What it’s like to go undercover in a QAnon community
You might think that a homicidal cult of ambitious psychics threatening to assassinate members of the government would be full of interesting people. You would be wrong.
You might think that a homicidal cult of ambitious mediums is actively threatening to assassinate members of the elected government, prompting a Judgment Day-like military coup and mass arrests to install an authoritarian world government under the leadership of the Heavenly Emperor Donald Trump. would inform fascinating personal stories. You would be wrong.
I spent a year undercover in the conspiracy community, researching my book QAnon and enabled, which concerns conspiracy cults on the Internet. To get to know the overlapping cults’ QAnon adherents and believers, I created online characters that approximated the kind of person my preliminary research indicated to be the most likely to infiltrate their social media circles.
My original plan was to befriend the grassroots believers, observe them, learn their rituals and behaviors, and unravel something like a first-person gonzo ethnography, centered on the accounts of the individuals. the most convincing. Through trial and error, I attracted so many friends with my fake characters that I exceeded my limit of 5,000 friends on one account.
My contact with these people may be exclusively online, but neither is it superficial; I have spoken to a bunch of acquired buddies almost daily over the past 12 months. My fake pixelated face is pinned to the margins of their direct message issues, compiling a large, digitized wad of intimate confessions and complaints. The problem is, a book has to be interesting, and far too soon I found out that the real people in this movement… just weren’t.
My home state of Victoria and other places in Australia have been overwhelmed by protesters from the conspiracy community, whose colorful disturbances have oscillated between the sensational ends of inconvenience and alarming. The people I am “friends” with online have enthusiastically participated in these events. They proudly share photographs of themselves choking the streets, cluttering up stores and doing things like grinding on Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” at a rally. They also casually threaten to hang the Prime Minister in the chat.
The street protests were festooned with nooses. The vox-pop media’s insistence that they are a peaceful movement fighting for “human rights” is somewhat contradicted by publicly available Facebook comments of people hoping the Prime Minister will be overthrown by stairs and left for dead.
How is that possibly boring? Two ways. First, there is a “don’t tell me what to do” narcissism in their cabal denunciations that has the familiar, stomping energy of teenagers refusing to tidy their rooms. Second, from their social media content to the content of their lives, there is a similarity in their commitments that is more than grim. It’s mostly nonsense, whining or cut-and-paste hate.
The “elites” against “the people”
The community I study typically includes wellness-type hippies, ultra-conservative Christians, and a more traditional, gun-wielding far right, but as I’ve watched their paranoia meld over the last year, the accolades cultural values between these groups have diminished. clear.
These days, the shared tenets of their beliefs that dominate online conversations are the QAnon-style assertion that COVID-19 is just one of the vile conspiracies concocted by the “elites” to keep “the people” out. – never conceived like them – under tyrannical control. They insist that vaccines are part of the dictatorial plot to poison and kill true patriots and must be fought at all costs, even – and it is disturbing how quickly this justification is being done – with violence.
In their view of the world, no politician is trustworthy except Donald Trump, whose re-election they are convinced was stolen. Every other politician is lying, rapist pedophiles: Joe Biden is both pathologically evil and incompetent with dementia, Kamala Harris is a Communist whore, Daniel Andrews a murderous psychopath.
Joe Biden is both pathologically evil and incompetent with dementia, Kamala Harris is a Communist whore, Daniel Andrews a murderous psychopath.
At the same time, they are special, enlightened, imbued with spiritual superiority. They have “awakened” to the conspiracy and share secret information among themselves about the source of their own particularity. A theme comes up again: The experts know nothing, and the scientists of the world have an analytical capacity inferior to anything insisted on in obscure, sourceless propaganda, or by dudes making Facebook videos on their phones.
Trying to pressure assertions – even gently – results in angry denunciations from the person asking the question. If the claims lack detail, well, it’s simply because the cabal is hiding those details. Meanwhile, spiritually awakened people have vengeful proof of their superiority over “sheep” who may view them as stupid conspiracy theorists. Some of the awakened think they are “starseeds” or “indigo children” – the reincarnations of aliens, possessed by old souls with super-dupe galactic intelligence that we lower beings do not. just can’t see.
