Kimberly’s boyfriend was tired of hearing the QAnon videos she watched around their small apartment. To keep the peace, she started keeping the videos to herself. “I live in headphones now,” she told The Daily Beast.
“My boyfriend is... I don’t know how to describe it,” she said. “We have very different views. He does not think this QAnon thing is anything except nonsense. I drastically disagree.”
Over Thanksgiving, she joined a chorus of QAnon believers lamenting that their belief in the bizarre right-wing conspiracy theory had isolated them from friends or family, a loss keenly felt over the holidays. QAnon is “something I've been researching on my own, by myself pretty nonstop, 24/7 since probably July-ish,” Kimberly said. “And then it’s grown more and more and more and more and more and more intense for me.”
The QAnon theory falsely claims that President Donald Trump’s prominent opponents are part of an international criminal ring involved in the trafficking, abuse, and sometimes eating, of children. Believers think this because “Q,” an anonymous message board user who claims to be a high-level military insider, has been telling them so since October 2017. Over its year-plus lifespan, the theory has attracted untold legions of fans. It has also attracted comparisons to cults for behavior by adherents, some of whom claim to have become estranged from families and friends over their Q belief.
The Daily Beast spoke to four Q believers—two die-hards and two who are beginning to experience doubts—who claim to have been isolated from loved ones, as well as a former Q believer who now thinks the isolation helps reinforce QAnon support. The Daily Beast is withholding their last names at their requests.
In October, Matthew suggested “a support group” for members whose significant others did not believe in Q.
Matthew, a Washington man, was already in a QAnon club; he made the suggestion in a QAnon Facebook group with nearly 25,000 members. But what he suggested, a specialized group to deal with family alienation, resonated with the community.
“You hear about a lot of people, their spouses rolling their eyes and not seeing,” Matthew told The Daily Beast. “I’m trying to wake up my wife and head off potential disaster in the future and she just rolls her eyes. She thinks I’m nuts.”
Earlier this month, Megan posted about the lack of Q believers in her small Pennsylvania town. “There is no one in my life that I can physically touch that knows what's really going on,” she wrote.
The rift is most evident this time of year. “When I get together with family for the holidays,” Megan doesn’t feel comfortable discussing conspiracy theories, or even politics, with members of her family, she told The Daily Beast. “I stopped trying to tell them. I stopped. Nobody wants to hear it. They say you’re a conspiracy nut and you’re looking at wacky stuff on the internet.”
Megan and Matthew now voice various degrees of skepticism about QAnon. Both were involved in earlier conspiracy communities, and view Q as one of many conspiracies in that broader matrix of fringe beliefs. A number of recent QAnon prophecies, including predictions about mass arrests of Trump foes on December 5 and the dismissal of charges against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn this week, have flopped.
Those failures, plus doubts about the moderator of a large Facebook group have caused both to back away from the conspiracy while still supporting some of its claims. But Kimberly and Marjorie (among a growing community of Canadian QAnon believers) said they were all-in on the conspiracy.
“My friends have told me they are tired of seeing my political postings,” Marjorie told The Daily Beast. She’s lost several friends over political posts about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, including a post about Trudeau being bricked into a wall, she said. She believes Trudeau is linked to the New World Order, a conspiracy theory promoted by some QAnon believers, and said she hopes Trump will save Canada from Trudeau.
In once instance, “after having a friendship with her for 60 years, she humiliated me on my Facebook page. There are other incidences as well. I keep it to myself that I follow QAnon. Some of my other friends follow as well.”
Kimberly said her Q belief had changed her, and that some former friends didn’t understand.
“I haven’t always been with these feelings I have now. I haven’t always felt the way I feel now,” she said. “I’ve done a complete 180. There are people in my family that don’t understand as well. I’ve lost some friends, people I’ve known since high school that I’m Facebook friends with, for an example. They just blocked me, or decided I’m not their friend, or unfriended me. Who the heck came up with that definition of friend anyway? That’s OK. It is what it is.”
Travis View is a researcher monitoring the QAnon conspiracy. Over the course of the movement, he’s seen believers discuss a growing estrangement from loved ones.
“People in the QAnon community often talk about alienation from family and friends,” View said. “Though they typically talk about how Q frayed their relationships on private Facebook groups. But they think these issues are temporary and primarily the fault of others. They often comfort themselves by imagining that there will be a moment of vindication sometime in the near future which will prove their beliefs right. They imagine that after this happens, not only will their relationships be restored, but people will turn them as leaders who understand what's going on better than the rest of us.”
But the alienation isn’t just a personal loss. It can also drive people further down the path of conspiracy.
Serena is a former QAnon believer. “I followed Q’s drops [forum posts]. I watched all the videos,” she told The Daily Beast. “I’m semi-retired, so that’s all I did all day. I was so excited. It was really a thrilling, exciting time.”
The spell broke in early 2018. She’d grown up in a military family. Her dad had been CIA, and though he was long dead by the time Q started posting, Serena still remembered how the intelligence community operated. The things Q, an alleged military insider, posted just didn’t sound right, she said.
