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Vatican blackout hoax linked to ItalyGate conspiracy theory

Vatican blackout

Italy-related conspiracy theories are circulating around the cybersphere. In the latest, Pope Francis has been “arrested” and police covered the operation by inducing a blackout. Some users say this is the beginning of The Storm, what QAnon followers believe to be the final battle between good and evil

One of the latest trends in conspiracy internet revolves around Italy. Yesterday we examined “ItalyGate”, the bogus theory that Italian operatives were responsible for shifting votes in the 2020 US elections, favouring President-elect Joe Biden.

Over the weekend, however, conspiracy-minded users were on a roll. Chances are that Wednesday’s assault on Capitol Hill in Washington excited them, leading some to believe that a reckoning was close. Thus, another “report” – loosely connected to ItalyGate – emerged on Saturday morning.

On that day, the Canadian disinformation website Conservative Beaver published a rather interesting piece. The article drew on several unconfirmed tweets by obscure users to support the theory that Pope Francis “was arrested Saturday in connection with an 80-count indictment of charges including possession of child pornography, human trafficking, incest, possession of drug paraphernalia and felony fraud.”

“Pope Francis is currently being held in an unknown prison,” reads the piece, “being interrogated by Federal Agents working for the state of Italy and Interpol.” It also alleged that the FBI was flying in to “interrogate” the Pope and some cardinals, as well as other Italian officials who took part in the ItalyGate conspiracy.

As this kind of theory goes, connections must be drawn up to make it more credible. So, according to the Beaver, the whole operation had been covered by a police-induced, Vatican-wide blackout. The proof? A poor-quality video featuring the lights of St Peter’s as they would appear from a security camera at night. Also, an Apple Maps screen grab (from an American phone, judging by the carrier) showing multiple roadblocks across Rome.

When the theory began to spread, users were quick to unite the dots between the purported Vatican blackout and two other similar events. The first, a major power outage in Pakistan, is true and verifiable – a technical failure according to the Pakistani PM. The second, a similar blackout in Berlin, never happened.

Nonetheless, some QAnon supporters became convinced that this was the beginning of the end. One of the core tenets of that sprawling and complex network of conspiracy theories is “The Storm,” the final showdown between the forces of good – “patriots,” led by US President Donald Trump – and evil – the Satanist, paedophilic cabal of blood-drinking élites who secretly runs the world –, also known as the “deep state.”

QAnon adepts perceive themselves as God-chosen digital soldiers in the service of truth, with the goal of overthrowing the deep state and restoring peace and justice. The Storm is supposed to be a quasi-apocalyptic event, where their tireless work of “research” and “self-education” finally comes to fruition, as they will be able to identify and neutralise their enemies.

When the US 2020 election result clearly indicated Mr Biden’s victory, contradicting the predictions of QAnon followers (and their original source, the mystical “Q”, who communicates with them via cryptic posts on the 8kun online message board), Q influencers raced to explain that the process was rigged, urging acolytes to stay calm, as it was “all part of the plan.”

One of the most shared explanations posited that Vice-President Mike Pence had the ability to reject a Biden presidency during a rubber-stamp procedure intended to formalise Mr Biden’s victory, on January 6th. Several dozen Republicans, and President Trump himself, upheld this theory.

This was the cue for many QAnon followers, the new date for The Storm. After a Trump rally in Washington, some took the President seriously when he urged them to interrupt the rubber-stamping ceremony, which they believe was the last chance to stop “the steal [of Mr Trump’s victory].”

“We’re going to walk down to the Capitol […] Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong,” said Mr Trump before returning to the White House. The rest is (recent) history.

Circling back to Italy, the Vatican blackout conspiracy was yet another acknowledgement of The Storm, or at least an attempt to sell its idea. As Mr Biden’s inauguration is due on January 20th, and as QAnon adepts become more frantic, similar theories are likely to appear by then.

As for the Pope, he is perfectly fine and obviously free, if only for the fact that Italy, not being a federation, does not have a “Federal Police.” No such report ever appeared on traditional media outlets, and the leader of the Catholic Church appeared during Sunday’s morning prayer on livestream.

The blogger Cesare Sacchetti, ranked by NewsGuard among the 5 most prolific disinformation peddlers in Italy, was one of the forerunners of the ItalyGate theory. He initially admitted that the Pope’s arrest was “fake,” before backtracking.  He did, however, claim that “gunshots” were heard in a video shot by the Vatican.

Francis’ choice not to participate in a traditional baptism ceremony on Sunday – which conspiracists read as proof of his arrest – was due to sanitary, Covid-19 related reasons. But after all, according to some in the QAnon galaxy, the Sunday prayer was pre-recorded. That, or the Pope – like other powerful figures around the world – might be a clone.


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