Escape from QAnon: How Jan. 6 changed one person’s path

Unlike so many fellow conspiracy theorists, Justin would ultimately crawl out of the dark place his own mind had taken him. His first steps began at the U.S. Capitol.

NBC News/January 18, 2022

By Brandy Zadrozny

Justin had come for The Storm.

The 30-year-old Brooklynite left in the early morning hours of Jan. 6, 2021, headed to Washington. Then-President Donald Trump had called his supporters to rally in protest of the election results, but Justin believed Trump had united his most dedicated followers for something bigger: the culmination of a secret war against an elite cabal of child abusers.

Politicians, Hollywood actors, philanthropists and prominent journalists would be arrested en-masse, he thought. President Joe Biden’s win would be overturned, the military would take over, and Justin would be there to see it all go down.

It would be a validation of QAnon, the far-reaching conspiracy theory movement to which Justin had dedicated much of the last three years with increasing intensity. The truth would finally get out, Justin thought.

“After that, all the world would be liberated, everyone would be happy,” Justin recalled thinking.

The Judgment Day that Justin anticipated would, of course, never come to pass. Like tens of thousands of others who had subscribed to some piece of the QAnon conspiracy theory, Justin would be disappointed at the Capitol, as he was after the November election, and at countless other moments when a QAnon prediction went unfulfilled.

Unlike so many of his fellow travelers, Justin — whose last name is being withheld by NBC News at his request to protect his privacy — would ultimately crawl out from the dark place QAnon and his own mind had taken him. That would take time, and he needed help. But his story, which unfolded over the last year through in-person interviews and phone calls, illustrates a singular and winding path away from QAnon.

On that day last year, dressed simply in a black coat and a red USA hat, Justin watched Trump’s speech from a large monitor, standing alone near the back of a crowd of tens of thousands. It soon became clear there would be no great reveal. The president wasn’t commemorating QAnon’s long-promised day of justice, but instead rehashing a litany of baseless claims about the election, whipping up his followers with a dictate to march to the Capitol and “show strength.”

Justin obliged, walking alongside Trump supporters who descended on the Capitol. Pausing to take a selfie along the route, Justin moved through an initial set of barriers that earlier marchers had pushed aside, then climbed over a small stone wall, planting himself with a growing crowd at the west side of the U.S. Capitol.

According to Justin, and supported by metadata in his photos and dozens of videos taken by him, as well as archives of videos from inside the Capitol, he didn’t venture past a second barrier or up the steps of the Capitol, which was marked by a gate and a line of police officers. He says he wasn’t among the QAnon supporters who entered the building, most notably Jacob Chansley, the self-described Q shaman, costumed in horns and fur, along with a still-growing number of less obvious QAnon followers, whose alleged links to the conspiracy theory would be revealed in court filings and local news reports.

What he was seeing at the base of the stairs was enough.

At first, it seemed like a gathering of MAGA supporters with elderly people and babies in strollers in tow, but it had become something else at the Capitol. Justin’s video recordings of the afternoon, shared with NBC News, show people climbing the scaffolding erected for Biden’s inauguration. Competing chants rang out through multiple megaphones: “Stop the Steal” and “Fight for Trump.” Justin’s voice can be heard in some of the videos softly joining in for “USA, USA.”

Then a cry of “Charge!” came from out of nowhere, and people in the front, some in combat gear, began slamming up against the guardrails, facing an outnumbered and seemingly rattled police line. Police officers sprayed the mob with pepper spray as Justin filmed a few feet away. Someone menaced, “There’s a reason they call it a thin blue line!”

“I saw their eyes change,” Justin said of the crowd. “You know, when somebody gets really angry, and you just feel like they’re going to go nuts?”

“I feel like I was watching people get radicalized.”

A few Trump supporters pleaded with the crowd to stop pushing and were quickly overruled. The throng began to push forward. A few in the crowd managed to wrestle away parts of the gate from police, and Trump supporters filed up the stairs. At the top, some draped the Capitol steps with an oversized flag that read, “Trump.”

