The voter fraud claims first began flooding Justin’s Twitter feed late Tuesday night, as the results of the presidential election were still trickling in.
The 26-year-old, who lives in Austin, Texas, and once wanted to become a journalist, hadn’t even voted, nor did he ever really like Donald Trump. But he quickly found himself falling down a familiar rabbit hole, following one Twitter thread after another in search of proof that the election had been rigged by the Democrats against the president.
“I just became obsessed with figuring out that it was rigged and putting pieces together that it was,” Justin, who asked to be identified only by his first name, told Yahoo News. “I wanted to say that I was on to this before everyone, when everyone else blindly believed the lies of the media.”
As Tuesday night spilled into Wednesday, Justin said, he called off work and he spent the rest of the week “on Twitter trying to convince myself of this election fraud stuff.”
Millions of others were doing the same thing, and some of them undoubtedly still are. How it will end for them is unclear: disillusionment, resignation, anger are all possible outcomes. A worst case would be further radicalization, leading to violence.
But Justin’s failed search for evidence of fraud in the election had a very different effect. It was the key that allowed him to escape his years-long obsession with QAnon, the conspiracy theory that holds millions of people around the world in its cultlike grip.
Like Justin, many American Q devotees were struggling to make sense of the outcome of the presidential election, which seemed to upend the core mythology of their worldview.
After all, QAnon is rooted in the baseless belief, seeded on the internet fringes by an anonymous figure known as “Q,” that Trump has been secretly working to dismantle an alleged satanic cabal of child-eating pedophiles including prominent Democrats like Hillary Clinton, high-ranking government officials and other members of the “global elite,” code on the far right for “Jews.” And though the movement has since evolved to encompass various other beliefs including opposition to vaccines, COVID-19 skepticism and concerns about human trafficking, its central premise remained an apocalyptic faith in the imminence of “the Storm,” a day of reckoning in which Trump’s righteous followers would round up this nonexistent cabal for trial and execution.
Now, not only had Trump lost the election before achieving the highly anticipated demise of the “deep state” cabal, but the individual or group behind the shadowy “Q” persona had conspicuously gone silent since Election Day, when they offered a single post featuring a photo of a large American flag, a YouTube link to the theme music from the 1992 film “The Last of the Mohicans” and a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It ended with the message “Together we win.”
Then, on Sunday evening, as Justin continued his fifth straight day of mining the internet for evidence that President-elect Joe Biden had been illegitimately declared the presumptive winner of the election, he came across something else that made a lot more sense to him than the flimsy voter-fraud claims he was desperately trying to string together.
It was a Twitter thread by Marc-André Argentino, a PhD candidate at Canada’s Concordia University who researches the use of technology by extremist groups and, in particular, QAnon.
“If you are interested in QAnon, QAnonCasualties is a must subreddit to read regularly and to get to know what is happening in QWorld from those closest to QAnon adherents,” Argentino wrote before proceeding to share several screenshots of recent posts from the Reddit forum, which, since it was created in July 2019, has served as a sort of a virtual support group for friends and family members of people from all over the world who’ve become consumed by the cultlike conspiracy theory. As of Thursday, the QAnonCasualties subreddit had more than 42,000 members.
The election results and the ensuing silence from “Q,” although neither the first nor longest time without a “Q drop,” caused a vacuum in that world, which some followers have tried to fill. Melanie Smith, head of analysis at the social media research firm Graphika, told Yahoo News, “The notable absence of ‘Q’ in the postelection conversation has meant that we have seen influencers taking on a prominent role in interpreting events, for example by reposting claims of electoral fraud and a strong emphasis on ‘trusting the plan.’”
Based on several distraught dispatches posted in the QAnonCasualties subreddit after Biden had been declared the president-elect on Saturday, many Q believers remained convinced that Trump was the real winner. For many on the forum, the election seemed to drive home just how far removed their loved ones had become from reality, prompting some to actually cut off communication from their Q-obsessed parents, friends and even spouses. A few expressed concerns that some of the more extreme Q devotees would be driven to commit violence when Trump inevitably leaves the White House without announcing “the Storm.” In at least one case, a poster revealed that the election had caused their “ultra QAnon” aunt to commit suicide — “she left a note saying she was terrified the cabal was coming for her and her kids because of Trump’s loss.”
