The QAnon orphans: people who have lost loved ones to conspiracy theories

For some Republicans, QAnon is an opportunity to garner support. But for those who have lost loved ones to it, QAnon is a destroyer of families and relationships

The Guardian/September 23, 2020

By Cecilia Saixue Watt

“I lay awake at night and worry if my brother’s going to shoot a bunch of protesters,” said Daniel, 36.

Daniel, whose name has been changed to protect his family, always had a close relationship with his twin brother, Greg. They had “that twin thing, that twin bond”, Daniel said.

The brothers had visited each other often when they both lived in Wichita, Kansas, usually spent holidays together, and continued to talk at least once a week, even when Daniel moved overseas. They disagreed on politics – Daniel is a centrist Democrat, and Greg had espoused libertarianism – but their political differences had never come in the way of their relationship.

In early June, however, they had a major fight. Daniel had heard from their mother that Greg was posting on social media about the Boogaloo Boys, an armed far-right movement in the US that seeks to incite civil war. When Daniel called to confront his brother about the extent of his involvement with them, Greg had insisted that the Boogaloo movement was just an internet joke – but he also said that he hoped the country would, indeed, descend into civil war. The brothers argued and hung up on each other.

On 1 July, Daniel called to apologize. Greg said he was busy, as he was on his way to a counter-protest to a Black Lives Matter (BLM) rally in Lawrence, Kansas. He had packed his guns in the car, and was intent on helping local police identify BLM protesters. According to Greg, protesters and antifascist activists were “looting and rioting”, and he intended to do his part to stop them. “He said that antifa was lynching people and sending them to re-education camps,” said Daniel.

The demonstration was not without violence, though not on the protesters’ part: two cars attempted to plow through the crowd; no injuries were reported. There was no truth to what Greg had said. The brothers have not spoken since.

“He couldn’t tell what reality was,” said Daniel. “I didn’t know who I was talking to. I felt like I was talking to someone else.”

Daniel began to research online, trying to find where his brother was getting his misinformation. Greg had said something vague and outlandish before about pedophile rings, but Daniel had assumed his brother was talking about Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking operation, and that he had been especially upset because both twins had experienced childhood sexual abuse.

But Daniel soon learned about QAnon, a far-reaching and baseless conspiracy theory that alleges, among other things, that Donald Trump is conducting a covert operation to save millions of children from a secret cabal of powerful pedophiles.

From the outside, QAnon is a deranged spectacle. For some Republican leaders who stand to benefit from its influence, QAnon functions as an opportunity to garner political support. To the FBI, QAnon is a domestic terror threat. But for those who have lost loved ones to it, QAnon is a destroyer of families and relationships, a multi-faceted virulent idea that is often impossible to combat.

Qanon first appeared online in October 2017, when a user named Q began posting to 4chan, an anonymous imageboard, about a coterie of Satanist pedophiles who control the media and kidnap children en masse. Since then, the conspiracy has exploded in popularity; in June, the Guardian found that QAnon pages on Facebook and Instagram together have an aggregate 3 million members or followers.

While many conspiracists were originally Trump supporters who have now found an additional reason to back him, the theories have also started to convince others.

“When Trump was first elected, Mike was really upset,” said Susan, a 33-year-old teacher from the Minneapolis-St Paul area in Minnesota. “Neither of us voted for him. He didn’t have anything positive to say about Trump. And now he’s saying Trump’s working with John F Kennedy Jr in order to rid the world of pedophiles and human trafficking.”

Susan and her partner, Mike, have been together for seven years. Susan has requested that she remain anonymous to avoid further friction with Mike. In the beginning, Susan was drawn to Mike’s kindness and altruism. “He’s really thoughtful and always really positive,” said Susan. “He was always pushing me to do better things.”

Mike had long been interested in conspiracies, and had said strange things about aliens and water fluoridation, but Susan had found it “endearing and weird and harmless”, she said.

