How A Conspiracy Theory Is Born And How To Deal With It, Part Two

Wu Ming 1, author
29 October 2018, Italy

How A Conspiracy Theory Is Born And How To Deal With It, Part One” can be found here.

The original article in Italian was published online at the following link:

V0.2. Translated by Joseph P. De Veaugh-Geiss (contact: tds [at] in December 2020 with permission from both the author and the weekly magazine Internazionale. For more details about the translation, see part one of this article.

QAnon at the White House

On 31 July 2018, an enthusiastic crowd greeted Trump in Tampa, Florida, wearing QAnon T-shirts and raising signs saying “We are Q”. They stole the scene from the president, with reporters talking almost exclusively about them. It was QAnon’s definitive entry into national and, shortly thereafter, international news. On 8chan, Q commented: “Welcome to the mainstream. We knew this day would come.”

Whereas before Tampa the president may have winked at the “bakers” by writing “17” in a couple of tweets, now he is toying with the conspiracy in a transparent way. On 24 August 2018, Trump received Lionel Lebron, a 60-year-old radio host and QAnon apostle, in the oval office. Lebron immediately published a photo in which he appears, gloating, posing with his hero.

In practice, Trump welcomed to the White House a man who has accused two of his predecessors – Obama and Clinton – of leading a satanic sect of pedophiles. The accusation was extended to the entire opposition party and some Republicans, such as Senator John McCain, who was dying in those very hours.

The episode sums up the bizarreness of the whole affair. Usually a conspiracy is against the powers that be. The position of the plotter is to denounce evil and the hypocrisy of power. In the conspiracy genre, it is rare for the hero to actually be the head of government – let alone the most powerful politician on Earth. But QAnon claims just that. “This time, the heroes are already in charge”, wrote Molly Roberts in the Washington Post, “and, still, the theorists see themselves as victims. Why, even with their man in the Oval Office, do they feel embattled?”

In the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg gave an answer: QAnon serves to reduce “the cognitive dissonance caused by the gap between Trump as his faithful followers like to imagine him, and Trump as he is. […] You don’t create a wild fantasy about your leader being a covert genius unless you understand that to most people, he looks like something quite different. You don’t need an occult story about how your side is secretly winning if it’s actually winning.”

The white middle class who voted for Trump had huge expectations. Expectations of revenge, or rather, catharsis. Trump encouraged these expectations in every way, but now in 2018 we are halfway through Trump’s first term and there has been no revival or rebirth. Worse, there hasn’t even been an improvement: no measures have been introduced to curb the impoverishment of the middle class.

The obvious conclusion would be: Trump is doing nothing for his constituents. But admitting that would be admitting you had deluded yourself, you had believed the lies: security, immigrants, the wall at the Mexican border… Believing in QAnon helps one not feel betrayed and cheated: although it may seem that Trump is not doing anything for his voters, he is in fact fighting a secret battle against pedophiles who rule the world.

The nationalism of Trump’s voters shouting “Make America great again!” is irreconcilable with the scenarios of the Mueller investigation. The president being investigated for aid that he received from Putin’s Russia? Unimaginable. QAnon solves this dilemma as well: by arguing that Mueller’s task is not to investigate Trump but rather to strike at a ring of pedophile Satanists, the QAnon followers restore the patriotic aura of the president.

Genius, champion of freedom, defender of children, savior of America and the world … how could Trump not feel flattered? Perhaps that is why he never distances himself from the conspiracy; on the contrary, he welcomes it.

By now curiosity about QAnon is skyrocketing and articles are coming out all over the world. Every line written on 8chan and Reddit ends up under scrutiny, and a vicious circle is repeated, the one typical of the relationship between mainstream journalism and conspiracy theorists. Paul Musgrave pointed it out in the Washington Post: “QAnon and related phenomena are vastly magnified by the media. Over the past few years, […] we’ve learned a lot about how Internet communities can manipulate public attention and the media into appearing larger and more powerful than they are.”

In The Guardian, Whitney Phillips said: “[M]any journalistic responses to trollish media manipulation tactics have remained constant. What this coverage has always done is incentivize precisely the behaviors it purports to condemn. In the process, it ensures that the same tactics will be used in the future – because the tactics are proven to work.”

Some of those same tactics, however, have also been proven effective in dismantling conspiracy theories and defusing moral panic. It happened in Italy with satanic ritual abuse. Perhaps useful lessons can be drawn from that story.

Luther Blissett Project

In late spring 2018, the Wu Ming collective received this message: “Apparently, someone took Luther Blissett’s old strategic playbook and made it an alt-right conspiracy theory”. Below the message was a link to an article in Vice dedicated to QAnon. The sender is an old friend, Florian Cramer, professor for visual culture at Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam, Holland. Shortly afterwards, others write us: the story of QAnon sounds familiar to them. But what is Luther Blissett’s “playbook”? And what does it have to do with QAnon?

To answer this question, we must go back to 1994. At that time, hundreds of activists, artists, and cultural agitators had adopted the pseudonym Luther Blissett to sign works, performances, and actions of various kinds. It was a live role-playing game, and it would last five years. It consisted in creating the reputation of an imaginary provocateur, a mythical character halfway between the “social bandit” and the “trickster“. For reasons that would never be clarified, we had chosen the name of a former English footballer, who passed through Milan for one season, in 1983-1984, just before the Berlusconi era.

While Luther Blissett was active in several countries, the phenomenon mainly took root in Italy, where a network of collectives operated, the Luther Blissett Project (LBP), whose main hubs were in Bologna and Rome. In a short amount of time, the LBP became known for some very elaborate pranks against the media.

In December 1994 a crew from the television program Chi l’ha visto? (‘Who’s seen them?’) was searching between Friuli Venezia Giulia and the United Kingdom for the English magician Harry Kipper, who went missing while cycling around Europe tracing the word ART on the map. He disappeared along the vertical line of the T, at the border between Italy and Slovenia. An intriguing story, but false in every detail, because Kipper never existed.

In 1998 the art world became passionate about the artistic works and biography of Darko Maver, a Serbian artist invented from scratch, who Blissett faked the death of in a prison in Podgorica, under NATO air raids.

These are just two examples, among many. Each time Blissett explained, after the fact, which problems in the media and which cultural mechanisms they exploited to spread the fake news.

The moment of explanation is always the most important part. The pranks aim to draw attention to sensitive issues and the ways in which journalists and pundits talk about them. For this reason, when there was growing moral panic in Italy about pedophilia and satanism, the LBP asked: how do we quell it?

One of the first steps was to get Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, a book by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker published in the United States in 1995. The authors reconstructed the history of satanic ritual abuse (SRA), and they denounced recovered-memory therapy (RMT), having surveyed several cases of false memory and providing evidence to reopen several investigations.

In January 1996, the arrest of the Bambini di Satana (‘Children of Satan’) was an opportunity to act.

The tarantella dance of the Satanists

Blissett planned a series of pranks to show how easy it is to induce moral panic in public opinion, and to draw attention to the collective counter-investigation I Carlini di Satana, which was published in the Bologna-based periodical Zero in Condotta (ZiC). Every week, beginning in September 1996, Blissett would expose the contradictions of the prosecution, criticize the argumentation, and show the dynamics of vilification in the press.

The most complex prank – actually a series of pranks – took place in the city Viterbo. It had begun in February 1996, but responsibility for the prank would only be claimed by LBP in March of the following year.

If one read the newspapers in those months, Viterbo seemed besieged by evil, and the surrounding forests overcrowded with Satanists. The newspapers published several reports from a group of anonymous Catholic-fascist vigilantes – il Comitato per la Salvaguardia della Morale (CoSaMo) (‘the Committee for the Safeguarding of Morals’) – who were committed to stopping black masses and beating the Satanists with sticks. None of this existed: Blissett had passed off rumors, fake news, and blurred images to newspapers, material that was accepted and published without any verification.

After a year, the Satanists in Viterbo moved from the local papers to the national ones. On 8 February 1997, Studio Aperto, the news program of Italia 1, transmitted a video from CoSaMo. It was a ritual, filmed in secret. The scene was lit by candlelight, barely showing the outlines of hooded characters, who were bent over their knees and performing strange chants. A girl could be heard screaming … then the filming was interrupted.

