Conspiracy Theories in Europe

Sara Dix

The spread of conspiracy theories has become a major influence in spreading disinformation, particularly as a result of the coronavirus crisis. The QAnon conspiracy, while maintained in the fringes throughout Europe, it has taken a strong hold in Germany as described in the YouTube video about TV Chef, Attila Hildmann, and briefly in Mark Scott’s QAnon goes European article. Aside from QAnon, Ivan Kalmar focuses on the utilization of conspiracy theories and the “Soros Plot” by Orban and his Fidesz party in Hungary.

In general, there are a variety of conspiracy theories that have attracted people from various groups such as the Yellow Jacket movement in France, the anti-vaccine community in Italy, and Brexit followers in Britain. The main conspiracy theory that has grown recently in Europe is QAnon; a theory that blends anti-government, anti-lockdown, and anti-Semitic rhetoric with the unfounded belief that the global elite is running a vast pedophile ring. But the main reason that this conspiracy has spread is due to the coronavirus crisis.

While this conspiracy began in the US, it has become a problem in Europe, particularly Germany. I found it interesting how many Germans found themselves believing the QAnon conspiracy because Germany was not as effected by Covid-19. They were able to handle the coronavirus more effectively than other places through lockdowns. I’m also not surprised that conspiracy theorists are negatively impacted both economically and emotionally as conspiracies do appear to be extremely unsound by those who did not fall into the conspiracy trap.

QAnon across the pond

By: Conrad Yiridoe

Scott’s article on the QAnon continued presence in Europe was intriguing. The idea that a seemingly American based conspiracy being able to gain some popularity in Europe appears nonsensical at first glance. However, Scott does a great job of explaining that the ambiguity and flexibilities of the QAnon phenomenon are its strength that allows it to maintain a grasp on European affairs. The article goes on to explain that the pandemic has provided solid ground for QAnon to take off in the continent, and I agree with this to an extent. The idea that because of Covid-19, many more people are finding themselves online, plus spending even more time online is a fair argument. However, the idea that just because people are online more, leads to them automatically taking QAnon to heart, I tend to disagree with slightly. More likely, the fact that we are in the midst a major global event that affects many, is more likely a reason for this. Historically, whether it’s with the Brexit affair, the migration crisis of 2015, the economic crisis stemming from the late 2000s, major events in the world tend to be a great breading ground for increasing conspiracy related activity. However, to ignore some of the unique characteristics this pandemic has brought up, would be foolhardy. The ever presence anti-vaccine campaigns have continued as expected. The most interesting concept brought up during the pandemic, has been the lockdowns. Ranging from economic consequences, to the idea of individual freedom infringements, lockdowns have provided further fodder for QAnon to continue.  

The Vox video on some of the conspiracies in Germany provides a great example of a few of these concepts in action. Whether it’s the concerns with the vaccines, or the idea that a few global elites are using the pandemic to control the masses, the pandemic has clearly given different people different things to believe in. Now, given the apparent stalled momentum that Afd have had lately, perhaps this is a sign that the QAnon phenomenon will not be taking on the rapid momentum, at least politically, as has been observed in the US, given the recent election to the House of representatives of a committed QAnon follower.

The Role of the Internet

By: Willem Nesbitt

With this week’s readings and topic covering the rise of QAnon, an obvious focus was given to how and why such a conspiracy was able to emerge and propagate across the globe. Placing blame on the ongoing pandemic is an obvious answer, which, as Oxford researcher Johnathan Bright points out; “People are spending even more time online, so have more time to come across anti-vaccine and other conspiracy content.”

With past weeks in our class discussing ideas surrounding how nationalist and right-wing movements have managed to transcend borders in an ironic sense, the internet is most certainly the obvious leading culprit in the ability for those groups, and now conspiratorial movements, to have a wider reach. Beginning quietly on 4chan’s /pol/ board, whether ironically or unironically, that very board fostered and promoted the central Q poster and their adherents, eventually spreading their message to the more mainstream realms of YouTube, Reddit, and Facebook.

With 30% of surveyed Republican voters believing in the central core tenants of the QAnon conspiracy (and an alarming 43% being “uncertain”), it is obvious that the internet has helped spread this conspiracy far beyond the confines of imageboards. This results in a question – do social media sites, whether they be Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or others, have a responsibility to curtail and remove posts regarding conspiracies such as QAnon? Following the temporary shutting down of right-wing social media site Parler earlier this year, a debate erupted over the ideas of “free speech” on the internet, and many on the left believe that these other sites are still not doing enough to prevent the spread of these conspiracies.