The mob, the flag, the violence. Justin thought: It didn’t feel right.

“It got me,” he later said. “I was supposed to be a part of a movement, but did I just get duped?’”

Down the rabbit hole

Justin calls it an epiphany, but it didn’t come all at once. Over the next several months, Justin would replay that day at the Capitol and think about the movement that had led him there.

Justin first contacted me a few days after the riot. He replied to a tweet I posted about QAnon believers having a moment of realization on the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration. After several phone conversations, I met Justin on the coldest day of February, at a coffee shop in Bushwick, Brooklyn. With Covid raging and vaccines just becoming widely available, we huddled at an outside table over warm drinks and lemon cakes.

Through chattering teeth, Justin told me how his habit of wading into far-reaching internet conspiracy theories had been turbocharged by the pandemic.

Justin is soft-spoken, with an overly polite demeanor. He said he has always been a kind of a seeker, on a constant journey of spiritual discovery, and endlessly open to new ideas. In 2018, Justin was working at Ted Talks, building global partnerships for the popular media organization. It was the kind of environment where he was encouraged to explore unconventional ideas. He loved his job.

A former roommate had turned him on to the "pizzagate" conspiracy theory years ago, which culminated in a 2016 shooting in the Washington, D.C., pizza shop where far-right influencers and conspiracy theorists alleged was the headquarters for a child sex ring. Around the same time, he had come across John Podesta’s stolen emails on WikiLeaks, which were leaked before the 2016 election (Podesta was Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman) and fueled a variety of conspiracy theories. It certainly sounded suspicious, he thought.

Justin dipped his toes into the QAnon community in 2018. It was six months after Q, the anonymous internet persona posing as a high-ranking military intelligence officer, first posted on 4-chan, an online message board known for its racist and violent content. Q’s nonsense posts — made up of cryptic questions, references to conspiracy theory tropes, and claims about impending arrests of Satan-worshiping pedophiles and the obliteration of the so-called Deep State — were called “breadcrumbs” and analyzed by tens of thousands of followers in what became the internet’s largest participatory conspiracy theory game.

By the time Justin got hooked, the conspiracy theory had crossed platforms and was growing, with much of the conversation moving to Reddit and the analysis coming from then small-time YouTube influencers. Long-time conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi and the actor Roseanne Barr were the de facto celebrities of the movement, which was still fringe and not yet the fixture it would soon be at Trump rallies.

Justin would read posts from Q, and his interest led him to work alongside other online followers and influencers to analyze and interpret Q’s coded messages.

QAnon is often spoken of as a political conspiracy theory, but for Justin it wasn’t really about Trump.  And while the core conspiracy theories that underpin the QAnon movement are inherently antisemitic and violent — a modern blood libel and the promise of public executions — many followers consider themselves part of a peaceful movement. Justin leaned toward this softer side of the QAnon spectrum, known for its Yoga moms, anti-vaccine proponents and New Agey adherents, which focuses on a spiritual awakening.

He considered following Q an exercise in critical thinking. Plus, the puzzles were fun.

But it was deeply serious, too. Through Q’s posts, Justin learned about Jeffrey Epstein, the millionaire money manager found dead in his jail cell in 2019 while awaiting state charges of sex trafficking young girls. Q similarly posted about NXIVM, a sex-abuse cult masquerading as a self-help multilevel marketing company. The QAnon community was fixated on the mainstream reporting of actual sex trafficking rings, seeing them as evidence of a hidden cabal that included everyone from Hillary Clinton to Tom Hanks.

“My brain started making these connections between WikiLeaks and pizzagate and Epstein,” Justin said. “That was the moment where it clicked, like it rewired something.”

By 2020, Justin was seeing conspiracies everywhere. QAnon is an umbrella conspiracy theory, one that covers a host of disjointed theories, and Justin entertained them all.

