Conspirituality, “a crippling combination of narratives and self-reinforcing beliefs,” in Italy and Czechia.
It is the turn of the 20th century when a Russian woman in her fifties sets off from France to the East, leaving behind the Parisian jungle to greet a more familiar landscape made up of grassland, plains and no trees. She carries with her an incomplete manuscript. Between pages of scribbles and notes, the text concealed confused references to secret consultations and plans intended to bend the world’s order at the hands of a covert group of Jewish religious leaders. The articulated version of those papers will be known historically as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic forgery compiled in Paris at the end of the 1800s by agents of the Okhrana, the Russian secret police, only to be later disseminated in 20th-century Europe. In the years to come, they will be extensively used in Nazi propaganda and literature.
The woman is Yuliana Glinka, an occultist and secret agent of the Russian government, according to historians Egil Asprem and Asbjorn Dyrendal. In Paris, Glinka inhabited the city’s underground circles of Western esotericism, immersing herself in the Theosophists’ philosophical-religious doctrine of mystical and occult science.
The fact that it was Glinka who brought the manuscript to Russia was no accident. Her story perfectly exemplifies the historical rapprochement of the worlds of heterodox spirituality and conspiratorial narratives – a phenomenon referred to as “conspirituality” by sociologists Charlotte Ward and David Voas.
According to Asprem and Dyrendal, Theosophic circles were responsible for the dissemination of conspiracy motifs in which murmured revelations about secret masters orchestrating sinister plans represented what Asprem calls “a sort of irresistible literary trope” for esoteric authors of the time.
Today, traces and fragments of conspiracies with an extremist tinge have emerged from those subcultures of 19th-century salons and occult periodicals. From case studies of a counterculture, these fragments turned into a “majority culture,” says Nicola Pannofino, a professor of sociology at the University of Turin.
Once perceived as niche phenomena relegated to the distorted reality of the digital hyperspace, they now pertain to the dynamics of political consensus and social mobilization. In their 2021 book Religione sotto spirito: Viaggio nelle nuove spiritualita, sociologists Stefania Palmisano and Pannofino defined this as the “paradox of invisibility”: non-institutionalized religious movements are often difficult to recognize, perhaps because they use channels of diffusion that are not strictly religious, or simply because we struggle to recognize unfamiliar symbols and customs. For this reason, “they mostly remain undetected, leading to underestimating the phenomenon,” Pannofino says.
In modern times, the accelerated propagation of conspiracy theories has a lot to do with collective traumas. “It makes us doubt the validity of the institutions, language, and categories with which we read the world on a daily basis,” Pannofino says. It happened in 2001 with the terrorist attack on New York’s twin towers; it happened again in 2020 when newscasts announced the beginning of a global pandemic.
As part of an investigation by IrpiMedia, Transitions, and Hlidacipes.org – funded by the Collaborative and Investigative Journalism Initiative – we studied social media in Italy and the Czech Republic by poking into the online rabbit hole where New Age cosmologies of wellness and mystical feel-goodism communicate with a certain type of conspiracy that yields to extremism.
By rummaging through dozens and dozens of Telegram channels, from QAnon propagandists to anti-vax campaigners to channels talking about magical energies and religious syncretism, we tried to understand how far-right narratives and ideologies circulate. We discovered that there is a widespread practice of disseminating extremist content and references that latch onto anti-establishment sentiments and disinformation movements, circulating in groups where unsuspecting users are exposed daily to ambiguous and borderline narratives.
From Hollywood Satanism to Italian Qparenting
Hello everyone. I haven’t posted anything on Reddit in a while, and I never expected I’d have to post here. I hoped this day would never come, yet here I am.
Thus begins a 19-year-old Italian user’s long testimony posted about a year ago on the QAnonCasualties forum, one of the main online support groups for QAnon “victims” that sprouted on Reddit. A community composed mainly of ex-believers and the formerly Q-adjacent: people who are somehow acquainted with the deceptiveness of the QAnon movement.
The story summarizes the impossibility of his/her coexistence with Qparents, a term used to indicate parents who follow what the forum calls the Qult: “I’d prefer to get my parents under psychiatric care or similar, but I’m not exactly sure if that would help them or just drive the conspiracy deeper into them seeing how much I oppose them. I’m tired, enraged and disgusted.”
