The Dark Ages were rife with plague, fanaticism, and accusations that Jews secretly fed off the blood of children. In 2020, we too are beset with plague, rampant medical misinformation, and a persistent rumor that “global elites” torture children to harvest the chemical adrenochrome from their blood, which they then inject in order to stay healthy and young.
A favorite topic of interconnected QAnon and Pizzagate conspiracy communities, so-called “adrenochrome harvesting” long predates these groups. It has, however, resurrected during the Covid-19 pandemic. Google Trends shows significant spikes in searches for adrenochrome in March and June of 2020. It’s prevalent on TikTok, Youtube, and Instagram. Reddit removed a dedicated adrenochrome subreddit on July 30. On Friday, July 31, conspiracy theorists plan to hold the first “Child Lives Matter” protest in Hollywood to “expose” child trafficking, advertising the event with references to #adrenochrome.
The adrenochrome harvesting conspiracy theory is a potent example of “hidden virality” and the ways in which unpopular culture animate social media platforms outside of the mainstream view. Named by researchers Britt Parris and Joan Donovan, hidden virality describes dominant content in specific pockets of the internet that are largely unseen by journalists and mass audiences, making them difficult for social media companies to identify and act upon. The impact of hidden virality can’t be stopped by retroactively banning a few thousand Twitter accounts; it is an iterative, memetic phenomenon that outpaces terms of service. Even with early intervention by Reddit and recent movements by Twitter, Facebook and TikTok to crack down on QAnon, adrenochrome harvesting remains a mainstream conversation for some online communities.
Toxic social attitudes spread virally alongside hoaxes and disinformation. Adrenochrome harvesting isn’t outwardly blamed on Jews, but on “satanic” and “globalist” elites—dog whistle terms for the far right. The modern adrenochrome obsession is a permutation of blood libel, an anti-Semitic myth that pervaded Europe throughout the middle ages, and a mutated strain of medical misinformation.
The Lineage of a New Blood Libel
The most effective conspiracy theories are built around kernels of truth. Adrenochrome is a compound that occurs in the body, but about which little scientific research has been done beyond a few studies in the mid-20th century on whether it could play a role in schizophrenia. The question transfixed the writers Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson, who were obsessed with mind-altering substances. To them, adrenochrome became a psychotropic, akin to mescaline. In his famous Doors of Perception, written just after the first adrenochrome studies, Huxley described adrenochrome as a clue that was “being systematically followed.” “The sleuths—biochemists, psychiatrists, psychologists—are on the trail,” he wrote. Biologists didn’t find much of interest.
Nearly 20 years later, Thompson cast adrenochrome as a psychedelic that must be violently extracted from human glands in his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The scene was immortalized in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film; a YouTube clip of Johnny Depp’s character taking adrenochrome, which to date has more than 1.7 million views, has drawn thousands of comments referencing the conspiracy.
Thompson is explicitly invoked in what seems to be the earliest recorded posts about adrenochrome harvesting on 4Chan’s /x/ and /pol/ boards, in 2013 and 2014 respectively. In an anti-Semitic 4chan /pol/ thread an anonymous poster linked a restricted, unsearchable video named “Jew Ritual BLOOD LIBEL Sacrifice is #ADRENOCHROME Harvesting.” Within these same online communities, Pizzagate formalized and grew in 2015–2016 before spreading to more mainstream social media.
In 2016 this same video was shared in a Pizzagate thread about the artist Marina Abromovich and her “spirit cooking” ceremonies. The next several months saw increasingly outlandish claims online, particularly that the Pixar film Monsters Inc. was a cryptic reference to adrenochrome harvesting. As some Pizzagate adherents entered the burgeoning QAnon community in 2017, they brought the adrenochrome conspiracy with them.
These factions expanded their audiences in 2018, citing new “investigations” and circulating the rumor that a (hoax) website sold adrenochrome in exchange for cryptocurrency. Conspiracy filmmaker Jay Myers released a video, “Adrenochrome The Elite's Secret Super Drug!” While the original video was taken down, it remains live on his backup channel and has been uploaded elsewhere online.
In February 2019, Infowars featured a segment on adrenochrome, linking it to the Clinton Foundation via epipen manufacturers, and to the highly controversial “young blood” transfusion startup Ambrosia. A month later, adrenochrome “documentaries” began to emerge on YouTube, followed by many smaller copycat productions, helping form a searchable foundation for the current day conspiracy.
The recent surge in interest can be traced to March 2020 and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Celebrities posting photos of themselves stuck at home and looking less than camera ready were besieged on social media with accusations that they were suffering from adrenochrome withdrawal. (In their logic, shutdowns had stalled the adrenochrome child-trafficking supply chain.) By commenting on these posts, believers spread the adrenochrome hashtag to new eyes while harassing their targets.