Part of what he called private study — known in the QAnon world as “doing your own research” — was collecting screenshots of memes, posts from Q, and analysis from image board sites he found mainly through Twitter and Facebook. Hundreds of images in a folder on his computer acted as evidence for beliefs that included the illuminati, the deep state, Covid as a bioweapon, false flags and election rigging, just to name a few.

By the time the pandemic struck, Justin was already having a hard time keeping his QAnon obsession and his real life separate. He stopped doing his laundry and started talking to people at work about QAnon. He fired up a Twitter account where he followed QAnon influencers, amassed a few hundred followers and posted constantly about conspiracy theories and support for Trump.

Most of the accounts Justin interacted with are now gone, probably among the 70,000 accounts swept up in Twitter’s 2021 QAnon purge.

While he was making shallow connections with other QAnon followers online, his real relationships were unraveling. Friends were getting tired of his attempts to proselytize with YouTube videos and cryptic messages about children allegedly being trafficked in expensive cabinets. “Please don’t come to me with this QAnon bull----,” one friend texted him. Others were more patient: “I don’t really know what else to say, other than that I care about you, I hope you’re okay, And that we can talk once this madness is over.”

By October 2020 Justin had severed nearly every link to reality. He started posting to Facebook again after a two-year hiatus.

“I’m on some type of journey of awakening,” he posted in one of a series of long, rabid essays to friends and family explaining his commitment to Q. “If Q is a baseless conspiracy with absolutely no merit then I am a complete fool and will judge myself accordingly.”

In a family text chat, his parents texted him news stories about other QAnon followers who had committed crimes or suffered public breakdowns and begged him to take down the posts. What would his employer think?

Justin didn’t care. He had already quit his job.

Red pilling

It’s hard to know how many people still subscribe to the QAnon conspiracy theory. Q, the anonymous online account whose posts fueled the movement, hasn’t been heard from in over a year, and the community, while holding to the core beliefs of the conspiracy theory, has evolved, with followers breaking off and re-forming under new influencers.

At its height in 2020, an internal Facebook audit preceding a platform ban found thousands of QAnon groups and pages with millions of members.

The movement saw enormous growth that March, according to an analysis by the extremism researcher Marc-André Argentino — at the very moment states were issuing lockdown measures to combat the pandemic.

At the same time, QAnon believers found new ways to recruit offline, cross-fertilizing with anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown groups, and organizing real-world rallies with blurry goals like 2020’s multistate “Save the Children” marches.

No single online platform is responsible for QAnon’s rapid rise. YouTube hosted the videos that many members credit with their “red pilling,” the favored term for a supposed enlightenment or exposure to conspiracy theories. Facebook allowed for easy conversation, meme sharing and organizing. Twitter, Justin’s favored platform, provided fertile ground for QAnon influencers and their lies.

“It was an amplification machine,” said Daniel J. Jones, president of Advance Democracy Inc., a global research organization that studies disinformation and extremism, referring to Twitter.

Jones found QAnon followers (identified by the QAnon identifiers in their bios) to be among the most pervasive and dedicated groups pushing disinformation on Twitter throughout 2020 — most notably through millions of tweets promoting baseless claims about Trump’s multiple accusations of a stolen election.

As membership grew, so did stories of people who claimed they had lost loved ones to the QAnon movement. QAnonCasualties, a Reddit forum billed as a support group for those people, ballooned over the summer from about 5,000 members to 226,000. However, stories of people who have escaped the QAnon movement — considered by many in the Reddit support group to be a cult — have been rare. In a 2021 reddit “Ask Me Anything” post, one user suggested why stories of “formers” might be so uncommon: “I was so embarrassed I didn’t really make any public statements.”

The other side

After the Capitol riot, Justin drove to his parent’s suburban home in Massachusetts to return the car he had borrowed. He hadn’t told anyone about the trip, but his phone shared his location with his family, who spent the day glued to the GPS signal and news footage of the siege, praying that Justin wouldn’t appear among the rioters.