The post talks about their parents’ penchant for extremist propaganda, vaccine- and COVID-related conspiracies, and their parents’ obsession with “natural healing, energy/frequencies, and more meta-physical nonsense”: a crippling combination of narratives and self-reinforcing beliefs.
Browsing through the pages of the Reddit forum, it becomes clear that this story paints a family picture that has become quite common: the internet is clogged with personal and family relationships torn apart by an exaggerated exposure to online realities where disinformation and extreme rhetoric thrive. A phenomenon where the spread of QAnon has become an uncanny symbol.
QAnon in Brief – Cosmology and Vocabulary
QAnon is a complex conspiracy theory that the world is ruled by the so-called deep state, controlled by a cabal of satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles whose end game is to engineer a New World Order and take dominion over the earth. In QAnon’s cosmology, former U.S. President Donald Trump and his supporters are “patriots” fighting undercover against this evil system.
Originally an American far-right theory, it began appearing in October 2017 on the anonymous, far-right online forum known as 4chan when a supposed high-ranking federal government official under the alias “Q” began posting encrypted “clues” to expose the conspiracy. Since then, the conspiracy has moved to various parts of the world, where it has supporters – including in the Czech Republic and Italy.
Affiliation with the QAnon conspiracy can be revealed by the use of a very specific vocabulary. Some key terms:
People who are positive figures from a QAnon perspective are called “White Hats,” while the bad guys associated with the deep state are “Black Hats.”
The Great Awakening
This is a social process where people finally expose the supposed evil nature of the deep state. The process was supposed to start in 2017 with the first Q “clue.”
The anticipated event that QAnon is leading up to and in which the deep state is supposed to fall – the moment when the crimes, mostly related to sex trafficking, of the “Black Hats” are exposed and proven.
The year of the American Revolution. A reference to the idea that another American revolution is coming to overthrow the “illegitimate government” that seized power after Trump’s supposed mandate.
According to Asprem’s research, QAnon emerged in the United States from within the fundamentalist Christian environments and the far-right, where underground tales of ritualized sexual abuse, child sacrifice, and pedophilia taking place in Hollywood villas and in Democratic Party circles have been circulating since the years of the Satanic Panic in the 1970s and ’80s. Eventually, QAnon took “old themes from the American right-wing, Christian context, and reshaped them,” Asprem says.
According to Asprem, despite QAnon’s prophetic structure and hidden religiosity, its penetration into New Age circles is a more recent event – which perhaps also allows us to explain the current extent of its spread.
Underpinning the ideological communion that combines the mentality typical of certain contemporary spiritualities with the conspiratorial approach, there is the common adhesion to an alternate vision of social and political institutions, according to Pannofino.
Amy Hale, a researcher of modern pagan and occult subcultures, says the “alternative” identity is also based on a drive to resist authority, which in some cases could be represented by large pharmaceutical companies or mainstream medicine.
Such rhetoric is being used in “conspiracy blogs or talk radio in the U.S.” to manipulate readers and listeners and convince them they are a “smart person, not average, too smart to be lied to by the people in power,” Hale says.
The Qult Goes Fishing
The doctrine of Q circulates subtly and implicitly in numerous Telegram groups which, while not openly affiliated with Q, expose users to the “the Word.” These are groups where the declared intent is to share New Age content and alternative news, or where conspiracy theorists share views on the “health dictatorship” – all channels where QAnon’s propaganda has more chances to take root and blend in.
The potential spread of QAnon on Telegram is, in fact, very huge. According to TGStat, a catalog of Telegram channels, the most-followed channels based in the Italian or Czech/Slovak languages are mainly those that carry anti-vax and anti-hegemonic counter-information content, as well as groups openly focused on the cult of QAnon and other anti-system points of view.
It is extremely easy to end up in a QAnon group just by joining one of the many New Age, anti-vax, or general disinformation channels that populate Telegram. By manually searching through the posts, we can see which groups have reshared content from a series of Q-affiliated channels or undeclared Q-adjacent environments.
The Italian Telegram channel Il Grande Risveglio (The Great Awakening), with 14,838 subscribers, is, by its own definition, a “Channel of Spiritual Growth, Awakening, Messages of Light from the Galaxy of the Ascended Masters, Galactic Brothers, and Beings of Light.” But beyond its alluring spiritual-friendly facade, a series of posts on Q conspiracies alternate with health-centered fake news. Among posts raising questions of unremembered past lives or sharing insights on alchemical transformers, one could find in-depth QAnon propaganda in reshared posts of the small private Telegram group Codice Genesi (The Genesis Code) – such as a “small summary for the most reluctant” – in badly-translated Italian – of Trump’s role in the unfolding of the events of recent years. Trump is destined to join a military operation against the deep state’s 10-year plan for the fall of America, according to the post.
