I have long been fascinated by the sociology of cults, the psychology of cult members, and the conspiratorial thinking that afflicts them. I think my interest is because I was a religious believer well into adulthood and now I find myself wondering how I could have believed for so long in things that I now feel are patently nonsense. One factor is that I was born into a religious family and when growing up one tends to unthinkingly absorb the influences of one’s immediate surroundings. Though I grew up in a liberal Christian tradition that did not require me to believe in the more outlandish things that fundamentalist, evangelical, and biblical literalist Christians do, even the most stripped down versions of Christianity require believing in some pretty wild things. So to some extent, I shared similarities with cult members.
This willingness to believe in things for which there is no evidence may be why it is so easy to transition to the more extreme forms of beliefs and that one can find such believers everywhere. This article by Debra Winter (sent to me by reader Jeff) discusses her surprise at discovering that some of her close friends are believers of the latest conspiracy theory about the coronavirus and the film Plandemic that promotes it.
When a childhood friend, a stay-at-home mom with a flourishing Pinterest account, sent me a copy of Plandemic – a 26-minute viral video falsely claiming manipulated origins of the coronavirus and the medical dangers of vaccines – I realized that conspiracy sympathizers weren’t as fringe as I thought.
My friend was the third person, along with a work colleague and neighbor who is a doctor, to recently jump into the conspiracy theory abyss. I often dismissed conspiracy adherents as delusional cult members. But this was different. I knew these women. They were bright and led full, busy lives.
All three fit the same profile: college-educated, white women, middle class. All organic, health food advocates with aversions to mandatory child vaccinations. Additionally, in the midst of this pandemic, these women flipped from Democrats to Trump supporters. Historically anti-vaxxers swing far-left politically, but more recently they’ve embraced Trump.
This is not solely a fringe group of uninformed people blindly forwarding cat videos. These are college-educated women who (correctly or incorrectly) believe they have done their research. They look out for their families, the health of their children, and they share information on their Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Adherent literature abounds, providing a rabbit hole of media links to seemingly real evidence from experts.
I recently ran into my neighbor, a retired doctor. Five years ago, when I wasn’t feeling well but was too busy to see a doctor, she kindly slid a prescription for antibiotics under my door. But now, even she was infected with conspiracy theories. “Can you believe that Bill Gates and Fauci?” she said, adding: “They should be arrested.”
In a recent issue of The Atlantic magazine, Adrienne LaFrance takes a deep dive into the conspiracy theory spread by the QAnon cult that follows a leader known only as Q, starting her piece with the story of the believer who decided that he had a moral responsibility to personally destroy the child sex-trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton out of a pizza sop in Washington, DC.
The origins of QAnon are recent, but even so, separating myth from reality can be hard. One place to begin is with Edgar Maddison Welch, a deeply religious father of two, who until Sunday, December 4, 2016, had lived an unremarkable life in the small town of Salisbury, North Carolina. That morning, Welch grabbed his cellphone, a box of shotgun shells, and three loaded guns—a 9-mm AR-15 rifle, a six-shot .38 caliber Colt revolver, and a shotgun—and hopped into his Toyota Prius. He drove 360 miles to a well-to-do neighborhood in Northwest Washington, D.C.; parked his car; put the revolver in a holster at his hip; held the AR-15 rifle across his chest; and walked through the front door of a pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong.
Welch had traveled to Washington because of a conspiracy theory known, now famously, as Pizzagate, which claimed that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of Comet Ping Pong.
Shortly after Trump’s election, as Pizzagate roared across the internet, Welch started binge-watching conspiracy-theory videos on YouTube. He tried to recruit help from at least two people to carry out a vigilante raid, texting them about his desire to sacrifice “the lives of a few for the lives of many” and to fight “a corrupt system that kidnaps, tortures and rapes babies and children in our own backyard.” When Welch finally found himself inside the restaurant and understood that Comet Ping Pong was just a pizza shop, he set down his firearms, walked out the door, and surrendered to police, who had by then secured the perimeter. “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” Welch told The New York Times after his arrest.
Welch seems to have sincerely believed that children were being held at Comet Ping Pong. His family and friends wrote letters to the judge on his behalf, describing him as a dedicated father, a devout Christian, and a man who went out of his way to care for others. Welch had trained as a volunteer firefighter. He had gone on an earthquake-response mission to Haiti with the local Baptist Men’s Association. A friend from his church wrote, “He exhibits the actions of a person who strives to learn biblical truth and apply it.” Welch himself expressed what seemed like genuine remorse, saying in a handwritten note submitted to the judge by his lawyers: “It was never my intention to harm or frighten innocent lives, but I realize now just how foolish and reckless my decision was.” He was sentenced to four years in prison.