Justin’s mother, father, sister and brother were sitting in the living room when he walked in. They invited him to sit with them. They had staged an intervention.

Without raised voices or judgment, they talked for hours. His parents wanted to know how Justin could have fallen so deeply into something so strange and consuming. If he was passionate about human trafficking, he had a big network and platform with his job. Certainly he could do actual work to fight for human rights? How could he throw his life away?

No amount of reasoning or fact-checking over the last year had made a dent in Justin’s stubborn allegiance to QAnon, and the obsession had taken an enormous emotional toll on the family. His parents had hardly slept in the last six months for worry, they told him. His dad was visibly depressed.

Justin’s younger brother, Corey, 26, had spent the night thinking about what he would say.

“It’s kind of hard as a little brother,” Corey, 26, recalled over Zoom. “How do you reach your older brother, who is supposed to be the older one, is supposed to have more wisdom?”

He thought a poem might break through and the words came easily. It started:

“I wish so deeply to compel

That you finally forego that weighted shell”

“I’ve always loved Justin, I’ve always looked up to Justin. I’ve always respected him,” Corey said. “And to see the path he went down these last three years, this rabbit hole, has been hard to watch. But I never lost faith in him.”

Over the next several days, Justin and Corey and their father went for walks. They asked Justin about QAnon and what had happened at the Capitol and just listened.

Corey remembers it as “chipping away at ice.” Eventually Justin broke down.

“It felt like I had been kidnapped,” Justin said of the moment. “Taken for a wild ride that was a lot of fun, and then dumped back on the street, trying to figure out, ‘Where did I just go, what just happened?’”

Back in Brooklyn, Justin tried to shake his habit. We kept in touch, through texts and phone calls and the occasional coffee. Justin was spending less time online, going for frigid walks through Central Park with the old friends he had traded in for QAnon months before, and trying to get a microgreens business off the ground.

But from time to time, Justin would wander over to the same online spaces he used to spend days on and he joined a few new QAnon Telegram channels, where the conspiracy theory community has thrived.

“It will take a little more time,” Justin told me in February over the phone. “It’s like getting over a relationship you’ve been in for three years, this total mind twist of a relationship.”

Justin’s break from QAnon didn’t come with a dismissal of all of the conspiracy theories that sit under QAnon’s umbrella. (He’s in company with others; half of Americans report believing in some conspiracy theory.)

He spent the next few months trying to figure things out, dissecting his beliefs and discarding those that he determined to be false. He no longer believed Hillary Clinton was running a child torture operation out of a pizza shop, but thought there could be sex trafficking rings in the nation’s capital. Covid was real, he decided, and he began wearing a mask in public, but he thought the pandemic was probably engineered, perhaps to affect global politics. John F. Kennedy Jr., though, was definitely dead.

What Justin did reject early on is the blanket distrust that QAnon engenders.

“I don’t believe that the world is part of one big conspiracy anymore,” Justin said. “One of the key tenets of the Q narrative was that the world is this evil place where everyone at the top is coordinating to bring the downfall of humanity. I no longer subscribe to that.”

A year after he stood at the Capitol steps, Justin has moved back into his parents’ home in Massachusetts. He doesn’t watch the news, stays off Twitter, is going to weekly therapy sessions and is trying to imagine his place in this new world. He’s interested in media literacy and thinks maybe his experience falling down the QAnon rabbit hole could somehow help others.

Justin and I talked on the phone again last week, on the anniversary of the Capitol riot. When pressed on his beliefs, Justin answered: “Do I still believe? It’s irrelevant. What I know is that I don’t want to dwell. Because what does that belief do? How does that help me become a better person, or friend, knowing that information?”

“I’ve realized how susceptible I am,” he said. “Now I’m just figuring out what’s next. Just taking a moment to breathe.”

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