Blissett sent the complete sequence to RAI, which aired it on 2 March during the weekly news program TV7. In the scenes not sent to Studio Aperto, the hooded characters got up, someone started the traditional tarantella folk dance, and everyone, including the girl, would start dancing. In the newspaper la Repubblica, Loredana Lipperini wrote an account of the entire prank.

In the meantime, a less complex but very effective prank took place in Bologna at the expense of the local paper Il Resto del Carlino.

On 2 August 1996 the reporter Biagio Marsiglia had returned from vacation. In the editorial office, he found an envelope addressed to him which had arrived several weeks earlier. Inside there was a receipt for a luggage deposit, accompanied by a message: “Pick the bag up at the station. It concerns the Bambini di Satana. Important” (“Ritira la borsa alla stazione. Riguarda i Bambini di Satana. Importante”).

Marsiglia rushed to the station. To collect the bag, which had been there for a month, he had to pay 295,000 Lire [roughly 150 Euro]. When he opened it, his jaw hit the floor. It contained a skull, other human bones, and two sheets of paper: a message from CoSaMo, known at the time in the town of Viterbo but not in Bologna, and a photocopy of an article from the local paper Corriere di Viterbo entitled “Hunters of Satan”.

The message says:

“Exhibition: skull and human bones swiped during the famous ritual before their arrival. It was supposed to be used for the child. There are more things between the Apennines and the lowlands than in your papers. There is also a trail in Viterbo. We hereby inform the public of our presence in the city […]”. (“Reperto: teschio e ossa umane trafugati durante il famoso rito prima del loro arrivo. Doveva essere usato per il bambino. Più cose tra l’Appennino e la bassa di quante ne contengano le tue cronache. C’è anche una pista viterbese. Con la presente avvisiamo il pubblico della nostra presenza in città […].”)

In Il Resto del Carlino the day after, there was an an article, with color photos of the findings, under the title: “The ‘Hunters of Satan’ enter the scene. A mysterious committee presents Carlino with a skull, bones, and letters. The grim package was placed in a backpack. Are these remains stolen from the sect of Marco Dimitri?” (“Entrano in scena i ‘cacciatori di Satana’ . Un misterioso comitato fa ritrovare al Carlino un teschio, ossa e lettere. Il lugubre fardello era sistemato in uno zainetto. Si tratta di resti sottratti alla setta di Marco Dimitri?”).

While the reporter was on vacation, however, the Luther Blissett Project had already taken responsibility for the prank with a “preemptive claim”. It was published in ZiC on 12 July with the title “Un teschio per il Carlino” (‘A skull for il Carlino‘), and it detailed, in advance, what would happen. It’s the principle of the prediction sealed in an envelope, often used by magicians, and it would prove that the story was a prank. The skull and bones were authentic, but they were more than a hundred years old and had come from a closet at the Università di Bologna. A press release had anticipated the foolishness of il Carlino and announced the beginning of a series of updates. Curious about the prank, several journalists were now in touch. Blissett gave them photocopies of Satan’s Silence and other materials.

Il Carlino acted as if nothing had happened – they insisted on sensationalism, and continued to treat the defendants as guilty – but two other newspapers, la Repubblica and Mattina, a local supplement of L’Unità, took a more skeptical line. Doubts about the accusations against the Bambini di Satana came from the art world: writers like Carlo Lucarelli and Enrico Brizzi took a stand. The squats and local social centers received the Bambini di Satana in their 2001 city coordination, a surprising move.

After the prank, the climate around the trial would change: the defendants were no longer ‘monsters’ and their lawyers could work under less public pressure. The prosecution eventually fell apart. The Bambini di Satana would end up being acquitted.

In the fall of 1997, Luther Blissett’s booklet on the case was published, Lasciate che i bimbi. “Pedofilia”, un pretesto per la caccia alle streghe (‘Let the children… “Pedophilia”, a pretext for a witch hunt’). Lucia Musti, prosecutor at the trial, read it and noted that the group showed “incivility in the form of expression and an abuse of the right to criticize” (“inciviltà della forma espressiva e abuso del diritto di critica“). She considered herself to be slandered by characterizations such as a “person thirsty for prominence and wanting to be in the limelight” (“personaggio assetato di protagonismo e luci della ribalta“), and she filed a civil lawsuit. Her demands? Withdrawal of the booklet from bookstores and the destruction of all existing copies, along with one billion Lire (roughly 500 thousand Euro) as compensation for moral and material damages. The summons can be read in the 3rd issue of Luther Blissett’s Quaderni Rossi magazine (January 1999), dedicated entirely to the judicial case.

Musti’s legal action started a long entanglement in the campaign for the Bambini di Satana. This prevented the Luther Blissett Project from also intervening in the case of the “devils” of Lower Modena, with which it had just begun to become active.

The court accepted Musti’s requests, albeit reducing the fine to 80 million lire (roughly 40,000 Euro). However, the sentence came after the publisher’s bankruptcy and at the end of the booklet’s circulation. There were no copies to seize; there was no money for compensation. The signatory of the contract for the Luther Blissett Project was among those convicted. Many years later, that same signatory would write the text you are reading now.

The Eye of Carafa in Trump’s America

In March 1999 the historical fiction Q was published, written by four members of the Bologna-based Luther Blisset Project, all veterans of the counter-campaign on satanic ritual abuse.

Q takes place between 1517, the year in which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, and 1555, the year of the “Peace of Augsburg“, which would put an end to thirty years of religious wars. The novel recounts a long-distance duel between a subversive heretic who goes by many names and a secret agent for the Roman Catholic Church, the latter of which infiltrates the radical movements at the time and distributes fake news by sending messages signed with the biblical name Qoèlet (in Hebrew, the “gatherer”).

Qoèlet alludes to his proximity to power, to the valuable information he can access: “I have already shown you how my ears might help you, given their proximity to certain doors behind which intrigues lurk,” he writes to the preacher Thomas Müntzer, spiritual leader of the peasant insurrection that broke out in Swabia in 1524.

Qoèlet’s missives convince insurgents to gather in Frankenhausen, Thuringia, where they fall into a deadly trap. Although the revolt is defeated, others follow: the novel’s many-named protagonist takes part, but Qoèlet is there to sabotage the insurgents – and to report to his superior in dispatches signed Q.

Q’s boss is Archbishop Gian Pietro Carafa, who in the course of the narrative first becomes a cardinal, then head of the Roman Inquisition, and finally pope under the name Paul IV. Q’s career follows his boss’s: after one last mission in northern Europe, the most dangerous yet, the secret agent is called back to Italy, closer to power but now in a remote position. “In the fresco I’m one of the figures in the background”, he writes in the first line of his diary. The year is 1545. Italy will be the place of the final confrontation between the two adversaries.

After five years of activity with the Luther Blissett Project, as the authors were forming the Wu Ming collective, Q was translated and published in almost all of Europe, in a good part of Latin America, in Russia, Turkey, Japan, South Korea – and, in 2004, in the United States. The book would be appreciated in some niche groups in the U.S., but it remained obscure – which is why American journalists, following the crumbs of QAnon, would be slow to make the connection.

Not only are the similarities between the Q of the novel and the Q of 4chan evident, but there is a strong echo between QAnon and Luther Blissett’s mockery of Satanism. If these are coincidences, they are many and they leave a strong impression.

As QAnon took off, we started doing some research and writing short comments on Twitter. The first one is dated 12 June 2018, in which we speculated on something which we would later reiterate in interviews and conferences: perhaps whoever created QAnon had had our novel and our pranks in mind, and merely wanted to make fun of the credulousness of Trump’s supporters. Soon after, though, the prank had gotten out of hand and had taken on a life of its own – with the results we all see. It had gone too far in the wrong direction and responsibility for the prank could no longer be claimed: who would want to admit to having started, out of foolishness, a fascist role-playing game which unleashed armed madmen?

Luther Blissett playbook

Looks like someone’s using our novel Q and the Luther Blissett playbook in order to… what?

