Conspiracy theories, which until recently were on the periphery of the media flow and were taken lightly by a large number of people, now influence policies and determine public attitudes around the world.
Bulgarian society is particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories, misinformation and propaganda. The reasons for this are complex: lack of clear and reliable information from government and institutions; deficiency in the educational system – lack of civic education, critical thinking, media literacy and practical knowledge; a declining number of independent media and journalists to impose high journalistic standards in investigating, fact-checking and reporting information. Practically, in our country, as well as in the whole of Europe, there is a hybrid war with a constantly expanding network of misinforming sites and media, some related to Russian propaganda. This has a negative impact on the formation of the public opinion on important policies for children and families and on lawmaking related to regulation in all areas of children’s lives – health, education, children’s justice, social services.
What is QAnon
In 2019, the most popular hashtag with socio-political content on the most used social network Twitter in the United States was #QAnon and its derivatives #Q, #Qpatriot and #TheGreatAwakening. This fact clearly shows the tendency to expand the scope of conspiracy theories and more precisely of a certain one – QAnon.
What do these code names, containing the Latin letter Q, mean? These are branches of a conspiracy theory that is gaining strenght. According to it the neoliberal and globalist elites, who have ruled America and the world for nearly four decades, are involved in a secret conspiracy and a pedophile network that President Trump is called upon to expose.
Undoubtedly, QAnon is devoid of real evidence and borders on the absurd, but certain media, political forces and social media users are spreading it like an avalanche, and it is becoming a mixture of various claims – from far-left to far-right.
This is a complex and multi-layered conspiracy, according to which the world is ruled by an elite clique of pedophiles who worship Satan. This secret world elite controls everything, including the media, Hollywood, and especially politicians like Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump and Justice Department Special Adviser Robert Mueller are waging a secret war with them.
However, this plot core grows uncontrollably and mimics in different forms in different areas and even contains contradictory statements. It often uses the strongest instinctive fears of people related to their children. It is based on fictional news, false facts and false conclusions and, above all, on gullible and naive reading by the masses on the Internet.
When it all starts
In 2016, a massive onslaught of conspiracy theories began with the so-called Pizzagate, which went viral during the US presidential election. The personal email of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, has been hacked and WikiLeaks has published emails in which conspiracy theorists see coded messages linking high-ranking Democratic officials and American restaurants to alleged child trafficking and pedophilia. One of the establishments allegedly involved is the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC. The theory is spread on social media such as 4chan, 8chan and Twitter.
Pizzagate can be considered a precursor to a similar but even more viral QAnon theory, which was revived in 2020. In October 2017, an anonymous user published a series of posts on the 4chan platform, and later on 8chan and 8kun – uncensored virtual “boards” for messages, photos and memes in which users are anonymous. It is referred to as “Q” and claims to have access to classified information.
There is a lot of speculation about Q’s identity. The most widely shared version among his followers is that this is a person or group who has access to the kitchen of US military intelligence and the White House. The use of the letter Q is associated with a similar designation at the highest level of access to classified information in the US Department of Energy and military intelligence.
User Q rarely sends direct messages, but uses the Socrates method – asking guiding questions and leaving everyone to search and analyze information and come to certain conclusions. Thus, even if a theory is exposed, it does not discredit the user Q, who only asked questions.
“Where we go one we go all” with the abbreviation “WWG1WGA!” Is the most popular slogan of the movement. However, many initiatives are formed around him, which at first glance can hardly be associated with QAnon, such as in the UK, conspiracy theory is spread with the hashtag SaveTheChildren.
Why right now
The truth is that QAnon is a whole subculture with millions of followers not only in America but all over the world who with religious devotion fight the “deep state”. QAnon is a way of thinking that is activated mostly in times of crisis, a sense of system breakdown, an uncontrollable flow of information.
According to a BBC investigation, interest in this conspiracy theory has grown significantly since the beginning of the pandemic, and its followers are no longer just fans of Trump. The spread of conspiracy theories has multiplied – in March this year, the number of posts related to QAnon jumped sharply. Members in the largest groups who support conspiracy theory, have increased by 700%. In them they find simple answers to complex questions at a time when there are many unknowns. ”This increase comes at a time of social instability, of turmoil for many people. Society was looking for an answer to the question: “Why is all this happening?” People were also locked in their homes, glued to their computers and phones all day. That’s why they were exposed to all this online”, said Aufi Galahar of the American Institute for Strategic Dialogue to the BBC. Her organization is researching extremism, but is also beginning to analyze QAnon.
