Is QAnon winning over our region faster than we think?

Once perceived as an underground conspiracy theory in the U.S., QAnon is becoming mainstream and more real, with its effect being visible in our region as well.

Conspiracy theories commonly known as QAnon appeared in the U.S. in 2017 claiming that there was a deep state. With the coronavirus pandemic spreading all over the world, the theories spread outside the U.S. borders as well, turning into anti-vaxxer, anti-government and anti-5G protest movements and theories boosted by disinformation. That unspecific and undefined trait of theirs is a scheme that the QAnon supporters used to attract so many people of different ideologies. They can choose from a wide range of narratives, therefore some are against the establishment, some against vaccines, and some against 5G technology.

According to the movement’s claims, the international pedophilia ring of elite groups is abducting and abusing children with the purpose of obtaining a rejuvenation medicine from their blood. This elite, which allegedly includes Hillary Clinton and George Soros, strives to take over the world by establishing a shadow government that would control the world’s politics behind the scene. On the other hand, there is American President Donald Trump who is fighting the deep state.

The movement is grounded in posts which appeared on an internet forum 4chan in October 2017, posted by a username Q Clearance Patriot (Q Clearance is the highest level of security clearance required by the U.S. Department of Energy to access secret information on the nuclear weapon) that the movement got its name QAnon – short of Q-Anonymous. Without any evidence, Q stated that Donald Trump was waging war against the deep state and other elite groups and that he planned to attack a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles. Back then, Q claimed that he had been working as an intelligence agent and that he had access to secret information. That way, his criticizing posts gained in popularity and were spread all over Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Instagram, and YouTube.

The Balkans and QAnon

QAnon is now part of our everyday life and as it uses social media as its main base, the movement has mobilized a large number of people to protest across Europe. The number of tweets related to QAnon has increased from 5 million in 2017 to 12 million this year all over the world, with Germany as fifth and Great Britain second, right after the U.S.

The DFC analysis of the internet content related to QAnon in the six Western Balkan countries showed huge growth in popularity of this phenomenon in the period March-November 2020 (56.9k posts), which is an increase of 147% compared to the whole last year (38.6k posts).

That the QAnon influence is not visible only on social media platforms confirms the protest gatherings organized due to the COVID-19 preventive measures and the obligatory wearing of masks, which moved from Berlin, Bucharest, and London to Podgorica, Belgrade, Tirana, and Zagreb. Without providing any evidence, the protesters were alerting that the pandemic was a conspiracy of the cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who were controlling the world, that the masks could not protect you from the virus or that Bill Gates was planning to implant a chip in people through vaccines, whose production he supported financially. If all of the stated does not speak for itself, it is important to mention that disinformation is a key communication tool of this movement, neither facts nor science.

Anti-vaxxers hand in hand with QAnon

Among many conspiracy theories, the narrative on the adverse effects of vaccines stands out. Aroused initiatives against obligatory vaccination have been a topic for many years now all over the world, although the anti-vaxxer movement is not widespread in Montenegro.

Among those who spread this theory in our region, the website and the Facebook page of Pravo na izbor with Dr. Jovana Stojkovic as a founder stand out. In December 2018, a group of doctors filed a lawsuit against Dr. Stojkovic before the Court of Honor of the Regional Medical Chamber in Belgrade. They required that her medical license be revoked due to spreading panic and public performances that caused a decrease in vaccination and eventually a measles outbreak in Serbia. The court proceedings were suspended because it was believed that her media performances did not present enough evidence to revoke the license. However, in March 2019, the proceedings were resumed before the same Court as it was determined that Dr. Stojkovic’s activism had been indeed against people’s health.

Besides Dr. Stojkovic, Dr. Nada Kosic, MP in the Parliament of Serbia until recently, an internist and professor at the Medical Faculty in Belgrade, has been equally active in spreading of the narratives, as well as Dr. Lidija Gaski from Croatia who strongly advocates for the right to choose to get a vaccine, which is legally binding in that country.

Protests of parents more frequent

As the mass protests against obligatory vaccination are still active all over the world, the supporters of the QAnon movement have embraced them and used them to spread influence and their own agenda. Therefore, it is not unusual to see their slogans at the protests, which were seen in Belgrade where the protest called We don’t Give You the Children was organized on October 17 in front of the Presidency. The protest was organized to point to the violation of the fundamental rights of parents who were deprived of the right to make decisions regarding the vaccination of their children. The fact that the Center for Social Work had been taking their kids away due to poverty was unacceptable according to their claims, and they added that the rights of children had been violated at schools since they must wear protective masks. Dr. Stojkovic emphasized that such problems were particularly visible since President Vucic is in power. As she said, he is not actually the President of Serbia, but the country was controlled by NGOs, which is one of the QAnon movement’s ideas.

