As people’s rage and frustration fed by conspiracy theories on Covid and Ukraine petered out, Telegram users following QAnon channels are now primed for a new target: climate denialism. (Photo: © European Union 2020 - Source : EP)


How QAnon pushed climate-denialism into European mainstream

At a protest in Oxford, UK, early last year, a round of speakers warned of the city council's plans to restrict traffic as part of a 'globalist agenda' to strip away freedoms and control the population by stopping them from leaving their neighbourhoods.

In the crowd, people denounced vaccines while others rallied against digital currencies and, others still, the United Nations.

The protest followed proposals modelled after the '15-minute city', a benign concept introduced in 2016 by the Franco-Colombian urbanist Carlos Moreno and that has spread across European cities in an effort to reduce pollution and ensure essential services are within walking distance for local residents.

And video of the protest have been shared online, in large part, thanks to the livestream recorded by Children Health Defense, an international anti-vax organisation that has chapters in Europe. A leaflet of the event, shared on social media, shows logos of organisations that protested against Covid measures in the past.

Online, climate-change deniers and anti-vaxxers seem to converge towards far-right conspiracy groups, according to the results of an investigation by the nonprofit investigative newsroom Lighthouse Reports and EUobserver, and may engender these types of seemingly catch-all protests.

Links to the livestream of the Oxford protest have been re-shared in QAnon Telegram channels more than 23,000 times, amassing almost 560,000 views in the months following the event. A video excerpt featuring a 12-year old girl who was on stage at the anti-15 minute Oxford protest was first shared by Children’s Health Defense and kept being re-posted by other Telegram channels even months after the event. At the moment the post has nearly 250,000 views.

QAnon takes its name from Q, an anonymous poster that left cryptic messages on online boards and whom followers believe to be a US government political insider. QAnon sees Trump as the saviour in the fight against the 'Deep State', a supposed satanic elite that controls the world. Each new global event is interpreted and spun in light of Q‘s messages, also called Qdrops.

Children’s Health Defense is presided over by Robert Kennedy Jr, an anti-vaxxer and now a third-party candidate in the upcoming US presidential election. He is the nephew of former US president John F. Kennedy. US tax records show Children's Health Defense had received some $23.5m [€21.85m] in contributions, grants and other revenue in 2022. This money is spent on events and legal services and it also includes a $510,000 a year salary for Robert Kennedy Jr. and $180,000 for CHD's president Mary Holland.

The convergence of disparate groups with different agendas such as the anti-vax Children’s Health Defense, climate-change deniers, and QAnon groups is one of the trends that is making the far-right conspiracy movement seemingly unstoppable. A previous investigation by Lighthouse showed how QAnon viral theories took root in Europe.

This time, Lighthouse Reports spent months trying to understand the recipe for how social media manipulation enables theories to morph and spread like wildfire, outliving any individual theory. 

Lighthouse analysed more than 100 million posts on channels associated with QAnon on the social media platform Telegram, shared between September 2020 to June 2023, to understand how climate denialism theories drag people into a dystopian vision of the world. These posts are part of a database set up by Lighthouse Reports and Bellingcat to explore the explosion of QAnon conspiracy myths in Europe across more than 2,000 Telegram channels in nine countries.

Timing, network, vocab

The first three ingredients of this recipe borrow some of the marketing industry strategies: timing, networks, and vocabulary. However, in this case the aim is to spread political views not sell products.

As people’s rage and frustration, fed by conspiracy theories related to Covid and Ukraine, died down, Telegram users following QAnon channels were primed for a new target: climate denialism.

According to Lighthouse analysis, until late 2022 climate mentions were quite limited in the database compared to other topics. The Oxford event took place on 18 February 2023 and posts on climate-related issues warning about a “climate lockdown” or against “15-minute cities” had been spreading since March 2022. They only gained wider popularity around November of the same year when the support by a few key channels in the QAnon world prompted a surge in traffic and attention. 