QAnon has successfully packaged a particularly virulent populism – but they certainly aren’t the first

Michaela Bax-Leaney

As Miro Dittrich observes in his interview with Vice, one of the elements which makes QAnon so pervasive and ‘successful’ is its ability to adapt to other conspiracy narratives, in particular in its ability to adapt itself to local situations. And I would argue that it is therein that lies the formula for success employed by populist, often far-right movements.

These movements have largely mastered the ability to tap into a few broad, general themes that function on both a large, often global scale, but also translate well to hyper-specific situations. By tapping into people’s feelings of disenfranchisement, loss of control, and fear, these movements are able to achieve a cycle of self-affirmation once followers have been brought into the fold.

For example, to Kalmar’s article. Say the Hungarian worker has recently been laid off, and sees the exodus of refugees flocking to Europe for safety. The post hoc fallacy suggesting that the two facts have a causal connection – the worker is now going to be competing against this “flood” of migrants for work – acts as an entry point for the more noxious facets of these populist theories. But if they (those fighting against the elites, that is) were right about the first point, what’s to say that aren’t right about the Soros myth, or vaccines as a vehicle for microchips.  

And while QAnon has certainly done it remarkably well, as Dittrich notes, it is hardly the first of its kind, particularly in the antisemitic roots of the conspiracy. And it is the very thing that makes QAnon attractive to new followers that makes it so very difficult to combat. After all, if a group of global elites is trying to manipulate circumstances – be it in reference to a global child sex trafficking ring, or simply a local by-election – how can efforts to combat that misinformation be trusted? Thus, rather than emphasizing how to change the minds of QAnon followers, perhaps as Mirko suggests in his interview, efforts are better directed towards improving media literacy in the first place.

The Stepping Process of the Populace Conspiracy Theory and its Weaponizing of it by the Populist.

By Bryce Greer

The populist playbook of conspiracy theories – how does this work? As I reflect on the readings this week, I found myself looking into how conspiracy theories work on the local level (i.e., the populace) as it compares to the political, and elite, level (i.e., the populists). It is a dangerous game and using Kalmar’s structure of a stepping process on the political level (pg. 185), I want to attempt to show a similar structure through the local context.

I took interest in Vice’s interview of Elke and Jurgen Technow, two German adherents of Q-Anon as they explained it as “an idea for good” and a “peace movement.” Melissa Chan’s question of “what if they were wrong” showed what I would perceive as self-awareness to the term “COVIDidiot”, and it made me question the layers to conspiracy theorists further. First, Mark Scott places the main reason for Q-Anon’s spread to be COVID-19. Quoting Johnathon Bright, “if you feel like you’re losing control of your life, you’re more likely to believe in these conspiracy theories.” I would agree in part, however many arguably have lost some extent of control in their life during the pandemic, and perhaps more susceptible, there must be other reasons that can be traced into the recruitment of conspiracy theories by far-right groups.

Continuing the Vice video, although only seeing a brief time of the Technow’s, the couple held specific emotive values to the theory due to child abuse being reported in the Q-Anon narrative. Nothing seems to suggest that they fit into the fringe groups of anti-Semites and the far right but nonetheless they fall into an area coopted by these groups. This is where Berlin’s resident Mirko and his story fits the stepping-process. To Mirko, “the problem with conspiracy theories is that people are interested at first. Maybe they even think it’s funny. But step by step, they get deeper into it and are infected.” Here is the beginning of it, although it does not explain every detail.

On the local level, when one enters the belief of conspiracy theories, it can start somewhat harmless, although misconstrued. Mirko, however, also brought up the Epstein affair which led me to think about the more mainstream, and nonpartisan, conspiracy theory “Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself,” which arguably holds some credence to become as mainstream as it was. One scholar, in the video, notes that conspiracy theories strive by creating a master narrative of many others – and by placing credible theories in alongside anti-Semitic theories, the deeper one dives the closer to the fringe they go. This leads us to Michael Walter as he notes how he was ostracized by his friends, families, and church because he knew “the Truth.” Ultimately, he now is stuck in an echo chamber as his only support comes from those that believe the same theories.

