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Adrenochrome: why was a QAnon conspiracy drug name-checked at Dublin's anti-lockdown protest?

A false claim involving the chemical, RTÉ and dead infants was made at Saturday’s protest.

Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

ON SATURDAY, TWO women attending the anti-lockdown protest in Dublin were launched into an online spotlight after an image posted on Twitter showed them wearing matching hoodies emblazoned with a slogan containing a prominent typo: “RTE sold there souls”.

The following day, further attention was heaped upon the pair when they were quoted in a report in the Sunday Times (whose reporter Mark Tighe took the aforementioned image) espousing a conspiracy theory involving the national broadcaster and dead infants.

“9,000 people went missing in Ireland last year,” one of the women told the newspaper, before being asked what this had to do with RTÉ.

The women responded that babies in Ireland were being killed and harvested for “adrenochrome” to keep RTÉ celebrities “looking young”. The corpses, they added, were buried under the new National Children’s Hospital.

Most dismissed the pair’s claims, with some poking fun by sharing images of RTÉ stars beside pictures of older-looking individuals and captions like “before and after ingesting adrenochrome”. Broadcaster Philip Boucher-Hayes was among those who leaned into the joke

But there were also warnings about what the women’s claim meant in the wider context of how misinformation is spreading in Ireland.

Adrenochrome harvesting isn’t a new conspiracy theory, and is among the favourite topics of QAnon believers around the world.

Although not representative of the group at-large which gathered in the capital, the women in their short interview made clear their own beliefs and in doing so confirmed the arrival of QAnon on Irish streets. 

Their use of the theory in an Irish context involving RTÉ (a regular target of anti-establishment misinformation) shows how the discredited far-right movement is making some inroads into online communities here.

And its appearance in Irish-based anti-lockdown groups on social media threatens to send more disgruntled citizens like the women at Saturday’s protest even further down internet rabbit holes.

QAnon imported

To outsiders, QAnon can appear like a US-centred conspiracy which has attracted a small number of international followers sucked in by online algorithms and the darker corners of the internet.

The baseless theory centres on an alleged anonymous, high-ranking government official known as Q who frequently shared information about a “deep state” working against Donald Trump when he was president, tied to satanism and child sex trafficking.

Few Americans – aside from fringe groups – initially heard of Q or QAnon, with the secretive stream of messages from the fictional “Q” remaining on the edges of the internet.

But from around 2018 onwards, the theory crept into mainstream politics – partly driven by statements from Trump - to the point that the FBI warned last May that conspiracy-driven extremists had become a domestic terrorism threat in the US.

Facebook subsequently announced a ban on all accounts linked to QAnon ahead of the US election last year, but believers continued to communicate on other platforms and the theory had a key role in attempts by Trump to overturn the election result.

A number of QAnon supporters appeared at January’s riots in the US Capitol, prompting Twitter to also suspend more than 70,000 accounts linked to the conspiracy theory.

However, believers are still organising on other platforms, and the publicity provided to the theory by Trump during his presidency has given it a global appeal.

Although still on the fringe here, Ireland has not proven completely immune to the problem with misinformation tropes linked to QAnon regularly espoused by prominent conspiracy theorists here.

Irish-based Facebook groups have imported the language of QAnon followers and feature posts containing beliefs linked to the conspiracy.

A search of 20 Irish groups which share misinformation on Facebook using CrowdTangle found a number of posts containing the hashtag QAnon in one group in particular, including a claim that Trump was taking on underground sex traffickers.

What was once a US-centred theory has already established itself on this side of the Atlantic, despite attempts to stifle its influence over the last six months.

download (15) Demonstrators wave Austrian and QAnon flags at a Covid-19 protest in Vienna last month Source: PA

Multi-faceted theory

As well as the wide-reaching nature of posts about QAnon, attempts by social media giants to ban accounts linked to the conspiracy have been beset by a practical problem.

The theory is a multi-faceted belief system based on a large number of constituent claims, rather than one or two smaller conspiracies.

It is often hard to know if someone espousing a false claim linked to QAnon believes in the overall theory, or whether they are just someone who believes in the theories linked to QAnon without actually believing in the wider conspiracy.

QAnon theories include false claims that the wealthy Rothschild family leads a satanic cult, and that Barack Obama and George Soros planned a coup against Trump.

But anti-Semitic claims about Soros and the Rothschilds are regular misinformation tropes, and are not necessarily linked to QAnon beliefs.

Many of these theories have been imported into Irish-based Facebook groups.

Searches of the 20 groups which post conspiracy theories on Facebook found more than 100 posts mentioning George Soros, the Rothschilds and Barack Obama and the Clintons (another QAnon target) from the past 12 months.

These groups also feature other forms of misinformation which don’t necessarily derive from belief in the QAnon conspiracy, including claims about Covid-19 vaccines, wind turbines and 5G.

Adrenochrome

But one conspiracy which is almost certainly driven by belief in QAnon is the “adrenochrome harvesting theory”.

The theory is a continuation of “Pizzagate”, a discredited conspiracy from 2016 that claimed the hacked email of Hillary Clinton’s staffers revealed a child sex-trafficking ring in a Washington pizza parlour. 

Since then, it has evolved into claims that wealthy elites – including Hollywood celebrities – have been involved in the the harvesting of the chemical ‘adrenochrome’ from children abducted by trafficking rings.

The chemical is real and is produced by the oxidation of adrenaline, but although some have speculated about its possible uses, there is limited evidence of its medicinal benefits. 

