U.S. extremists dabble in #FreeBritney conspiracy theories

Politically driven fringes look to pop

U.S. extremists dabble in #FreeBritney conspiracy theories

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Politically driven fringes look to pop star’s predicament to validate their conspiracy theories

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) speaks during a protest in support of pop star Britney Spears on the day of a conservatorship case hearing at Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles, California, U.S., July 14, 2021. (Source: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni)

By Jared Holt

Conspiracy-driven extremists in the United States have produced content under the banner of the broader #FreeBritney campaign, collectively attracting millions of viewers in recent weeks.

#FreeBritney is an online campaign extending from public debate over pop music star Britney Spears’ mental health and a court-appointed conservatorship that has placed control of her financial assets and estate at the direction of her father, Jamie Spears. The New York Times reports that the #FreeBritney campaign has existed in various forms online for more than a decade and received an influx of attention after a podcast dedicated to analyzing Spears’ Instagram posts shared an anonymous voicemail from an individual claiming to be a paralegal involved in the pop star’s conservatorship court battle in 2020. A journalistic documentary focused on Spears’ situation has brought additional attention to the issue.

The campaign, which has been endorsed and promoted by prominent celebrities, harbors its own micro-universe of conspiratorial claims. Some circles behave in ways trademark to other online conspiracy communities: scouring videos for would-be hidden symbols, attempting to derive ulterior meaning from messages in song lyrics and online posts, and constructing webs of baseless claims from scant evidence. In recent weeks, politically motivated conspiracy theorists have sought to appeal to the hyper-conspiratorial portion of the broader movement.

Some of these theories have worked their ways into broader right-wing media online. Right-wing talk show host Glenn Beck cited Spears’ situation to make sweeping comparisons to “red flag” gun laws, which seek to confiscate firearms from individuals with a potential for violence, and to invoke claims about the Bill of Rights being violated in America.

The week of July 12, 2021, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) appeared at a #FreeBritney rally in Washington, D.C. Gaetz had previously signed on to a letter co-signed by Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Andy Biggs (R-AZ), and Burgess Owen (R-UT) that invited Spears to testify about her situation before Congress. The four signing members of Congress have either interacted directly with the QAnon conspiracy theory or supported Greene’s candidacy despite her ties to QAnon.

Those attempts to mesh conspiracy-driven political extremist messaging with the #FreeBritney campaign online echoes the 2020 push by QAnon promoters to spread an online campaign called “Save the Children,” during which QAnon believers were successful in taking their outlandish claims to large audiences beyond their typical reach. Though the DFRLab was able to identify several prominent instances of U.S. extremist conspiracy theorists piggybacking off the wider #FreeBritney campaign, these modern efforts have paled in comparison to prior instances in respects to scale and efficiency.

Among successful attempts to merge Spears coverage with extremist ideologies has been Infowars, the media operation of Texas-based anti-government conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. On a web platform built and maintained by Infowars, a producer for the network named Greg Reese has accumulated nearly 300,000 views on a video that, among other things, claims that Spears was “groomed” to appear on a Disney television show “during a time the company was rife with pedophiles,” echoing a handful of conspiracy theories about widespread child abuse in the entertainment industry. Reese alleges that Spears may have been a victim of government-conducted “trauma-based mind-control programs” like MK-Ultra.

Another video posted on Infowars’ platform featured attorney Robert Barnes, who alternates between advocating for Jones in defamation lawsuits and appearing as a personality on Jones’ network. He claimed that billionaires Bill Gates and George Soros “want to treat all of us the way those conservators have treated Britney Spears” and will use “things like COVID as a pretext and a predicate” for oppression. Spears, Barnes claims, is a “red flag of what’s to come.” The video featuring Barnes received more than 250,000 views at the time of publication.

Liz Crokin, a notorious promoter of QAnon and Pizzagate conspiracy theories, has also shown interest in Spears’ conservatorship situation and has been explicit in her desires to spin the situation to validate her own outlandish theories. Crokin has gone so far as to create a Telegram channel dedicated to Spears content, which amassed thousands of followers in its first day alone.

In a post to her Telegram channel on June 30, Crokin claimed that Spears’ situation “ties directly to Pizzagate” and that she believes raising attention to Spears’ situation will serve to rescue those “enslaved & abused by the same Satanic Hollywood machine!” On July 9, Crokin posted a screenshot of a Q post to Telegram while discussing Spears, rhetorically asking: “Who exposed the pedo network in Hollywood? You will laugh when details are exposed. Paris? Britney? Miley? Kim? Never underestimate the genius of this [QAnon] operation.”

Screencap of a post to Liz Crokin’s Telegram channel in which the poster claims that Britney Spears’ conservatorship situation “ties directly to Pizzagate.” The post had been viewed 278,000 times at the time of research. (Source: Telegram)

Building off a post by Crokin, a pro-QAnon Telegram channel called “Pepe Lives Matter” theorized that Spears wore a top “17 times” to signal “Q” (the 17th letter of the English alphabet) to its more than 100,000 followers.

Screencap of a post on pro-QAnon Telegram channel “Pepe Lives Matter” showing that it had been viewed more than 80,000 times at the time of research. The post insinuated that Britney Spears wore a top “17 times” in reference to QAnon. (Source: Telegram)

On a conspiracy theory-pushing YouTube channel uploaded July 1, a man named Alan Fountain claimed that Spears was “probably under what you call an M.K. Ultra mind-control program.” Fountain claimed that Spears’ alleged inability to change the color of her kitchen cabinets without permission was potential evidence to support his claim, suggesting that “the color code was part of her programming to keep her docile.” Fountain asserted: “This is what the deep state does.” His claims received nearly 38,000 views.

A count of appearances on alternative social media platforms popular with far-right users conducted via the Social Media Analysis Toolkit (SMAT) found a noticeable uptick in Spears-related chatter in recent months. On a forum board populated by the remnants of a pro-QAnon community banned from Reddit in 2018, more than two dozen threads have appeared in recent months discussing Spears.

Though discussions of Spears have grown in U.S. conspiracy-driven extremist communities, some content relating to Spears existed prior to recent flares. On the alternative video site Bitchute, a 2020 video with thousands of views attempts to link the Spears situation to Pizzagate. That same year, Nick Alvear, who was charged in connection to the January 6 Capitol riot after being filmed smoking cannabis in the Capitol Rotunda, produced a video about Spears alluding to government mind control programs. Earlier, in 2019, an article from junk news conspiracy site Vigilant Citizen asked whether Spears was “being held against her will for MKULTRA reprogramming.” The Vigilant Citizen article has been shared hundreds of times on Facebook.

Jared Holt is Visiting Research Fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Cite this case study:

Jared Holt, “U.S. extremists dabble in #FreeBritney conspiracy theories,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), July 16, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/u-s-extremists-dabble-in-freebritney-theories-472887cd7853.

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