Last Saturday, over a hundred protesters marched to Buckingham Palace, where a section angrily chanted “paedophiles” outside the gates. Some protestors bore signs referencing QAnon, a baseless US-centric conspiracy theory alleging that President Trump is waging a secret war against a cabal of powerful Satanic paedophiles, alleged to be kidnapping, torturing and even cannibalising children on a giant scale. The conspiracy theory, which has strong undercurrents of antisemitism, has spread rapidly in the US and developed pockets of support in Europe in recent months.
The outfit behind the protest, Freedom for the Children UK (FFTCUK), is the British branch of a new American group, which held scores of gatherings across the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand last Saturday. FFTCUK itself organised events in eleven cities across Britain, and whilst some were tiny, others, including Manchester, were hundreds strong.
Whilst FFTCUK’s deliberately vague branding appears to have attracted many concerned by genuine child trafficking, several of the group’s central UK organisers have expressed QAnon beliefs. The iconography of the theory was displayed by attendees at events around the country, as well as numerous references to broader Satanic ritual child abuse conspiracy theories.
FFTCUK is just one of a constellation of conspiracy theory-driven protest groups to have emerged during lockdown, which, despite being founded on diverging issues, appear increasingly willing to pool their efforts. FFTCUK’s Manchester event was supported by Stand Up X (SUX), a homegrown anti-5G outfit which, since launching in May, has organised dozens of small anti-lockdown events.
This Saturday SUX is, alongside a number of other groups, co-organising what may be the largest conspiracy theory protest in recent months, as David Icke, a major British conspiracy theorist and antisemite, is set to speak against the lockdown in London alongside prominent anti-vaccine activists.
Whilst these groups remain small and crave media attention, the ideas they promote are extreme, and their lack of structure means they are vulnerable to exploitation by the far right.
FFTC was founded in the USA in June, and employs a “big tent” approach, eschewing the esoterica of QAnon and broader theories about elite, Satanic paedophile cabals in its official branding. Instead, it has appropriated slogans from legitimate children’s charities, such as “Save the Children”, aiming for a broader appeal.
FFTCUK’s Facebook group, which is the central hub for the group’s activity and has gained 10,000 members in six weeks, appears well intentioned, aiming to “raise awareness of Child Exploitation & Human Trafficking”. However, inside the private group, members frequently post QAnon misinformation and references to “Pizzagate”, an unsubstantiated QAnon precursor theory alleging the existence of a paedophile ring inside the Democratic Party. Following the events of last Saturday one member asked:
“What % of people on here are into the whole QAnon thing? Because there were quite a few QAnon placards on the marches today”.
Many of the hundreds of replies expressed outright support or sympathy for the theory, with some rejecting it as a “psyop” or unaware of what QAnon is.
The imprecise branding appears to have succeeded in bringing new activists onto the street. This lack of clarity also meant that genuine, vital issues concerning child exploitation in the UK, including grooming gangs and Operation Yewtree, were discussed alongside dangerous misinformation. Several of the speakers claimed to themselves have been victims of sexual abuse as children. A good number of attendees were children themselves.
The co-option of legitimate issues by a movement riddled with conspiracy theories risks diverting energy away from charities that could make genuine progress. It has also provided FFTCUK cover; some local newspapers reported on the protests but missed the conspiracy theory references in the crowds.
FFTCUK have claimed their next activity will be held in collaboration with SUX, an outfit founded in early May. The group promotes an anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine, anti-5G agenda, claiming that “5G is necessary for the infrastructure of 24/7 Surveillance Tracking & Implantable Microchips”. SUX has already succeeded in generating some news coverage, most notably a 16 May Hyde Park protest at which Piers Corbyn, brother of the former Labour leader, was arrested alongside 19 others.
Whilst SUX has leading organisers and activists, it has little in the way of formal structure, meaning it is vulnerable to the influx of even more harmful ideas. The group’s events have attracted those with far-right views, such as Jeff Wyatt, a former UKIP candidate and former Deputy Leader of the far-right anti-Muslim group For Britain, who was arrested alongside Corbyn on 16 May. Corbyn himself has rubbed shoulders with Holocaust deniers at unrelated conspiracy theory events in the past.
Whilst the group has not endorsed QAnon, some activists, such as Corbyn, appear sympathetic to the theory. Whilst rejecting the theory due to its pro-Trump angle, David Icke, due to speak at the anti-lockdown event on Saturday, has helped lay the groundwork for QAnon, having long promoted the notion that supernatural, global elites are trafficking and ritually abusing children on an industrial scale. Such beliefs have also been expressed by Kate Shemirani, a prominent British anti-vaccine activist advertised to grace the stage on Saturday.
Emerging theories such as QAnon are also influencing pre-existing street movements. Last weekend a “Justice for All” rally attracted hundreds in Nottingham, the poster advertising the ostensibly unconnected aims of “RAISING AWARENESS OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, MENTAL HEALTH & RELATED SUICIDES/CHILD ABUSE GROOMING GANGS/RAPED while in CARE”.
The reason for these seemingly separate issues becomes clearer when listening to main organiser Dean Cumberpatch, as the military veteran seems himself to be influenced by QAnon beliefs, uttering the QAnon slogan and claiming he is “well aware of the Satanic rituals”. He claims to have contact with “ a general from Q” and a “group from Q”. “We are changing dark to light, you evil scum”, Cumberpatch grimly stated ahead of the march.
QAnon iconography was visible at the event, as were the signs of various far-right groups, including open Nazis (whom Cumberpatch later disavowed in strong terms).
The bewildering array of conspiracy theory protest groups, campaigns and individuals that have emerged during lockdown appear increasingly willing to sideline differences in belief, and work together in opposition to an often ill-defined, imaginary enemy.
At this stage these groups remain small and desperately crave media attention, and journalists must report cautiously, to avoid advertising events and spreading their message. At the same time, these loose movements are still in their infancy, and are likely to continue to gather momentum as COVID-19 measures continue, and the US election approaches.
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