Earlier this week, amidst the throngs of Britney Spears fans gathered outside a Los Angeles courthouse to protest the singer’s conservatorship case, a newcomer arrived at the rally, wearing glasses and a navy blue suit. The newcomer was Rep. Matt Gaetz, the right-wing congressman currently under investigation for allegations of sex trafficking and having sex with a minor. “There were grifters in this process that tried to act like they spoke for Britney,” an impassioned Gaetz said to cheers from the crowd, “that they knew what she wanted. Well, now the whole world knows what Britney Spears wants, and it is the freedom and liberty that should be offered to every single American.” Gaetz then called Jamie Spears, Britney’s father, a “dick” to wild cheers before calling out Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Jerry Nadler for failing to “join our bipartisan effort to create a federal cause of action for people who are constrained of their liberty through guardianship and conservatorship.”
Despite his warm reception at the rally, many on social media following the #FreeBritney movement were puzzled by Gaetz’s presence, accusing him of trying to hijack the movement to distract from his own legal struggles; many also pointed out the irony of Gaetz being accused of trafficking and publicly advocating for the rights of a vulnerable woman.
But the #FreeBritney movement has also more broadly served as a talking point within the mainstream GOP. On Wednesday, Forbes reported that the National Republican Congressional Committee has been using Spears’ case as part of its text message fundraising efforts, referring to her in texts to donors as “a victim of toxic gov’t overreach & censorship”; Gaetz and other Republicans, including QAnon supporter Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, have also issued a formal invite to Spears to testify before Congress about her conservatorship struggles. And within far-right circles on the internet, the #FreeBritney case has been a flashpoint of discussion, in large part due to the issues it raises of sovereignty and bodily autonomy.
WATCH: Congressman Matt Gaetz speaks at the @FreeBritneyLA rally:
“Britney Spears has been abused by the media, a grifter father, and the American justice system.
— Rep. Matt Gaetz (@RepMattGaetz) July 14, 2021
On Instagram, far-right influencers and promoters of the anti-trafficking #SaveTheChildren campaign have been posting about Spears for weeks. Indeed, one of the top posts under the #FreeBritney hashtag on Instagram is a meme posted on the page for the Free Thought Project, a conspiracy theory account with 367,000 followers. “If Britney’s father’s conservatorship upsets you, just wait until you realize you are in a conservatorship with government,” the post, which has 12,481 likes, says.
A number of anti-vaccine accounts on Instagram have also shared content comparing Spears’s tearful testimony that she was forced by her father and handlers to have an IUD, to being forced to take a COVID vaccine. “You are no different than the people forcing Britney Spears to have an IUD and take the medication she does not want to if you feel everyone should get vaccinated even if they don’t want to,” reads the text for one viral tweet, which has been screengrabbed and shared widely on Instagram.
On Thursday, Vice reported that QAnon influencer Liz Crokin had started a Telegram group called #FreeBritney tying Spears’s case to the “epidemic” of rampant child sex trafficking in Hollywood, a common talking point among adherents of the conspiracy theory. “Britney Spears is a trafficking victim, period. My work has primarily focused on exposing trafficking specifically in Hollywood for literally the past five years. The situation with Britney ties directly to Pizzagate, and the exposure of what happened to her can potentially lead to the bigger exposure of the epidemic of trafficking of stars in Hollywood,” Crokin wrote in her group, which has about 3,000 followers.
A prominent QAnon Telegram group with more than 100,000 members has been regularly posting about the case, referring to Spears, 39, as a trafficking victim and accusing the mainstream media of covering up her ongoing abuse (despite the fact that the media has been reporting nonstop on Spears’s conservatorship case for years). “Choosing a deadbeat puppet in her father to force her into full-blown human slavery, while elite Deep State handlers pocket her earnings, is disgusting beyond words and deserves as much of a spotlight as child sex trafficking through the Southern Border,” Joe M., a QAnon influencer, wrote in one post.
Given the widespread support for the #FreeBritney movement, it makes sense why people on the far right would be attracted to the case, says Mike Rothschild, author of the QAnon book The Storm Is Upon Us. “For Gaetz and MTG to show up at #FreeBritney rallies is purely about publicity, in my opinion at least,” he tells Rolling Stone. But more broadly, considering the themes of bodily autonomy and sovereignty that underscore the case, “it’s also an easy way of getting their ‘government is bad’ message across, and scaring people into thinking that a tyrannical government can do this to anyone.”
Those who have embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory, as well as adjacent anti-child trafficking conspiracy theories (such as the #SaveTheChildren movement) that have surfaced over the past few years, see the #FreeBritney movement as a real-life, concrete example of Hollywood abusing young women and violating their consent. “I’ve seen some of the big Q personalities hold [Spears] up as an example of what celebrity handlers do to vulnerable minds, which is, of course, hilarious coming from promoters of a conspiracy theory that exploits vulnerable minds,” Rothschild says. “[Generally] speaking, Q and #SaveTheChildren people grab on to anyone they can use an example of the deep state’s evil trafficking rings.”
Of course, what makes this narrative so sticky, particularly in the case of the #FreeBritney movement, is the fact that there are elements of truth to it: per her own tearful account given in court last month, Spears has been subject to what appear to be numerous human rights violations for years, at the hands of people with a vested financial interest in maintaining control over her. And while that has rightfully prompted the ire of many of her supporters, as well as drawn attention to wider issues surrounding disability rights and conservatorship abuse, it doesn’t make Spears an elite Deep State trafficking victim (even though she herself has used such language to describe her situation), nor does it make her story (the details of which, it must be noted, the public is only semi-privy to) a shining cautionary tale about the dangers of government overreach. Hers is a very sad story, but it’s not a story onto which cynical influencers and politicians of all stripes can project their own agendas, even if people like Gaetz and Crokin would like it to be so.
Overall, the far-right coopting the #FreeBritney movement has some dangerous implications, even though it is currently happening at a relatively small scale. “It definitely could drag more people into the Q mythology, which is always a risk when these movements reshape themselves to become more mainstream and less lurid,” says Rothschild. “It won’t be branded as Q, since they’re dropping that branding. But people searching for #FreeBritney stuff who find anti-vax, anti-government, or anti-Semitic content could easily get Q-pilled.”