Emily’s earliest memory has always been of Thomas: when they were a few years old, he snitched on her for trying to cheat in a swimming race. Their relationship is one of those rare ones where, in their mid-twenties, they are still friends. Until six months ago, they were as close as ever.
Emily and Thomas are recent graduates and, like many young people, both live at home with their parents – in Birmingham, where they are looking for work in a fragile economy. Emily has managed to find a job, but Thomas is currently unemployed. He spends most of his time in his bedroom, smoking cannabis and watching YouTube videos. He has done this since lockdown began in March and it is why, Emily believes, she is about to lose him.
In the last seven months, Thomas has become a conspiracy theorist, who spends hours at a time watching videos that espouse paranoid visions of the world. He has little contact with people in real life. Before restrictions eased in June, he barely left the house. But before March, Thomas had never entertained ideas like this – he’d always been very left-wing, she says. Now, he talks about little else: every meeting turns into an argument about the deep state, aliens, Pizzagate and QAnon.
Emily and Thomas’s story is an increasingly familiar one. Growing numbers of people have described seeing friends and family, who have never previously appeared paranoid or delusional, take a new and obsessive interest in politically oriented conspiracy theories, particularly QAnon. The isolation and strangeness of the pandemic, the power of social media and the allure of populism have helped QAnon establish a exponential presence in the UK.
There is no shortage of misinformation and conspiracy theories doing the rounds on the internet, but the biggest and most active is QAnon, a long-running political delusion which claims a group of Satanic paedophiles are running a global child-trafficking ring, and that Donald Trump is currently trying to fight this evil through the force of the US government. The theory began in October 2017, when a user of the anonymous messageboard website 4chan posted what they claimed was confidential information documenting Trump’s battle with the ring, under the name “Q”. Thousands of messages later, the claims – which are all unsubstantiated – now involve prominent public figures and celebrities, and QAnon’s believers have become a regular presence at Trump rallies.
QAnon is developed from an earlier theory, Pizzagate, which was popularised during the 2016 US presidential election. It falsely claimed Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-trafficking ring operating out of the basement of a pizza restaurant, owned by her campaign manager John Podesta, in Washington, DC. Some of Podesta’s emails had been made public by Wikileaks, and users on 4chan and Reddit claimed that if you replaced the word “pizza” with “little girl” in them, it revealed the Democrats were eating children.
This imaginary connection may sound risible, but it can be explained by a darker association. As NBC’s misinformation reporter Ben Collins explains, 4chan was for years a popular platform for paedophiles, who used the phrase “cheese pizza” as a back-worked acronym of “CP” for “child porn” to refer to images of child abuse.
The Pizzagate conspiracy theory continues to draw in people with little or no experience of paranoid fantasies, radicalising them and exposing them to QAnon’s broader beliefs. This is what Emily believes happened to Thomas. “He started off with watching relatively innocent stuff on YouTube, like Joe Rogan,” she says, “but the algorithm made it get more and more extreme… He started going on about the New World Order, and Pizzagate.”
Like others who believe in QAnon, Thomas is highly suspicious of any information that comes from those who do not share his worldview. When Emily informed him, for example, of the widely reported fact that the pizza restaurant in question had no basement, he asked her: “How would you actually know there wasn’t? And how do you know it’s not hidden?”
Alicia tells me a similar story about her cousin, Julie, who had also never shared conspiracy theories before, but who one day sent her a post on Twitter. “It was about a toy that apparently was grooming children because there was a secret button which made it sound like the toy was making sexual sounds,” Alicia says. “I thought it was completely bizarre, but she seemed convinced this was part of a wider conspiracy of children being trafficked.”
Having spent a lot of time with Julie over the last months, Alicia has noticed her cousin’s interest in QAnon grow. Watching a Netflix documentary about Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes, she says, led Julie to develop an obsession with the idea of a sinister elite. These ideas are made powerful, she thinks, by the grains of truth within them. “It’s almost as if there has been a mix-up between ideas which are valid,” Alicia explains, “such as Prince Andrew’s association in these circles […] but then it extends towards people like Chrissy Teigen and Barack Obama.”
In Julie’s case, these beliefs do not appear to disrupt her life. She is “otherwise a very rational person,” Alicia says. “A normal woman in her mid-twenties with interests we all have, like watching Selling Sunset or getting gel manicures.”
Some of my interviewees said friends or relatives who had previously struggled with substance abuse appeared to have taken to conspiracy theories in a similarly compulsive manner. Susan says her brother’s obsession with QAnon reminds her of his drug addiction as a teenager. “He lives in south-east Asia with his wife and children and I reached out to him to find out how they were coping with everything in the pandemic,” she says. “That opened the floodgates of what has since been a non-stop barrage of messages about the ‘coronavirus hoax’, the deep state, the ‘shamdemic’, the ‘face diaper’ masks, the MSM, Bill Gates, Soros… a litany of the classic conspiracy theories.”
For Susan’s brother, these theories have their own self-reinforcing logic. “Confronting him with the notion that these are conspiracy theories simply confirms his suspicion that you have been brainwashed,” she says. “He has created a situation in his mind in which everything that has been ‘fact checked’ is in fact deep-state propaganda […] Facts, in his mind, are censorship.”