Why is it so dangerous
The QAnon phenomenon was classified as a “national terrorist threat” by the FBI last year. The conspiracy appeared in platforms that associated with white supremacists and far-right extremists. “And although you can’t call QAnon’s followers extremists, the conspiracy is on the periphery of that very extremism,” said Aufi Galahar.
A page appears on Reddit in which members of various families share their concern that their relatives have been absorbed in the QAnon theory. Among the popular myths are that Bill Gates created the coronavirus pandemic and the future vaccine, which contains microchips to track us, that COVID-19 is a biological weapon that only affects pedophiles, and bleach is a cure, that Democrats and celebrities feeding on babies, Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA, September 11 was an “internal affair” of the American government. As usual, the messages contain anti-Semitic motives and accusations against Soros and the Rothschild family.
QAnon followers are encouraged to attract friends and family. Proponents of the conspiracy call this “giving them the red pill” – a reference to the “Matrix”.
The crooked mirror of the conspiracies in Bulgaria
The characteristics of conspiracy theories make them extremely dangerous. And because these theories are amorphous, without real arguments and evidence, based on myths, claims and rumors, half-truths and lies, they are easily transformed and new claims are attached to them. Moreover, the conspiracy is becoming a way of thinking and even influencing lawmaking.
Unfortunately, we recently had examples of manipulation in our country – in October 2019 parents in Karnobat and Sliven urgently withdrew their children from several schools because of a rumor that they would be taken by the social services. Several civic groups circulated the allegations that the new Law on Social Services stipulates the possibility for children to be taken away from their parents only on an anonymous signal. Important bills that prevent violence against children have been blocked on the grounds of fears that social workers will interfere in family affairs and take children out without reason. The only long-running alert line for children at risk was attacked with the claim that it was collecting data on children to be abducted from their families.
Bulgarian children were also deprived of an extremely important visionary document – the Strategy for the Child, which is a concept for the overall development of children’s policies. The media space was flooded with misinformation, according to which the Strategy will destroy the traditional Bulgarian family and aims to deprive parents of their rights, it was suggested that the parents would go to prison for a slap.
Along the same lines, various NGO and practices in support of children were attacked – foster parents, organizations involved in the sexual education of young people, foundations that provide support to children at risk and children with disabilities and others.
Civic organizations are the main target of the groups formed around the conspiracies. The motives of the followers of these groups often border on fantasies: that NGOs work “to sell children to Norwegians and gay couples”, that they aim to introduce masturbation from kindergarten, that they act against heterosexual marriages, that they seize state social activity to pursue “sorosoid” policies, that they draw on state funding and use it for their own commercial purposes.
However, the truth is just the opposite – civil society organizations appear where there is a deficit of state care – lack of experts, staff and funding – the NGO sector attracts financial funding where there is not enough, creates services and trains professionals where they are sorely lacking . Moreover, it is the civil society organizations that are struggling with the negative phenomena and practices in which they are accused. For example, the National Network for Children is a member of ECPAT, a global network of civil society organizations working against all forms of sexual exploitation of children, and which, paradoxically, has also been accused of crimes against children by activists of groups spreading conspiracy theories.
The negative effect on society and our children
All of these attitudes, based on lies and half-truths, have a direct negative effect on children’s health, education, security, rights and policies:
- Distrust in the entire government and institutions, including social workers and mediators, who help the most at-risk groups, is instilled.
- Progressive laws and regulations are being rejected under street pressure, such as the Social Services Act, which was postponed and even called for its complete repeal, and the National Strategy for the Child, which was frozen.
- Distrust is instilled in civil society organizations that work for the benefit of children. The work of these organizations is hampered and even stopped, with children at risk and children with disabilities losing their only opportunity for support.
- Conspiracy theories are also a risk to the health of children with resistance to vaccines, drugs and even medical treatment. And the rejection of sex education puts young people at risk for early sexual intercourse, which in turn leads to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, early pregnancies and early marriages.
- Rejecting the culture of tolerance and accepting difference. Stigmatizing the various and instilling hatred.
- Calls for a return to the traditional family in its negative sense of obedience and corporal punishment. Perception of the child only as the property of the parents and subject to influence without rights. Non-acceptance of other forms of cohabitation.
- Defamation of civil activists, social workers, politicians.
- Spreading panic
It is our responsibility to be informed
Will we allow lies and misinformation to destroy even the little that has been achieved in the field of children’s policies? Will we allow lawmaking to be influenced by conspiracies? It is our responsibility as parents, citizens and professionals to be informed and it is up to us not to let that happen.
The material uses analyzes and studies of foreign and Bulgarian media