More subtly, Il Grande Risveglio also shares posts from “Truth Social Official,” the Italian Telegram version of the Trump-funded American social network (not yet active in Italy) which is a well-known hotbed of QAnon propaganda. The original Truth Social shares links to access the entire QAnon world: the Telegram version of reality where encrypted messages are spread to reveal the secret plan of the deep state, or where secret documents supposedly taken directly from the alleged iCloud of President Biden are circulated.
Some such posts are translated from Italian into other languages. This is the case for the Italian Telegram channel Liberaveritas, which has more than 6,000 subscribers and where exotic historical reinterpretations in a neo-pagan context are shared side by side with Q-signed mystical conjectures. Its content is being translated for others to distribute by a small Czech group called Co kdyby (“What if”), where conspiracies and QAnon-adjacent content is also shared.
Recasting American Gods for the Old World
In QAnon’s most recent cosmology, John F. Kennedy will suddenly appear from the skies of Dallas and anoint Donald Trump to become president again. According to Asprem, this is evidence of a political-religious mixture that is strongly rooted in QAnon “in a sort of millennial American tradition.” Given the strongly Americo-centric nature of the Qult, the ability of the movement to take root in geographically and culturally distant realities is surprising: “All this does not seem very transferable to Europe and European concerns. But … people are going to enter and pick up specific things of QAnon narrative that work everywhere,” Asprem comments.
For a movement strongly linked to American culture and politics such as QAnon, the adaptability of its theories and conspiracies is fundamental to its expansion. In the self-declared QAnon channels that promote doctrine outside of the American context, the type of cultural and political references that are shared change according to the context: a strategy that exploits the wave of populism and anti-system movements in different countries. A kind of Trojan horse for the QAnon invasion of Europe. In QAnon’s Czech and Slovak Telegram channels, the Qult’s rhetoric latches very well onto pro-Putin propaganda; in the Italian ones, the content and conspiracies surrounding the recent Italian elections have multiplied.
When the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party emerged the winner of the elections, the face of its leader Giorgia Meloni appeared in a post by the group Il Risvegliodi_Q 1776 accompanied by the caption: “I have never heard any politician explain so perfectly what we are up against and why we fight. When you watch this video, you will soon realize why the establishment is afraid of her.”
A few posts further back in the same group, “Q drop” number 3539 from 2019 is retrieved to suggest that the leader of the Lega party, Matteo Salvini, would fit Q’s description of salvific “patriots.” Salvini’s previous contradictory behaviors are justified by the need to infiltrate the system: “Clearly if you have to infiltrate, you have to mix with the slime … I know that for many it is difficult to understand but it is the art of war,” the post explains, in an attempt to create a twisted apology for the alleged Italian patriot.
On Telegram, dark narratives, vague concepts and terms are used and readjusted so that they can latch onto any anti-system rhetoric. For this reason, concepts such as the “deep state” or the “golden age” fit seamlessly into New Age or disinformation channels in a dangerous game of references and overlapping worlds.
The story of the anticipated “golden age” describes how an era “lost in the past … will be recreated as a utopia of the future after a huge conflagration,” according to Asprem. It is a typical element of the millennial religions that await the advent of the kingdom of Christ on earth, “but it also has something in common with much populist political rhetoric, like in the Make America Great Again movement.”
In Italy, we find references to this theme on such channels as QAnon Italia (with over 13,000 subscribers) and Il Risveglio_Q 1776 (over 11,000), but also on pro-Trump New Age channels Conoscenza al Confine and Fisicaquantistica.it. There is even a Telegram channel called L’era dell’Oro (The Golden Age) where QAnon material appears among news “aligned with the soul” and anti-vax vigilance.
Most of the explicitly Q-adjacent groups now omit references to the origins of QAnon’s American cosmology, which referred to institutional pedophilia and included messages of Trump-as-savior, to embrace diverse geographical and spiritual horizons. “The impression is that we should be careful with thinking that everybody who expresses some kind of sympathy with QAnon by, for example, having … the Q symbol on a flag or T-shirts, will really believe in all the crazy stuff connected with QAnon,” Asprem says. “In some cases, they may not even know about them.”