As Justin read through post after post about the relationships and lives destroyed by QAnon, he started to “realize if I’m not careful I could have that effect on my friends and family.”
Though he’d been following a variety of online conspiracy theories over the last four years or so, including Q-related content, Justin never actually considered himself to be a true QAnon believer. He didn’t keep up with the semiregular “Q drops.” He’d also never been fully able to accept the idea that “there was a network of elites killing children and drinking their blood” — though in hindsight he says this had less to do with the absence of evidence than a reluctance to accept such a dark view of human nature.
“I say that I didn’t believe that stuff, but I know very well that I easily could have,” Justin told Yahoo News in a phone interview. “You get into it thinking you won’t actually get that deep down or ever really believe that stuff, but I guess that’s probably what everyone thinks when they start to believe in Q.”
But there were aspects of the Q world view that Justin definitely did believe, like the idea that “there is some sort of a ‘deep state’ that is out there that is corrupt and pulling some strings and manipulating the media.” He realized that QAnon-related accounts were largely the ones pushing the voter fraud narrative, which he’d become completely consumed by over the past several days.
“That made me reassess all Q stuff I’ve been consuming for the last three or four years,” he said.
Overwhelmed by the epiphany these personal stories had triggered, Justin decided to share his own experience with the members of the QAnonCasualties forum, writing a post titled “I feel like this subreddit just saved my life.” Since Sunday night, the post has received over 1,000 upvotes and over 160 comments, as well as an “outpouring of support” via direct messages including, Justin said, from “other people who have pulled out of the Q cult.”
Justin is likely not the only Q follower to become disillusioned with the movement in the aftermath of the election. In fact, Will Sommer at the Daily Beast observed last week that a few prominent QAnon influencers already seemed to be losing faith in it, though they seem to be in the minority.
More than a sign of a mass exodus from QAnon, Justin’s personal experience offers a rare glimpse into just how wide-reaching and insidious the Q worldview has become over the last three years, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once confined to the fringes of the internet, where a dedicated cohort of conspiratorial followers first emerged in an effort to derive meaning from the vague and often inaccurate prophecies posted by an anonymous figure known as “Q,” the movement known as QAnon has since metastasized into something much bigger and harder to define, reaching its tentacles into various communities online and wreaking havoc on people’s lives often without their even realizing it.
“By the time the election came around, QAnon adherents were no longer dependent on the figure known as ‘Q’ for content or directives,” said Smith of Graphika. “The diversity of QAnon conspiracy theories means that QAnon supporters have become increasingly represented in other political and social communities, for example those concerned about vaccines or human trafficking.”
“It’s more the choose-your-own-adventure of conspiracy theories than something of doctrine at this point,” said Lisa Kaplan, CEO and founder of Alethea Group, a disinformation investigations and remediation firm. “This is one of the reasons why I think it’s appealing to such a broad base, is because people are able to come up with whatever evidence fits their story as to why something may be the way it is, or why it may be happening.”
It’s also what makes QAnon particularly impervious to facts, which, Kaplan said, poses a “longer-term problem” for combating disinformation both as it pertains to the election and beyond.
The movement has shown its adaptability in the phenomenon of “pastel QAnon,” the spread of Q-related conspiracy theories among New Age yoga and wellness influencers on social media. It appears that the deeper QAnon embeds itself in mainstream culture, the less reliant it has become on “Q” or even Trump to survive.
“QAnon typically attracts people who, for one reason or another, feel that they have been left behind,” said Kaplan. “That is important because you’re getting a lot of people who already feel like the system is rigged against them.”
For Justin, the road to Q started four or five years ago, before the movement itself, during what he described as a particularly unhappy and confusing time in his life. He wrote on Reddit that in real life he was “going through a nasty breakup,” and that while on social media, where he spent a lot of his time, “I felt like I couldn’t keep up with [politically correct] culture & I felt judged and guilty just for being a white guy.”
After having gone to school to study journalism, Justin was suddenly feeling like he could no longer trust the mainstream media. He says he “checked out mentally from reading the news,” gravitating instead toward darker corners of the internet where the conspiratorial and vitriolic rhetoric of anti-feminist men’s rights groups and the alt-right seemed to provide some sort of validation for the fear and frustration he was experiencing.
“My sensibilities lied with these types of people — paranoid conspiracy theorists who are confused by all the social changes that have happened in this country in the past 4-5 years,” Justin wrote on Reddit. “Their sense of humor resonated with me. I liked the memes. There was a feeling of brotherhood and community — always knitted together by the common thread of not trusting the media or the government or *anybody* but each other.”