If QAnon really started as a joke, it took the same path as “The Plan” conceived by Belbo, Diotallevi, and Casaubon, protagonists of a novel published in October 1988. Umberto Eco wrote it. It is called Foucault’s Pendulum.

“Do not advance the action according to a plan” – Q

The story told in Foucault’s Pendulum begins in 1970 and ends almost twenty years later. It revolves around two publishing firms in Milan: the respectable Garamond, which publishes university texts and manuals, and the unscrupulous Manuzio, a vanity publisher which prints books for payment and practices real exploitation to the detriment of authors. The two brands could not seem more distant, but ownership is the same – in fact, it is a single publishing house.

After a period of active political engagement, Italy is in full “relapse” in the 1980s. Many who enthusiastically had waved Mao’s Little Red Book are now instead interested in spirituality, esoteric philosophies, and the New Age. Milan is teeming with psychotherapist-gurus, self-styled alchemists, Rosicrucian groups, and so on. It’s an attractive market to exploit, and one day the three editors of Garamond are given the task of finding titles for two book series dedicated to occultism, esotericism, and conspiracy: one, Isis Unveiled, to attract vanity authors; the other, Hermetica, for a more ‘scientific’ approach.

Belbo, Diotallevi, and Casaubon are buried in junk literature. They have to confront an abundance of manuscripts that regurgitate the well-worn, paranoid theories about the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, and the Jews. In the jargon of the publishing house, the authors of those texts are referred to as “the Diabolicals”.

Out of boredom and frustration, the three decide to play a game, or rather, an experiment: to imitate the fallacious logic of the Diabolicals and intertwine all existing conspiracy theories into one which explains the entire history of the world. It is the birth of “The Plan”.

Only they get caught up in the game until they are lost in the labyrinth. And worse happens: in a chain reaction of misunderstandings, The Plan becomes true. Or rather, it is believed to be true in Diabolical circles, with tragic consequences.

The novel begins in medias res. Casaubon, the narrator, reconstructs the descent into the abyss, as the critical intentions of the prank were lost and irony was giving way to something else. “When we traded the results of our fantasies,” he recalls, “it seemed to us – and rightly – that we had proceeded by unwarranted associations, by shortcuts so extraordinary that, if anyone had accused us of really believing them, we would have been ashamed. We consoled ourselves with the realization – unspoken, now, respecting the etiquette of irony – that we were parodying the logic of our Diabolicals. But […] our brains grew accustomed to connecting, connecting, connecting everything with everything else […]. I believe that you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing.”

Foucault’s Pendulum is not a parody of conspiracy, but an apologue on how vain and counterproductive it is to attempt the path of parody. Satire on these topics can bring those who are already skeptical to laughter, but for those who see conspiracies everywhere there are no “excessive” interpretations – there is almost nothing that cannot be believed.

Untangling the knots of QAnon is also a way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Echo’s novel.

“A leftist prank”

After Tampa, journalists following QAnon noticed Wu Ming’s tweets. On 6 August 2018, Buzzfeed published an article entitled “It’s Looking Extremely Likely That QAnon Is A Leftist Prank On Trump Supporters”, which included statements from us – here is the full version of the interview – and the article ended up going viral. The similarities with Luther Blissett’s Q and the hypothesis that it was a prank opened up a new line of investigation, and in a short time interviews and articles about QAnon as a “leftist” or “anarchist prank” spread in several languages.

This hypothesis was written about in Artnet, Quartz, Spin, Motherboard, Alternet, Süddeutsche Zeitung, L’Humanité, la Repubblica, Telepolis, and other media. Wu Ming interviewed Henry Jenkins, perhaps the most important scholar on pop culture and digital communities. A post on Artnet’s Facebook page stated: “The history of ‘Luther Blissett,’ the Italian media jamming movement, is suddenly relevant to the US political discussion.”

The word prank had been used, and it changed the semantic framing within which QAnon was being analyzed. Even the traditional right, which until then had wavered or looked down on the conspiracy, decisively distanced itself from QAnon. On the conservative website The Federalist, Georgi Boorman wrote:

“Q mythology is extremely hyperbolic, easily surpassing what in more humorous contexts would be considered satire (which is why some have suggested Q is not a right-winger at all, but a leftist trolling the right).”

Some Trumpist forums, like the sub-reddit r/The_Donald, got the message, and references to QAnon in discussions were verboten, with the complaint that this story was making them look like “a bunch of idiots”. A bunch which, evidently, included “The Donald” himself, who after a few days received Lionel Lebron in the oval office.

Real and imaginary plots

Those who criticize conspiracy theories often come to maintain, in an overreaction, that conspiracies do not exist tout court, resulting in the minimization of all accusations – opening the gates to those who call any uncomfortable investigation or manifestation of critical thinking a “conspiracy”.

Plots have always existed, they exist now, and they will exist in the future. A conspiracy simply consists of several people who agree in secret to plot against someone else. In criminal law there exists “criminal association“, which is a crime of conspiracy.

However, here we will talk about a specific type of conspiracy: that which is political or criminal-political. How does one recognize the real ones?

Usually true political conspiracies have the following characteristics: (a) they have a precise purpose; (b) they involve a limited number of actors; (c) they are realized in an imperfect way, because reality is imperfect; (d) they end up being discovered and reported, usually after a rather short period of time, even if the effects may persist for a long time afterward; and (e) they are part of, and inseparably linked to, a historical context.

Fitting this description is Watergate, a political conspiracy par excellence, which has provided a suffix to the many political conspiracies following it: Irangate, Gamergate, Pizzagate, Pedogate, a very long list.

This conspiracy (a) had a precise purpose, namely spying on Richard Nixon’s enemies and sabotaging his enemies’ activities; (b) it involved a small circle of Nixon’s collaborators – passed into history as the “Watergate Seven” – and a covert unit of spoilers nicknamed the “Plumbers“, dedicated to so-called ratfucking (fucking the rats, that is creating problems for the Democrats); (c) it was implemented in a confusing and clumsy manner, so much so that the plumbers were caught hiding microphones in the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington; (d) it was discovered and investigated after just over a year, in June 1972, and although Nixon did not resign until 1974, ratfucking ceased immediately; and, finally, (e) it defined an era of American history – to remember Watergate is to remember the United States of the 1970s.

If we remain in 1970s but look to Italy, we see that the main political conspiracies of the time were carried out, with many flaws and imperfections, by a considerable but nonetheless limited number of people who were later identified, investigated, and often tried in court. Terrorists, infiltrators, secret agents, fixers, Freemasons … we know the first and last names of almost all of them.

Although we all too often fixate on the past “mysteries” rather than the facts which have accumulated over the years, in the end we know a great deal about these conspiracies. Many were investigated and denounced in real time: the plot to blame the anarchists for the Piazza Fontana massacre was understood and condemned in the counter-investigation La Strage di Stato (‘The Massacre of the State’) almost immediately.

The strategia della tensione (‘strategy of tension’) lasted about fifteen years and ended with the historical period it was a part of. Its aims – anti-communist, anti-union, reactionary – were identified with good approximation. Many of those responsible would never be charged, but the historical truth is largely out there.

Conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, invert every characteristic of real criminal conspiracies. Here the conspiracies (a) have the widest imaginable purpose, namely to dominate, conquer, or destroy the world; (b) they involve a potentially unlimited number of actors, which can grow with every account, since anyone who denies the existence of a conspiracy is immediately denounced as an accomplice; (c) their alleged unfolding is very consistent, perfect – everything is carried out according to plan, including the smallest of details; (d) they persist even after being described and denounced in countless books, articles, and documentaries; and, finally, (e) they last indefinitely – some have been going on for decades, even centuries. The Templar conspiracy, according to those who believe in it, has been going on for eight hundred years, transcending every era and historical context.

But dismantling conspiracy theories is easy – it is enough to isolate its characteristics. The difficult thing is to convince those who believe in them not to believe them anymore.

What is wrong with debunking?

Debunking is the rational dismantling of a hoax or prank – terms that indicate a conspiracy, fake news story, urban legend, pseudo-scientific doctrine, or scam based on paranormal activity. Debunking is practiced by journalists, bloggers, and associations dedicated to scientific skepticism, such as Comitato Italiano per il Controllo delle Affermazioni sulle Pseudoscienze (CICAP) (‘Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Pseudosciences’).

