn’t find it," Kat, from Leicestershire, says now.

"I don’t even know why I was searching for it because if it actually existed, I wouldn't cope. It would mess anybody up.

"But it was in my head that I just had to find this video."

The video, known in internet circles as 'Frazzledrip', is perhaps the most bonkers example of the fake news championed by QAnon conspiracists.

Kat – who now admits such theories are "ridiculous" – became obsessed with the internet group during lockdown, when she saw messages pop up on her Instagram about the establishment 'cover up' of systemic child abuse.

She followed hashtags such as #savethechildren, which led her to message boards on Reddit where theorists spread increasingly deranged rumours, including that furniture company Wayfair was involved in a global sex trafficking network.

"I think I got sucked in because I’ve got kids," she says.

"You’d see all this Jeffrey Epstein and child trafficking stuff on the news, and I was getting scared.

"I don’t debate that it really happens, but it’s not how [QAnon] is making it out."

The care home nurse says she began spending all day on the phone, hiding her obsession from her husband and children by pretending to go to bed early at 8pm.

Within a few months, the echo chamber of the message boards and support from fellow commenters meant she was willing to "believe anything anyone was saying".

It feels like a drug, you can’t wait for your next hit. You can’t wait to pick your phone up and Google the next thing, or have a conversation with someone about it

"It does feel like a drug, you can’t wait for your next hit," she says.

"You can’t wait to pick your phone up and Google the next thing, or have a conversation with someone about it. I was obsessed."

Eventually, incidents like her experience on the dark web led Kat to realise she had gone too far and was potentially putting her own safety in danger.

She started researching prominent theories like 'Pizzagate' – which alleges a US pizzeria was the headquarters of an abuse ring led by Clinton – and found they could be comprehensively debunked.

Now, she regrets that much of the time she could have had with her children at home in lockdown was instead spent with strangers on Reddit.

"Do your own research," she advises QAnon supporters.

"There’s so much nonsense, you want everything to be true, all the coincidences and all the dots to join up.

"Don't believe everything you read, because 90 per cent of it is just fake – just lies and rubbish."

Additional reporting by Alex Bellotti

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