During one of the similar previous protests, organized on September 7 in front of the Institute of Public Health Batut due to announced vaccine testing for coronavirus, Dr. Jovana Stojkovic stated that the Minister of Education of Serbia had said that children would be taken away from their parents if they had not been vaccinated. The gathered people displayed the slogans We don’t Give you the Children and Stop Taking Children Away, emphasizing that every parent had a right to choose what was the best for their child. These slogans are similar to those promoted by the QAnon supporters: Save Our Children, Choose a Side, Freedom not Fear, Stop Child Trafficking, which could be seen on the streets of London many times since August.

In Montenegro, parents from Bar, Podgorica, and Herceg Novi have been actively protesting against the wearing of masks in schools because, as they claim, they are harmful to children’s health. Advocating for the non-effectiveness of masks does not contribute to virus prevention, particularly in such a bad situation that Montenegro is in right now.

A similar campaign lead under the #SaveTheChildren hashtag and initiated to raise awareness of the problem of child sex trafficking that was out of control in the U.S. and all around the world has gained popularity on social media this summer. The campaign attracted the attention of the QAnon movement, which also has started to promote the #SaveTheChildren hashtag to amplify its reach on social media.

According to the QAnon supporters, face masks which children must wear due to the coronavirus pandemic pose a serious problem because they make it harder for them to cry for help if attacked.

Promoting the movement on social media

Even though Facebook removed groups and pages such as Q-ANON Bosna i Hercegovina, Q-Anon Serbian version, QAnon Serbia WWG1WGA, QANON/Buđenje Srbije, Qanon – Srbija, Q/QANON ARMY Srbija/Serbia, Qanon Balkan, there are others which promote the same or similar theories on this and other platforms.

Using keywords related to conspiracy theories of the QAnon movement, we analyzed posts on Facebook, which is the dominant platform in Montenegro and the region. The graphs show that over 19,000 posts and almost 1.4 million interactions have been spread on the internet for the six Western Balkan countries since the beginning of this year. The largest number of posts was registered in the period when the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading all over the region (March-May 2020) and when many conspiracy theories started circulating due to many questions surrounding the pandemic.

Graph showing the number of posts and interactions on Facebook in six Western Balkans countries since the beginning of the year

When it comes to the spreading of such content, a recently created closed Facebook group called BalkAnon with 2,000 members stands out. It is followed by Pravo na izbor (24,000 likes), Pravo na slobodu (93.000 likes), Protiv novog svetskog poretka (30.000 likes), Orvel civilizacija (11.000 likes), including many other pages, groups, and individuals.

Apart from online groups and pages, the deep state theory finds its supporters among members of Montenegro’s political life. Nebojsa Medojevic is the first who comes to mind since he uses social media and the Parliamentary sessions to speak frequently about a secret cabal that controls the world, which is financed by George Soros and that Donald Trump is fighting against. He recently stated that Montenegro has been controlled by a secret organization for years, which never votes and does not have any democratic legitimacy.

The YouTube video platform revealed several channels promoting conspiracy theories. BalkanInfo, known to a broader audience, often invites guests who speak about Satan-worshipers, deep state, and vaccines. The same stands for Slavija info TV, while the FES TV and Nauka i misterije Balkan channels openly declare themselves as supporters of alternative views on the world, resolute to uncover mysteries and disclose secrets.

Twitter, the platform on the rise in the region, did not discover any accounts that were exclusively dedicated to such content. However, several users were tweeting, among other stuff, about the deep state, global Satan-worshipers, the ineffectiveness of masks, etc. Some of them include @NebojsaMedojevi, @VladoGeorgiev, @SvilarovNikola, @peterstoun, and @Kosovo_SRB_1244.

To sum up, although QAnon conspiracy theories are not based on scientific facts, their impact is real and visible. The greatest threat of this movement is creating a wider gap between what the truth is and what a large number of people would believe the truth is, when in reality – it is not. That way, conspiracy theories lead to long-term consequences: they downplay the importance of the fight against the pandemic, undermine the trust in vaccines, science, and common sense in general. Likewise, they mix their anti-Semitic and alt-right views with the theory that coronavirus is a conspiracy that deprives people of their freedoms and that people are being controlled by 5G technology and chips.