On 4th December 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch entered the Washington DC pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong, armed with an AR-15 rifle, a .38 handgun and a folding knife. Welch fired once and kicked open several doors. He failed to find what he had travelled from North Carolina for—a paedophile ring trading children from the basement of this Washington pizza restaurant, aided and abetted by Hilary Clinton, who had recently been defeated in the US Presidential Election. Not only were there no children being trafficked from the basement of Comet Ping Pong, but the restaurant did not even have a basement. The event, and the improbable theory behind it, came to be known as “Pizzagate.” The word is now synonymous with the consequences of online disinformation spilling over into the real world.
Theories about a satanic paedophile network operating in the town had popped up on the internet as early as the summer of 2020, without the knowledge of most residents. It was only when hundreds of flowers arrived at the Vredehof cemetery that weekend in February 2021, that the extent to which this story had spread on the internet, and to which it had gripped the imagination of these believers, became clear.
“They came on the Saturday during the snowstorm and laid flowers all along the entrance from the road up until the gates of the cemetery,” said Jan*, a caretaker at the Vredehof cemetery. “By Monday the police came, and we had to move the flowers into a shipping container and take them away from the entrance and the graves.” When the flowers were removed by the municipality, threatening notes appeared throughout the town. The town hall was also bombarded with phone calls, with messages ranging from genuine concern to extreme aggression.
While there are many differences between the events in Washington DC and in Bodegraven, they are both examples of the consequences of online mistruths bursting out into the offline world. Theories like these can bubble under the surface of websites and message groups for months, gathering hundreds or even thousands of supporters, before entering the lives of oblivious citizens.
“We used to be comforted by the idea that conspiracy theorists existed on the fringes, that they had nothing to do with the rest of us,” says Jelle van Buuren, Assistant Professor at the Leiden University Institute of Security and Global Affairs. “Now they are really in all the layers of society.”
Behind both Pizzagate and the Bodegraven story is the idea of a shadowy cabal of elites who run a global child trafficking network. This belief is the core of the popular QAnon conspiracy, which began in the US in late 2017 but has since spread to all corners of the globe. QAnon began with the theory that Donald Trump is waging a war against an elite satanic paedophilic cult. Boosted by the recent pandemic, it has become a global umbrella movement that encapsulates almost every kind of conspiracy thinking.
While this may sound extreme, it has gripped hundreds of thousands of people across the world. From Germany to Japan, from right-wing extremists to yoga teachers, from teenagers to retirees—the belief marinated in digital communities, spurred on by increased social media use during the pandemic, before spilling into the offline world. Research from the London-based think tank ISD found that the conspiracy has spread to around 70 countries, while internet watchdog NewsGuard found more than 448,000 QAnon followers in Europe alone in 2020.
It is no coincidence then that the suspicions about Bodegraven contain the same ideas which have been embraced by people across the globe. The characters are specific to the local Dutch context—with references to Prime Minister Mark Rutte and current director of the Dutch Centre for Infectious Disease Control (CIb) Jaap van Dissel, rather than Hilary Clinton, or the US Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci. However, the general themes are almost identical to the QAnon theories sparked in the US.
An unlikely story
Just like Pizzagate, the Bodegraven story also centred around the idea of a satanic paedophilic cult, this time operating out of a playgroup and kindergarten in this picturesque town in the western Netherlands. The claims came from a former resident, Joost Knevel. In March 2020, Knevel, who has lived in Spain for several years, sent an email to the popular Dutch conspiracy theorist Martin Vrijland, in which he claimed to have recovered memories of satanic abuse and murder from his childhood in the 1980s. Knevel also claimed to have been involved in an MKUltra brainwashing experiment, a CIA operation in the US which ended in 1973. Knevel then joined forces with Wouter Raatgever, a “personal leadership coach” who had been involved in spreading anti-vaccination information, and Micha Kat, an ex-journalist and long-time conspiracy theorist. Soon, the story spread like a wildfire.
Together, the three published a series of Youtube videos under the name Red Pill Journal, beginning in December 2020. The name refers to the scene from The Matrix in which Neo must choose between remaining blissfully ignorant by taking the blue pill, or being confronted by an unsettling truth by taking the red one. Unsurprisingly, the scene is popular in conspiracy and men’s rights communities. The videos centred around the “PedoNetwerk Bodegraven,” and the satanic abuse Knevel claimed to have witnessed as a child there during the 1980s. Knevel named several children who he claimed had been murdered by this cult, detailing the violence he and others allegedly suffered.
