A small town became the center of a QAnon storm. Now it’s fighting back

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Bodegraven is the type of well-heeled Dutch town where young moms push their prams past smart restaurants, people say hello to each other as they pass in the street and packs of children roam around by bicycle. In March, the only sign that something strange has happened here is the insistence of the groundsman in the local graveyard that he cannot speak to passing journalists.

Two years ago, this graveyard was overwhelmed with visitors who turned up from out of town to leave flowers and messages of outrage for children buried here, believing they had died at the hands of a satanic pedophile ring involving the prime minister and a Dutch virologist, the Netherlands’ equivalent of Anthony Fauci.

The conspiracy was a mutation of the QAnon conspiracy, which came out of Internet messageboards in the US but has found new life in Europe, piggybacking on local concerns to reach new audiences—with dangerous results. In Germany, 25 people were arrested in December on suspicion of plotting a QAnon-inspired coup to overthrow the country’s government.
Having found itself at the center of a new conspiracy, the town of Bodegraven turned to the courts to fight back against unfounded accusations of a satanic cover-up. Yesterday, a court in The Hague sentenced Micha Kat, the country’s most famous conspiracy theorist and one of the architects of the libel against Bodegraven, to two and a half years in prison for threats and sedition. His sentencing means all three of the people spearheading this Dutch QAnon offshoot have now been jailed.

Kat’s sentencing echoes the case of the US talk show host Alex Jones, who was found liable for defaming the parents of children killed in a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, after falsely claiming that the mass shooting was a hoax. The hope is that legal proceedings introduce a chilling effect “in a positive sense,” says Ciarán O’Connor, senior analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that researches online hate. “Other conspiracy theorists, who engage in dangerous belief systems that might endanger members of the public, might see this action and think twice about spreading lurid conspiracy theories.”

The Bodegraven conspiracy centered around claims made by Joost Knevel, who claimed to remember witnessing a satanic pedophile ring operating in the town when he was a child. “He initially implicated a local doctor, and it was a local story,” says Sander van der Linden, a professor of psychology at Cambridge University in the UK, who advises governments and companies on how to prevent the spread of misinformation online. But when Knevel teamed up with Kat, a former journalist with a track record of being sued for defamation and making bomb threats, and another conspiracy theorist named Wouter Raatgever, the story morphed to claim that perpetrators also included the country’s prime minister, Mark Rutte, and the head of the Netherlands’ public health institute, Jaap van Dissel, who was at the time the public face of the country’s coronavirus response. “These two other conspiracy theorists helped him craft the narrative in a way that made it really go viral,” says van der Linden.

Content retrieved from: https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2023/04/a-small-town-became-the-center-of-a-qanon-storm-now-its-fighting-back/?comments=1&comments-page=1.

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