And this, of course, is how the populist can use the populace in their conspiracy theory playbook. Through every push into the theories done on a local scale, harmless for some and hate-fueled for fringe anti-Semites and far-right followers, ostracization and deep-seated infection into more fringe theories leaves the populist to push their rhetoric. Returning to the second week and our definition of populism, it begins by having distrust for the media and the elite, and that is how conspiracy theories start in its nonpartisan origins for some of them. The recruitment into the far-right, of course, comes by populists using this distrust and linking themselves to localized conspiracy theories to further push fringe theories into the mainstream. The populist uses the populace and allows the conspiracy theory to grow through disinformation. How do we fix this? Well, I think it must start by depolarizing media and breaking the distrust – although arguably I think that may feel quite utopian in belief.

References:

Ivan Kalmar, “Islamophobia and anti-semitism: the case of Hungary and the ‘Soros Plot” Patterns and Prejudice Vol. 54 (1-2) (2020): 182-98.

How this TV chef turned COVID truther helped QAnon boom in Germany. VICE News, (23 October 2020)  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1yOqtbWrdg&ab_channel=VICENews

Scott, M. QAnon goes European. POLITICO.  (23 October 2020) www.politico.eu/article/qanon-europe-coronavirus-protests/

The Far-Right’s Blame Game: From COVID-19 to the Migrant Crisis

by Jackie Howell

COVID-19 presents an opportunity for practically anything – a chance to learn a new hobby, a chance to learn to work remotely, and a chance to reflect. While some have mildly enjoyed the ability to stay at home, these unprecedented times have allowed the far-right to prey on those affected the most by COVID-19. When there is a crisis, the far-right uses this opportunity to their advantage to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories to attract supporters. As COVID-19 disrupted economies globally, it was only a matter of time before the disenfranchised – now with idle time – turned to QAnon and the far-right for comfort.

Across the world, states are witnessing a surge in anti-government protests and a rise in violence. From anti-maskers to protests against lockdowns, those on the fringe have joined the far-right’s movement. Referring to people that follow the rules as “sheep,” far-right populists have managed to spread their anti-liberal, anti-immigrant agendas. As a Japanese Canadian, I am not surprised by the increase in anti-Asian violence and hate crimes. During the beginning of the pandemic, my mother and I were accused of bringing the virus to our hometown. We faced disgusted glances, racial slurs, and the not-so-subtle attempts to give us more than six feet of space – even though neither of us presented with symptoms, we spoke English, and we were wearing masks before the mask mandate. To the disenfranchised, we represented the virus and all of its destruction simply by our physical Asian traits.  It is shocking and sad how a pandemic could bring out the worst in people, but these qualities are what the far-right looks for when recruiting supporters.

“COVID-19 has been an intelligence test” (Vice) is quite an ironic statement to make by anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers considering the lack of logic in their arguments against lockdowns, vaccines, and the health threat of COVID-19. Often, I see tweets on the low death rate of COVID-19, spurring online movements against lockdowns and masks. In my hometown (Chatham-Kent), protesters from Windsor to even Toronto came to support our local group of anti-maskers. The result? A rise in COVID-19 cases. The rejection of science and evidence is becoming a successful tactic of the far-right to gain supporters on the fringe.

The idea that COVID-19 and the migrant crisis contribute to the elites’ global agenda is absurd and unfounded. This conspiracy theory resonates with QAnon supporters, the far-right, and those on the fringe. When far-right populists present misinformation in a clear consumable manner, the far-right can attract new supporters that may not identify with the political right or those outside of politics. For example, the woman that changed her opinion on Trump after watching YouTube videos and reading social media posts illustrates how the far-right can manipulate logic to gain supporters. As crises continue to occur, the far-right has the opportunity to seek new supporters by blaming a common enemy.

References

How this TV chef turned COVID truther helped QAnon boom in Germany. (2020, October 23). VICE News, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1yOqtbWrdg&ab_channel=VICENews

Kalmar, I. (2020). Islamophobia and anti-antisemitism: The case of Hungary and the ‘Soros plot.’ Patterns of Prejudice, 54(1-2), 182-198. DOI: 10.1080/0031322X.2019.1705014

Scott, M. (2020, October 23). QAnon goes European. POLITICO. www.politico.eu/article/qanon-europe-coronavirus-protests/

QAnon’s European Vacation

by Sydney Linholm

The article by Mark Scott for Politico discusses how the American conspiracy theory QAnon has made it’s way to Europe and settled within populist groups and conspiracy theorists such as the Yellow Jacket movement in France, the anti-vaccine community in Italy, and the Brexit followers in Britain. The author alleges that the reason for this embracing of QAnon both online and in these movements in Europe comes from the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s true—the same people who participate in anti-lockdown protests across Europe are the ones who buy into QAnon theories about political leaders and secret government agendas.

