A protester at the ‘We Do Not Consent’ anti-lockdown rally in Trafalgar Square

The KidSafe Foundation is a not-for-profit child protection organisation based in south Florida. Its mission is to “teach personal safety to children and their grown-ups to build strong, resilient families and safer communities”. Since it was formed in 2009, KidSafe has worked with over 60,000 children and parents to develop the skills to protect children from abuse. Like many such organisations across the United States, KidSafe works diligently to promote awareness and prevention of child sexual abuse. Crucially, this means educating kids about real risks they might face, and how to distinguish these from fictional ones.

In July 2020, concerned that an online conspiracy theory was undermining its work, KidSafe felt compelled to issue a public statement. Headed “Not in Our Name!” the statement read: “The conspiracy theory and cult movement known as QAnon is attempting to hijack the good names of organisations leading the fight against child abuse and sex trafficking. We cannot let this happen.” The statement went on: “QAnon promoters are parasites. To grow their footprint, gain credibility and spread misinformation, they associate their message of hate and bigotry with well-known, well-regarded organisations – specifically those working to end child sexual abuse and sex trafficking. That strategy threatens to diminish our identities, tarnish our reputations and harm our good works. The problem is deepening. Many of our supporters are unknowingly re-distributing QAnon messages embedded within posts that appear to be straightforward statements against paedophilia and trafficking.”

KidSafe is one of many child protection organisations in the US expressing alarm at QAnon and its impact on their work. The Polaris Project, an NGO which works to combat modern slavery and human trafficking, and which for many years ran the US National Human Trafficking Hotline, a government-funded service, issued a similar statement. Polaris explained that it was being swamped with calls about child trafficking from QAnon promoters, and this was diverting precious resources from its normal work. But as Polaris went on to say, the harm done to its work goes well beyond the jamming of hotlines by rogue callers. The impact is more fundamental: conspiracies like QAnon “distract from the more disturbing but simple realities of how sex trafficking actually works, and how we can prevent it”. While American children can experience abuse and exploitation at the hands of strangers, the reality is that they are far more likely to be harmed by family members and acquaintances. Thus, QAnon misrepresents the very nature of child abuse. Child protection charities put huge resources into trying to enable children to understand the real risks they face, which don’t relate to “stranger danger” or being kidnapped and trafficked by agents of the “deep state”, but rather to people a child may know. By undermining this understanding, QAnon undermines the essence of child protection itself.

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QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory which claims that a cabal of powerful paedophiles within government, business, academia and the media are seeking world domination whilst engaging in child sex trafficking, paedophilia, cannibalism and satanic sacrifice. The QAnon theory claims that this cabal is plotting against Donald Trump, who is engaged in a war against it; this war will culminate in the “Storm”, when the leaders of the cabal, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, will be arrested and locked up in Guantanamo. While the election of Joe Biden, and Trump's eventual acknowledgment of the results, was a disappointment to some believers, for others Biden's victory is more evidence of the conspiracy at work. And the elections were not a total loss: Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, two Republicans who have praised the conspiracy theory, won their House elections and will be sworn in next year.

The ludicrous theory behind QAnon originated with a post on an anonymous message board in 2017 by someone identifying themselves as “Q”, and whose identity remains unknown. Q claimed to have access to classified information from the Trump administration. Subsequently, several people took the original Q post and propagated it across numerous social media platforms.QAnon drew on “Pizzagate”, an earlier far-right conspiracy theory. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the private emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, were hacked and published by WikiLeaks. Proponents of Pizzagate claimed that the emails contained coded messages connecting senior Democratic Party officials with a human trafficking and child sex ring based in a pizzeria in Washington DC. The pizzeria’s owner was subjected to death threats. Pizzagate was comprehensively debunked, but it seems to have achieved renewed popularity on social media in 2020, in conjunction with QAnon. Posts by Q have accused many leading Democratic politicians and high-ranking government officials of being members of the paedophile cabal. Bizarrely, Q also claimed that Trump feigned collusion with the Russians in order to enlist Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor, to join him in exposing the ring and preventing a government takeover by Obama, Clinton and George Soros.

