“Where is Hillary Clinton?” asks the woman in the camouflage jersey. Speaking to her followers on TikTok, superimposing herself in front of a news story about jurors in the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, she quickly declares the whole thing a whitewash: “These people need to be arrested! Nothing is ever gonna f***ing get done!”
It is just one drop in the tide of conspiracy theories that Ms Maxwell’s trial has unleashed throughout the internet. As journalists across the world follow every detail of the courtroom drama in New York City, social networks from Twitter to Telegram are awash in posts, videos, and meme images weaving each update into existing fantasy narratives.
Most of them are linked to the extremist QAnon movement, which believes that opponents of former president Donald Trump – especially Ms Clinton – are part of a global satanist paedophile conspiracy that will soon be destroyed by a US military coup.
“Do you believe in coincidences?” said one message from a QAnon-aligned Telegram channel devoted to Ghislaine Maxwell news, pointing to recent news events such as the resignation of Twitter boss Jack Dorsey. “Flood unstoppable. Track CEO resignations. The Silent War continues ... TRUST THE PLAN.”
Other posts described Ghislaine Maxwell, who is accused of grooming and recruiting young victims for her then boyfriend Jeffrey Epstein, as an “Israeli intelligence agent”, or claimed that the judge, prosecution, witnesses and jury had all been suborned by “deep state” figures such as the Clintons and Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, QAnon members protested outside the courthouse, reportedly rapping about their beliefs. At one point, 14,000 people illegally crashed an official live stream of a court hearing, causing the judge to admonish: “Whoever is doing it, you are operating against the law!”
The flood demonstrates how Ms Maxwell’s trial, now in its fifth day, has galvanised the alternative media underworld that sprung up during Mr Trump’s presidency, as well as how social media companies are still struggling to control it.
It also shows how QAnon is dealing and struggling with life after Mr Trump, in which the long-promised “great awakening” and mass military executions of political opponents have failed to arrive four years after the date originally set for Mrs Clinton’s arrest by the movement’s masked prophet “Q”.
“The Maxwell trial is both simultaneously the most important event in recent history, and also it’s going to be a giant waste of time because secret backroom deals have been made with Maxwell to not bring up all the evil people that QAnon hates,” says Mike Rains, who helps run a Reddit support group for families of QAnon believers and regularly monitors the movement online.
“The idea is that if all the truth ever came out about what Epstein was doing, literally everybody in Hollywood and probably half the Democrats in Congress would be all indicted immediately for child trafficking.”
‘If you think omicron is a coincidence, think again’
Ms Maxwell’s trial has naturally attracted huge public interest. According to the social media intelligence firm Zignal Labs, mentions of Ms Maxwell on Twitter soared to their highest point in at least a year on 29 November, with about 176,000 mentions.
At the same time, though, came the bigggest spike this year in mentions of her name in combination with the word “distraction” as nearly every other news event was declared by someone to be a distraction from her trial.
“If you think that the omicron variant hysteria popping up two days before Ghislaine Maxwell[’s] trials starts is just a simple coincidence, then you don’t know who she was trafficking underage girls to,” said one typical tweet noted by Zignal.
The same theme was presented on Telegram, an encrypted private chat app to which many conspiracist and extremist groups retreated after being banned from Facebook and Twitter in the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection.
“They are pushing a lot of distractions, trying to keep your attention off the Maxwell trial! They cannot allow you to know the truth of the Epstein Era because most of them were involved!” said one message from a QAnon channel.
More common was the claim that other news events were connected to the trial as part of a greater puzzle. One channel listed four corporate resignations that supposedly happened on Monday – although in fact one of them was in September and one appears to be fictitious – concluding that “elites are getting nervous and jumping ship ... they are cornered with nowhere to hide”.
Others claimed that prosecutors were deliberately trying to throw the case. Jack Posobiec, a pro-Trump social media influencer and regular purveyor of mistruth, noted that Ms Maxwell had not been offered a plea bargain to “name names”, asking readers: “Are you paying attention yet?”
Still others smelt a rat in the lack of any video feed from the courthouse, in contrast to the live stream available from the recent trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin. The explanation is simple: Ms Maxwell is being tried in federal court, where federal law forbids video cameras, whereas Mr Rittenhouse was tried under Wisconsin state law, which allows them.
Nor were such claims confined to encrypted backchannels. As well as their in-person protest, QAnon adherents tuned in en masse to a live courtroom feed illegally broadcast on YouTube, apparently by someone who had secured legitimate access, just as previously happened during Britney Spears’s landmark testimony against her conservatorship in July.
“Judge, I need to interrupt,” said a clerk in Ms Maxwell’s hearing. “I was just informed that apparently somebody is broadcasting this on to YouTube, so I don’t know if you want to give a reminder that that is illegal to do?”