There have been mentions of adrenochrome in fiction, which may be helping to back up the idea of adrenochrome as a recreational drug.

It features briefly in Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – both the book and the movie adaptation, while there is also a mention of ‘drencrom’ as an addition to the cocktail Moloko Plus in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.

Conspiracy theories claim that adrenochrome is a Hollywood drug, sometimes taken as part of a Satanic ritual, where it is drained from children kept at ‘farms’ and tortured.

download (16) A false claim involving adrenochrome and Mark Zuckerberg Source: Facebook

The theory seems to have latched on to QAnon beliefs through a post on Reddit, linking it to blood libel, an anti-Semitic conspiracy which featured in Europe during the middle ages which claimed that Jews required human blood for baking certain food.

According to Wired, posts about adrenochrome harvesting featured on the website 4Chan – which was later prominent in the Pizzagate conspiracy – in 2013 and 2014.

In two different anti-Semitic threads, anonymous users linked to an unsearchable video named “Jew Ritual BLOOD LIBEL Sacrifice is #ADRENOCHROME Harvesting”.

PizzaGate proponents eventually took up the theory and formed QAnon groups, taking the conspiracy with them.

The Covid connection

Similarly, since growing into a more global conspiracy theory, QAnon has carried talk of adrenochrome harvesting into Irish social media channels.

Attempts by social media companies to ban QAnon-linked accounts in recent months mean it is hard to say for certain how widespread the theory was here before last weekend – the deletion of posts has ultimately left us with little evidence of its roots.

But the expression of the theory at Saturday’s protest - ostensibly as a demonstration against the government’s Covid-19 lockdown measures and attended as such for some, but not all – was telling in its own way.

Despite having little to do with the pandemic, the expression of the adrenochrome harvesting theory showed how QAnon theories have seeded in some groups which spread misinformation in Ireland, albeit in small numbers. 

The link between the virus and misinformation are nothing new, and conspiracy theories about the pandemic have frequently overlapped with those espoused by QAnon believers.

Open University psychologist Jovan Byford told BBC last year how conspiracy theories have helped to portray a world that is ordered amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“Conspiracy theories flourish when social machinery breaks down and available ways of making sense of the world prove inadequate for what is going on,” he explained.

One example of where both theories overlap is through the false claim that celebrities use the chemical adrenochrome.

Last year, TheJournal.ie debunked claims about the use of adrenochrome causing Covid-19, including Tom Hanks, but the root of this misinformation was based outside Ireland.

However, the adaptation of the adrenochrome theory to an Irish context had already started, enabled by social media groups which regularly feature misinformation linked to Covid-19.

One group called End the Lockdown Ireland features posts about adrenochrome from as far back as April last year. It has about 18,600 members. 

Other posts about Satan, religious beliefs and paedophilia – all hallmarks of the QAnon movement – have been posted in the group since, along with posts containing QAnon hashtags.

The ‘conspiracy mentality’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the multi-dimensional nature of QAnon means that Covid-19 conspiracy theorists are not the only ones who have been pulled into its orbit.

The process works in the same way that people who believe 5G conspiracies are also drawn to other false claims like ‘the Great Replacement’ theory.

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Searches of Irish Facebook misinformation groups on CrowdTangle for terms and theories linked to QAnon show the overlapping nature of these conspiracies.

Rise Up Éireann, the group which organised Saturday’s protest, contained several posts about a New World Order and expressing concerns for children, before it was removed by Facebook on Monday.

Other groups containing posts which mention a New World Order and satanic paedophiles include the still-active United Patriots of Ireland, Lock Down Éire and Stop FiveGee Wicklow.

The latter group in particular shows how far-reaching the web of conspiracies in a single group can go.

One post on 2 October last year referenced dozens of false claims about everything from pharmaceutical companies, to Bill Gates, to the damage done by water fluoridation and Covid-19 vaccines, to the 11 September attacks being an “inside job”.

These groups are insular too, with frequent cross-posts between them allowing exposure to different conspiracies to be maximised among groups who are already primed to believe them. 

Shane Timmons of the Behavioural Research Unit at the Economic Social and Research Institute previously described to TheJournal.ie how sustained criticism of authorities can form part of an overall ‘conspiracy mentality’ in individuals. 

Such people, Timmons said, have low levels of general trust, manifesting in a distrust of experts and official communications.

“We saw more of them at the start of the pandemic, when there was a lot more uncertainty and misinformation and conspiracies tend to flare up,” he added.

Analysts have also remarked about how the Covid-19 pandemic has provided a catalyst for expanded recruitment to the overall QAnon belief system.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, believers have linked up with the anti-vaccine movement to draw in less-conventional health-conscious believers who may have otherwise avoided the white-supremacist elements of the theory.

“Look at the makeup of your QAnon, you have folks that would traditionally join militias,” one analyst from the Network Contagion Research Institute recently told AFP.

“And you also have some traditional Republicans, [but now] you have your health and wellness yoga instructors and soccer moms.

“There was quite a bit of difference between these conspiracy communities and traditional Nazi communities or white supremacist communities.”

Almost a year since the beginning of lockdown measures in Ireland, these individuals are joining forces online, with some taking to the streets of Dublin.

Despite arrests and the closing down of groups, further protests are planned for later this month.

- Contains reporting by Michelle Hennessy.

Comments have been closed as a number of individuals have been charged in relation to last Saturday’s protest.

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