For a few years now a lot of attention has been given to debunking – more and more people practice it and courses are held on the topic – and yet conspiracy theories which have have already been debunked continue to circulate, while new ones are born and they spread rapidly. Why?

Conspiracy theorists work with amazement, fascination, and unusual points of view. In doing so, they tap into and satisfy authentic needs: we need surprise in our lives, we need wonder and new angles from which to look at the world and feel different. Conspiracy theorists provide all of this, while making their followers feel special. It is no coincidence that they use the “red pill” metaphor from the movie Matrix: taking the red pill means discovering the truth about the conspiracy, finally revealing the hidden grid of reality.

On the contrary, debunkers often have the air of a party pooper, of someone letting the air out of the balloon. All the more so if they strut in with a political, journalistic, or academic authority, and treat their interlocutors as fools.

The scientific publicist Andrea Capocci, regarding the debate in Italy on vaccines, spoke about a “muscular and technocratic approach” (“approccio muscolare e tecnocratico“) to debunking, an attitude which “the media likes but in the end changes nothing” (“piace molto ai media ma non sposta nulla“). The debunker’s frontal attack on their interlocutor may sparkle and make a good show, especially if peppered with epithets such as “ignorant” or “mule” – but instead of convincing anyone, the attack only generates resentment. The interlocutor doubles down on their position, they feel “alternative”; the debunker comes across as a defender of the status quo, which results in the exact opposite of what they wanted.

The paradox is that conspiracy theories may, in fact, be upholding the status quo. In April 2018 the scientific journal Political Psychology published a study entitled Blaming a Few Bad Apples to Save a Threatened Barrel: The System-Justifying Function of Conspiracy Theories. The authors explain that conspiracy theories, even if “represented as subversive alternatives to establishment narratives”, actually “may bolster, rather than undermine, support for the social status quo when its legitimacy is under threat”. Those who believe conspiracy theories tend to accuse small groups of villains, instead of seeking larger systemic causes to problems. “By blaming tragedies, disasters, and social problems on the actions of a malign few, conspiracy theories can divert attention from the inherent limitations of social systems.”

We could call conspiracy theories “deflecting narratives”. The conspiracy starts with real problems, but it offers distorted interpretations of them, exaggerates details, and picks out scapegoats – thus deflecting attention from the hard work of actually solving the issues.

To use an electrician’s metaphor, conspiracy is the “grounding” of capitalism: it disperses energy downwards and prevents people from being “electrocuted” by the awareness that the system is not working.

Climate disaster, as Naomi Klein explains in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, confronts us to urgently change our means of production – yet much of the energy necessary for enacting real change is intercepted and diverted by conspiracy theories fantasizing about the shape of the planet (flat Earth), the release of psychoactive agents in the atmosphere (chemtrails), or even immigration.

Yes, immigration. The climate disaster has in fact brought about new mass movements of people from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America. Drought, extreme heat, floods, and hurricanes have made large parts of the planet uninhabitable, or almost uninhabitable; these disasters have torn the social fabric apart, and they are contributing to new wars. For instance, the conflict in Syria has important climatic causes. The climate crisis has forced people to leave their homes, and the situation is predicted to get worse. But in Italy and in a large part of Europe, a deflecting narrative has taken hold, a conspiracy theory, sometimes referred to as “the great replacement“, “ethnic substitution“, or the “Kalergi plan“. This is believed to be a plan to populate Europe and the West with Blacks, Muslims, and various people which threaten “our roots” or, in short, “our race”. And who is the puppeteer, the schemer driving world migrations? Of course George Soros. Why struggle with the criticism of political economy and climatology when the explanation is so simple?

We need debunking practices that recognize the needs addressed by conspiracy theories but present the core of truth without which no conspiracy theory could work.

Show the ‘seam’

Debunkers have sometimes asked magicians for help in unmasking spiritualists, clairvoyants, and psychics, i.e. magicians who try to pass off their tricks as authentic powers. It is a tradition that goes back to Harry Houdini, a dedicated enemy of spiritualism. James Randi unveiled the gimmicks of the psychic Uri Geller and the scams of the clairvoyant Peter Popoff. Silvan replicated the “psychic surgery” practiced in the Philippines. In the book ROL. Realtà O Leggenda? (‘ROL. Reality or legend?’), Mariano Tomatis explains the techniques of the psychic Gustavo Rol.

So far we have only brought the illusionists in to this story for the destructive part. It is time to work on the constructive part: how do we approach debunking in new, more effective ways?

In contemporary illusionism there are several experiments in “autodebunking”, that is, ways of revealing the trick behind the magic without ruining the enchantment. Rather, this can amplify the sense of wonder while transforming it to a level of greater awareness: from the simple astonishment of the effect, to the more complex astonishment of the techniques used – and the great effort required – to make the trick successful.

Mariano Tomatis recommends taking an example from the American duo Penn & Teller: “In two really surprising numbers (the “Cups and Balls” and “Lift Off of Love” tricks) the illusionists of Las Vegas unscrupulously reveal the trick used: this in no way threatens the awe of the performance, against all expectations. In the first part of the act, they appeal to emotion and irrationality; the second part, however, stirs up opposite pleasures […] which come from the appreciation of the technicalities behind the magic – the ‘seam’ that was not visible in the first part.” (“[I]n due numeri davvero sorprendenti (“Il gioco dei tre bussolotti” e “L’uomo tagliato in tre”) gli illusionisti di Las Vegas svelano senza scrupoli il trucco utilizzato: contro ogni aspettativa, ciò non minaccia in alcun modo lo stupore dell’esibizione. Nella prima parte del numero l’appello è all’emozione e all’irrazionalità; la seconda invoca un piacere di segno opposto […] che nasce dall’apprezzamento dei tecnicismi dietro la magia – quella ‘sutura’ che nella prima parte non si scorgeva.“)

That last sentence refers to the expression mostrare la sutura (‘showing the seam’), used on Wu Ming’s Giap blog to describe the act of claiming responsibility for Blissett’s pranks, and the use of “end credits” in some creative non-fiction.

In another number by Penn & Teller, one of the two magicians gets behind the wheel of a truck full of concrete blocks and drives over the other’s body, leaving him unharmed – and then the trick is explained, arousing even greater enthusiasm from the audience.

Wu Ming’s intervention in the QAnon debate was an attempt to weaken the conspiracy theory by showing its “seam”, that is, the similarities with the pranks of the Luther Blissett Project and the novel Q – while at the same time maintaining a sense of wonder, thanks to the evocation of Luther Blissett’s spirit.

The attempt was only partially successful, though. The conspiracy problem is not solved with a tactical intervention by a small group of pranskters, but rather with strategies developed and implemented by the highest number of people possible. From a mass movement.

Beyond QAnon

In late summer of 2018, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, one of the people most responsible for the spread of Pizzagate and QAnon, was banned from Facebook, iTunes, YouTube, and Twitter. At the same time, as had already happened in the wake of Pizzagate, Reddit closed the QAnon forums on their platform because of content “encouraging or inciting violence and posting personal and confidential information”.

On 21 August 2018, two important Trump employees – former lawyer Michael Cohen and former campaign manager Paul Manafort – were found guilty of crimes related to the election of the president and his administration in trials accompanying the Mueller investigation, which is now closing in on the president.

In other situations, Trump’s base might have protested and demonstrated against the judicial storm that was about to hit their leader; instead, a small but significant part of that base has spent the last year raving about pedophiles and satanic dinners. They were convinced that the investigations were not true, and now they do not know what to think. For the first time, confidence in QAnon is faltering.

QAnon has distracted a part of the American right at a crucial time, and discredited a large share of Trump’s supporters. One could speculate that some part of the prank’s original intent has been effective after all; however, even if that were so, this outcome would not make up for the damage done: provoking millions of people with conspiracies of hate cannot be the way forward.

A Google Trends check on 21 October 2018 indicated that, after the August peak, interest in QAnon had dropped to pre-summer levels. Even Q’s “crumbs” are arriving on 8chan less and less frequently, with long intervals between one and the other.