But over a year ago, Mike began talking about QAnon. After the pandemic hit and Mike spent more time indoors, on social media, he became obsessed. “It’s been an exponential thing,” said Susan. “He’ll spend hours ‘researching’, which is just watching YouTube videos and going on Twitter.”

Susan and Mike began to fight frequently. Mike continuously tried to convince her, sending her videos she found upsetting. “He would get so mad that I wasn’t ‘open-minded’,” she said. “He’ll say I’m programmed, or that I don’t realize I’m a slave, or that there’s a secret war. He has all the information and I haven’t ‘done the research’. It got to a point where I just didn’t care.”

Susan researched how to speak to loved ones who have joined cults. She attempted to establish common beliefs with Mike, and encourage him to examine cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, to no avail . Susan now believes that her relationship is over. “I would like to help him navigate out of QAnon, if that’s something he wants to do,” she said, “but it doesn’t seem like it is.”

On the subreddit r/QAnonCasualties, users gather to support each other and share stories about the people whom they’ve lost to QAnon. “Losing my marriage to QAnon,” writes one user. “I lost my entire family tonight,” writes another. Together, they theorize about the potential common factors that could be driving their loved ones into conspiracy thinking.

“There’s really no evidence that belief in conspiracy theories like QAnon should be thought of as a symptom of mental illness,” said Joseph Pierre, a psychiatrist and professor in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He has authored a Psychology Today series about QAnon.

 “Inasmuch as QAnon has been likened to an online cult, it’s possible that evidence about who tends to join cults – people who feel lonely or are struggling with symptoms of anxiety and depression and are searching for emotional connection and group affiliation – might apply to some who get immersed into the online world of QAnon,” Pierre said.

This analysis has resonance for Crystal Wade, 35, who met her best friend, Denise, in beauty school. After Crystal moved to another state, she and Denise kept in touch digitally and regularly had hours-long phone conversations.

“We used to talk about everything,” said Crystal. “If I was upset, she was the first person I’d call, and she’d bring me back down to earth. She made me feel grounded.”

In April 2020, Denise began seeing a new boyfriend, whom Crystal never met. Denise was concerned about his social media postings, however, and seemed embarrassed about how incoherent he was online. She shared her boyfriend’s accounts with Crystal.

“There were no periods in his sentences,” Crystal said. “It went from gods, to demons, to Katy Perry.”

He was posting QAnon conspiracy theories, and to Crystal’s disappointment, her friend seemed to believe parts of it. QAnon’s allegations are often based in a smattering of truth, such as Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking activities and the entertainment industry’s struggle with widespread sexual abuse and harassment. But in the conspiracy world, there are no coincidences, and everything is interconnected to a farcical degree. “He was taking it to another level,” said Crystal. “Hidden messages in music videos, illuminati symbolism, celebrities abusing kids to have eternal youth.”

Denise’s relationship lasted only two months, and from what Crystal heard about it, it seemed very volatile and at times hostile – and the conversations she had with her best friend turned increasingly towards the subject of the occult. “She’d say it wasn’t his fault he was being such a terrible person to her, he’s suffering because he’s being possessed by demonic forces,” said Crystal.

Denise had been interested in new age spirituality and was not particularly religious, but the boyfriend seemed to influence her towards an apocalyptic version of Christianity. Denise soon threw away her tarot cards, believing they were “inviting demons” into her house, and began frequently posting Bible verses on social media.

“I would never judge a friend for being religious,” said Crystal, “but it was overnight and didn’t seem organic at all.”

Crystal tried to handle the situation delicately, reasoning that her friend was going through a traumatic time. After the relationship ended, however, Denise began to talk about “Pizzagate”, a conspiracy theory that served as the precursor to QAnon.

Crystal froze once Denise mentioned it; she had, until then, not yet realized how deep her best friend had fallen into conspiracy thinking. “My stomach dropped,” she said. “I felt sick.”

In 2016, the Pizzagate conspiracy theory falsely alleged that Hillary Clinton and other prominent figures in the Democratic party were trafficking children, and that victims were being held at Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington DC. In 2020, alongside a deluge of Covid-19 misinformation, Pizzagate has experienced a resurgence.

