In Belgium, a revised sexual and relational educational guide called EVRAS has sparked a wildfire of online disinformation, leading to real-world damage and unrest. Falsely accused of promoting a so called “World Sexual order” agenda, its effects on democracy are unfolding. In just a few weeks, we’ve seen demonstrations growing, elected representatives harassed, and schools set ablaze. As digital myths blur with reality, the urgency to combat such narratives becomes ever clearer.
The Wallonia-Brussels Federation, which oversees education in Belgian French-speaking schools, recently revised an instructional material known as the EVRAS guide. This guide aims to equip school educators with the resources to facilitate education of youngsters on life’s relational, emotional, and sexual aspects.
This update ignited a surge of online misinformation, falsely depicting the guide and the sex education courses in primary and secondary schools as tools for the sexualisation of children to satisfy a claimed paedophile agenda. Although such a claim is patently false, several posts advocating this narrative have amassed over a million views on TikTok. Notably, some French influencers and renowned artists have boarded this misinformation train, publicly endorsing petitions to abolish the educational program.
Researchers of the counter-disinformation community are often asked the following question: “What’s the real impact on the general public?” Regrettably, the recent school arsons that happened in Francophone Belgium seem to underline that the ramifications of such lies are profound and tangible.
Alarmingly, this campaign has spurred protests directly outside the office of the Minister overseeing the program. Adding to the chaos, several Brussels, Charleroi, and Liège schools have recently been vandalised and set ablaze, with ‘EVRAS’ graffiti evident on some premises. Last weekend in Brussels, over 1,500 people protested against EVRAS, claiming it symbolises “a new sexual world order.” According to Le Soir, the demonstration was marred by anti-LGBTQ sentiment and disinformation related to gender issues. The media outlet further reported that the organisers included representatives from ultra-religious groups, anti-vaccine advocates, and other conspiracy movements in Belgium.
Online spaces have always been a hotbed for child protection debates. A narrative echoing these sentiments fuelled the emergence of QAnon, a conspiracy theory marked by controversies such as Pizzagate or the baseless child abduction tales peddled by conspiracy enthusiasts. These fear-driven narratives, particularly efficient in Belgian society after the infamous Dutroux case, are now leveraged by those capitalising on online virality, have a tangible and harmful effect on our democratic establishments and institutions.
Last week, there was systematic harassment of public service representatives. Today, schools are burning, preventing the right of education of children. Meanwhile, extremist far-right factions co-opt these narratives, perpetuate disinformation (there are already rumours insinuating that these education lessons will be led by drag queens, showing a clear anti-LGBTQ+ agenda), and capitalise on them.
Our responsibility as a counter-disinformation community in Belgium and Luxembourg is to monitor, inform the public and provide policymakers with concrete recommendations on how to address these attempts to undermine our values and institutions.
by Alexandre Alaphilippe, EU DisinfoLab