Former US president Barack Obama addresses a town hall in Berlin, Germany on April 6, 2019 (AFP / John MacDougall)

Conspiracy theory falsely links Obama to sexual misconduct

Copyright AFP 2017-2021. All rights reserved.

Social media posts tied to the QAnon conspiracy theory suggest that photos show former US president Barack Obama and actor George Clooney abusing a child. This is false; the photographer who took the photos in Italy said he did not see anything suspicious, and other images suggest the girl is Obama’s niece.

“He see he got caught,” claim Facebook posts trying to paint Obama and Clooney as being among the liberal politicians and celebrities whom the widespread conspiracy theory claims are pedophiles.

They include at least three photos of the former US president and the actor on a boat, accompanied by a young looking girl the posts imply is a victim. 

Screenshot of a Facebook post taken on August 13, 2020

In one of the images, a red arrow points to Clooney’s hands on his belt while a second points to the head of the girl. In another, the girl is circled in yellow with her arms extending outwards while holding a piece of fabric, leaving some commenters wondering if she is taking off her shirt. 

Some versions of the claim feature a fourth photo of Obama in the Oval Office, a young girl sitting on his lap.

Screenshot of a Facebook post taken on August 13, 2020

All four photos are real, but social media users are drawing false conclusions about them.

The girl sitting in Obama’s lap is his niece. The photo was taken on December 4, 2015 by official White House photographer Pete Souza, who published the photo on his personal blog with the caption: “The President snuggles with his niece Savita Ng after his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, and her family dropped by the Oval Office.”

The photos on the boat were taken in June 2019 on Italy’s Como Lake, when Obama and his family visited Clooney in a mansion there. 

Matteo Bazzi, a photographer for the Italian news agency ANSA, confirmed to AFP via LinkedIn that he took the photos from that angle. Bazzi agreed to look through his photos from that day, and did not spot anything suspicious happening on the boat.

“I was not aware of this gossip,” Bazzi said.

While the photos used in the posts suggest that Clooney and Obama were among men on the boat, other photos show that they were accompanied by Clooney’s wife Amal, Obama’s wife Michelle and their daughters Sasha and Malia, as well as other friends and relatives. 

Screenshot of an Instagram post taken on August 13, 2020
Screenshot of an Instagram post taken on August 13, 2020

 

One video posted on Instagram by a local newspaper shows all the guests coming back to a hotel, with the young woman preceding all the others. Translated from Italian, the caption reads, “First come the daughters and relatives.” 

Although it is not certain that the girl is Savita Ng, her father Konrad Ng posted photos on Instagram geotagged Lake Como on June 25, 2020, including a video shot from a boat on the lake, suggesting that the family was present.

Screenshot of an Instagram post taken on August 13, 2020

Ng also posted a photo geotagged in the southern French city of Avignon just days before, where the Obamas were also vacationing prior to Como.

QAnon ties

The first suggestions of foul play appears to have emerged from the now-suspended Twitter account @WinstonCovfefe just days after the Obamas’ Italian vacation in August 2019. Fact-checking website Snopes pointed out that the account was responsible for other hoaxes in the past.

As the photos resurfaced in August 2020, most versions of the hoax featured the hashtag #SaveTheChildren or #SaveOurChildren, while some YouTube videos and tweets provide more explicit information accusing the two men of molesting the child.

Starting in July 2020, the two hashtags were appropriated by followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory. QAnon adherents believe that a secret “Deep State” cabal is composed of various liberal personalities including the Clintons, the Obamas, or Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, whom President Donald Trump aims to take down. 

The theory holds that these personalities all secretly engage in perverted pedophilic behaviour, which provides a narrative for the Clooney and Obama photos. 

“What QAnon has done is they folded in several forms of anti-pedophile conspiracy investigations that previously existed online to sort of streamline them for a more mainstream conservative audience,” Brian Friedberg, a researcher at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, told AFP, adding that any theory can be worked into its canon. 

Once a marginal theory, QAnon is moving into the mainstream through politicians, including one who recently won a primary contest in Georgia.

AFP has debunked other false QAnon claims in the past.