“Q dropped Bible verses in their entirety. I mean like pages of Bible verses,” she said of her disillusionment. “I was immediately crestfallen. It just broke my heart. I immediately knew there is no way that military men are sitting around working on national security trying to rally the patriots that they would risk that leaked channel by putting Bible verses on there... I knew when I saw those Bible verses that it was a marketing scheme targeting conservative Christians for donations, merchandise sales, and profit with a political agenda of some kind.”
She left the movement and started watching a YouTuber who debunks Q claims.
“That kind of saved me. I also studied cults in the aftermath. I believe these people are brainwashed,” she told The Daily Beast. “There are several things they [Q] do. One is isolate their followers and turn their followers against all other sources.”
Cult expert Rachel Bernstein previously told Wired that online conspiracy movements can radicalize people by creating a tight-knit community, insulated from the rest of the world and its facts.
“When people get involved in a movement, collectively, what they’re saying is they want to be connected to each other,” Bernstein told Wired. “They want to have exclusive access to secret information other people don’t have, information they believe the powers that be are keeping from the masses, because it makes them feel protected and empowered. They’re a step ahead of those in society who remain willfully blind. This creates feeling similar to a drug—it’s its own high.”
As real-life friends slip away, some Q fans have taken solace in the online QAnon community.
“It gives me hope,” Marjorie said of the Facebook fanbase. “As far as I am concerned, real friends respect your opinions, not call you down.”
QAnon’s main slogan, “where we go one, we go all” is a statement of group identity. When she’s looking for more like-minded people, Kimberly searches a hashtag related to that slogan. “That tells me somebody’s paying attention. So I know maybe that person has some interesting things to share, so I might [look at] their profile. Whatever they’re doing, if I like what it is, I’ll comment on it.”
The online circles aren’t a replacement for family, View said. But they can simulate support for people who need it.
“There's a sense of fellowship in the QAnon community,” he said. “They imagine that they're all members of a small group of people who know about a coming glorious age in America. This fellowship isn't the same actual familial relationships, but it's a workable substitute when relationships with family becomes frayed. So this creates a vicious cycle: they fall down the rabbit hole of QAnon, which hurts their real life relationships, and causes them to fall down the rabbit hole even further.”
Matthew said he’s not in lockstep with other members of the QAnon community (he believes a number of other conspiracy theories less common in the group), but participates in Q groups nonetheless.
“People want to belong,” he said of online QAnon groups. “We want to belong somewhere, to some group. You did it back in high school: the cheerleaders, the jocks, the stoners, the dweebs, the book club, the chess club, everybody wants to belong.”
But QAnon isn’t the chess club. At its most radical core, QAnon is a call for drastic political purges. Adherents believe tens of thousands of Trump opponents will be arrested and possibly detained in Guantanamo Bay or executed. Some Q believers call for the military to implement martial law and crack down on Trump’s rivals. It’s a fantasy about a political Armageddon, after which the country will be cleansed and Trump can rule unimpeded.
Q’s failed predictions might be enough to dissuade some followers. But true conspiracy believers sometimes become more committed after a prediction falls flat. The 1956 book “When Prophecy Fails” is a study of an American doomsday cult whose followers became more outspoken in their beliefs after the cult’s central prediction of world-ending flood proved false. The study’s authors found that, throughout history, prophesy movements can actually become more intense after failure, as long as they have a robust community that reinforces belief among members.
These movements can also become volatile after several successive failed prophecies. Psychologist and author Robert Lifton uses the term “forcing the end” to describe efforts to push a prophecy into reality. In his book Destroying the World to Save It, Lifton describes a series of cults that initially believed Armageddon would happen naturally, without human intervention. But when significant dates came and went without revelation, and the groups perceived themselves to be under attack, members took drastic actions: mass suicides in the cases of the Heaven’s Gate and Peoples Temple cults, and mass murder in the case of the Manson family and Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo cult.
QAnon is less structured than these cults. Some followers like Matthew say they oppose martial law. But others have authored posts that appear to suggest ideas of “forcing the end.” After the December 5 prediction of mass arrests failed, View flagged a post by a QAnon follower who advocated “storm[ing] the white house” if the mass arrests don’t happen by mid January. “If you love our way of life, we may have to fight for it! WWG1WGA”
Leaving the QAnon movement isn’t easy, Serena, the Q renunciant, said.
“There’s different stages when you get out,” she said. “When I first got out I said ‘oh my goodness, I need to warn everybody. I need to warn them.’ But then I was attacked and threatened so harshly,” she said. “And then I was just so sad, like in a mourning stage, and then I had to laugh because it became so ridiculous. It was the only way I could cope.”
Megan, who has distanced herself from large parts of the theory after becoming convinced that Q is Trump insider Roger Stone, said the conspiracy videos can wear her down.
“Sometimes I watch it so much, I have to give it a break,” she said. “I say ‘I need a day away from this crap because it’s starting to depress me too much.’”
Matthew said he never made the support group he suggested in October.
“Recently a couple of us started questioning what’s really going on here,” he said. “This ‘where we go one, we go all’ is, I believe, brainwashing. Where are we going to go?”
Kimberly and Marjorie, meanwhile, said they’re sticking with the conspiracy theory and its leader.
“No,” Kimberly said when asked if anything would convince her Q was fake, “nothing.”
“No,” Marjorie answered the same question. “I just hope that justice will be served.”