On 24 October the Secret Service and police intercepted some letter bombs, very rudimentary devices, addressed to George Soros, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and other characters often targeted by Trump, the right, and – with the extreme twist we have seen here – QAnon. One of the recipients was actor Robert De Niro, who is despised by Trump’s supporters.

A few minutes after the news broke, QAnon’s followers were already on the defensive. They claimed it was an operation “under a false flag“: Clinton and the others had sent the bombs themselves. The umpteenth sub-theory of the plot was being set up, but with less verve than usual. The bombs were a ploy by pedophiles to blame Trump and help the Democrats in the mid-term elections.

And so, after almost a month of being out of the spotlight, the media started mentioning QAnon again, in articles about how the right were reacting to the letter bombs.

After years of describing their political enemies as the leaders of a satanic organization that keeps children in slavery and rapes them, the right would claim it is far-fetched – or so they pretend – that anyone would decide to take direct action and attack those enemies.

On 26 October, the FBI arrested Cesar Altieri Sayoc, 56, from Aventura, Florida. Sayoc is a fanatical Trump supporter, but to the QAnon community he was an actor: the arrest was fake and part of a false flag operation.

In general, the impression is that of fatigue. Maybe the game is wearing the players out.

At the end of the twentieth century moral panic over satanic ritual abuse would wane, but the legend was never gone: in Trump’s America, on the margins of public consciousness, it has returned to the main stage in Pizzagate and QAnon. Although QAnon may have currently lost its hold on the public, it will not disappear, and its main elements will continue to be reassembled. Sooner or later these elements are going to appear in new forms. And if the history of satanic ritual abuse teaches us anything – and the signs of the past few months are not just smoke without fire – it can happen in Italy, too.

On 18 September in Trieste, city councilman Fabio Tuiach, a former far-right Lega but now Forza Nuova politician, presented a motion against the artist Marina Abramović, calling her a “known Satanist“.

From part one of this story we know how the narrative develops: it begins as a rumor born with Pizzagate; it gets incorporated into QAnon and is brought to Italy by conspiracy theorist Maurizio Blondet; it is spread on social media by RAI president Marcello Foa; and eventually stories about ‘satanic rituals’ involving Abramović are reported in the newspaper Libero.

Alla fiera dell’ovest, per due soldi, la destra italiana una bufala comprò.

‘At the Western fair, for some pocket change, the Italian right has just bought itself a prank’. (Song to the famous tune of Angelo Branduardi.)

How A Conspiracy Theory Is Born And How To Deal With It, Part One

Wu Ming 1, author
15 October 2018, Italy

“How A Conspiracy Theory Is Born And How To Deal With It, Part Two” can be found here.

The original article in Italian was published online at the following link:

V0.4. Translated in November 2020 with permission from both the author and the weekly magazine Internazionale, where the article was first published. The initial translation was done using DeepL Translator (; numerous post hoc corrections as well as considerable aesthetic changes, word choice modifications, sentence structure adjustments, and other improvements – in a delicate balance between faithfulness and style – were made by Joseph P. De Veaugh-Geiss (contact: tds [at], who takes full responsibility for any and all errors in the final translation. Hyperlinks included in the translation differ from those in the original article in order to accommodate an English-language audience.

Fire on the headquarters (of YouTube)

On 20 September 2018, the FBI was in Cave Junction, a small town in western Oregon with barely over a thousand inhabitants. Agents were searching for one of them, William Douglas, 35. They did not find him at home, but they intercepted him in front of a convenience store, arrested him, and took him away.

Douglas was accused of threatening employees and the CEO of YouTube, at the time the 3rd most visited website in the world, with death threats on Twitter. “I’m coming for you today #pray” he wrote to Susan Wojcicki, before announcing that he wanted to go to the company’s headquarters to commit a massacre. “You @YOUTUBE you want a bigger mass casualty aka shooting let’s see what I can do”.

With the phrase “bigger mass casualty”, Douglas was referring to an episode from a few months earlier.

San Bruno, California, 3 April 2018. A woman had entered the courtyard of the YouTube headquarters during lunch break and opened fire with a semiautomatic gun. She injured three people, one seriously, then killed herself by shooting herself in the heart. Her name was Nasim Aghdam. Two days later she would have turned 39.

Nasim had a YouTube channel on which she had talked about vegan food, body building, Persian culture, and other topics. The channel was quite popular, yet she thought YouTube was boycotting it, limiting traffic to the channel with filters. The company had also “demonetized” some videos, preventing Nasim from earning money with advertising.

Douglas had been very impressed by the attack and empathized with the woman. He too had complaints about YouTube: his videos had collected hundreds of thousands of views, but he thought they could get more, and was convinced that he had been censored because of their content.

Douglas was a right-wing extremist and a fan of conspiracy theories. In his videos he propagandized the most abstruse theories, from the flat Earth conspiracy to the “Jewish financier” George Soros controlling half the world. For about a year, however, he had been fixated on one theory in particular, or rather, a theory incorporating almost all the others – a meta-theory of the conspiracy known as QAnon.

William Douglas was a follower of QAnon. And, as we will see, he will not be the first who is arrested.

There are followers of QAnon in Italy as well, where much of this story takes place. More and more of them are to be found on the internet, in a labyrinth which the French journalists Dominique Albertini and David Doucet have called the fachosphère (‘fascistsphere’), a constellation of profiles and pages from right-wing, racist conspiracy theorists. But they do not remain confined to the shadows; on the contrary, they will soon reach the mainstream.

To tell this story well, we must start with a pizzeria.


In late spring 2016, the U.S. presidential primaries were underway. The selection of the two rival candidates was imminent, but the situation for the two parties was quite different: while Donald Trump was advancing in the Republican primary, Hillary Clinton was having a difficult time. On her left she had suffered from the competition of an unexpectedly successful candidate, Bernie Sanders, while on the right she was being targeted with more and more fury. Fox News and other media blamed her for various offenses, dating back to her time as Secretary of State in the Obama administration from 2008 to 2013.

Clinton was also accused of violating federal law for using a private email server for highly confidential communications.

The fervor surrounding her correspondence was already high when, on 15 June, a hacker who called himself “Guccifer 2.0” published more than 19,000 emails from leading figures and senior officials of the Democratic Party on the DCLeaks website.

Even with a cursory glance at the emails, one sees that the party leadership, fearing a turn too far to the left, tried to sabotage Sanders’s campaign. The incident created embarrassment and prompted the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, then president of the party’s national committee.

Where does the idea that the Democratic Party leaders are satanists and pedophiles come from?

On 21 July 2016, during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland where Trump was nominated as the party’s presidential candidate, every time Hillary was mentioned from the stage – always by her first name – the crowd of delegates burst out in a chant: “Lock her up! Lock her up!

That next day, as the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia got underway, Wikileaks published the 19,000 e-mails as well, and added many more. In the following months more emails would follow, so many that in autumn 2016 the entire corpus included one hundred thousand emails, in addition to thousands of attachments. Federal investigations into the content of the emails, as well as the parties responsible for their leaking, were initiated.

After the leak, a conspiracy theory centered on images of children in chains and sexual abuse was born – and further developed – on the 4chan forum.

According to this theory, leading members of the Democratic Party and Clinton’s campaign managers would regularly participate in esoteric-satanic rituals, during which violence against minors were committed. All in the cellars of Comet Ping Pong, a restaurant-pizzeria in Washington that, let us mention in passing, has no basement – not even a semi-basement.

Hence the nickname of the affair: Pizzagate.

4chan is technically an “imageboard”. In reality it is much more than that: a place on the net where everything, or almost everything, is acceptable, and the most racist, sexist and anti-Semitic speech is permitted. On 4chan the rhetoric of the American “alternative” extreme right, the so-called alt-right, took shape and strengthened. Stalking and doxxing campaigns against groups or individuals – the release of sensitive data for purposes of denigration – have started from 4chan.