Despite being obviously false, QAnon has developed a huge presence on social media, with thousands of accounts and millions of followers promoting the theory on Twitter and Facebook. But QAnon’s association with Trump has given it a particular impetus. During 2018-19, followers of QAnon began appearing at Trump campaign rallies. Subsequently, Trump has given the theory some credence, telling journalists in 2020 that whilst he “didn’t know much” about the QAnon movement, he had heard that “these are people who love our country”.

Although Trump’s comments fall short of explicit endorsement, during his presidency he repeatedly amplified and retweeted QAnon-associated accounts on Twitter, and his son Eric Trump recently posted a QAnon meme on Instagram (an advertisement for a Trump rally with an American flag and the capital letter “Q”). Several Republican congressional candidates have also endorsed the conspiracy, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, who praised Q as a “patriot, someone who very much loves his country, he’s on the same page as us, he is very pro-Trump” and said the conspiracy theory is “something worth listening to and paying attention to”. As one commentator, Melissa Gira Grant, recently observed: “The dark obsessions of QAnon are merging with mainstream conservatism . . . QAnon can no longer be shrugged off as a phenomenon confined to the internet . . . Many QAnon adherents regard themselves as the Trump campaign’s ‘soldiers on the ground’.”

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Trump’s dog whistles to QAnon supporters may be explained, in part, by the theory’s popularity amongst arguably his most important electoral constituency: white evangelicals. Although QAnon was born and nurtured on social media sites associated with the alt-right, it seems to have developed particular traction amongst this much larger demographic. Katelyn Beaty, an American journalist who writes for the Religious News Service, explained in an interview that many white evangelicals see QAnon as a “belief system comparable to organised religion”. Evangelicals, says Beaty, “are picking up on the overt spiritual language that Q, whoever that is, is using in his messages on the internet, and they see that as connecting directly to the Bible, to the God of Christianity and to God’s hand at work in the world.” They see QAnon messages as a sign “that they are supposed to take up a spiritual battle to reveal truth”. Another analyst of American religion, Jonathan O’Donnell, observes that “since the 1980s, growing numbers of evangelicals have given the fight against demons a key role in their spirituality and their politics. Known as ‘spiritual warfare’, this views demons as central actors in world politics and everyday life . . . A key idea in spiritual warfare is that demons don’t only attack people . . . but also take control of institutions” – including the federal government. QAnon naturally elides with this world view. As O’Donnell says, “QAnon has many overlaps with spiritual warfare . . . It uses similar ideas of religious revival and donning ‘the armour of God’ against unseen foes.”

As well as wreaking havoc on the work of many child protection agencies, QAnon has now been explicitly identified by the FBI as a domestic terror threat. Reports of violent incidents associated with QAnon have been increasing: in the same week that Trump appeared to speak positively about its followers, a woman in Texas was arrested and charged with aggravated assault after chasing after two strangers’ vehicles in her car in an apparent attempt to hit them. The woman, a QAnon follower, appears to have believed that the driver of the vehicle she attacked “was a paedophile and had kidnapped a girl for human trafficking”. This was not an isolated incident.

In July, belatedly recognising these dangers, Twitter banned thousands of QAnon-affiliated accounts and changed its algorithms in an attempt to reduce the spread of the theory. Facebook followed, banning QAnon activity in October. However, it seems that many QAnon accounts on social media are evading and surviving the new restrictions, by changing names, creating new accounts, deleting group cover photos and going from public to private. Although the hashtag #QAnon can be readily identified, it is more difficult to police the growth and proliferation of conspiracy theories that are linked to it but go under different names. According to NBC News, although QAnon spent “years on the fringes of the internet, with the theory evolving and often growing less specific, what was originally a conspiracy theory that centred on an anonymous internet poster has now become something of a catch-all for a variety of beliefs about a hidden group of child abusers in positions of power”. Twitter and Facebook restrictions may be too late to stymie the cult’s growth.

