Conspiracy epidemic, born in US, spreads in Europe

Monday May 17 2021
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In this file photo taken on March 20, 2021- Protesters dressed in white take part in a demonstration against the ongoing coronavirus Covid-19 restrictions in Liestal, near Basel. From The Hague to Stuttgart and Paris, they claim to be battling the control of their minds by a ruling class that invented the Covid-19 pandemic for its own ends, seeing themselves as promoting and disseminating alternative views from the official version. PHOTO/AFP

By AFP

"It's not a virus, it's a tool to use power," says Monique Lustig in the Netherlands, while in Germany, Hellmuth Mendel argues that "Covid is a story invented by an international financial mafia". "And what if this was all just a film?" asks Christophe Charret in France.

From The Hague to Stuttgart and Paris, they claim to be battling the control of their minds by a ruling class that invented the Covid-19 pandemic for its own ends, seeing themselves as promoting and disseminating alternative views from the official version.

Conspiracy theories, driven by the global health crisis, are taking root in Europe more than ever, drawing inspiration from the QAnon movement in the United States.

Accounts supporting the theories have been purged from Twitter and YouTube after breaking the regulations of the social media giants.

Proponents have taken to other platforms to publish information -- mostly false -- which they claim "mainstream" media are hiding.

AFP reporters spent months looking into this environment of conspiracy theories on the continent, finding everything from adherents of QAnon, ultra-evangelicals and anti-vaxxers, to right-wing populists, the unemployed and even doctors.

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They make up a disparate mix of movements and views but their growing power is worrying Western European intelligence services who fear that democracies could be destabilised.

"Conspiracy theories have taken off significantly with social networks. We see now that people are organising themselves in clandestine cells. Obviously it is a threat," said France's national intelligence coordinator Laurent Nunez, acknowledging that QAnon theories have arrived in the country.

European groups affiliated to QAnon or related to the movement are growing on social media.

Some 30,000 subscribers of messaging app Telegram follow the so-called DeQodeurs in France, more than 100,000 follow German conspiracy theory figures Attila Hildmann and Xavier Naidoo, while almost 150,000 follow Briton Charlie Ward, who offers subscribers a near incessant flow of pro-Donald Trump montages.

"There is a cocktail in place," a source in the intelligence community in France told AFP, adding there were grounds for concern over the issue.

The factors include a "weakening of the socio-economic fabric, a strong movement of protesting digital platforms where it is easy to post conspiratorial comment, as well as upcoming elections" in France next spring, said the source, who asked not to be named.

"These movements have more or less existed for the last 10-15 years. They feed on the sense of an anti-system conspiracy," a senior French intelligence official said.

The official said that there was overlap with small ultra-right fringe groups, while emphasising that people involved increasingly come from "quite varied backgrounds".

Involvement can tear apart families, with loved ones unable to stop relatives falling into the groups' grasp.

Forty-eight-year-old bookseller Paul -- not his real name -- told AFP how his mother had slowly drifted away.

"She lived as a recluse, she spent an incredible amount of time online, looking for answers to her rage against the injustices of the world.

"She consumed YouTube 24 hours a day, the conspiracy channels were her only window to the world. The lockdown was the last straw and Covid confirmed all her theories about the end of the world," he said.

Bete noire Bill Gates 

In mid-March, under the low sky of Uithoorn, a peaceful town south of Amsterdam, Lange Frans has a warm welcome for visitors to his recording studio.

"No mask here," says the rapper who enjoyed a degree of success in the 1990s, with a tone of mockery, boasting how he had taken part in a concert without any social distancing a day earlier.

In recent years, his podcasts have become hugely popular in the Netherlands. 

They take the form of two-hour talk shows, where he invites a personality to take an "alternative" look at the news. 

Subjects can range from Covid-19 and the disappearance of Flight MH370 to child crime and UFOs -- anything to stimulate the world of conspiracies.

He takes aim at Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who has fought for decades to improve access to vaccines and is a bete noire for conspiracy theorists.

"Take Bill Gates, people should find out about him," said Lange Frans in his studio, dotted with pictures of ACDC and guitars.

"Always look at the money. You can only make money on the cure if people actually believe they are sick.

"He has no medical degree or expertise in vaccines," he insisted.

Gates has ploughed billions of his personal fortune into a philanthropic foundation he heads with his wife Melinda -- they are now divorcing -- that champions basic health care.

For Lange Frans -- a stage name which translates as Tall Frans -- whose YouTube channel is regularly shut down, the Covid-19 pandemic is above all a "soap opera" and a "supermarket flu" that the media serve up all day long.

That Sunday, the day before parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, 3,000 people protested coronavirus restrictions in the centre of The Hague amid a carnival atmosphere closely watched by police.

The Netherlands had been rocked weeks earlier by several nights of highly unusual riots when a curfew was imposed. 

In the demonstration, populist activists, critics of a "world government" and promoters of natural medicines stood shoulder to shoulder.

A common denominator united them -- scepticism in the face of the official line on the coronavirus pandemic. 

"It's not a virus, it's a tool to use power. The elite of the world has been organising this. Yes, for so many people it's too crazy to imagine it's true. But they have been working on it for more than 20 years," said Monique Lustig, a restaurant owner.