The Pizzagate conspiracy theory came from the over-interpretation of some emails from Clinton’s team. Campaign coordinator John Podesta had exchanged several messages with James Alefantis, owner of Comet Ping Pong and supporter of the Democrats, about a financing dinner to be held in the restaurant. Commentators on Podesta’s email noted that the expression “cheese pizza” has the same initials as “child pornography”. That started an interpretative delirium: the community deciphered – or rather, invented – a code in which “pasta” means “child”, “sauce” means “orgy”, and so on.

The narrative grew larger, becoming increasingly intricate and baroque, and from 4chan it moved to the more popular website Reddit. Shortly afterwards, full-time conspiracy theorists, such as Alex Jones and Mike Cernovich, picked it up, and they began to broadcast it from their podcasts and YouTube channels, in a crescendo of suspicion and hatred.

On 4 December 2016 a man broke into Comet Ping Pong with a rifle. He shouted that he is there to free the slave-children and fired a few shots, luckily without killing anyone. He was stopped and then arrested. His name is Edgar Welch, he was 28 years old. On 22 June 2017 he would be sentenced to four years in prison.

After Welch’s arrest, Reddit closed the forum – in slang, a “sub-reddit” – dedicated to Pizzagate for violation of the platform’s anti-doxxing rules. The forum had been used to defame and persecute private citizens, above all Alefantis.

At this point, the Pizzagate story fell off the media radar. Even its grip on the imagination of conspiracy theorists seemed to fade. In reality, the story was evolving. A theory called “Pedogate” inherited its main characters. Later, with Trump now in the White House, Pedogate converged with the narrative that would become famous as “QAnon”.

But where does the idea that the Democratic Party leaders are satanists and pedophiles come from? Understanding that is important.

Michelle Remembers and the McMartin case

Underground secrets. Abused children. Hideous rituals. In Pizzagate, key elements of a previous story resurfaced, a weave of urban legends which had shaken the United States at the end of the 20th century.

In 1980, Michelle Remembers was published. The book was written by 29-year-old Canadian Michelle Smith, in collaboration with her psychiatrist and future husband Lawrence Pazder, 44. The work was declared autobiographical: the author recounted her childhood and adolescence in Victoria, British Columbia. A distressing life, indeed a long nightmare, because of her parents, who belonged to a so-called “Church of Satan”.

During her sessions with Pazder, Smith “recovered” buried memories of sexual abuse, infanticide rituals, and acts of cannibalism, and later described the sequence of horrors and vileness which she claimed to have participated in or witnessed. She also wrote that she had been raped by her parents, multiple times, starting at the age of five. However, she provided no proof of this, and the story was full of inconsistencies.

Michelle’s mother had died in 1964, but her father was alive and spoke bluntly of slander and ramblings. Even friends and acquaintances of the family attacked Smith and Pazder, denying the contents of the book. No investigation, whether journalistic or criminal, would ever find any evidence, and almost all of Smith’s statements would be refuted by documentary sources.

The baselessness of the story did not prevent Michelle Remembers from becoming a “case” in the United States, where millions of readers believed what they read in the book. The expression “satanic ritual abuse” (SRA), coined by Pazder, started to spread. Meanwhile, psychotherapists and self-styled psychotherapists were prescribing recovered-memory therapy (RMT), which consisted of “recovering” memories from the depths of the unconscious – a set of vague and suggestive procedures that the American Psychiatric Association would never recommend nor recognize.

RMT ended up creating false memories in the minds of hundreds of people. First it was the daughters and sons of the “baby boom” – i.e., those born between 1945 and the mid-sixties – then school-age and even preschool children. Unscrupulous lawyers took advantage of this to make money: investigators were hit by a wave of complaints and testimonies, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so similar that they always looked the same; and the media acted as a sounding board, scoop after scoop.

The basic elements of the narrative about ritual abuse have been circulating for centuries in Europe

The country was now in the grip of “moral panic“, a concept coined by the sociologist Stanley Cohen to define the aggressive fear that takes hold of public opinion when it is aimed at an alleged enemy.

The consequences? Media lynchings, destroyed reputations, children stolen from their parents, unfair detentions, millions of dollars wasted in investigations and trials.

The climax was People v. Buckey, better known as the McMartin case, which by its end was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history.

In 1983, a whirlwind of rumors, children’s stories, increasingly extreme stories and media accusations formed around three members – two women and a man – of the McMartin family, who ran a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California.

It was a period of mass hysteria, generated by the climate of panic over SRA and the anxieties of mothers and fathers who over-interpreted phrases uttered by their children on the way home from school. Parents, frightened, began contacting each other, amplifying their anxieties. They questioned their children over and over and then weaved the stories together, always adding new details, until a multi-headed monster appeared: the diabolical McMartin family.

Smith and Pazder had a hand in it, too. As the news spread, the authors of Michelle Remembers flew to Manhattan Beach to meet with the parents and the local media. Their visit planted the idea of satanic ritualistic abuse in the town’s imagination – the rest was done by the psychologists in charge of questioning the children. As a reference text for the case, some of them referred to Michelle Remembers itself.

The McMartins were accused of years of satanic ritual abuse with as many as 400 children. They would almost always act in secret tunnels under the school, but sometimes they organized bus “trips” with the children to places chosen for rituals – all of this without anyone ever having noticed anything. A child even named actor Chuck Norris as one of the rapists, but he would never be investigated. As for the tunnels, they were never found under the school.

Despite the absence of evidence, the suspects were eventually brought to trial. The trial lasted six years and ended in 1990, with the acquittal of all accused and a shocking truth: the method of interrogation – creating false memories of abuse in the minds of children, conducted under the pressure and insistent questions from parents, investigators, and, above all, psychologists – was inadequate and dishonest.

Between the 1980s and 1990s, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, government inquiries and scientific studies concluded that there was no such thing as SRA. It was an urban legend. But moral panic is indifferent to the conclusions of research, it moves on another plane and, within two decades, it came to Europe. Or rather, it returned to Europe.

On this side of the Atlantic, in fact, the basic elements of the ritual abuse narrative had already been circulating for centuries. We find them, for example, in the anti-Jewish legend called “blood libel”, which circulated from the eleventh century to the beginning of the twentieth, and according to which Jews kidnapped and killed the children of Christians to use their blood as an ingredient in unleavened bread and additive in wine to be consumed during Easter. Believers thought that children were completely drained of blood, as with kosher slaughter, and their blood collected in a bowl.

Bologna, Modena, Rignano Flaminio

In August 1996 the Belgian police arrested Marc Dutroux, 39 years old, rapist, torturer, and murderer of at least six little girls – from then on named the “Monster of Marcinelle”.

Dutroux’s modus operandi had nothing occult, satanic, or ritualistic about it. Not even the two victims found alive in his house had reported anything like that. Yet, the Belgian authorities were approached by several adult women, presenting themselves as “survivors” of Dutroux’s abuses, who spoke of satanic ceremonies, and they were certain that the serial killer was part of an esoteric sect. The police investigated, but they did not find any evidence for these stories. Meanwhile, however, the media – even outside Belgium – dedicated articles and reports to the search for the satanic network of the Monster of Marcinelle. Various conspiracy theories would circulate about the network’s existence for a long time.

Moral panic grabbed Europe. Dutroux’s counterparts were found all over: in gardens, kindergartens, schools, and, of course, on the Internet as the new digital media was emerging. One read and heard everywhere that children were in danger. Soon, a genuine obsession with pedophilia was spreading – also in Italy.

Among judges, journalists, and forensic psychologists in the 1990s, Italy was suffering a major cultural lag. The international scientific literature had already established that SRA was a legend, but some Italian prosecutors would take that well-trodden path and initiate criminal trials. The media described the authorities conducting investigations as paladins facing occult forces, heroes fighting against the devil.

The two most significant stories took place in Emilia-Romagna. They began around the same time and unfolded almost in parallel. In both we find scenes that appear to be taken directly from Michelle Remembers and the McMartin case – and also from the ancient “blood libel”.

We start in Bologna, where, in January 1996, three members of a cultural organization called Bambini di Satana (BdS) ‘Children of Satan’, were arrested, among them founder Marco Dimitri.