The consequences of QAnon’s geographic and ideological expansionism are a dilution of its original message. The symbol Q has overcome its meaning to become the coat of arms of syncretic heterodoxies which are not necessarily affiliated with the Qult. And if it is true that the use of Q and its symbolisms is not always a sign of adherence, it’s also true that multiple web testimonies tell the stories of people who, while embracing QAnon theories, may ignore the origins of their beliefs or relinquish any affiliation to the Qult.
QAnon’s content does not always come out as explicit and easily detectable: sometimes the references are intertextual, perhaps hidden within the rhetoric of a comment, rather than in Q’s signature. It is one of the reasons why, investigating the phenomenon on Telegram, automated searches may not work. “That it is subliminal and highly manipulative but doesn’t have the usual features of a disinformation narrative is a fact. Ordinary monitoring won’t catch it, you need to go through the content manually and know the symbols and terms they use,” says one of the anonymous highly-skilled volunteers – mainly doctors, academics, senior managers, analysts, and military veterans – of the Czech Elves, a group inspired by “elves” doing similar work in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to monitor and analyze the Czech disinformation landscape.
“I was a follower of classic conspiracy before QAnon,” says an anonymous Italian ex-believer active on the QAnonCasualties Reddit community, “but from 2015 to today I have been very detached from that world, as human stupidity explains many things better of malice and conspiracies. In my family I still have people inside, and I think they are Q-adjacent, but I prefer to avoid talking about these things to preserve my mental health.”
He entered the Qult as a Catholic traditionalist, but then says he “detached himself from that environment” – only to see friends and relatives who were hooked on those ideas fall down “into the abyss of the most absurd conspiracy.” He explains that his family’s “conversion” has also come about through Italian sites such as Byoblu, which has a Telegram channel with almost 100,000 subscribers, founded by blogger Claudio Messora, former communications chief of the Five Star Movement political party; or through controversial figures such as journalist Maurizio Blondet, another voice of the conspiratorial ultra-Catholic universe: “Blondet has ruined so many Catholics,” the user says.
In effect, it takes just a peek into Comedon Chisciotte’s forum and Telegram chats (the channel has over 21,000 subscribers) or Byoblu’s Twitter and Facebook comments to spot the entry into QAnon’s rabbit hole where no filter exists for content shared by followers: from reshared posts from Insider Q Italy (a self-declared pro-Putin, pro-Trump QAnon Italian channel) to followers commenting with Gab links to the unofficial download of Truth Social’s app.
Is It Just Background Noise?
The sociologists Ward and Voas were the first to describe conspirituality as a rapidly growing online movement. But, judging from the comments of scholars interviewed for this article, the notion that the spread of conspiracy is linked only to a mere distortion of modern history is an error of perspective.
Conspiracies have changed the pace of history, not only in those 19th-century salons with a penchant for the occult described by Asprem, but also in Emperor Nero’s blaming Christians for the burning of Rome, or in the medieval obsession with the fight against the devil and the bloody witch hunts it spawned.
Our investigation has shown how the convergence of conspiratorial and spiritual narratives is used by the extremist QAnon movement in Italy and the Czech Republic to attract and “red-pill” the so-called “normies” – that is, to indoctrinate those who are not yet a part of the fold – via a bombardment of disinformation and fake news, mixed with extremist ideologies, to suck users in. In trying to increase its reach in Italy and the Czech Republic, QAnon has changed the nature of its message and narratives, adapting them to suit the different tastes and political and cultural views of the European public.
Latching onto the anti-system rhetoric of anti-vax, New Age and Wellness channels or fake-news-spreading alternative realities, QAnon has infiltrated the Telegram networks of these groups and spread extreme ideologies to users more or less unaware that they have come into contact with the doctrine of Q. A strategy which, rather than pursuing its own messianic vision of freeing the world’s population from the evil plans of the deep state, seems to have become a way to generate confusion and create very loud background noise to disrupt society.
Sofia Cherici is a freelance multimedia and investigative journalist specializing in human rights and environmental and social issues in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Jan Zabka is a journalist at Hlidaci pes, a Czech investigative website, covering disinformation and the Czech media environment.
The main illustration, “QAnon Wall,” is by Vincenzo Triolo. All images provided by the authors.