According to Lighthouse analysis, to really hook audiences and ignite protests, the theory had to tap into the original primal fears that allowed otherwise rational people to fall prey to QAnon conspiracy theories in the first place.

Since the Covid lockdown already generated anger, the climate conspiracy took advantage of that anger, leveraging the same vocabulary, and using it as a fuel to accelerate the spread of theories related to the climate crisis. 

That’s how a controversy over innocuous 15-minute cities has since morphed into an identity of resistance over other perceived injustices and how anti-vax rhetoric moved closer to climate conspiracies.

Primal fears

One of the protest speakers at the Oxford event was Jonathan Tilt, former leader of the libertarian Freedom Alliance Party who ran in the mayoral election of West Yorkshire in May 2024.

"Covid fraud was the first part of that war, they tried to introduce lockdowns, it didn't really work, there was a lot of pushback," he said, in a telephone interview in March.

For Tilt, the introduction of vaccine passports was a failed attempt to roll out what he describes as a dystopian digital matrix.

"Climate change, climate alarmism and gross restrictions on travel are another attempt to do it. It’s a more sort of devious and slow cooker method than the stuff that we had in 2020," he said.

Oxfordshire County Council denies that its 15-minute city proposal would confine people, and say traffic filters simply aim to reduce traffic and make it easier to get around the city. 

A trial, set for launch in autumn, is expected to improve bus services and make walking and cycling easier and safer, said a spokesperson.

Tilt dismissed such plans and said climate change is a different route for the dystopian digital matrix in “a clear attempt at zoning and stopping” people. These theories are increasingly amplified by alternative news sites and social media spouting QAnon narratives.

Feeding in new conspiracy theories has been part of QAnon‘s DNA from the start. For example, due in part to social media recommendation systems, QAnon became an amalgam of individuals from many other types of groups: anti-vaccine activists, 9-11 truthers, flat-earthers, Pizzagaters. These people “found some specific facet of the theory appealing” explains Renée DiResta, formerly research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory and expert on the spread of disinformation and malign narratives across social networks.

“They brought their own interpretations of events into the conversation and this led to something of an 'omni-conspiracy',” adds DiResta.

When queried, Tilt said he has connections to some people in Children's Health Defense Europe (CHD Europe), a Brussels-based offshoot of its larger US version. 

CHD has also featured interviews with MEPs, including Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD) MEP Christine Anderson, who described Covid-19 as a means to prepare society for complete domination. AfD is a far-right party that has been classified by German domestic security services as a potentially extremist party. Recently a German high court confirmed this designation stating that AfD pursues goals “against democracy”.

"The next thing we will see is the establishment of so-called 15-minute cities," Anderson told Children's Health Defense TV.

“It has nothing to do with this [convenience]. Nothing whatsoever. It's about control," she said. Anderson’s vocabulary is likely not a coincidence. To identify the rhetorical strategies of climate-denialist conspiracy myths, Lighthouse extracted the most frequently occurring nouns and used a statistical technique to group large volumes of Telegram posts according to their topic similarity, and found that vocabulary plays an important role in integrating new theories with familiar ones.

For example, Covid and allusions to being controlled are important words used to redirect outrage towards new theories, with some differences between countries. In German posts, Covid terms were frequently mentioned both for the 15 minute cities theories and for climate lockdowns throughout the lifecycle of the narratives, while in English the connection between Covid and the 15 minute city conspiracy is made much later.

Anderson herself sat on the European Parliament's special committee on the Covid-19 pandemic. 

A source close to the committee said the far-right rarely attended the committee meetings when issues dealing with social rights, research, and fundamental rights were discussed.

"But if we had a hearing on the pharmaceutical industry, or if we had a hearing with the commissioner, they were always there just to ask or just to give one message. And it was always a conspiracy theory," said the source.

Yet messages linking Covid and climate change espoused by Tilt and Anderson resonate.