The judge did. “Whoever is doing it, you are operating against the law. I suspect there is a way to find out. So I will ask you, respectfully, to stop doing it. We have had enough of the lack of the rule of law around here.”
After that, the YouTube broadcast reportedly stopped.
Why the Maxwell trial is catnip for QAnon
All of this followed the now well-worn playbook of QAnon media entrepreneurs, who sustain their audience’s interest by ceaselessly inducting every possible news event into a pre-existing set of ever-mutating conspiracy theories.
“QAnon has to have these big moments where there’s gonna be huge payoffs and massive revelations, because that’s the whole reason why people get roped into this thing,” says Mr Rains, who also hosts a regular QAnon-tracking podcast called Adventures in HellwQrld.
And, while it might seem as the allegations against Ms Maxwell are so shocking and unusual as to make conspiracy theories unnecessary, fringe influencers are always under pressure to go beyond the mere facts of the case, however incredible they are.
Mr Rains says: “They’re obsessed with the [idea] that they’re the only ones who care about this, and that they’re the brave truth tellers that are actually monitoring, reporting the trial, and giving the hard-hitting truth to you, the uninformed public, who are being kept oblivious to the comings and goings of the Maxwell trial – even though it’s headline news every day.”
The Maxwell trial specifically is catnip for QAnon because it dovetails with their preoccupation with ritual child abuse and their belief that the world is run by a “cabal” of paedophiles who make drugs from children’s blood – a story that many experts see as recreating the centuries-old blood libel levied against Jewish people.
The original Q, an unknown person or multiple people who purported to be a high-level government agent in numerous cryptic online messages between 2017 and 2020, began mentioning Jeffrey Epstein in spring 2018 and integrated him fully into the conspiracy theory after his arrest and suicide that summer.
It would be natural for QAnon adherents to believe that Ms Maxwell’s trial, the first time Epstein’s dealings have been dragged into the light of an open court, will be a turning point for their struggle, and indeed one Telegram channel hailed it as the “trial of the century”.
Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science at the University of Miami who specialises in conspiracy theories, says that “Epstein’s wealth, high-profile connections, and [alleged] nefarious secret activities” make him a fruitful topic for the movement.
He adds that Epstein conspiracy theories are part of a long line of fabulists to hone in on accusations of child abuse, saying: “These accusations are the worst, most irredeemable thing a person could be accused of. If you really want to tar someone, this is the accusation that would do it.
“There was a satanic panic in the 1980s about supposed widespread ritual sexual abuse, which was never substantiated. These accusations come with a victim – we must save the children from these horrific crimes, and everyone wants to save the children.”
There is, however, one problem: Donald Trump.
Trump fans frantically try to downplay trial revelations
On Wednesday, a key witness in the trial testified that Epstein had driven her to Mr Trump’s Florida social club Mar-a-Lago to meet the tycoon when she was only 14 years old.
A pilot who flew Epstein’s private jets also testified that he remembered ferrying not only Prince Andrew and Bill Clinton, both regular QAnon villains, but also Mr Trump.
QAnon’s theories tend to cast the former president in the role of messiah, chosen by God and backed by secret “white hat” elements of the US military to flush out the cabal and smash its international sex-trafficking conspiracy. Hence, many QAnon figures have been attempting to dismiss the testimony.
“President Trump and the patriots are working to eradicate this cult from Earth for us and humanity, worldwide,” said a message copied and pasted by multiple Telegram channels. “That’s the ONLY reason why Epstein/Maxwell anything.” It described Mr Trump’s flight with Epstein as “a short ride”.
Another post included a screenshot of mainstream media headlines featuring Mr Trump in connection with the trial, commenting: “Who is on trial right now according to the media?” One even claimed that Mr Trump was attempting to get close to Epstein in order to catch him.
Meanwhile, others were busy managing expectations, reminding believers that the trial might not be all that was hoped. “You must remember the JUDGE/PROSECUTION/WITNESSES/JURY are all heavily [INFILTRATED],” said one channel, using the strange formatting QAnon adherents sometimes use to mimic Q’s style.
“Yet this MAXWELL case must go forward no matter the legal out come ... in the END, after the fires and martial law, and the SEEN >EXPOSURE< failure of the 3 BRANCHES of government>>>> is when the MILITARY will step in.”
QAnon has suffered repeated flubs since Mr Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, with many believers losing or questioning their faith after President Joe Biden was inaugurated contrary to prophecy. Since then the movement has fractured as key movement leaders turned on each other and various conflicting schools of theory emerged.
“There are enough people that are trying to get in front of the train, that know that this case isn’t going to be the crazy payoff it’s been [advertised] to everybody as,” says Mr Rains.
Or, as one Telegram channel put it: “So very much IS happening. If we start connecting the dots and putting the puzzle pieces together, then ... I guarantee that you will find a bit more patience in watching this play totally out. The White Hats can’t couldn’t make a mistake.”
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