Denise began to send Crystal videos. One of them, titled “PedoGate 2020”, opens with a chilling piano theme. A soft-voiced narrator then claims that a hidden message in a photograph of Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain is linked to trafficking children. It also makes bizarre and seemingly-unconnected allegations tying together Instagram hashtags, Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis, and internet personality Bhad Bhabie.

“I couldn’t make it through even a minute of those videos,” said Crystal. “It was absolute insanity.”

After the upsurge of Black Lives Matter protests in June, Crystal became more active on Facebook and Instagram, making posts in support of the movement – and found herself in an uncomfortable social media cold war with her best friend. Denise was convinced that Black Lives Matter and the Covid-19 pandemic were orchestrated ploys to distract the public from the allegations made by QAnon. These were not just political or ideological disagreements: they were disagreements on the nature of reality. They never discussed it. Their conversations just seemed to stop.

“I haven’t reached out to her, and she hasn’t reached out to me,” said Crystal. “How could I have known a person for this many years and not know that she’s like this? Am I a bad judge of character?”

“Falling for these types of groups happens to all types of people,” writes Steven Hassan, [Steve Hassan is not recommended or endorsed by the Cult Education Institute see disclaimer] a mental health counselor who specializes in destructive cults and mind control. “It is a human experience to be taken advantage of, in many cases, and life goes on. You aren’t stupid or a bad person. We must continue to educate.”

Hassan advises the family members and friends of QAnon conspiracists to engage with them carefully, steer them away from sources of conspiracy information, and encourage them to start questioning what they believe.

But combatting an idea planted in the mind of a loved one is a complex undertaking.

“I don’t really know what my wife’s thinking, and it’s not my business to know everything she’s thinking,” said Henry, a 56-year-old from the Portland, Oregon, area. “She’s her own person. But at the same time, we’re going in opposite directions on the reality scale.”

Henry’s wife, Lisa, began talking about QAnon at a family dinner. Henry was alarmed to discover that Lisa appeared to believe that kidnapped children were being kept on a secret base on Mars. Lisa was raised in a Christian Evangelical community, but began to lose her faith as an adult and no longer considers herself religious. Henry theorizes that part of QAnon’s attraction, for Lisa, is the resemblance it bears to Christianity: notions of struggle between good and evil, a maligned messianic savior, a narrative that invokes the massacre of the innocents. QAnon adherents speak of “the Storm”, an event that echoes the Abrahamic concept of the Last Judgment, when Donald Trump and the US military will carry out a coordinated global purge of the members of the supposed pedophile cabal.

“My greatest fear is that she’s being brainwashed,” Henry said. “I’m working really hard to show her I’m on her side. We both want the truth, we want the same thing.”

In an effort to limit the amount of conspiracy content Lisa views online, Henry said that he regularly uses her iPad to access her Facebook and YouTube accounts. As surreptitiously as he can, he unsubscribes her from QAnon accounts. It feels like an intrusion, though, and makes him uneasy.

“I’m not a snoopy guy or a jealous guy,” he said, “but this Q thing is a danger. She doesn’t need to be in the exact same spot as me politically, but she can’t be in a different reality.”

The QAnon conspiracy may assert the existence of untold masses of abused children, but perhaps it is an easier pill to swallow than the unfettered chaos of present reality, where the gap between poor and ultra-rich is ever-widening, and rising sea levels threaten the future of human life on Earth – where millions of children are indeed abused, but not at the hands of a singular organization that can be eliminated with a simple mass arrest.

QAnon presents an idyllic alternate reality where the Covid-19 pandemic is a hoax rather than a deadly threat egregiously mishandled by multiple governments, where systemic racism is but a psy-op, where the universe is ordered and finite, and justice is on the horizon. Conspirators have convinced themselves of the world they wish to see.

Henry, meanwhile, also has a conviction he wants to believe: “Faced with undeniable evidence, she’s going to have to swing towards truth,” he said. “The truth will eventually win out.”

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