Among the people who find these theories appealing is Ruth O'Rafferty of the Scottish Vaccine Injury group, a self-described support group on Facebook.

O'Rafferty says she had an adverse reaction to AstraZeneca vaccine and was unable to get public treatment.

"And I'm not against vaccines, but these were new technology and they were rushed through and given emergency licence," she said, in an interview in late March.

And while her group doesn't link the vaccine to wider climate issues, O'Rafferty is receptive. 

"It is beyond the scope of the group. However, I can understand it. Did we feel coerced? Yes, we were coerced," she said.

"It's like they're taking away people's free choice," she said.

That sense of coercion and the stripping of freedoms due to Covid converges with the climate denial views, even if the connection is not immediately made. According to Lighthouse’s analysis of climate-related posts, the idea of convenience is twisted into the concept of a prison: 15-minute cities are there to keep people in certain areas of the city, to lock them up, despite all evidence to the contrary.

“Conspiracy theories often rely on distrust and fear, and an underlying set of circumstances in the offline world,” says DiResta.

Children Health Defense's role in the conspiracy arena

When a theory is first introduced, it is competing against dozens of other theories for attention in an already crowded digital space. Alternative news websites, Telegram influencers, established media, and also organizations such as Children’s Health Defense, need people’s engagement. The recipe for virality depends on these groups feeding off each other’s audiences and benefiting from the groundwork laid by others. Children’s Health Defense is also an example of how the recipe can be applied in different contexts: from spreading theories on social media to lobbying activities in the EU Parliament.

According to the Lighthouse dataset, alternative news websites provide the raw materials for new conspiracy theories. CHD runs its own alternative news outlet called Defender, that frequently publishes content railing against vaccines, 5G wireless networks, and World Health Organization power-grab fears.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate, a British not-for-profit, has listed Children's Health Defense as one of the top 12 influencers in spreading English-speaking anti-vax disinformation on X [Twitter] and Facebook.

And its European version is also active on social media, with accounts on  X, Telegram, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

Ad Fontes Media, a media watchdog based out of Colorado, says the platform regularly publishes misleading articles.

"Children's Health Defense publishes an unacceptable amount of misleading information concerning vaccines," said Vanessa Otero, the founder of Ad Fontes Media, in an email.

"And often does so in a fashion that is associated most strongly with a hyper-partisan or most extreme political bias to the right," she said.

While the website of CHD European chapter gets a limited number of visitors, the main US CHD website, house of the Defender, had 2.2 million views between February and April this year, according to Similarweb, a US software company specialising in web traffic. 

Lighthouse analysis shows that posts about climate conspiracy containing links to the Defender were re-shared nearly 1,700 times. One of the Defender’s articles highlights how the World Economic Forum is supporting the 15-minute city concept.

CHD’s lobbying in Europe

Online, conspiracy theories can be spread by pseudo-anonymous Telegram channels with huge followings, but when they enter the field of policymaking and lobbying, credible and recognised figures take centre-stage.

Set up as an ASBL (non-profit organisation) in Belgium in August 2020 by Belgian activist Senta Depuydt, CHD Europe has helped disseminate such views in the hopes of drumming up public outrage and support for its cause.

Depuydt says she had convinced Robert Kennedy Jr to open a European branch of Children's Health Defense, following a hearing at the European Parliament on Monsanto where the two had met.

"I told him there was a global coup d'etat under way ... and I contacted him and told them there is a need for resistance, an international resistance, and that is how I opened a European branch of his organisation," she said, in an interview last December.

Depuydt resigned as chair in 2022 for personal reasons, she said, and has since promoted his candidacy for US president. Around the same time, CHD Europe nominated four new board members including Catherine Austin Fitts, an American investment banker and a former member of the George Bush senior's administration, and Renate Holzeisen, an Italian lawyer who since 2023 sits in the regional council of Trentino-Alto Adige, an autonomous region in the north of Italy, and is also a member of the South Tyrolean state parliament.