Last year, the FBI classified QAnon as a domestic-terror threat in an internal memo. The memo took note of a California man arrested in 2018 with bomb-making materials. According to the FBI, he had planned to attack the Illinois capitol to “make Americans aware of ‘Pizzagate’ and the New World Order (NWO) who were dismantling society.” The memo also took note of a QAnon follower in Nevada who was arrested in 2018 after blocking traffic on the Hoover Dam in an armored truck. The man, heavily armed, was demanding the release of the inspector general’s report on Hillary Clinton’s emails. The FBI memo warned that conspiracy theories stoke the threat of extremist violence, especially when individuals “claiming to act as ‘researchers’ or ‘investigators’ single out people, businesses, or groups which they falsely accuse of being involved in the imagined scheme.”
In its broadest contours, the QAnon belief system looks something like this: Q is an intelligence or military insider with proof that corrupt world leaders are secretly torturing children all over the world; the malefactors are embedded in the deep state; Donald Trump is working tirelessly to thwart them. (“These people need to ALL be ELIMINATED,” Q wrote in one post.) The eventual destruction of the global cabal is imminent, Q prophesies, but can be accomplished only with the support of patriots who search for meaning in Q’s clues. To believe Q requires rejecting mainstream institutions, ignoring government officials, battling apostates, and despising the press.
The Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are thriving religious movements indigenous to America. Do not be surprised if QAnon becomes another. It already has more adherents by far than either of those two denominations had in the first decades of their existence. People are expressing their faith through devoted study of Q drops as installments of a foundational text, through the development of Q-worshipping groups, and through sweeping expressions of gratitude for what Q has brought to their lives. Does it matter that we do not know who Q is? The divine is always a mystery. Does it matter that basic aspects of Q’s teachings cannot be confirmed? The basic tenets of Christianity cannot be confirmed. Among the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming. They’ll wait as long as they must for deliverance.
Trust the plan. Enjoy the show. Nothing can stop what is coming.
The article was interesting but two things particularly struck me. One is that the heavily armed would-be vigilante who planned to shoot up a pizza shop drove a Prius. That seemed so incongruous, though given that Winter’s article shows how this movement has gained the support of some middle class suburban women, I should not have been too surprised.
The other thing is that Q has managed to keep their identity secret for so long.
But I think I know who Q is. Q is (wait for it …) Hillary Clinton!
Stick with me for a minute. Here’s my theory.
Clinton, along with George Soros and members of the US government who are part of the Deep State have long been plotting to destroy America and have been playing a long game. They realized that there was someone who could do the destruction much better than they could, and that is Donald Trump. So Clinton set up this plan where, by using a lousy campaign strategy, she would throw the 2016 election that she could have won easily so as to let Trump win. They knew that Trump’s ignorance, impulsiveness, incompetence, venality, and narcissism would result in actions that would be much more damaging than anything they could if they were in power. Clinton’s team also created the virus that causes covid-19 and released it in China, knowing that Trump would bungle the pandemic response leading to a huge number of unnecessary deaths, economic devastation, and social disruption, and that he would also start a new Cold War with China that he could not win in order to deflect attention from his failures, causing further damage to the US economy. By attacking herself as the chief villain of the Deep State conspiracy and accusing herself of bizarre crimes, she effectively threw people off Q’s scent.
Brilliant, no? Top that, conspiracy theorists! Eat your heart out, Alex Jones!
Seriously though, I truly am puzzled that although the FBI has declared QAnon to be a domestic terror threat, they still have not been able to identify who Q is. Given the vast surveillance powers available to the US within the NSA alone that Edward Snowden exposed so clearly, surely they should be able to track Q down?
And they never will because Q—as an individual responsible as the leader of the group—doesn’t exist. At best Q is the imaginary friend of some poor sod living in his mother’s basement. At worst, Q is a carefully crafted front created by a team of flacks in the pay of a cadre of plutocrats.
I’ve long taken as truth the idea that religion is the basis for all conspiracy theorists. If you can believe in the bearded white guy in the sky, you can believe anything.
I firmly believe that there are no atheists who believe in conspiracy theories.
