Appalachians are no strangers to conspiracy theories, from the Mothman (which is very real and definitely not a conspiracy) to musings on what exactly the government is up to at their Blue Ridge Mountain bunker at Raven Rock in Pennsylvania. But what began as a series of mysterious messages on 4chan – an online forum famous for trolling and ties to extremism – has become a national conspiracy craze, one that may soon have the ear of congressional representatives in multiple states.
The core idea of the QAnon conspiracy is essentially a grab bag of pre-existing conspiracies: Every U.S. president before Donald Trump – Republican and Democrat – was involved in a global political cabal ruled by bankers, shadowy “deep state” operatives and pedophiles. Unnamed leaders in the U.S. military, the conspiracy goes, convinced Trump to run for president in 2016 to take down this global cabal, which will culminate in a single massive wave of arrests referred to by QAnon believers as “The Storm.”
The first “Q drop,” the term that QAnon believers use for cryptic posts from “Q,” who they believe has access to the highest levels of classified information, came on 4chan then migrated to another online forum called 8chan, a carbon copy of 4chan with far more extremist content. Most Americans have heard about these websites from their connection to violent extremists and mass shootings in the recent past. In its early years, 4chan users were famous on the internet for “trolling” other websites and even the media.
In 2018, NBC News reported that the mysterious “Q” was likely the invention of a pair of 4chan moderators and a relatively obscure YouTuber who set up an online QAnon ecosystem across multiple websites like Reddit, Facebook and YouTube soon after the first posts on 4chan by “Q.” Today, QAnon content can be found in every corner of the internet – from YouTube channels to Facebook groups and even college sports forums.
Most who encounter QAnon quickly see it for what it is: contradictory, inconsistent and wholly false. To believe in QAnon is to believe that an unknown number of career military officers conspiring to elect Trump in order to purge the government of career civil servants is a good thing and not the literal definition of a military coup that violates both the word and spirit of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
Belief requires a willingness to ignore the President’s well documented relationship with sex trafficker Jeffery Epstein (and Trump’s vocal support of Epstein’s long time associate Ghislaine Maxwell after her arrest for her role in Epstein’s operation), yet believe everyone else Epstein came in contact with is directly tied to his pedophilia and sex trafficking ring. It also requires one to ignore the fact that an overwhelming majority of predictions by “Q” have failed to come true, yet simultaneously believe that many major Hollywood blockbuster films include coded references to the QAnon conspiracy.
While QAnon has failed to find much traction with younger Americans, it’s extremely popular among older conservatives, especially in the South and Midwest. According to Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher who’s followed QAnon since it began, its spread among older Americans is in large part thanks to their lack of experience telling fact from fiction online combined with a willingness to trust information from a source presenting itself as the news.
“You have a community of people that are a little more isolated, maybe on their own, retired, not in a relationship anymore, the kids aren’t in the house anymore, and they suddenly find themselves with a lot of time on their hands,” Rothschild explained. “They start going online and looking for things to do and people to connect with.”
Facebook and YouTube are popular among older, less-internet-savvy Americans due to their accessibility and ease of navigation. But according to Rothschild, they come with a hidden danger.
“Especially with the algorithms of Facebook and YouTube, if you click on or watch something a little fringey, it will recommend something even more fringey,” he said.
YouTube’s promotion of conspiracy theories through its algorithm is well documented and has been a persistent problem for years, Rothschild said. If grandma clicks one video that references QAnon, it will then begin recommending the most popular QAnon videos, and, “after a while, you’ve been sucked into some really hardcore conspiracy theory stuff.”
But the appeal of QAnon cannot be explained by predatory social media practices alone. Conspiracy theories have been wildly popular in America even before the internet. Conspiracies about the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy began almost as soon as the shots were fired. In the 1980s, moral panic gripped the nation as false allegations of satanic baby kidnapping rings began to circulate, an outrage in no small part exacerbated by tabloid media outlets of the time trying to up their sales.
A 2018 study by two Dutch researchers suggests that conspiracy theories have been around since the cavemen, but back then, they weren’t conspiracies. According to the paper’s conclusion, “Given the realistic dangers of hostile coalitions in an ancestral environment, along with the life-saving functionality of detecting conspiracies before they strike, conspiracy beliefs are likely to have been adaptive among ancient hunter-gatherers.” For our earliest ancestors, being paranoid was a necessity, not a neurosis.
Experts have also suggested that conspiracy theories are attractive for three main reasons: a need to understand, a need to control one’s environment and a need to belong. QAnon provides its adherents with a way to connect and understand events around the world in a way that doesn’t require an advanced degree in political science or economics. As Roshtchild explains, “there’s a lot of bogus statistics that get thrown out around, there’s a lot of things that are taken out of context. There’s a lot of playing on the distrust of experts that we’ve really accumulated over the last couple of decades, and sometimes, they point out actual mistakes.”
According to Rothschild, this is part of how QAnon was able to spread so quickly once COVID-19 came to America.
“At the beginning of [the outbreak], the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people probably didn’t need to wear masks,” he explained during a phone interview, “and that was corrected when we had more evidence.”