CHD Europe has been lobbying MEPs in the European Parliament, organising conferences at the Châtelain Brussels Hotel, holding press briefings at the Brussels Press Club, as well as being party to two failed legal challenges over Covid at the European Court of Justice.  

Children’s Health Defense and its European chapter echoed their main arguments in an email and letter to MEPs in September 2021. Signed on the behalf of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Senta Depuydt, the four-page letter railed against Covid travel restrictions and the so-called Green Pass to allow vaccinated people to travel more freely.

“The citizens of Europe and the world are watching you — our liberty and security are in your hands. Do not let us down!” said the letter, amid warnings such restrictions would likely become a permanent feature.

At the Brussels Press Club in early 2022 further extremist views were on stage. Parallels were drawn between Covid and the Holocaust, amid claims humanity is under siege by global heirs of the Nazis. CHD Europe was presented by Mary Holland, CHD Europe board member Catherine Austin Fitts, and Vera Sharav, who sits on the advisory board of CHD Europe.

"The unvaccinated are being vilified as the Jews were in the 1930s and the 1940s. What's the difference? Just the fact that the vaccinated are obedient," said Sharav, in comments that went unchallenged.

When approached, CHD's president Mary Holland declined to comment on its European branch. "CHD Europe is in transition right now, and we don't have any comment," she said via email.

CHD Europe's seat is currently listed at the same address of the Brussels-based Malherbe law firm, which we reached out to for this story. Malherbe also declined to comment and it wouldn't acknowledge that it represents CHD Europe despite being publicly listed as such in the Belgian register.

"I can tell you the organisation is currently closing its Brussels-based European chapter," said Depuydt, in an email.

But Holzeisen, who sits on the CHD Europe's board, said the chapter is going through a re-organisation to better connect with the local audiences.

"Absolutely not," she said, when asked if CHD was leaving Europe, in a telephone interview in April.

"It is an issue of reorganisation," she said and one that aims to become more independent from its US counterpart.

"The United States is very different from Europe. In Europe, the countries are from a cultural point of view, also from a language point of view, very different," she said.

A previous analysis by Lighthouse suggests that many locally-driven conspiracy theories need to engage global audiences to garner traction. 

The spillover

For her part, Holzeisen is criticising a global pandemic treaty by the World Health Organisation, which she claims is part of a larger climate change strategy instigated by the European Union. According to Lighthouse analysis, the connection to global organizations such as the World Economic Forum (WEF) or WHO is a strategy also used by QAnon channels.

By delocalizing a conspiracy theory, it makes it more appealing to a wider global audience. While previously a local event like the outrage over a new transport system in Oxford was of no interest to anyone outside the affected zone and may eventually run out of steam, now by integrating it into established QAnon narratives, people in Germany or Italy feel threatened by similar projects. 

Once the first three ingredients of the recipe for virality have set the conspiracy in motion, the spillover into the mainstream is bound to happen thanks to two additional ingredients: local scandals are connected to the wider world of conspiracy lore, setting the stage for the theory to go from local to global and external sources, such as established media, pick them up and thus lend them a veneer of credibility.

One of the cornerstone values that underpin QAnon is the opposition to supposedly secret machinations perpetrated by the world elites. It doesn’t make much difference if the enemy is the World Economic Forum or the local mayor of the city that wants to introduce a new law. 

Posts about the climate lockdown and 15-minute cities often refer to plans imposed by those in power and that shouldn’t be taken at face value: they are usually part of larger schemes to reduce citizens’ freedom. In this way local events can be considered parts of an international scheme, allowing a conspiracy to germinate in different countries.

With a war weighing on the global economy and a barrage of reporting on the climate crisis, climate change denialism may have offered a way to feel in control. DiResta explained that theories often appeal most to people who are struggling. “The theory may offer an easy answer, or a scapegoat,” explains DiResta.

