Viral and fake rumors that Pope Francis was arrested are being spread by far-right conspiracy theorists

pope francis arrested conspiracy theory
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  • An article on a right-wing website plagiarized an Associated Press article to falsely claim that Pope Francis was arrested on human trafficking charges.

  • A representative for the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations told Insider that the conspiracy theory was "fake news."

  • The allegation is the latest in a long line of far-right conspiracy theorists baselessly alleging that famous figures are involved in trafficking.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

A false claim alleging that Pope Francis was arrested gained wide attention over the weekend and continues to live on via mainstream platforms.

Far-right conspiracy theorists have continued to accuse famous figures of pedophilia and human trafficking without evidence. The Pope was not arrested, but baseless allegations that he was involved in human trafficking have continued to spread after a right-wing website published a false article on Sunday. The "Conservative Beaver" article and rumors on a fringe messageboard propagated the baseless claim.

The "Conservative Beaver" article plagiarized a September story by the Associated Press to feign its sourcing, Insider found, lifting language that Italian prosecutor Giuseppe Governale used when speaking to the AP for an article about the Ndrangheta mob. Referring to Governale's statements on the mob, the AP reported: "Giuseppe Governale, Italy's chief anti-mafia prosecutor, said the group was 'underestimated' and particularly dangerous because of its ability to proliferate across nations and infiltrate them." The "Conservative Beaver" article used nearly identical phrasing, but purported that Governale's quotes were actually related to the fictional arrest of the Pope.

The article also claimed that the "Italian National Prosecutor's Office" had "ordered" the arrest of the Pope on charges that included possession of child pornography and human trafficking. There is no such prosecutor's office in Italy. The General Prosecution Office at the Italian Supreme Court did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

When reached by phone, a representative for the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, which represents the Vatican's government at the UN, told Insider that the conspiracy theory was "fake news." A livestream posted by the Vatican's YouTube channel Sunday showed Pope Francis reciting prayers the day after he was falsely accused of having been arrested.

The "Conservative Beaver" article has 111 comments on it as of Monday afternoon, one day after it was posted, and tweets linking to the page have received thousands of likes. In November and December, the website averaged more than 20,000 total daily visits, according to SimilarWeb, a digital analytics firm.

An email address listed for the website, which is based in Canada, did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

The phrase "pope arrested" has been used in more than 6,800 tweets since Sunday, according to research conducted by Cody Webb, a researcher at ProjectDomino, a nonprofit research platform that uses open-source investigation.

Many tweets promoting the conspiracy theory on Sunday were from accounts that demonstrated a belief in QAnon, a baseless far-right conspiracy theory that alleges President Donald Trump is fighting a "deep state" cabal of pedophiles and human traffickers.

Read More: The QAnon conspiracy theory and a stew of misinformation fueled the insurrection at the Capitol

Val Venis, a Canadian wrestler who has previously tweeted about conspiracy theories associated with QAnon, also shared the false Pope allegation on Sunday evening with his 32,000 Twitter followers.

The conspiracy theory found a wider audience on YouTube. A video titled "NAVY SEALCONFIRMS POPE ARRESTED AND INSURRECTION ACT SIGNED" has been viewed nearly 300,000 times.

The misinformation first appeared to originate on 4chan, the fringe messageboard that's been known to host extremist content, on Sunday. Replies in the thread featured additional misinformation. The fake news comes just days after the proliferation of misinformation online contributed to the violent insurrection at the US Capitol on Wednesday.

Conspiracy theories falsely alleging that famous people were arrested have become a staple of QAnon

save the children man arrested baby murder charge
People march during a "Save the Children" rally outside the Capitol building on August 22, 2020 in St Paul, Minnesota. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The conspiracy theory began in 2017 with a cryptic post by an anonymous 4chan user who would become "Q," the movement's leader. That original post baselessly alleged that Hillary Clinton would soon be arrested in relation to human-trafficking charges. The conspiracy theory originated from "Pizzagate," the 2016 4chan fiction that alleged Clinton and her staff ran a trafficking ring out of a Washington, DC, pizza restaurant.

That prophecy never came true - Clinton was not arrested. Neither were many of the other figures baselessly accused of trafficking by QAnon devotees in the years since then, including Oprah Winfrey, Hilary Duff, and Chrissy Teigen. Online harassment of Teigen, who has become a main target of QAnon believers, became so severe that when she lost her child last year, followers of the conspiracy theory overran her Instagram comments with abuse.

Read More: QAnon conspiracy theorists are attacking Chrissy Teigen after she lost her pregnancy. Platforms are struggling to control it.

The QAnon community's obsession with alleged pedophilia reached new popularity over the summer, as the conspiracy-theory movement rebranded to focus on a "Save the Children" battlecry. The shift in rhetoric contributed to the mainstreaming of the conspiracy theory, as it was introduced to a new demographic: lifestyle and wellness Instagram influencers.

But rather than focusing on actual issues of human trafficking and pedophilia, the conspiracy-theory movement continues to brandish pedophilia as an insult against their enemies, like Democrats and other elite figures. Human-trafficking experts have warned that the baseless accusations spread by QAnon followers, including the false claims that the Wayfair furniture company was selling human children online, only prevent trafficking groups from helping people who need it.

Read the original article on Insider