The BdS is an organization halfway between occultism and youth counterculture, which at that time had attracted some attention with provocative performances and statements. Dimitri had also been a guest on several national talk shows – but now he was in prison, accused of raping a teenager and small child during black masses officiated in Bologna and in the hills south of the city. The investigation, conducted by prosecutor Lucia Musti, was based on the claims of a still underage “super-witness”. The media referred to her as Simonetta: she was the ex-girlfriend of one of the three suspects. Simonetta told of human sacrifices, but the alleged victims had no name and the bodies would never be found.

Despite the vagueness of the accusations and the lack of objective evidence, the judge in the preliminary hearing issued a sentence. The defendants spent a year and a half in solitary confinement in preventive detention, while the newspapers – starting with the local newspaper Il Resto del Carlino – turned Marco Dimitri into a monster like Marc Dutroux. From Marc to Marco, it’s a short leap. Surprisingly, though, a part of the city mobilizes in Dimitri’s defense: artists, writers, journalists, and social centers. A mobilization with unknown characters, which we will return to in part two of this story.

Moral panic decreased, and the trial began in a climate of uncertainty. We are in February 1997. In five months of hearings, the prosecution revealed all of its flaws. After the first trial, the defendants were acquitted – and they were again acquitted in 2000 on appeal. The Attorney General did not appeal to higher courts. For their unjust detention, the state compensated Dimitri and his companions.

Regarding the case, we recommend the book by journalist Antonella Beccaria Bambini di Satana. Processo al diavolo: i reati mai commessi (‘Children of Satan. Trial to the devil: crimes never committed’, Stampa Alternativa, 2006, downloadable from the author’s website) and the analysis by sociologist Patrizio Paolinelli Esoterismo, sicurezza e comunicazione. Il caso dei Bambini di Satana (‘Esotericism, security, and communication. The case of the Children of Satan’).

During this time, in the province of nearby Modena, the story of the “devils” in Bassa Modenese, or Lower Modena, was developing. In the area between Mirandola and Finale Emilia, twenty people were investigated with very serious accusations. The accused are mostly parents – from whom the children, sixteen in all, would be taken away – as well as Don Giorgio Govoni, a priest much loved by his parishioners.

Separated from their parents, entrusted to new families, and questioned by psychologists for several months, the children recounted – always adding new details – sexual violence, torture, infanticide: ugly crimes, committed during night ceremonies in three cemeteries in the lower part of town. It was a crescendo: processions of dozens of people wearing tunics, hoods, and masks; pits dug to stage parodies of funerals; children forced to kill other children; babies murdered and their blood collected in a bowl to be drunk.

But those ceremonies had taken place just outside of the city centers, near busy streets, and surrounded by inhabited houses – yet no one had ever noticed anything? Between the gravestones there were no signs of any unusual activity. As for the alleged murders, no body was ever found.

In the two-year period between 1996 and 1997 local newspapers in Bologna would cover, with much clamor, what was happening. Almost every day, Il Resto del Carlino – spread in all the bars of Emilia-Romagna – dedicated several pages to the Dimitri case, to Simonetta’s depositions, to alarms of Satanism. Black masses, human sacrifices, a child locked in a coffin … this is what people were chattering about in Lower Modena. It may be that one affair had been influencing the other. Bologna is very close: from Finale Emilia you can get there in three quarters of an hour.

Before the indictments, a woman who had been separated from her daughter committed suicide by jumping from a balcony. In May 2000, the day after his fourteen-year sentence was issued, Don Govoni died of a heart attack in his lawyer’s office. For almost three years, the local media had been writing this about him and the others:

“Horrible parades of twenty, thirty pedophiles in the alleys of Lower Modena, dissolving into wild orgies, destroying the childhood of their children or the children of their acquaintances” (“Orrorifici cortei di venti, trenta pedofili inscenati nei vialetti della bassa modenese, per sciogliersi in orge senza limiti, per distruggere l’infanzia dei propri figli o dei figli dei propri conoscenti“, La Repubblica, regional section, 13 November 1998).

Again there, as in Bologna, a part of the citizenry acted in solidarity with the defendants. They organized demonstrations, collected signatures, and put up a barricade in front of the courthouse.

Compared to the Dimitri case, the judicial outcome was more disputed. In 2000, all 15 defendants were initially convicted, but in 2001, in appeal, the trial outcomes were reversed. Eight of the defendants were acquitted “because the facts do not hold” (“perché il fatto non sussiste”), while for seven others the original sentences were revised: penalties were lowered, and the events for which the defendants were found guilty now concerned domestic abuse without any hint of rituals. In 2002, the Court of Cassation confirmed the appellate court’s ruling and tore apart the satanic arguments, speaking explicitly of “false collective memory” (“falso ricordo collettivo“).

On the other hand, though, the same court annulled two of the eight acquittals and referred the case back to the Court of Appeal of Bologna. The sentence that – once again – exonerated the defendants, in 2013, included very harsh words for the investigators and, above all, for those who interrogated the children. These psychologists were defined as “objectively inexperienced” and their approach “absolutely objectionable […] because it puts in the minds of children, in an entirely inappropriate way, details and information which can contaminate any subsequent story” (“assolutamente censurabile […] perché del tutto impropriamente veicola nella mente dei bambini dati e informazioni che ne possono contaminare ogni successivo racconto”).

In 2017 the podcast Veleno (‘Poison’), by Pablo Trincia and Alessia Rafanelli, rekindled interest in the case, providing harsh criticisms about the investigations at the time and the way children were questioned. The podcast featured new interviews with former defendants and witnesses, including some of the little witnesses back then, adults today who are convinced they were manipulated. Veleno also threw serious doubts on the sentences upheld in the higher courts. The podcast reopened old wounds and stirred consciences again. Despite the uproar and the introduction of new elements to the case, the public prosecutor in Modena declared that he did not want to reopen the investigation.

By a curious coincidence, the chief public prosecutor in 2017 was Lucia Musti, the state attorney in the Bologna trial against Marco Dimitri twenty years earlier.

Let’s return now to the first decade of the 21st century. For a time moral panic regarding satanic ritual abuse had seemed to fade, but suddenly, in 2007, it exploded again with the case of the Olga Rovere school in Rignano Flaminio, in the province of Rome.

The story was a carbon copy of the McMartin case, now also known in Italy by journalists, sociologists, and children’s workers. Every element overlapped: the nursery school, the basements, the accused educators, the bus that takes children to places of abuse, and even the presence of a figure from the entertainment world among the “ogres”: in the Italian case, the TV author Gianfranco Scancarello, husband of one of the teachers. And just as in the McMartin case, the trial ended with the full acquittal of the accused, at all levels of appeal. Also in this case, the sentences – the last issued in 2014 – criticized the methods used to interrogate the children.

The writer Antonio Scurati was inspired by the story of Rignano Flaminio to write a novel about false abuse and moral panic, Il bambino che sognava la fine del mondo (‘The child who dreamed of the end of the world’), with which he reached the finals of the prestigious Strega Prize in 2009.

The theme now seems normalized, something to be discussed with the right detachment, but make no mistake: the legends of hatred do not disappear – they flow under the currents of culture and sooner or later they re-emerge. Satanic ritualistic abuse will return. In fact, it has already returned, albeit hybridized with other myths in the wake of what is happening in Trump’s United States, where SRA and political conspiracy meet.

False detectives

In 2014 SRA would re-emerge in pop culture in the first season of the TV series True Detective, a masterpiece of writing, directing, and acting. The plot focused on ritual abuses carried out by a network of pedophiles in the political world, with references to the (fictitious) governor of Louisiana.

That the success of True Detective may have facilitated a connection between SRA and politics is not to be overlooked. Connection becomes reflexive, a cultural synapse.

The character of one of the two protagonists in the series, the former policeman Rustin “Rust” Cohle, plays on the cliché of the conspiracy freak: a secluded life, the garage full of clues and findings, a conspiracy map that is hung on the wall with notes being added and moved, photographs and documents, the do-it-yourself investigation, culminating in a raid on the sect’s lair.

It is a perturbing game of mirrors between Cohle and the amateur detectives we meet while following the trail of QAnon: the fictional character reflects a certain anthropological type, who in turn seems to recast themself based on the fictional character. Umberto Eco had already pointed out that conspiracy theories are often directly influenced by novels, films, and other fictional works. To this theme he dedicated the 2010 novel The Prague Cemetery.