He named a local doctor as the central perpetrator of this abuse. But when Raatgever and Kat became involved, a crucial character was added to the narrative. The name of Jaap van Dissel, a key advisor to the Dutch government during the coronavirus pandemic, was also inserted as one of the murderers. A professor in infectious diseases at Leiden University, van Dissel rose to prominence in the Netherlands in 2020 as chairperson of the Outbreak Management Team, a position which led him to become a central target of anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination activists. There is no evidence of him ever having lived in Bodegraven.
As well as identifying the culprits and the victims of this network of satanic abuse, the theory also developed to include other notable Bodegravers. Journalist Natalie Righton and politician Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert were drawn into the story as “elite children” who had been brainwashed and hypnotised, later being given top positions in Dutch society. Righton called these accusations nonsense: “Those people should be ashamed of themselves.”
The dozens of people who travelled to lay the flowers at the Vredehof cemetery had been influenced directly by the ideas of the Red Pill Journal. Notes attached to the bouquets contained messages which read: “For the victims of satanic abuse,” and “In honour of Joost Knevel and the other victims of satanic abuse #StopVanDissel.” Others named the children which Knevel claims were the victims of this abuse. The wife of the doctor claimed to have been the perpetrator of the abuse is also buried in Vredehof cemetery, and flowers were laid at her grave too.
One of the few YouTube videos which has not been removed by the platform, states that “thousands of people are joining the fight of the three warriors [Kat, Knevel and Raatgever, ed.].” It contains references to the QAnon conspiracy, such as “from dark to light,” a hint at the belief that QAnon followers are fighting a battle between good and evil, and “where we go one, we go all,” a popular rallying cry of the movement.
After two weeks of the town and its residents being bombarded by online and offline messages by conspiracy believers, the municipality of Bodegraven-Reeuwijk issued a statement condemning the actions at the graveyard, and sympathising with the people who were being affected by the strange events. In a statement, the mayor Christian van der Kamp said: “It is very painful and sometimes even threatening for the relatives of the deceased and for people who are wrongly accused.”
After taking steps to have the flowers removed from the cemetery, the mayor himself had received death threats from conspiracy believers who accused him of being involved in a cover-up. In another statement, the municipality also called for action at a national level to combat the spread of online conspiracy theories in the Netherlands. They stated that: “This incident at Bodegraven cemetery can be seen as an example of how conspiracy theorists engage our society with lies and deception and the role of social media in this.” They outlined the impact on the bereaved, who have had their deceased loved ones dragged into an absurd and made-up story.
A radicalisation gateway
There are several reasons why these particular theories grip people so strongly. Jelle van Buuren maintains it is no accident that children are so often the centre of these theories. “Since the beginning of time there have been conspiracy theories involving children,” he says. “They are a powerful symbol of innocence and for most people, the idea of child abuse stirs something very deep within them.”
Conjuring such imagery can be a very useful tool in mobilising people to take action, particularly those who may not be traditional sympathisers of conspiracy theories. Van Buuren characterises these conspiracies of paedophile networks as a “radicalisation gateway,” invoking a passionate response that can lead the way into more extreme conspiracy thinking. The effect is all the more powerful, given the many real crimes that have been recently exposed involving child abuse being concealed by influential people. Two cases in point are the history of abuse by Catholic Church clergymen and the Jeffrey Epstein case.
Once these fundamental fears have been accessed, and people have been convinced that something outrageous is happening, they are then told they must act. Van Buuren continues: “There is generally a sense of urgency in these calls to action, and people believe that they are taking part in a kind of ‘spiritual warfare’ of good versus evil.”
When people sincerely believe that they are fighting against evil, and trying to protect innocent children, any evidence to the contrary is often discounted or seen as further proof of a cover-up. In an interview with Trouw, Dutch psychologist Sander van der Linden said: “Conspiracy theorists do not correct themselves, which is what makes the phenomenon so difficult to combat. If you deny anything, you’re part of the plot.” The fact that there was no basement in Comet Ping Pong did not deter the believers of the Pizzagate conspiracy, just as the consistent statements from the families and officials in Bodegraven discrediting the theories have not appeared to hinder the hardcore believers that something awful had really taken place there.
In a statement made on television in March 2021, mayor Christian van der Kamp appealed to the believers directly in an attempt to dispel the disinformation they had received. “My call to the people of the Netherlands who think they are doing something good by bringing flowers to Bodegraven—stay away,” he said. “You are not doing anything good.”