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Is QAnon a purely American phenomenon, or should we be worried about its influence in the UK? There are certainly country-specific factors. QAnon may be the latest manifestation of a peculiarly American mindset: what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style in American politics”. In an essay published in 1964, a few years after McCarthyism, Hofstadter analysed conspiracy theories throughout American political history, which he dissected as a particular political mentality in which the world is seen in apocalyptic terms: “what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil . . . the enemy must be totally eliminated.” The US, with its traditions of religious millenarianism, may be particularly fertile soil for such views, which generally draw their political support from particular demographics. Historians and sociologists have differed over which, but recognise the peculiarly American nature of the phenomenon. Also, QAnon is a conspiracy theory based on the specifics of American politics: a battle with “satanic” forces represented by the Democrats and Hollywood, with Trump's contestation of the election results and accusations of foul play more fuel to the conspiracy fire. For that reason, one might imagine that it would be difficult for the theory to gain the same traction in the UK.

It would be entirely wrong, however, to be complacent about the wider influence of QAnon, and to assume that it would be confined to the US. A Guardian analysis in September tracked five slogans associated with QAnon shared by UK-run Facebook pages over the past year, and found that “interactions on posts containing these keywords increased fivefold between April and August”. In preparing this article, I spoke off the record to several organisations and individuals involved in child protection in the UK. All were concerned about the increasing salience of conspiracist ideas – not necessarily QAnon specifically, but similar conspiracy theories mirroring its themes. One child protection social worker told me how parents suspected of abusing children would now frequently accuse social workers of trying to kidnap their children in order “to drink their blood”.

As a lawyer who works on behalf of victims and survivors of sexual abuse, I see the influence of QAnon creeping into public discourse about child abuse, especially on social media. In August, several hundred events under the banner “Save the Children” took place across cities in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK, and some other countries. In the UK, a crowd of around 500 people gathered in London, with other rallies taking place in Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newport, Huddersfield, Newcastle, Birmingham, Aberdeen and Dundee. All these marches had a strong QAnon undercurrent. “Save the Children” (no relation to the major charity of the same name) and QAnon are not the same thing; it appears that “Save the Children” is not a direct creation of QAnon supporters, but it equally appears that they are co-opting the movement. The Guardian analysis quoted Gregory Davis, a researcher with Hope not Hate, the organisation which monitors extremist groups: “It’s concerning to see [QAnon] diversifying in terms of how it’s spread and what parts of it are being emphasised. What’s happening with this diversification is that many groups [are] taking up different elements of it and introducing elements.” The danger is that this makes it even harder to disprove.

The BBC correspondent Marianna Spring has shown that Save the Children is “developing an increasing presence in various online communities in the UK”. It might be tempting to imagine that the conviction of the fantasist Carl Beech, whose claims about a VIP paedophile ring turned out to be completely fabricated, would inoculate many people against conspiracy theories. But this would be to misunderstand self-reinforcing conspiracist logic. Wilfred Wong, a self-styled campaigner against “satanic ritual abuse” on social media, recently claimed that Beech may have been “working for the authorities right from the beginning, to help set up this false narrative of fake allegations being made against VIPs”.

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Whatever iteration of QAnon and its family of conspiracy theories might gain a foothold in the UK, the rapid growth of the QAnon movement in the US shows the dangers of assuming that self-evidently preposterous ideas, which germinate in obscure corners of the internet, will simply stay there. And the impact on child protection is real: people become very confused about where the dangers to children really lie, and cease to trust the agencies best equipped to protect them.

So how should those concerned about child protection respond to the increasing influence of conspiracist ideas? There is no easy answer, but I would emphasise two points. Firstly, there have been cover-ups of child abuse by organisations and institutions – in the Catholic and Anglican churches, for example, or in cases involving celebrities like Jimmy Savile and Jeffrey Epstein. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, so honesty about past scandals, and a determination to root them out, is one of the best antidotes to the slew of nonsensical conspiracy theories now circulating on the internet.

But secondly and most importantly, given the power of social media, ignoring ideas like QAnon is no longer an option. So all of those who genuinely care about child protection – from those involved in it, to those in wider public life – have an urgent responsibility to challenge conspiracist ideas, and to do so openly and forthrightly. We have to call this out before it is too late.

This article is from the New Humanist winter 2020 edition. Subscribe today. The piece has been updated in light of the US election results.