Matt G says
This is the scary thing about intelligent, educated people -- they think they are too intelligent and too educated to fall for conspiracy theories. Once they convinced themselves, what hope do you have? As the saying goes, you can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t reason themselves into.
How do the Qanon worshippers know which messages are really from the supposed original Q, and which messages are actually from Russian intelligence just pretending to be Q? I foresee a Q schism soon.
@1 Hyphenman: “I firmly believe that there are no atheists who believe in conspiracy theories.”
Then Richard Carrier is not an atheist. He promotes the conspiracy theory called Jesusmythology: a couple of unknown propagandists invented a fictional character with a fictional biography and promoted it as the truth.
They don’t, and they never have. Q publishes anonymously on places like 4chan and 8chan. There has never been any way to verify that any of the Q “drops” come from the same person.
Tabby Lavalamp says
A 4chan troll accidentally starting a new religion would be very fitting for this timeline.
Not that I want to be an alarmist but 11 GOP congressional nominees support QAnon conspiracy.
Slightly OT but an interesting on how conspiracy theorists group together :
The anti-vaxer hordes are also denying that SARS-CoV-2 exists and say that Covid-19 is just a minor flu or a Big Pharma conspiracy or something.
For an amazingly batsh8t, off-the-wall look at this from Oz have a look at / Meryl’s Mishmash of Madness at The Millenium Project.
Lewandowsky is right, conspiracy theorists flock together. Once Mano gets going, and with a little tuning of the “theory” he will have millions of followers.
@ 6 Tabby Lavalamp
A 4chan troll accidentally starting a new religion would be very fitting for this timeline.
For all we know it may have already happened.
There can be any number of cults out there unknown until we get a mass suicide such as the Order of the Solar Temple or a shoot-out like Waco.
Mano, you have completely missed the point.
The one right in front of you!!!
The NSA knows exactly who Q is.
They are protecting Q because they are part of Qanon!!!
It is so obvious.
The above is of course, sarcasm, meant to be humorous.
There is however, a finite chance that parts of the NSA friendly to the GOP are in fact, protecting Q’s identity.
@1 “I firmly believe that there are no atheists who believe in conspiracy theories.”
I believe religion is not true, it was invented (perhaps millennia ago) by the governing elites to rule the masses. How is that not a conspiracy theory?
You could try and claim that no atheist would believe a conspiracy theory that is false… Even then I’ll be dubious about your claim tbh…
Matt G says
robert79@10- The difference is that there is hundreds of years of scholarship investigating the origins and development of religions all across the globe. Any claim (for example, the one you suggest) would have to consider this massive body of work.
Well, no true
Scotsmanatheist maybe. 😎
Well, they’ve certainly used religion for that; but I’d bet that religion itself was around long before there were any elites ruling masses. (IIUC, that doesn’t really happen until the invention of agriculture and the notion that land can be property.)
“conspiracy theorists flock together”
Orac over on the blog “Respectful Insolence” (Pro science based medicine and antivaxx debunker) has coined the term “crank magnetism” to describe this phenomenon.
Antivaxxers and conspiracy theorists are birds of a feather, so to speak.
@mnb0 No. 4:
Clearly I suck at humor.
My conclusion that: I firmly believe that there are no atheists who believe in conspiracy theories was meant as a reference to the (supposed) line from William Thomas Cummings’s sermon that
@billseymour No. 12:
That’s true, you’re absolutely correct. : )
@robert79 No. 10:
Please excuse my lack of clarity.
From where I stand, modern religion is the grandparent of all conspiracy theories.
Modern religion—from the last five or six millennia or so—may have morphed into the structure you describe, but I think it more likely that the origins are our ancestors simply struggling to explain nature and the causes for both good and bad events.
Also, I think that all conspiracy theories, as we use the term today, are false.
If they were true we wouldn’t call them conspiracy theories; we’d probably call them news.
Andreas Avester says
“All organic, health food advocates with aversions to mandatory child vaccinations” indicate that these people already were into conspiracy theories. Anti vaxxer ideas are all complete bullshit. “Health food” is scientifically unsupported (there is no such thing as a superfood, while some foods and diets are better for health than others, the whole notion of “health foods” still make no sense). Organic is more complicated, because organic agriculture does work at least for some plants and can have environmental benefits in some cases, but “all organic” gets straight into pure bullshit territory and requires disregarding science.
It’s not at all surprising that a person who supports these highly problematic and non-scientific ideas would jump even deeper into the conspiracy theory abyss.