A perfect storm
There are plenty of historical examples of conspiracy theories involving child abuse, from historic anti-Semitic theories to anti-German propaganda during the Second World War. But in 2021, we live in a uniquely fertile time for conspiracy thinking. “The coronavirus pandemic has been what I would call a ‘perfect storm’,” says Jelle van Buuren. “People are anxious and scared, which always makes people more sensitive to conspiracies. At the same time, people are also at home and spending more time online.” The people who would traditionally have been active in conspiracy circles—mostly male, and active on niche forums such as 4chan—have spread to a more mainstream audience in places like Facebook and Twitter. Coronavirus-related conspiracies have taken hold in other communities, such as those interested in alternative medicine, yoga and spirituality. Paedophilic conspiracies like those related to QAnon have since thrived in these communities, which crucially are populated mainly with women, many of them mothers.
Van Buuren outlines how those who seek to proliferate more extreme conspiracy theories have been able to do so by combining their own views with COVID-conspiracy ideas. While some spread such theories because of sincere beliefs that they are fighting a battle between good and evil, others use them for more nefarious purposes, such as recruiting into extremist networks. Others, with large followings, have found ways of monetizing their growing audiences. In 2021, a court in The Hague found that Wouter Raatgever had received some €15,000 in donations to the Red Pill Journal.
A 2020 survey from Kieskompas found that one-in-ten Dutch people believe some conspiracy theory about COVID-19, with one-in-five voters of the right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV) believing that the coronavirus vaccine contains a microchip. Across Europe, slogans and banners related to QAnon and other conspiracy theories have been seen during anti-lockdown protests. It is no coincidence that once Joost Knevel joined forces with Wouter Raatgever and Micha Kat, who had already been notorious for spreading coronavirus and vaccine misinformation for months, Jaap van Dissel became central to the Bodegraven conspiracy.
A day in Bodegraven
On a sunny day in September 2021, there is little evidence in Bodegraven of the bizarre events that occurred there six months earlier. The town of 19,000 inhabitants is classically picturesque Dutch: terraces and gardens overlooking the glistening water which runs past cobbled streets and boutique shops. Residents say hello as they cycle in pairs past each other, they read books on their balconies, trim their hedges and walk their dogs.
For many in the town—mainly those who were not directly involved in the conspiracy itself—the episodes of February and March feel distant. “For me it was really one crazy weekend in February when people put up signs around the town saying things like, ‘We need to get them [the alleged perpetrators of the abuse, ed.]’,” said Lamiya, a resident. “There was a lot of hype and many newspapers coming in too, but since then it’s been relatively quiet.”
If you cycle five minutes along the Oude Rijn river to the Vredehof cemetery at the very edge of the town, you can see one of the few pieces of evidence that things were not always so tranquil. An “Emergency Ordinance” notice, dated 17th March 2021, still stands at the entrance to the cemetery car park. It outlines the measures that the municipality has taken to combat the actions of the conspiracy theorists. “Since 3rd February 2021, dozens of unknown persons have repeatedly laid flowers in the vicinity of the Vredehof cemetery in Bodegraven and at the graves of children, some with texts that refer to alleged child abuse and/or ‘satanic paedo-terror’.” It continues to describe how these actions caused “great unrest and grief among the next of kin, and seriously disturbed the peace of the graveyard and invaded the privacy of dozens of people.” For these reasons the notice, signed by the mayor, stated that from 17th March to 14th September 2021, anyone who is not a partner or relative of a person buried in the cemetery is prohibited from entering the area other than to attend a funeral. Since the ordinance was put in place the cemetery, which is surrounded by fields as far as the eye can see, has gone back to its usual serenity. Jan and his colleagues at the municipality haven’t had to remove unwelcome flowers and messages in months. “We are just hoping that it stays this way,” he said.
The power of such broad conspiracies like QAnon is that almost any and all events can be used by supporters as evidence of a satanic network of global elites. This became clear when, as people were flocking to the Vredehof graves, floral tributes also appeared at the memorials of Marianne Vaastra and Nicky Verstappen. These two Dutch teenagers died in 1999 and 1998 respectively, and while both their deaths were linked to high-profile murder cases, there are no links between their murders, or between them and the town of Bodegraven. Marianne’s memorial is in the village of De Westereen in Friesland, many kilometres north of Bodegraven, whilst Nicky’s is on the opposite end of the country, on the Brunssummerheide nature reserve in Limburg. Messages contained on these tributes showed that they did not come from typical mourners. Many of the flowers came with notes referring to a “satanic elite” being responsible for the two murders, as well as explicit references to QAnon.
