I don’t know if typical QAnon believers are relatively affluent or struggling. Are they worried about losing their privileged position in society or making ends meet? Do they have more problems than the rest of us (aside from being QAnon believers)?
New York Times journalist Stuart Thompson spent the past three weeks listening to an online QAnon chat room and came away with some impressions. (The Times story is fairly long and includes recorded conversations not included below.)
As President Biden’s inauguration ticked closer, some of Txxxx’s supporters were feeling gleeful. Mr. Txxxx was on the cusp of declaring martial law, they believed. Military tribunals would follow, then televised executions, then Democrats and other deep state operatives would finally be brought to justice.
These were honestly held beliefs. Dozens of Txxxx supporters spoke regularly over the past three weeks on a public audio chat room app, where they uploaded short recordings instead of typing. In these candid digital confessionals, participants would crack jokes, share hopes and make predictions.
“Look at the last four years. They haven’t listened to a thing we’ve said. Um … there’s going to have to be some serious anarchy that goes on. Otherwise, nothing is going to change.”
I spent the past three weeks listening to the channel — from before the Jan. 6 Washington protest to after Mr. Biden’s inauguration. It became an obsession, something I’d check first thing every morning and listen to as I fell asleep at night. Participants tend to revere Mr. Txxxx and believe he’ll end the crisis outlined by Q: that the world is run by a cabal of pedophiles who operate a sex-trafficking ring, among other crimes. While the chat room group is relatively small, with only about 900 subscribers, it offers a glimpse into a worrying sect of Txxxx supporters. . . .
“If the Biden inauguration wants to come in and take your weapons and force vaccination, you have due process to blow them the [expletive] away. Do it.”
There’s a persistent belief that the online world is somehow not real. Extreme views are too easily dismissed if they’re on the internet. While people might say things online they would never do in person, all it takes is one person for digital conspiracies to take a deadly turn. . . . Listening to the conspiracists — unfiltered and in their own voices — makes that digital conversation disturbingly real.
To participants, the channel is mainly a way to share and “fact-check” the news, cobbling theories together from fringe right-wing websites, posts on Facebook, and private channels on the messaging apps Telegram and Signal. They say their main focus is reinstituting paper ballots.
The most commonly used phrase is some version of “I heard,” followed by a theory . . .
If the Q movement had a slogan, it would be “Do your research.” The conspiracy is designed like a game. Discovering clues that clarify Q’s cryptic missives produces a eureka effect, which offers a hit of dopamine and improves memory retention. It’s the same satisfaction that comes from solving a puzzle or finding the answer to a riddle.
Believers apply the same approach to everyday news: Find information that confirms any existing beliefs, then use it to augment their understanding of the conspiracy. Reject facts or information that counter the existing beliefs. It’s one of the reasons they struggle to recruit their family members, unless they’re persuaded to do research themselves.
I wondered what would happen in the days after Mr. Biden’s inauguration. Rather than re-evaluate their approach in the wake of Q’s failures, many doubled down. The problem wasn’t that the whole worldview was false, just that they had been led astray by inaccurate reports and misinterpretations. Their response was to improve their process. They would develop a list of sources, vet credentials, link to original material, and view unconfirmed information skeptically. They were, in a sense, inventing journalism. . . .
What should Q’s followers inspire in us? Anger? Sympathy?
The audio chat offers a clearer picture of these believers than the Facebook pages and Telegram channels where they also gather. The all-caps screeds of the internet give way to gentler moments, like when they talk about their pets or babysitting their grandkids. Many members were struggling in some way — financially or emotionally, with legal troubles or addiction. As Covid-19 swept their states, many got sick, and some family members died. A few members were recently out of prison. Another was living in a sober house.
“I don’t think they understand that we’re not all evil,” one member said about how the left views them. “Like you said, we’re not evil. We’re not bad people.”
As I listened over these three weeks, I saw that they’re drawn to Q and Mr. Txxxx for many reasons. The political status quo wasn’t working for them. Mr. Txxxx was an antidote to Washington and was beholden to neither party. And Q offered not just a political orientation but also a way to place themselves in a bigger narrative that explains life’s shortcomings. Many believers have paid a price for their views. Some were shunned by friends and family. Apps and social networks, like this audio chat room, stepped in, offering a welcoming community with shared beliefs.
“Does anybody else’s family members on here think you’re crazy?” one asked.
“I have family that think that way. I think they’re crazy for not seeing what the heck’s going on,” another replied.
“I’ve stopped talking to every single person that isn’t on board with this,” another said.
“I can’t even express it enough — I’m so thankful for every person in this group.”
In the process, followers have become more isolated, stuck inside an echo chamber from which they may never escape.
Beneath the anger in their voices is often pain or confusion. When the chat dies down to just a few members, they’ll share stories about their struggles with affording health insurance or the shame of going on government assistance. Hearing them talk with one another, I could start understanding the pull of conspiracy communities — how they exploit the vulnerable and create a worldview out of shared enemies. Then you can watch those views harden. And while none of it excuses participation in a dangerous collective delusion, it takes the complex process of radicalization and gives it a human dimension. What seemed like a preposterous descent into a kind of madness made slightly more sense.
“Not every politician is bad. Not every Democrat is bad. But we’re going to automatically assume that they’re deep state. So, I mean, you have people, a small few, that makes the majority look bad.”
As I spent more time in the group, I understood why the conspiracy has such gravitational pull. And while I didn’t lose my way, I was taken aback by the experience. It turned my brain to mush. I was left rattled and deeply concerned. About what would become of this group when I left. And more important, how one can lessen the appeal of a conspiracy that gives so much purpose to people’s lives.
Listening in, I came to realize what extremism researchers and cult experts have long known to be true: You cannot just destroy a community and expect it to disappear when it is load bearing. If we are to deradicalize Q believers in a Biden era, how will we do it? What can we offer them in its place?
One woman had an idea for how to solve some of these problems. They could try hearing from their opponents directly. Maybe they could understand their point of view, learn what motivates them. But then she paused. “I’d love to get into their heads, but it scares the [expletive] out of me,” she said. “So I keep my distance and stay with you patriots.”