Beware the QAnon rabbit hole: How conspiracy is taking control of our politics
Will Donald Trump try to steal the next US election? Is there a cabal of Satan worshipping paedophiles hell bent on destroying society and mass abusing children? What the hell is QAnon?
These are just a few of the hard-to-believe questions I was asking myself earlier this year as I entered the upper echelons of conspiracy politics for a documentary I was making – and it was a world I was quite unprepared for.
I wanted to find out what happens when the line between truth and lies is so distorted that no one knows what is real anymore… When the voting public no longer care about what is real, but only what side of the aisle they’re on?
Quite a lot, it turns out, and we should be bracing ourselves for more.
In the last year misinformation and ‘alternate truths’ have ushered in a new era of riots, violence and murders. It’s also changing our politics forever.
The dizzying world of conspiracy isn’t a new concept though – many of the theories of QAnon are revisions of old anti-Semitic tropes.
It’s a community that has taken the conspiratorial mantle from the likes of InfoWars radio host Alex Jones, 80s TV presenter-turned-conspiracist David Icke and others, to become THE preeminent conspiratorial factory. The conspiracy of everything.
It’s been an amorphous blob that soaks up any and every conspiracy in a mass scale connecting-of-the-dots. You want to talk about how vaccines are actually weapons of Bill Gates? You’re welcome in the world of Q. How about 9/11? Hop aboard. Are you obsessed with elite peadophiles? Well, QAnon is the community for you.
However, thanks to years of Donald Trump in the White House and unmitigated use of social media, combined with an unprecedented pandemic, the world of conspiracy isn’t just hidden away in the corner of the internet any more – it’s filtered into the mainstream.
You might have seen the word ‘QAnon’ while scrolling through social media, or maybe you’ve spotted the image of a furry horned man breaking into the Capitol building in Washington DC on January 6th 2021?
Perhaps it’s something you may have at first found amusing, then shocking, then no longer paid much attention.
But it should have your attention. While Donald Trump may call QAnon adherents, ’People who love our country’, the FBI prefers to call them a domestic terror threat.
Amanda Quimper, from Elyria, Ohio, is one of Q’s most ardent digital soldiers and someone I met while making my documentary, The Cult of Conspiracy: QAnon. She is also testament to how complicated the world of Q and conspiracy can be.
Despite believing in horrific conspiracies involving satanic peadophiles, she’s also an incredibly kind soul who practices spirituality and believes she is in conversation with God. Her mission is to help people, and to save the children. She dabbled with drugs in her earlier years, she lost friends to a heroin epidemic in her area and now finds herself working in a strip club.
Q, Amanda says, was her saving grace, something she knew that others didn’t – it also gave her a community with a shared goal.
But at the same time, as she fell further down the rabbit hole, she also fell further from her family. She started spouting off wilder and wilder conspiracies.
For Amanda, this was the most important thing anyone could ever talk about. The world needed to be saved from evil. But to her family, she needed help. And their relationship fractured.
I heard this story time and time again. The story of mothers who had lost children, families who had fallen apart, people who had suffered a catastrophic event that caused them to question everything. In the vulnerability of this carnage, they found Q. But as they became obsessed with their new ‘research’, they slowly started to lose everything else.
Some, like Neely Petrie-Blanchard, who’s family I filmed with, are even accused of killing in QAnon’s name. It’s alleged she killed a man after falling down the Q rabbit hole. She now sits in a Floridian prison, believing Q and Donald Trump will soon save her.
These individuals had often found their way to Q after falling on a conspiratorial influencer that showed them the light. Sometimes they had risen to the role of community leader themselves, becoming increasingly responsible for a gaggle of conspiracy theorists who hung on their every word.
I was particularly interested in these leaders and my mission was to embed myself with the figures attempting to usher in a new age of conspiratorial politics.
I wanted to understand where this would all end up. So I did what every ardent Q follower does, I went on the forums – and went to the public events.
Although QAnon stopped posting forever on December 8 2020 after Trump lost the election, that didn’t mean its followers had stopped meeting up.
Across the US there were QAnon-related events from Anaheim, California, to Tampa, Florida, to Dallas, Texas. Thousands upon thousands of people turned up, with tickets costing up to $1000 dollars a piece. It was a real who’s who in the world of conspiracy, and this is how I made my way up the conspiracy tree.
I found myself spending time with some of Q’s earliest adopters, talking about Michelle Obama’s non-existent penis and Obama’s secret homosexual tendancies.
I also found myself parlaying with some of the biggest names in US Republican politics: Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s former National Security advisor, Roger Stone, a ‘King Maker’ of US politics who helped get Nixon and Trump elected, and Mike Lindell, a key ally of Trump and the main proponent of the ‘Big Lie’ – the conspiracy that the 2020 US election was stolen from Donald Trump.
Glimpsing behind the veil was fascinating. In shabby back offices and hallway corners, they gave me minutes of their time. Surrounded by adoring fans and staff, they were intimidating and convincing. On stage they wore fine suits, frequently asked for donations from their supporters, and rallied the troops to ‘fight back to save America’. In my conversations they were more cautious, sensing I may not be ‘on their side’.
They were wary of mentioning Q directly – and even went to so far as to deny any knowledge of the conspiracy groups existence – but had one simple message: America is corrupt and they are going to take their country back. I was struck by their conviction. It wasn’t hard to see why so many listened – they were firm and decisive.
However, don’t think that just because we’re across the Atlantic we’re immune to this. In an exclusive poll with YouGov for the documentary, we found 58% of Brits believe satanic ritual abuse of children probably happens in the UK.