Similar arguments were repeated by Robert Kennedy Jr in an interview by UK Column News on 1 May 2023: “Climate issues and pollution issues are being exploited by the WEF and Bill Gates and all of these mega-billionaires the same way that Covid was exploited — to use it as an excuse to clamp down [sic] top-down totalitarian controls on society.”

It is a view shared by a number of far-right MEPs, including Romania’s Cristian Terhes who earlier this year told the European Parliament in a debate on climate change that the world is witnessing “the imposition of a utopian, criminal ideology, which requires us to totally destroy our way of life in the name of madness: zero-carbon emissions.”

Terhes is also an anti-vaxxer and is behind the International Covid Summit, whose opening anthem calls on parents to shield their children from perceived tyrannies. “We’ll be free until the day we die” are among the anthem’s lyrics.

And in a recent event by the rightwing European Conservatives and Reformists Group, Dutch MEP Rob Roos says the climate crisis is a fake crisis created on purpose by the EU and that controlling CO2 emissions is basically equal to controlling people's lives.

Anderson’s and Kennedy’s interviews and Roos’s and Terhes’ statements lend false credibility to the conspiracy. And when established media and journalists pick up these conspiracy theories, they give them an air of legitimacy and access to a more mainstream audience.

In August 2022 Claus Strunz, then editor-in-chief of the German mass-market tabloid newspaper Bild, criticided a new energy-saving policy by the Germany's Green minister for economic affairs and climate action, Robert Habeck, during a TV interview: “We experienced with Corona what we are seeing with climate now”.

Habeck “is not planning anything other than the climate lockdown”, Strunz alleged. The video uploaded on YouTube was viewed more than 660,000 times, accompanied by the hashtag #klimalockdown, and people in the comment section cheered Strunz — since anyone else who claimed something like this in recent months had been considered a conspiracy theorist.

QAnon channels widely shared the video. "Bild is of course still a propaganda tool [...] but these statements by the editor-in-chief contain a lot of truth", reads a post published by a Telegram channel in Lighthouse database.

This vicious feedback loop demonstrates the success of the recipe for virality: an elected representative or a journalist presents the absurdity as reality, legitimising a theory that was spread in the first place by alt-news media and Telegram. In addition, using a shared vocabulary to frame these theories produces a clear convergence among heterogeneous conspiracy groups that were originally focused in spreading disinformation on unrelated topics, such as vaccines. This generates reach, clicks and attention. And spreads fear. 

The recipe for virality provides an entry point in the wider world of conspiracy theories to all those people that are concerned about Covid vaccines, lockdowns, and 15-minute cities and explains why organizations like CHD can pivot easily from anti-Covid narrative into climate denial conspiracies.

And governments' responses to the climate crisis continued to generate new conspiracies. In early 2024 a wave of farmers' protests swept through Europe's major capitals. While the EU is seeking to adopt its Green Deal to make the continent climate-neutral by 2050, farmers protested in front of the European Parliament in Brussels and set a subway entrance on fire. In Germany tractors partially blocked roads and city centres.

At the beginning of May 2024 while farmers marched in Warsaw in Poland, a banner reportedly read "Let Brussels eat worms, we prefer pork chops and potatoes," a reference to an old conspiracy theory that the WEF and governments will force people to eat insects.

This theory is now resurfacing after being widely shared in Telegram posts tracked in the Lighthouse database in previous months. The vocabulary follows the same recipe for vitality: it paints a picture of a plan run by world elites and exploits anxieties about losing freedom.

As people’s rage and frustration fed by conspiracy theories on Covid and Ukraine petered out, Telegram users following QAnon channels are now primed for a new target: climate denialism. (Photo: © European Union 2020 - Source : EP)


Author Bio

Riccardo Coluccini and Justin Casimir Braun are reporters at Lighthouse Reports. Eva Constantaras is an editor at Lighthouse Reports. Nikolaj Nielsen is a staff reporter at EUobserver.


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