It does not seem like a coincidence that in the fantasies about SRA there is often the presence of famous actors, or at least characters from cinema or TV: Chuck Norris in the McMartin case, Scancarello in the Rignano Flaminio case, and – we are about to meet him – Tom Hanks in the narrative of QAnon.

“In the fresco I am one of the background figures”

It is October 2017 when messages signed “Q” start to appear on 4chan. The sender, in an allusive tone, makes it clear that they are a high-level official of the federal government.

The letter Q could be a reference to “Q clearance”, described as an authorization to access secret documents. In reality, the “Q clearance” is a clearance required by the U.S. Department of Energy, which deals with nuclear power, so it has no bearing on what the anonymous person – or group of anonymous people – says.

To be precise, Q doesn’t tell us anything: they send tight, enigmatic messages, which 4chan users call “crumbs” like those of Little Poucet. The crumbs do not seem to make any sense, or rather, they are open to interpretation: “The future tries the past”; “Learn to read the map”; “Godfather III”. Or acronyms and numbers: “DNC -> (SR 187) (MS-13) -> DWS”, in addition to the recurrence of the number 17.

From that last detail arises a spasmodic attention to the appearance of this number in Donald Trump’s speeches and tweets. Q is the 17th letter of the English alphabet, and any use of 17 by the president is interpreted as a signal of recognition, or wink, in the direction of Q.

In the fall of 2017, as NBC recounts it, Q’s messages are taken up and disseminated by some right-wing media activists. This is how the QAnon phenomenon took off.

Soon a community of self-declared “bakers” is formed, who collect the crumbs and make a “dough” of them; that is, followers try to grasp the references, find the dots to join, coerce each element into an apparently coherent scheme. The resulting narrative is called “the storm”.

The name is inspired by a phrase Trump uttered on 6 October while posing for a group photo with representatives of the armed forces. It is the “quiet before the storm”, he said. The journalists present asked him to explain himself, but he did not. According to some, it was a reference to tensions with North Korea or Iran. According to the QAnon community, it is a warning to the cabal.

In the Italian language “cabal” might be translated as cricca ‘clique’, but in English the word has an additional connotation: the term derives from Kabbalah, the Jewish esoteric tradition; thus, the term – especially when used in certain contexts – evokes the eternal “Jewish conspiracy”.

According to QAnon, an inner circle of politicians, mostly Democrats but also Republicans hostile to Trump, as well as other establishment figures – thus, a large part of the planet – have controlled the U.S. government for decades, while at the same time managing a vast and widespread network of pedophiles. In this clique are Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, Senator John McCain, several Hollywood celebrities – the most popular of whom is Tom Hanks – and the artist Marina Abramović. Cemex, a Mexican multinational construction materials company whose real business is claimed to be trafficking in children, also plays an important role; additionally, of course, George Soros, the wildcard of today’s conspiracies.

In addition to committing acts of violence against minors, the cabal carries out ceremonies of vampirism and cannibalism during their secret meetings. On 9 July 2016, Hillary Clinton took part in a satanic dinner at Marina Abramović’s house with rituals based on human milk, semen, menstrual blood, and pig’s blood.

According to QAnon, the military was in support of Trump’s candidacy in order to break up this ring of pedophiles and save the country.

In Italy, the conspiracy theorist Maurizio Blondet took up these narratives in articles later to be shared on social networks by the future president of the RAI public-broadcasting company, Marcello Foa.

By autumn 2017, Trump and his entourage had long been the subject of a federal investigation conducted by special prosecutor Robert Mueller. The former director of the FBI had been investigating the alleged links between Trump and Putin’s Russia, and possible Russian interference in the U.S. elections the year before. But according to QAnon this is only a cover-up. It is not Trump who is under investigation: in fact, Mueller is investigating the Clintons and Obama, on behalf of Trump, a genius who is working in the shadows and playing – the expression most often used – a “4D chess game”.

The game will end with the “big awakening”, the moment when Trump’s operation strikes the pedophile network and its leaders are imprisoned in Guantanamo. To this end, the Department of Justice already have 25,000 indictments ready, currently sealed, for the leaders of the Democratic Party and the main members of the cabal.

Q’s mission is to prepare the most astute part of public opinion for the big day.

It is not clear why Trump would authorize someone to warn his enemies, even on a forum like 4chan, by leaking details of a plan that, in theory, is secret. This is, as we will see, the contradiction at the core of conspiracy literature.

The great awakening is always presented as imminent. When, on 25 August 2018, John McCain dies, on 8chan it is assumed he did not really die of cancer: he probably committed suicide to avoid arrest and imprisonment in Guantanamo.

In early 2018, the QAnon community moves from 4chan to 8chan, an even less moderated forum, which is so permissive that you can find autopsy videos and child pornography on its bulletin boards. Ironically, a forum frequented by real pedophiles is chosen to denounce conspiracies of imaginary pedophiles.

At the same time, QAnon colonizes much more visible and respectable areas of the internet: first Reddit, then YouTube, then Twitter. Not only that, several vendors start to produce and sell merchandise online, especially on Amazon, such as sweatshirts, t-shirts, caps, mugs, and various QAnon-themed gift items.

In April 2018 an app called QDrops is launched, which allows one to receive “crumbs” on your smartphone and follow the work of the “bakers” in real time. In a very short period of time, the app climbs the list of the most downloaded apps from Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store.

QAnon spreads quickly in the American right, especially in the boomer demographic, those over fifty. Celebrities embracing the cause are also boomers – for instance, the actress Roseanne Barr – so much so that the alt-right, composed mainly of people under forty, begin to mock QAnon as a theory for “old people”.

On 7 April 2018, a demonstration in favor of QAnon is held in Washington. Only 200 people participated, but this is the outbreak of the conspiracy theory in the “real world” outside of internet forums.

Shortly afterward, the debut of QAnon turns into a series of violent attacks.

On 15 June, a man armed with a rifle blocks the bridge of the Hoover Dam in Nevada, side-by-side with an armored truck. His name is Matthew Wright, 30 years old. Before he is arrested, he shouts sentences referring to QAnon and displays a sign asking the White House to “release the OIG report”, the Office of the Inspector General’s report on Hillary Clinton’s emails.

In fact, the report had already been published the day before. It is more than 500 pages, but QAnon must have read it quickly because it is immediately made known that they consider it a fake. Instead, Trump has the authentic report in his hands. If made public, it would prove that the FBI, Department of Justice, and Democrats broke the law in an attempt to prevent Trump’s victory. Yet, for some reason, Trump keeps it in his drawer.

In the same period, in Arizona, an impromptu right-wing militia explores the outskirts of Interstate 19, near the Mexican border, in search of “child sex camps”. They call themselves Veterans on Patrol (VOP). Their leader, Michael Lewis Arthur Meyer, 39 years old, is a follower of QAnon and is convinced that there are places in the area where children are held prisoner and raped. Places owned by Cemex.

The VOP try to convince the Tucson police that an abandoned homeless encampment on Cemex land shows signs of the presence of children held in slavery. The police investigate, but find nothing. On 12 July, Meyer is arrested for trespassing on private property. In defiance of the authorities who ignore his reports, he occupies a tower on the “criminal” land.

On 8 August, in Orange County, California, the sheriff’s office arrest 51-year-old Forrest Clark, accused of setting a wildfire nicknamed “Holy Fire“, which would devour thousands of acres of forest. “This place will burn!”, announced Clark, a well-known conspiracy fanatic and by then a follower of QAnon for several months.

Douglas, Wright, Meyer, Clark, and before that Welch. They all resemble real-life projections of True Detective‘s Rust Cohle.

At this time there is a turning point. On 31 July, an enthusiastic crowd greets Trump in Tampa, Florida, wearing QAnon T-shirts and raising signs saying “We are Q”. They steal the scene from the president, with reporters talking almost exclusively about them. It is QAnon’s definitive entry into national and, shortly thereafter, international news. On 8chan, Q comments: “Welcome to the mainstream. We knew this day would come.”

A new phase begins. Even those who until now have not been paying attention realize there is a problem. The question is: how to deal with it?