A little further on, Jeffrey, a 21-year-old student, distributes leaflets denouncing in particular the "Great Reset", a plan by the World Economic Forum to revive the economy after Covid-19. 

He alleges it conceals hidden aims of controlling freedoms and reducing populations.

"I want people to know it's not a pandemic, it's a plan to reset the world," he said.

Along with Gates, the founder and chief of the Davos-based Forum Klaus Schwab is another target of conspiracy theorists' anger.

"The globalist elite are taking advantage of the situation to create a new society. There are thousands here convinced that this is not a pandemic," said Ard Pisa, a former banker who has now become an advocate of alternative medicine to cure cancer.

"Eight million children disappear every year, it's part of our world, we must not close our eyes. There are a lot of cases of hushed-up paedophilia," he continued, repeating one of the favourite themes of QAnon supporters.

That figure -- regularly evoked by child protection NGOs -- in fact includes reported disappearances, including runaways. 

An overwhelming majority of such cases are ultimately resolved, with the children safe.

Europe's QAnon 

The gathering in The Hague was not exceptional in Europe. 

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In this file photo taken on March 14, 2021 Dutch anti-riot police control a crowd during a demonstration against the government and anti-covid measures at the Malieveld in The Hague. Conspiracy theories, driven by the global health crisis, are taking root in Europe more than ever, drawing inspiration from the QAnon movement in the United States. PHOTO/AFP

Protests against limitations aimed at fighting Covid-19 systematically draw large numbers of conspiracy theorists.

In Denmark, members of the Men in Black group insist that the coronavirus is just a "scam", while in Berlin, demonstrations against restrictions can rally up to 10,000 people, many brandishing QAnon flags.

"QAnon is a point of convergence for extreme right-wing groups, people who believe in UFOs, those who think that 5G (wireless technology) will be used to control people," said Tom de Smedt, a Belgian researcher and author of several studies on the growth in the movement in Europe.

QAnon, which was born in the United States, came to global prominence with the storming of the Capitol in January during the last days of the Trump administration.

It takes its name from cryptic messages posted by an individual calling themself "Q", believed to be a senior US official close to Trump. 

Very active in the US since 2017, QAnon notably defends the idea that a "deep state", driven by a handful of elites, rules the world order.

The fake Pizzagate scandal, where US Democrats were accused of heading a paedophile network, is one of the keystones of their ideology.

Their false claims can sometimes challenge even the imagination, such as a recent assertion that 1,000 children were freed from the Ever Given ship which blocked the Suez Canal, as part of an international trafficking ring fomented by Hillary Clinton.

'Control of conscience' 

For Christophe Charret, a French businessman with an affable personality and athletic physique, "the messages of Q are the bible of the conspiracy theorist".

It is the evening when French Prime Minister Jean Castex is about to announce on live television that much of France will be put into a new de-facto lockdown. 

But Charret has not bothered to turn his TV on.

Instead, he is in his small office in the basement where he is preparing to appear on the daily news bulletin of the Human Alliance, an association with 12,000 subscribers on Telegram which analyses the news in conspiratorial style.

The opening credits set the tone.

Against music worthy of Hollywood blockbusters, images follow one another without pause, using the full gamut of ammunition in the conspiracy theorist's arsenal -- J.F. Kennedy, September 11, 5G, vaccines, Donald Trump, and -- of course -- Bill Gates.

"The world is led by a financial-technological conglomerate which controls the sovereignty of peoples. Technology makes it possible to do troubling things. Control of conscience, in particular, is not a myth," Charret says, an illuminated letter 'Q' glowing behind him.

That evening, he appears in a video that racks up some 30,000 views, talking about vaccines, US President Joe Biden but also highlighting humanitarian action organised by the association which raises funds for students in need.

"We are at a tipping point for the world, two camps clash and those in charge are not our friends. They will do everything to not let go of the reins.

"But the forces are working for a future D-Day. Things are being prepared," he warned, while insisting all engagement will be peaceful and rejecting violence.

Telegram, the hugely popular messaging app created by Russian tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov, has always insisted it takes full measures against extremist content while providing a secure forum for freedom of expression. 

Deep-rooted anger 

Diehard QAnon adherents remain relatively discreet and rare in Europe -- the core of the movement remains deeply American. 

But their ideological beliefs have proved influential in Europe.

"Even if all European QAnons support the standard narrative -- that is to say they support Trump and far-right ideas -- each group adapts these messages to local circumstances," said the director of strategy at the Israeli cybersecurity company ActiveFence, Nitzan Tamari.

But the disappointment of seeing Biden inaugurated as US president after his victory over Trump did dampen the hopes of some believers, as social media giants increasingly take action against them.

"At this moment, QAnon is like a hurt crab retreating into its shell. Twitter did a very thorough job with removing QAnon accounts," de Smedt said. 

The digital purging however has not yet pulled up the roots of these theories that allowed them to become successful in the first place. 

"You don't see the usual hashtags and images but the sentiments didn't just go away. You still have people who believe parts of conspiracy theory.

"Most of the sentiments were not necessarily left-wing or right-wing politically but anti-establishment and against any government," de Smedt added.

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