Shades of grey
Conspiracies often appear to pop out of nowhere, especially for those who are suddenly accused of being involved in something evil without any warning, and they often seem to retreat just as quickly as they arrived. However, these individual flashpoints often feed into a larger narrative, and are connected to one another by those who believe in it. New events and theories are added into the overarching conspiracy theories, and are linked to completely unrelated events which may have occurred decades ago. At the time of Marianne Vaastra’s murder, and in the 13 years before the offender was caught, conspiracy theories about her murderer abounded. While these theories originally claimed that Vaastra’s murderer was an asylum seeker, both Vaastra and Verstappen are now seen by those who believe in the QAnon conspiracy to have been murdered by a group of satanic elites. According to Van Buuren: “These conspiracy stories never really disappear. They are constantly being reconnected to new events.”
There are also many of the same characters who find themselves at the forefront of spreading these beliefs time and again. The three men at the centre of the disinformation campaign surrounding Bodegraven are no strangers to spreading falsehoods, and to rubbing up against authorities in the process. On the Red Pill Journal platform, they made specific reference to the QAnon conspiracy, as well as making direct threats to figures such as Jaap van Dissel, Mark Rutte, and Christian van der Kamp. In February 2021, both the municipality of Bodegraven and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), filed complaints against the three men for defamation, slander, and sedition. In June 2021, the national association of municipal health services (GGDs) also filed a complaint related to the Telegram message group operated by the men, The Batavian Republic, in which they had threatened workers at the vaccination centres.
However, according to Jelle van Buuren, prosecuting those spreading disinformation on the internet is not always easy. “The question is often about where to draw the line regarding freedom of expression, versus people who are causing actual harm,” he says. He is wary about giving more power to governments and social media platforms to control people’s speech. “People should be free to have whatever strange ideas they want, as long as they are not harming anyone.” When these ideas do cross the border into illegal activities like death threats and slander, such as in Bodegraven, police and other legal entities still struggle to use the law to combat this.
“You cannot bring every single message to court,” says Van Buuren. “So you have to look for the instigators, those who are really breaking the law or spreading hate speech.” The influence that conspiracy leaders such as Raatgever and Kat can exert on their followers is clear, and the legal recourse around this influence is still blurry. When Wouter Raatgever was charged by a court in The Hague in 2021 for his threats to Jaap van Dissel, the judge also mentioned the power Raatgever has over his sympathisers. Speaking about the danger that the Red Pill Journal poses to Dutch society, the judge described how two arrests for threats to Van Dissel in recent months had involved supporters of the Red Pill Journal.
What the landscape of conspiracy theories will look like in the next few years is still a mystery. Conspiracies such as QAnon are rising in Europe and elsewhere, and although some social media sites have cracked down on groups spreading fake news, it is still prevalent in messaging platforms such as Telegram and Whatsapp. Growing right-wing populist movements, combined with seeds of distrust in governments who are seen to have handled the pandemic response poorly, has led to concern from authorities that they no longer know how to stop the spread of disinformation. How is it possible that ordinary people can be mobilised to leave their homes during a cold February during a national lockdown, get on a train for several hours, visit a town they’ve never stepped foot in before, in order to pay homage to what they believe are victims of a satanic paedophile network which they learned about on the internet? If they believe this, what else are they capable of believing, and what actions are they capable of taking?
According to Van Buuren: “What governments now are most concerned about, is extremist organisations reaching out to what they see as a potential audience. They see increased distrust in the government and the media, and can tap into this.” However, he would urge us not to overreact. “It is important not to let ourselves buy into a moral panic,” Van Buuren argues. “While the amount of people who believe in conspiracies is rising, it is only a very tiny minority who break the law or become violent.”
Back in Bodegraven, things are back to normal. The emergency ordinance taken by the municipality to protect the graves at Vredehof was lifted on 14th September, and so far the cemetery has been as tranquil as the fields which surround it. The new mayor of Bodegraven-Reeuwijk, Eric van Heijningen, has promised to take a strong stand against the conspiracy theorists. In his statement upon taking office he claimed: “This nonsense must stop, this is a danger to society.”
However, falsehoods about Bodegraven continue to circulate online, and for those at the centre of the conspiracy—the relatives of the deceased, the accused, and the authorities—the ordeal is not over. While legal proceedings are ongoing, and Knevel, Raatgever, and Kat are all currently imprisoned, their followers are still active on social media. As successful vaccine campaigns allow countries to come out of lockdown, and people return to work and school, many societies are tentatively starting to look at what a post-coronavirus world might look like. It remains to be seen whether this tidal wave of conspiracy beliefs will ebb just as dramatically as it flowed into our lives during the coronavirus pandemic, as people’s lives are once again filled with offline distractions.