With people spending so much more time online because of the pandemic, it’s easy for them to discover QAnon’s rhetoric and jump to the conclusion that COVID is a hoax and lockdown is just the new world order being pushed by crooked officials. QAnon is all about fighting against the elites: the basis for their theory is that Donald Trump was recruited by the U.S. Military to win a war against crooked democrats, and QAnon capitalized on those who already didn’t trust the government and bought into theories such as Pizzagate. The distrust of influential world leaders is what allowed them to gain such a strong following, and they take advantage of American fear.

While the movement is still small in Europe, it’s quickly spreading, and similar groups are emerging. QAnon has influenced things like Qactus.fr in France which promotes conspiracy theories about local politics, praises Trump, and supports the Yellow Jacket movement. In the Netherlands, QAnon has influenced social media accounts that support far-right politician Geert Wilders. In Britain, movements like “Citizens Unite UK #wakeup” borrow from QAnon’s theories and make allegations about secret pedophile rings, the global elite, and the government limiting their rights and freedoms through COVID lockdown. QAnon’s global reach was sped up by the pandemic and the conspiracies that emerged from it, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Appearances

This week’s readings and video were certainly entertaining. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there seems to have been a surge in conspiracy theories, mostly on random Facebook posts, but it was alarming to read just how many people are in fact involved in the QAnon movement. One of the interviewees in the video, Mirko, raises an important point when he says that media literacy should become a school subject. Now that information, any information, travels so easily and can reach so many people, and that medias onto which we rely to stay up to date with events have become a part of our everyday life, it is crucial that we learn to use them wisely from a young age. I think that it is the main reason why ideas like those put forward by QAnon and other conspiracy theories groups were able to convince such a large number of followers. There is a clear lack of knowledge on how to find reliable and trustworthy information on the Internet. Combined with the boredom, panic and questions that the pandemic brought, this created the perfect mix for people to get caught up in wacky theories (intelligence test? Virus created by Bill Gates?). In a normal context where people would not have that much time to kill spent on social media, or would not have had sanitary measures to question, their judgement would not have been clouded (at least, for the majority… conspiracy theories will always attract a minority), but the pandemic allowed for the explanations provided by QAnon to make sense to them.

I spent some time reading the comments under the video, and one in particular was interesting. It compared Attila Hildmann, seen in the video, with Hitler. Now this is a bit far stretched, but there is a parallel to be drawn with a charismatic leader (Hildmann seems to enjoy and even need to be the center of attention, given his career and the fact that his convictions allow him to draw people to his cause of ‘telling the truth’) or the speeches based on conspiracy theories that call for people to unite and fight against an imagined enemy. And frankly, considering how Hitler succeeded in convincing a lot of people, it is a bit scary to think that history could repeat itself, with the same means, albeit for different reasons.

On the subject of means, other than the appeal of ideology that is expressed in the video and in Scott’s article, what emanates from the readings is how such theories rely deeply on appearances and rumors. Just from the choice of the words in Scott and Kalmar papers (theirs, and the ones they cite), it can be understood that there is a particular attention on how the ideas are formulated in order to attract people and numb judgment. Vocabulary such as ‘alleged’, ‘propagate’ or ‘reinvent’, along with the description of the methods used by Viktor Orban, for example to nurture the hatred towards Soros and his supposed plan to force Hungary to accept migrants (posters, spreading false stories, etc.), illustrate just how narratives are a powerful tool.

Thought Policing and the Battle of ‘Disinformation’: How Political Debates and the Exchange of Divers Ideas are Needed Now More than Ever

By Austin Pellizzer

This week’s articles and video media sheds light on conspiracy theories and how this has made its way into the mainstream of American politics and across the pond into the European political community. Looking at the Hungarian populist governments’ use of conspiracy theories to push anti-Semitism and islamophobia (184) in Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism: The Case of Hungary and the ‘Soros plot’ by Ivan Kalmar, these ideas can grow into an Ethno-nationalist scope with detrimental consequences (185). With such nationalist happenings, this inevitably spreads both intolerance and hate in the name of preserving particular values and ways of life (186). On the other hand, both Politico and Vice’s materials talk about the need to battle ‘disinformation’ related to more well-known and global movements from the right, which can have detrimental consequences to one of the most sacred freedoms to democratic nations, the freedom of speech. 