But despite the change in guidance once more information became available to experts, the damage was done. Wearing masks became politically charged as the White House attempted to downplay the severity of COVID-19, and the willingness to wear a mask became a partisan decision rather than an internationally accepted and proven way to slow the spread of the virus. It also helped make COVID-19 a perfect example of how shadowy deep state forces were out to get you.
To follow “Q’ is to be part of a holy war against unseen enemies behind every corner – or in other words, a way to exert control in a moment where millions of Americans feel helpless. While QAnon won’t pay your rent, driving to a QAnon rally or getting involved in a QAnon Facebook group is tangible action, an attempt to do something about it all. This is QAnon’s main appeal, and what makes the online communities invested in the conspiracy so popular at a time where we’re all cooped up inside: It’s simply something to do.
The need to belong to a broader group is one of the key features of humanity. No person is an island, but as the COVID-19 shutdowns swept across the U.S., many Americans felt cut off from their communities and social groups. In rural communities especially – where church on Sunday is a given and is as much about the conversations after the service as it is the sermon – this was compounded by the idea that religious gatherings were being unfairly targeted. “Why can protestors walk the streets but I can’t go to church?” was a common refrain on Facebook posts this summer in rural America.
QAnon, which has openly courted evangelical Christians, dressing itself up as a holy war against evil, satanic worldwide cabals, and it’s proven especially successful at tapping into the isolation and resentment of many.
But holy wars are inherently bloody endeavours, and QAnon has been the primary motivation behind a number of violent incidents already. West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center published a report this July detailing the threat that QAnon poses to national security and detailed five cases where QAnon directly inspired someone to commit an act of violence on U.S. soil – also known as terrorism.
Yet, this clear connection to violence has not stopped QAnon believers from running for office and winning at least four Republican primaries. Marjorie Taylor Greene is the Republican candidate for Georgia’s 14th District, and she’s expected to easily win the seat in November. Jo Rae Perkins, running for a Senate seat in Oregon, has repeatedly vocalized her support for QAnon, even after her own campaign attempted to distance her from the conspiracy. At least four other congressional candidates on the ballot this year have expressed support and belief in the QAnon conspiracy alongside their commitment to Trump’s administration.
“I don’t know that these individual QAnon believing House members are going to have a lot of power,” Rothschild said of the potential for QAnon conspiracy theorists winning in November. “But, you know, if they get on committees, then they might start getting a lot of facetime on TV.”
And therein lies the real danger of conspiracy theorists in office: While QAnon may be little more than incoherent rambling, when it comes from the mouth of a U.S. Representative, it becomes that much more difficult to dismiss.
The president himself is no stranger to demonstrably false conspiracy theories. In fact, his transformation from a registered Democrat in the 1990s to a Republican president today centered largely around his belief and vocal support for the “birther” conspiracy – the entirely false claim that former President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and therefore could not legally be the President of the United States. It is a proven fact that Obama was born in Hawaii.
White House reporters have begun asking Trump directly about the QAnon conspiracy, and his unwillingness to condemn “Q” has invigorated its adherents, as well as drawing in new recruits. While QAnon believers take this to be an implicit approval of their activities, there’s a more cynical and likely reason for Trump’s unwillingness to push back on the movement: QAnon supporters are, above all else, fervent supporters of the President. As he approaches a highly controversial and contested election with polls showing his lead over Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden slipping, he may simply be worried about alienating anyone who will vote for him.
In fact, Rothschild suggests this may be the case for the Q Anon believers running for office as well.
“There’s so much grift in the QAnon world. I don’t think a lot of these people are very conspiracy theory minded. If you’re talking about someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene, I don’t think she is somebody who probably knows all that much about ‘Q,’ who’s interpreting the drops or making memes. I think they found this conspiracy theory that dovetails with a lot of stuff they already believe,” Rothschild said. “‘The media hates Trump,’ that’s standard-issue Republican.”
While QAnon has inspired violence and congressional campaigns alike, it also tears apart families and friends. A recent Foreign Policy article profiles the r/QAnonCasualties subreddit, where family members and friends share heartbreaking stories about their loved ones who’ve become deeply invested in the QAnon community, to the point of ending marriages and lifelong friendships. Sadly, there does not seem to be a tried-and-true, catch-all method of helping people get out of the thrall of the QAnon world.
Still, researchers and experts who’ve worked with former cult members agree that the number one thing is to not attempt to disprove QAnon to a believer head on.
“Don’t try to debunk it. Don’t try to debate them. They don’t want to be wrong, there’s no openness there to change,” said Rothschild, “don’t belittle them, don’t mock them. That’s just going to drive them further into the conspiracy further, amp up their persecution complex, a lot of conspiracy believers feel like everyone’s out to get them.”
Instead, Rothschild and other experts say it’s important to stay connected with the person outside of their conspiracy beliefs. “Let them know that you’re there for them, that you still care about them. You don’t have to let it infect your life, you don’t have to go down the rabbit hole with them.”
Most importantly, Rothschild points out, you have to take care of yourself first when QAnon conspiracy belief hits close to home.
“The first thing to know is you’re not alone. You’re not the only person going through this. This is going on around the country, to all kinds of people from all walks of life…and if it does get to the point where they are harassing you about it, or threatening you, you can walk away.”
Chris Jones is a Report for America corps member covering domestic extremism for 100 Days in Appalachia. Click here to help support his investigative reporting through the Ground Truth Project.