It’s Safer Internet Day on 9 February 2021, and this usually merits a piece from me on one aspect of the ever-changing landscape of online safeguarding. What an immense challenge safeguarding children from online risks is for the children’s workforce. And what an even bigger challenge it presents for us right now – at a time when so many children cannot attend school and therefore have the opportunity to use the internet for unparalleled amounts of time. Currently it’s the online issues pertaining to misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories – particularly with regards to public health matters – that have taken centre stage. In fact, the theme of this year’s Safer Internet Day UK explores reliability online. The internet has an amazing range of information and opportunities online, but Safer Internet UK asks: how do we separate fact from fiction? The Safer Internet Day UK campaign focuses on how we can decide what to trust online, supporting young people to question, challenge and change the online world for the better and exploring how influence, persuasion and manipulation can impact young people’s decisions, opinions and what they share online.
- I see a lot of Fake News content, a lot of fake celebrity gossip, fake gossip (general)’
- ‘Adverts on webpages showing celebrities with extreme weight loss transformations and stuff like that.’
- ‘Adverts and pop ups or even occasionally strangers messages and such.’
- ‘Ppl on TikTok making up news, conspiracy theories…’
- Safer Internet Day UK ‘what children see online’
Radicalisation (defined as ‘the process by which people come to support terrorism and extremism and, in some cases, to then participate in terrorist activity’) is just one online risk involving influence, persuasion and manipulation that young people and families are exposed to at present. On my Safeguarding Awareness training, I always take time to explore the Prevent Duty, ensuring that the participants have a clear knowledge of their responsibilities within this legislation. These mandatory duties (for registered settings) include:
- Identifying children who may be vulnerable to radicalisation.
- Being aware of what to do when vulnerable children are identified.
- Promoting fundamental British values and challenging extremist views.
- Offering appropriate training and development for principals, governors, leaders and staff.
The responsibility to ‘promote fundamental British values and challenge extremist views’ is the aspect of Prevent that most members of the children’s workforce have found most baffling in my experience. What are fundamental British values? ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs (and of none).’ (Prevent Guidance 2015). And how does Prevent define extremism? Simply put, extremist ideas are those that oppose fundamental British values. Advocating totalitarianism, spreading prejudice, racism, intolerance, expressing prejudice against minority groups, supporting violence and lawbreaking are all extremist ideas.
One of the most interesting questions I received recently when discussing the Prevent Agenda on a recent safeguarding awareness course was concerning the present phenomenon called ‘QAnon’.
For those who haven’t yet heard of QAnon, a report entitled ‘QAnon – Growth of a Movement’ published by the antiracist organisation ‘Hope not Hate’ might come in useful. QAnon is a conspiracy theory – or a complicated collection of theories – that allege that President Trump is waging a secret war against a cabal of powerful Satanic paedophiles, alleged to be kidnapping, torturing and even cannibalising children on a vast scale. These demonic individuals include Trump’s enemies and other members of the establishment, including politicians, celebrities and even members of the Royal family. QAnon began on 28 October 2017, when a user of an online message board (4chan) claimed to have insider knowledge that Hillary Clinton would be arrested the following day. This didn’t happen, but the poster, later named ‘Q’ made more than 4,800 subsequent posts (known as “Q drops”), which were very cryptic messages referencing a predatory conspiracy that was dictating world events. Some more outlandish QAnon theories have stated that 9:11 was a hoax, extra-terrestrial Jewish lasers cause forest fires, vaccinations are a plot to brainwash and control humanity, and that a small Pizza restaurant in the USA was keeping children in its basement in order to serve them up as sex slaves to well-known celebrities like Tom Hanks.
So – is QAnon extremist? I thought the fact that this question was asked within one of my training session was significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it illustrated how our identification of extremist ideology had changed. A few years ago, extremism was very much associated with so-called Islamist groups, mostly recruiting followers online from the war torn areas of the Levant to carry out acts of terror here and abroad. But more recent referrals to Prevent here in the UK have been more associated with ‘mixed, unstable or unclear ideology’ or the Far Right, extreme nationalism and white supremacy – and Q-Anon is an example of that.
Figure 6: Prevent referrals by type of concern, years ending March 2016 to 2020
Asking a specific question about QAnon also indicated to me how strong its ‘reach’ (meaning the number of people who had heard of it) had become. The rise of Q-Anon in recent years has been nothing short of meteoric. In 2017 only a handful of people knew about it, but only a few years later in 2020 in the midst of lockdown, the QAnon movement was able to attract thousands of supporters to protest in summer months in various cities (including Bristol) across the UK. Young people consistently poll as more susceptible to conspiracy theories. While initially it was spread by adults associated with the Far Right, I have heard that it has since been spread by children and teenagers on TikTok. In a poll carried out in September 2020 of two thousand adults selected at random, Hope not Hate found the 19% of respondents had heard of QAnon, and 8% of those polled claimed to support it.