Despite this increased visibility, conspiracy outlets accused major social media platforms and media of plotting to suppress the truth about adrenochrome. Adrenochrome conversation continued and intensified on social media, from claims Lady Gaga was participating in blood rituals for an adrenochrome fix, to the Covid-19 “spiked adrenochrome’ theory popularized by Pizzagate booster Liz Crokin. Despite claims of censorship, Google trend results showed that spamming celebrities' pages with mentions of adrenochrome was working, leading to a spike in search traffic and social media conversation.
How Hidden Virality Happens
Unpopular ideas and small disinformation campaigns often go unreported, either unseen or ignored by platforms and mainstream press. The longer an infectiously bad idea goes undetected and undebunked, the more likely it is to spread and develop social importance. This phenomenon has enabled the rapid growth of antivax communities, Covid-19 disinformation, and the prevalence of the adrenochrome harvesting theory.
This is all possible because of how social media and search engines work. As a result of the relative unimportance of adrenochrome, it doesn’t get written about much by scientists, journalists, or academics. This creates a data void, a vacuum of trustworthy information unpopulated by authoritative sources. Within a data void, search algorithms surface what's available rather than well-curated local, timely, and relevant content. This is the perfect condition for a viral infection of misinformation and conspiracism.
A Google search for “adrenochrome” prompts a knowledge panel, an automatically generated information box sourced from Wikipedia, with a description of the compound and some scholarly research. However, the edit history of that Wikipedia article reveals that in the last few months editors have constantly been removing attempts to add disinformation. On Google Images, viewers are faced with an onslaught of infographics about missing children, doctored images of celebrities and politicians, and instructions for how to find further troves of “evidence.” DuckDuckGo and other search engines return even more outrageous findings in initial search results.
Pizzagate, QAnon, and other online conspiracy communities encourage newcomers to “Google” an obscure phrase designed to lead down a rabbit hole. This takes them to obscure, debunked publications or reports, as well as carefully curated collections of PDFs. Elements of real science are merged into factually incoherent frames, resulting in troves of documentation, hard to find in the mainstream search engines. These are foundations of sustaining the hidden virality of otherwise baseless ideas. Whittled down to memes and viral slogans, the new conspiracies spread effortlessly across platforms via hashtags and comments.
Why Is Adrenochrome Having a Moment and What Can Be Done?
The pandemic has created an unprecedented level of mistrust and anxiety about inequality, which opens society to all kinds of conspiratorial thinking, and especially to medical misinformation. As interest in adrenochrome was first spiking in March, people were upset that celebrities and athletes seemed to have access to testing that others did not. Attitudes to proposed Covid-19 treatments quickly became politically polarized, as did a rise in mainstream conservative acknowledgement of QAnon and a slew of Republican candidates signaling their attachment to the movement. Articles in conservative publications, like this Spectator takedown by Ben Sixsmith, are a critical intervention to halt the progress of conspiracists operating largely unchecked in ideological echo chambers.
The best way for platforms to fight back is to take early action when something begins to go viral in hidden spaces. Early detection requires knowledge of where conspiracy theories originate online and reliable measurements of how they scale, and it needs to be followed by active promotion of authoritative content that can inoculate against the disinformation. Tech companies must also get better at indexing images and memes. Platforms need to identify disinformation within obscure medical topics that don't have much information, and seek collaborations with experts who could get ahead of these trends with timely relevant information.
The adrenochrome obsession shows just how hard it is to combat data voids. Would a peer-reviewed study on andrenochrome’s inability to reanimate aging global elites even impact the communities that spread these complex falsehoods? Probably not. To date, Pinterest has taken the most aggressive action against the adrenochrome hashtag, directing users to a page about medical misinformation when they search for the word in an effort to curb hidden virality.
And as tech companies commit to eradicating hate speech and medical misinformation on their platforms, they must recognize the bigotry laundered through modern conspiracy. During Thursday’s House Antitrust Subcommittee hearing with big tech CEOs, thousands of commenters left QAnon slogans, and even some references to adrenochrome, in the chat of Fox News’ livestream. The popularity of adrenochrome harvesting theories shows how motivated actors remain two steps ahead of intervention, and how our information systems, if uncorrected, may accelerate the arrival of a new dark age.
Updated 8/2/2020 9:30pm: A previous version of this article stated the adrenochrome conspiracy was prevalent on Reddit. On July 30, Reddit banned a subreddit on adrenochrome.