The Politico article by Mark Scott titled Qanon Goes European looks at the 2017 fringe political movement Qanon which has made the mainstream news in more recent years. Scott, in detail, looks at how European populist parties (particularly in the UK, Germany, and Italy) have used many of these Qanon theories from Trump’s 2017 Presidential Election to the recent Covid Pandemic to shape this phenomenon which found its beginning on the social chat site 4chan. While it is essential to consider how these movements can have serious consequences, like the Capital Hill Riot of January 6, which brought Qanon believers together, the idea of having to silence and de-platform individuals and organizations in the name of combatting ‘disinformation’ is problematic of an in itself. Demonstrated in the Vice video, How this TV Chef Turned Covid Truther Helped Qanon Boom in Germany, brings to light the need to combat this ‘disinformation’ within the political sphere. However, while this idea might sound like something needed to preserve democracy, it is in many ways doing the exact opposite. 

With collective action predominantly coming from the political left concerning social media platforms and politicians bent on censoring people based on the idea of spreading ‘disinformation’ related to topics like Trump and the Covid-19 pandemic, this will only lead to more people embracing alternative beliefs as a whole. If companies and politicians alike genuinely want to have a united political dialogue and discourse to improve society, it is in their best interest to end the censoring and silencing of one side based on having diverse ideas and beliefs which is only human. Instead, what is needed is to open the doors of dialogue for a free exchange of ideas and debate, which will inevitably lead to the truth prevailing and mending political wounds of past years. 

Holocaust and Fiction

Holocaust-inspired fictions are criticized. They are deemed insensible, disrespectful, or inaccurate. But what if they were necessary to spark an interest in the event and keep it in the collective memory?

76 years have passed since the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust. The tragedy was apprehended in different ways since, from denial to memorials. Research, memoirs, documentaries and museums have tried to unveil the horrors that happened, to present the reality to the public and, to a certain extent, to fulfill the “Never again” promise. More recently, memories of the Holocaust seem to have found their way in the popular culture through literature or cinema. And the appeal is here: on Amazon, almost all of the best-seller books in the Jewish literature section are Holocaust fictions. These include titles such as We Were the Lucky Ones and The Things We Cannot Say.

This sudden influx could be explained first on the part of the writers, that are now distanced from the events. Authors are often from the third or fourth generation after the Holocaust and are looking to tell family stories. The detachment allows for a more in-depth approach that would not have been possible with survivors of concentration camps, for example, who would not want to revive bad memories by recounting them. The result is novels or TV series and movies that narrate fictional stories based on true events.

The debate around the fictional aspect mixed with the Holocaust in the popular culture involves the moral aspect as well as the possible disinformation. As outlined in critics on the recent TV series Hunters (a story loosely based on Nazi hunters in the 1970), is it ok to invent equally horrible but false situations, inspired by the truth? Or does it, and other fictional work, exploit real sufferings in order to attract a public and gain popularity? Are imagined depictions conveying incorrect information that could contribute to historical inaccuracy or even to the Holocaust denial? Is the creation side leading to a falsification of the truth, that eventually lessens the burden of the responsibilities of the perpetrators?

The word to remember here is fiction. The Holocaust proved to be an endless source of inspiration for artists, who draw it from true events, and shape them with their own words or images into a product destined to an eager public. The interest, on its part, potentially comes from an historical curiosity. But it mainly holds such a growing place in the popular culture because books like The Tattooist of Auschwitz go beyond merely informing the readers. It allows them to have an emotional connection to the Holocaust through the characters, to visualize events, and to engage in real-time by provoking empathy or hatred in a more vivid way than a museum could.

On remarks that his novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, contains incorrect elements, author John Boyne responded that made-up stories can’t be inaccurate since they are fictions. This valid point must be advertised, so that readers and viewers are aware that they are consuming a fiction work that is only based on the true events of the Holocaust. It gives an idea of the kind of things that happened, but states cautiously that it is romanticized.

The beauty of the phenomenon of fiction that reached the Holocaust, is that it proposes an approach to the subject that might be less traumatic, while still conveying the tragic aura. The entertaining aspect attracts a larger public than academic work, which is the starting point for an interest in this time period.

Of course, some Holocaust-related material is just plainly distasteful and wrong. Concentration camps themed Christmas ornaments, for example, only serve to generate profit. This kind of product doesn’t honor or commemorate the victims, and it doesn’t place the Holocaust at an accessible level like fiction does. Putting the Holocaust in the popular culture needs to remain respectful and linked to history, but it is also a way to nurture the interest, and by such, the remembrance. Fiction raises awareness. It is then up to the public to forge its own opinion and do its own research.