Eventually he says he stopped keeping up with current events altogether, “a dangerous turning point” that seemed to coincide with the rise of Pizzagate.
The thoroughly debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which was promoted by members of the alt-right and conservative media online during the 2016 presidential election, falsely claimed that leaked emails from the account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, contained coded messages tying high-ranking Democratic officials to a supposed child sex trafficking ring operating out of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C.
“I fell for it hook, line and sinker,” Justin said of Pizzagate, which is widely considered to be the precursor to QAnon. He recalled spending hours each day watching Pizzagate videos on YouTube and scouring a subreddit dedicated to the theory. The more he immersed himself in Pizzagate content, the more paranoid he became, convinced that someone was tracking his internet history.
“I was scared to go outside and walk my dog because I thought someone was going to come and get me because I knew too much,” he told Yahoo News. Pizzagate, Justin said, “put the idea in my head that there’s an evil group out there doing this stuff, and you can’t trust” the media or government. “From there it was a bad, slippery slope.”
By that time, Donald Trump had become the Republican nominee for the 2016 presidential election. Though Justin insists he never really liked the would-be president, and didn’t vote for him (or anyone) in 2016 or 2020, he could “understand the appeal.”
“For whatever reason I leaned towards sympathizing with him,” he said. Trump’s victory over Clinton, despite the fact that she’d been overwhelmingly predicted to win in the polls, was “the nail in the coffin” of Justin’s remaining trust in the mainstream media. “Now I definitely know that these people don’t know what they’re talking about, and now I have a real reason not to believe them,” he recalls thinking at the time.
Over the next four years, Justin said he tried to combat what he recognized to be an unhealthy and addictive relationship to the internet and social media, going offline for periods of time and even replacing his smartphone with a flip phone at one point in an effort to detach. But he never quite succeeded.
Like Pizzagate, Justin said, the “Q belief offered some kind of analysis” and explanation for what was happening in the world. It wasn’t until a few days ago that he realized how destructive it was. His lack of trust wasn’t limited to politicians and the mainstream media, but, he said, it “colored my mentality, the way I interacted with the world.” He was unable to make new friends, especially with anyone he discovered to be left-leaning politically, convinced they wouldn’t understand his belief in the cabal — or worse, that they “might be part of it.”
“This Q s*** is absolutely life-ruining,” Justin wrote in his Reddit post on Sunday.
“I really believe that,” he told Yahoo News. “When you feel like you can’t trust anyone, it’s like you’re having a psychotic break.”
When he started to become consumed by claims of voter fraud following the election, he recognized a feeling he hadn’t had since he’d been sucked into the Pizzagate rabbit hole. “I hadn’t gone that deep since 2016,” he said. “I was going back into a place in my head where I don’t even know what’s real anymore — I feel like I’m going crazy.”
There was one crucial difference, though: “This time I wasn’t doing it alone. Other people were noticing.” In the past, Justin hadn’t told anyone about his belief in Pizzagate or any other conspiracy theories. But in the days that followed the election, he found himself spreading the theory to his family and friends that Democrats had rigged the election. It didn’t go over well.
“When I started to actually argue that with my parents, my girlfriend, my close friends and they were like, ‘What are you talking about? There’s no proof that’s true,’ that made me start to realize what I was believing and what I was putting out on a deeper level,” he said. “I think that’s what helped me, being forced to talk. That’s what made it particularly hard to reconcile the lack of proof with the theory.”
By the time he found his way to the QAnonCasualties subreddit Sunday evening, he was already struggling to justify this cognitive dissonance.
As of Tuesday, Justin said he’d only come clean to his girlfriend about his recent realization, but was pleasantly surprised by her nonjudgmental response.
“I’ve been taking the past day and a half to rethink the past three or four years of my life,” he said, adding that he plans to talk to some of the other Q defectors who’ve been responding to his Reddit post before reaching out to other family and friends.
He also said he needs to “learn to trust the media again,” noting that he had started that process by watching a clip from CNN. “Baby steps,” he said. As for whether there was widespread voter fraud in the election, Justin said he’s decided to take the word of the official media and government sources that he’d long rejected. “Now I accept that there very, very likely wasn’t,” he said.
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