We also discovered that 10% of Brits believe the government should be overthrown by force. Both of these beliefs have their links to the QAnon movement, and they both demonstrate just how deeply embedded conspiracy currently is in the national zeitgeist.
When I watched the Capitol Riots unfold on TV – when thousands of Q supporters, buoyed on by claims of a rigged election and years of revolutionary conspiratorial chatter raided the home of congress in Washington – I had originally hoped that the events would be some kind of turning point for the millions around the world hooked on the ‘alternate truths’.
That perhaps after seeing the chaos and destruction the conspiracy had helped to bring about, they’d wake up to the lies they’d been fed. But the exact opposite happened.
Despite endless failed Q predictions, despite this act of anti-democratic rioting and despite the hours of video definitively showing Q supporters at the Capitol on January 6, nothing could free followers from the Kool-Aid that was now running through their veins.
It became once again, another conspiracy. Another secretive move by the Cabal to harm the movement. And it pushed them all deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.
While mainstream media organisations painted the picture of a rampant right-wing mob raiding the Capitol building in an effort to reinstate Donald Trump – prominent right-wing commentators and Q influencers flipped the narrative entirely. January 6 was actually planned by Antifa and the FBI, they claimed. It was a false flag with crisis actors. A familiar and convenient story of ‘deep state conspiracy’ once again hooked in the people it was meant to.
But how did it all come to this? The origins of QAnon is a uniquely modern concept. It’s a movement that started on the fringes of the internet in October 2017 on 4chan – an infamously toxic message board website where users post anonymously. Despite these offbeat beginnings though, it has become entirely mainstream – even making it to the office of the President of the United States.
Through thousands of cryptic social media posts from a mysterious figure called ‘Q’, the movement became a religion – and the webpages of 4chan, and then 8chan, became the holy scripture.
The original idea was that there was a deep state secretly running the world and its politics. They were dirty, nefarious paedophiles – and the likes of Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama were in on it. Trump, the conspiracy went, was the saviour. He had been selected by top military officials to bring about ‘The Storm’ and ‘The Great Awakening’. The mysterious figure originally called, QClearancePatriot, was the Messiah – spreading the message to its followers.
Over the years the movement gained traction and spread its tentacles throughout the online world, creeping ever increasingly into mainstream social media until the likes of your brothers, sisters, parents and uncles suddenly started talking about cabals and microchips. Families were destroyed, followers lost their jobs, people killed in the name of conspiracy – convinced they were fighting an evil cabal.
But its rise continued and culminated in the biggest attack ever on US democracy last January.
By this point, I was well on the way to making a documentary and I was struck with a couple of burning questions, what happens next? And where does this all end? Despite Q no longer posting, it increasingly felt like the QAnon movement was now too big to fail.
New leaders and new influencers have filled the gaps left by Q. Empowered by the realisation that even though they are wrong almost every time, it just doesn’t matter. As long as they speak with conviction, never apologise and always blame left-wing protest groups – the conspiracy will continue.
These new leaders often shy away from using Q’s name in their conspiracies – but the roots of their misinformation are deeply embedded in the movement.
Now, the community has its sights on upcoming elections, the 2022 Midterms and the 2024 US Presidential Election at the top of them.
The next stage of Q and conspiracy was to take over politics from the ground up. Inspired by lies of a rigged election, fears that children’s blood was being harvested by elites in order to obtain a satanic psychadelic drug and rumours that communists were stealing their country – Q’s believers up and down the US were answering the call to ‘fight back’. They were joining each stage of the political process. From the very lowest levels of the school boards and community town halls, to the height of power: US congress.
Reporting by Media Matters suggests almost 50 US congressional candidates have embraced QAnon theories in their bids for election in 2022. That doesn’t include those running for Senate. And the unsettling thing is, they’re having success.
Two prominent conservative figures, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, have welcomed conspiracies around rigged elections and they are now serving congresswomen. Majorie Taylor Green has since attempted to distance herself from Q, but one thing all these candidates have in common is that the vast majority are Republicans, they’re deeply religious, and deeply conservative.
The other thing they have in common is their propensity towards ‘alternative facts’.
That was the pseudo reality I’ve spent the last year trying to wrap my head around. But I’ve come to the conclusion it’s not possible to understand it in any traditional sense. Instead, one can only attempt to understand the psychology of people’s journey down the rabbit hole.
For some, those die hard believers who would give up everything in the name of Q, it’s often a journey spurred on by trauma.
My interviews often ended dramatically, with accusations I was asking ‘stupid’ questions and that I was destroying America.
There were often staunch denials of any knowledge of QAnon. But Q’s conspiracies were absolutely everywhere and permeated the room like a bad stench.
Both Flynn and Lindell are committed to the idea that the 2020 US election was rigged, and they regularly urge their supporters to ‘fight’ to ‘take their country back’.
In the moments after difficult interviews, I would ponder the question: ‘do they really believe this?’ I would wonder whether it was all just a ploy to appeal to a base created by Donald Trump, an anticipation of a Trump second term, and an attempt to curry favour with the most controversial man in US politics.
I eventually concluded though, that the question didn’t matter. The impact was the same, whether the leaders believed it or not.
And as Trump likely prepares for a run for office in 2024, riding on the back of a conspiracy threatening the whole of the US democratic system, I sit cautiously waiting for the ripples into UK politics. And I have only one piece of advice: don’t believe everything you read on the internet.
The Cult of Conspiracy: QAnon airs on Channel 4 at 9pm, December 7, 2021
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