These are, all, precisely who you would never want to find yourself stuck talking to at a party. Realizing this, the carnival air at their events is understandable. The sexy street dancing on Craig Kelly’s Spotify playlist is rightfully the place these people go to fuck themselves.
Back online, some elements of the far end of the plot fantasy are incomprehensible gibberish, unless you’ve been in it for some time. Interpretations of secret messages rely on an encyclopedic memory for previous iterations of nonsense accepted by the group, and the patterns of letters, numbers, and symbols they decode mostly resemble the paranoid sequence wrapping of A beautiful mind.
On a more personal level, this is a group of people who fiercely defend the perpetuation of social stereotypes that they struggle to live up to on their own. Transphobia is a sacred value – symbolic of the end of civilization, no less – among a crowd desperate to show up in ultra-female or masc presentations. Among anti-vax female avatars, there are few without the unicorn pink glow of a soft-focus SnapChat filter. Two members of my entourage separately declared last night that masculinity is over as they are themselves the last men “brave enough” not to wear masks at sporting events.
Amid sexy, gender-biased postures, the updates frequently speak of arcs of heteronormative relationship disappointment. “Where are all the good men?” Someone asked last night, more as a material requirement than a rhetorical consideration. “Who on Facebook do you secretly want to fuck?” Was somehow even less subtle. “I’m almost single, send me a message,” someone replied. In my different characters – with, believe me, no effort on my part – people try to take me all the time.
Among anti-vax female avatars, there are few without the unicorn pink glow of a soft-focus SnapChat filter.
It is in these DMs and others that the real sadness lands. For all the bravery of the public post, these people are torn with resentment and blame towards current and former partners who simply won’t do what they want, parents and siblings who demand more of them. that they are not ready to give, and children who refuse to act as extensions of their own personality. The refusal to be vaccinated – especially when the family does – acts for many like another small symbolic battle in a never-ending family and relationship war.
As feuds are explained, loved ones exposed, adverse legal decisions – especially divorce, custody, bankruptcy, and foreclosure – discussed, there is an observable pattern, but you can’t advise. “It’s time to take responsibility for your own role and move on” to someone who has long outsourced responsibility for everything to an imaginary pedophile cabal.
The sad monotony of these conversations comes from the way repetition of clichés replaces honest and helpful soul-searching. One of my first “friends” in this world was a heartbroken man who told me that the woman he loved had to end their decades-long relationship because she refused to “wake up” and to join him in a conspiratorial thought. He expressed wistfully – painfully – that maybe when one day she decided to believe that Hillary Clinton ate children’s faces under Washington pizzerias, she would come back to him.
It’s both laughable and depressing, but my familiarity with the community has dried both my laughs and my tears. Their indiscriminate repetition of clichés does not only prevent recognition of the guilt in their own relationships. It is assisting a process of dangerous political dehumanization.
When it was revealed that protesters had made death threats against the two-year-old child of Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner – causing him to fail in a presser – these glassy-eyed repeats became more sinister . Online responses to Gunner were literally a thousand variations of:
You asked that
Action meets reaction
Suck it princess
cry Me A River
You reap what you sew
Fuck your crocodile tears
I don’t believe in death threats (but) …
I am not a defender of violence (but) …
Take advantage of the consequences of your choice
With names, yes. With shamelessness. In the comfort of an asserting community and with frightening uniformity.
In the end, it was this truly sheep-like uniformity that became most fascinating to me. Not because of the individual participants – but because where there are sheep, there are shepherds… and as I spent more time in Conspiracyland, who these shepherds were and how they figured out how to direct these people to targets politics, from Michael Gunner to the US election, has become a far more interesting – and important – story to tell.
This is the book I wrote. I kept my fake accounts open, for ongoing research… but I can’t say I’m sad to leave my fake friends behind.
Van Badham is a writer and activist. His book QAnon and On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults is now available from Hardie Grant and is available at all good booksellers.
Photo credit: Kyle Grillot / AFP via Getty Images