[see also: Why pandemics create conspiracy theories]
Everyone I spoke to said QAnon believers distinguish themselves as people who have seen the light. “They are massively resistant,” Daniel tells me of trying to challenge his neighbours in Hampshire, who started sharing QAnon content on Facebook over the summer, including “loads of passive aggressive posts… about how other people need to be more open-minded”.
Daniel’s children play with their neighbours’ kids, so he and his wife try to ask them about these beliefs when they meet in person. “If questioned directly on whether she thought Trump was somehow on the side of good, she’d get very evasive,” he says. “She’d say she was just asking questions about whether there ‘could be something to’ the Q stuff.” Online, however, his neighbour shows a more serious commitment to QAnon. “It’s often a dozen posts a day on Facebook.”
For Emily, like many others who have watched friends and family members become convinced by conspiracy theories, the fear is that these strange, cultish ideas will take hold permanently. “With him going down the QAnon rabbit hole, it feels like a big turning point,” she says. “He isn’t completely gone, but like, the truth doesn’t matter. When people are in that state, they find their own truths.”
Jitarth Jadeja came across QAnon a month after it began. It was 30 December 2017, and he was looking for a video to watch while making dinner. YouTube recommended a video from InfoWars, a far-right fake news website, on a “newly leaked government document”. I ask Jadeja if he’d been prone to believing in conspiracy theories before he saw this clip. “It’d be more accurate to describe me as someone who never met a conspiracy he didn’t like”, he says.
Jadeja was then 30, and struggling with ADHD, bipolar disorder and epilepsy. He had dropped out of university repeatedly and been fired from several jobs. In a post on Reddit, he described himself as vulnerable and insecure. “I was a prime candidate,” he wrote. “Q gave me purpose, meaning and perhaps saddest of all, he gave me joy.”
“Life was better, good, great at times. The most overwhelming positive emotion was one of justice being done,” he says. “In Q’s world, stuff isn’t forgotten, stuff isn’t barely talked about in hushed tones […] it’s front and centre. So I was happy that in at least that way, Q’s world was better than our one.”
It took Jadeja years of research to stop believing in QAnon. He says that one of his biggest regrets is talking about it with his father, who he says is now more invested in the conspiracy theory than he himself ever was.
“I have to find a way to de-programme him. I hope I can, the guilt is too much,” he says. “I did this to someone I love, the man who raised me.”
Now, Jadeja co-moderates the subreddit r/reQovery: “A forum for ex-QAnon believers to vent, receive emotional support, and share news and commentary about QAnon”, as well as its sister subreddit, r/QAnonCasualties, where friends and families of radicalised loved ones can gain that same support and seek advice on how to help tear them away from QAnon.
“It’s only a small community of 1,200 members,” he says of r/reQovery, “but it’s growing fast and is specifically targeted at ex-Qult members.” Even when he was engrossed in QAnon, Jadeja said he visited these subreddits (then moderated by others) and found that “hearing the other side” eventually helped him move away from the conspiracy theory.
I ask Jadeja what advice he’d give to people who have watched friends and family succumb to QAnon. He says there’s little anyone can do. “Unfortunately, I know first-hand that almost anything you say to them will be dismissed, ignored or rationalised away,” Jadeja explains.
“This is the worst part about all of this. I don’t have any advice. I don’t think there’s anything you can do. What works for one person might not work for the other. Even now, with my dad, we just don’t talk about it.”
That said, Jadeja continues to work towards helping people become “de-programmed” from QAnon. Through providing support on his subreddits, he believes it is possible that more people can move back to reality, as he did. Rather than questioning a believer’s behaviour, he argues that chipping away at the “credibility” of QAnon itself can sometimes be more effective. “They can ignore you,” he says, “but they can’t ignore that unsettled feeling that things aren’t adding up as they should.”
In the last two weeks, a number of online platforms have begun taking measures to reduce QAnon’s reach. Facebook announced last Tuesday that it would begin removing all QAnon content on Facebook pages, groups, and on Instagram. It referred to QAnon as a “militarised social movement” whose content, even if non-violent, could cause “real-world harm”. Depop, the online second-hand retailer, announced it would take steps to stop the promotion of the conspiracy theory, saying that all accounts and listings selling QAnon items would be removed from the site.
But these are limited measures, and come years too late. In Facebook’s case, individual users can still post QAnon content themselves, and it’s likely believers will find creative ways to get around the bans. As the Guardian reported last month, QAnon has already demonstrably reached tens of thousands of British Facebook users, and led to at least 15 protests in the UK.
Of the interviewees I spoke to, most believe their loved ones are standing at a crossroads between a return to normality and a lifetime of paranoid delusion. This is where Emily believes Thomas finds himself. “He hasn’t said that, like, Obama is drinking the blood of children – he hasn’t said that kind of thing, not yet.” There’s a chance, Emily feels, that Thomas could be “saved” from his newfound beliefs. “But I don’t know. I don’t think he will be.”
“At the end of the day,” she says, “in order to even believe in some parts of QAnon, you already have to be quite far down the rabbit hole.”