In answering the question as to why QAnon is extremist and harmful, in the training I measured their conduct against the fundamental British values:
Democracy: Support for QAnon comes from all political stripes, but the theory has developed pockets of support among the British Far Right (in other words, fascists). The hallmarks of fascism are dictatorship, totalitarianism, racism and the oppression of minorities and the suppression of free speech.
Rule of law: QAnon has the potential to sow a dangerous distrust in institutions. The idea that various politicians and other public figures eat children and cannot be trusted to tell us the truth about absolutely anything, sows the seeds of a deeply toxic cynicism to all our organisations, including our health and our security services. It has the potential to erode trust in medical experts and authorities, and further the spread of health misinformation and pseudoscience in the midst of a global pandemic. Fantasising about the bloodshed to come is a striking feature of the online spaces where QAnon adherents gather, including in the UK. Numerous acts of violence, some leading to loss of life, have since been committed in the US by individuals who have been inspired by QAnon, and so there are plenty of reasons to be concerned that it has the potential to criminalize followers and harm others.
Individual Liberty: Like all fascists, supporters of QAnon deal in gross stereotypes that dehumanise lead to suspicion and hatred of minorities like Jews, Muslims and LGBT people. This encourages followers to form racist, homophobic and transphobic views and deprive people of their dignity as individuals.
Mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs: QAnon supporters advocate white supremacy and racism. In particular, anti-Semitic tropes are inherent to the theory, promulgating an ancient form of prejudice, which has the potential to radicalise converts towards hatred of Jews.
Anyone can be radicalised but there are some factors which may make a young person more vulnerable. These include:
- being easily influenced or impressionable
- having low self-esteem or being isolated
- feeling that rejection, discrimination or injustice is taking place in society
- experiencing community tension amongst different groups
- being disrespectful or angry towards family and peers
- having a strong need for acceptance or belonging
- experiencing grief such as loss of a loved one.
Though important to note, it’s worth remembering that these factors will not always lead to radicalisation. If a child or young person is being radicalised their day-to-day behaviour may become increasingly centred around an extremist ideology, groups, or cause. For example, they may:
- spend increasing amounts of time talking to people with extreme views (this includes online and offline communication)
- change their style of dress or personal appearance
- lose interest in friends and activities that are not associated with the extremist ideology, group or cause
- have material or symbols associated with an extreme cause
- try to recruit others to join the cause
(Home Office, 2015)
What can organisations do? Your organisation should:
- include radicalisation in your safeguarding policies and procedures
- promote fundamental British values and challenge extremism in its work e.g. Democracy: taking turns, holding votes or elections, encouraging critical questioning, Rule of law: devising, sharing and working to rules, explaining boundaries, safe play, Individual liberty: creating a rich learning environment that children can explore, challenging discrimination and stereotyping, giving opportunities for creative play like music, drama and art, Mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs: learning about different religions and cultures by exploring different festivals, food, books, songs, clothes and other play resources, inviting visitors from different faith communities, visiting different places of worship. work in partnership with other organisations across the community
- identify those at risk and make sure everyone in your organisation knows when to report a concern (local referral agency, Police 999 or Counter Terrorism Hotline 0800 789321)
- promote positive messages of tolerance and community cohesion within your school, explore Education Against Hate: https://educateagainsthate.com/
- help parents and children get support – this is an excellent website I can recommend making families aware of: https://actearly.uk/
- explore the issue of reliability online and the ways that young people can tell fact from fiction whilst spending time on the internet using the Safer Internet Day Educational Resources
As an extremist entity, QAnon poses many risks to individuals, families and to community cohesion and safety. But as a safeguarding consultant, I have also found it really concerning that the safeguarding of children has been twisted to promote extremist ideas and ideology. These risks obscuring genuine child abuse and hampering legitimate efforts to better child welfare. Whilst child trafficking and other forms of exploitation really does take place, and several well-connected people really have been found to be guilty of these crimes in recent years, the vast majority of child abuse happens in ordinary families and communities. At the numerous demonstrations taking place in the UK last year, QAnon supporters have shared stages with genuine campaigners against real, not imaginary, child abuse. This confuses abuse with grotesque misinformation, and risks burying actual cases among false, and diverting energy and resources from groups that could make genuine progress.
For further reading on QAnon, see below: