On a bright afternoon in early February Mary’s relationship with her mother became untenable. Mary (whose name has been changed) is in her early 30s but had fallen on hard times and had recently moved into her mother’s two-room trailer, a small dwelling surrounded by farmland that has been in the family for generations.
Mary had been doing gruelling shifts offering emergency medical support to the ambulance service in North Carolina. On a rare day off, she woke late and went outside to feed the fish in the pond and collect eggs from the chicken run. When she stepped back into the brightly lit living room, her mother was sitting at the kitchen table watching a YouTube video on her phone.
As the clip finished, Mary’s mother looked up at her daughter. “Do you know where 5g was first introduced?” she said. Mary said she didn’t. “Wuhan!” her mother replied, naming the city in China where covid-19 emerged. “Can you believe that? And they are using 5g to spread and cause the coronavirus. Not to mention 5g uses microwaves – that will kill you, too.”
Mary asked her mother to stop talking. She was wrong, Mary said. The theory was groundless. “You’re stupid and not awake,” her mother shouted at her. “You always attack my opinions and try to force yours on everyone else.”
“What? Like you’re always doing to me?” Mary snapped back. She remembers her mother replying with venom: “This is my house. You better keep your thoughts and lies to yourself. You’re just a bitch who doesn’t know shit.”
Mary retreated to her bedroom. This confined space, which barely fitted a fold-away camp bed, nightstand and chest of drawers, had become a refuge. Her mother continued to scream at the closed door for the next 30 minutes, yelling about Donald Trump, the Rothschilds, Nancy Pelosi (the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives), and other prominent American politicians. The tirade was audible even with earplugs.
Mary was used to disagreeing with her mother: she was the only Democrat in a staunchly Republican household. But in the past, they’d been able to talk easily; Mary describes her mother back then as like a best friend. But the tenderness between them had been replaced by shouting and harassment ever since 2018, when her mother started following the QAnon movement, a conspiracy theory propagated by many pro-Trump nationalists.
Who is this person? She’s not the same mother I used to have, and probably never will [be] again
That day in February, Mary emerged from her room after an hour. She pretended nothing had happened, as did her mother. Mary had a piercing headache, which she put down to the tension of living in constant fear that her mother was about to let loose on her. “You think to yourself, this person raised me and she suddenly believes that Hillary Clinton is eating children and sacrificing them in rituals,” Mary said. “Who is this person? She’s not the same mother I used to have, and probably never will [be] again.”
The idea that a secret and satanic elite control the world is a long-standing trope of conspiracy theories. In Europe in the 18th century a short-lived secret society known as the Illuminati, which was set up to oppose superstition and promote an Enlightenment spirit of rationalism, was accused of orchestrating the French revolution.
More recent events, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, prompted numerous theories that pinned responsibility on the cia, various heads of state or a “shadow government”. In the 1980s there was a period of mass hysteria in America, which became known as the “Satanic Panic”: a string of false allegations of ritualistic child abuse was blamed on satanic cults said to involve members of the global elite. During the presidential campaign in 2016 Hillary Clinton was accused of involvement in #Pizzagate, a bogus story claiming that high-ranking members of the Democratic Party were operating a child-sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria in Washington, dc.
QAnon (pronounced Q-Anon) first appeared in October 2017 on 4chan, an online message-board popular with supporters of the Alt-Right, and closely associated with white nationalists (it later moved to 8kun, a similar website, which was formerly called 8chan). The identity of its creator is unknown – all posts on 4chan are anonymous – but this individual, who calls themself “Q Clearance Patriot” or simply “Q”, claims to be a high-ranking official in the Trump administration who supposedly has information about a plot to overthrow the president from deep within the state.
Q’s first posts claimed that Hillary Clinton would soon be arrested and that the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was a puppet installed by the cia. The central tenet of Q’s story concerns a cohort of satanic paedophiles, including Clinton, Barack Obama and many actors in Hollywood, who are manipulating the media and government to engage in a secret war against the American president. According to Q, Trump is fighting back with a military operation, known as “The Storm”, which aims to send the members of this group to Guantánamo Bay, an American military prison in Cuba which was established during America’s war on terror and has been widely criticised for its human-rights abuses. These arrests would launch a fundamental transformation of society known as the “Great Awakening”.
This theory has amassed a cult following of keyboard warriors who follow every cryptic, puzzle-like post, which they then discuss online. “Follow the breadcrumbs” is a common saying, referring to the process of deciphering Q’s posts, often called “drops”. Joseph Uscinski, a professor at the University of Miami and an expert in conspiracy theories, describes it as a “meta conspiracy” or a “choose-your-own-adventure conspiracy”: the story is so vague that readers who already believe in other conspiracies, or mistrust big government, may find elements that resonate.
For many people QAnon merely confirms their preconceived beliefs: “Anti-vaxxers” who believe that vaccinations make people ill will find their own story in QAnon, but so will those who believe in aliens and ufos (and think that the government is suppressing the truth about them). In January Jordan Sather, a follower of QAnon with over 200,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, posted a video claiming that Bill Gates had planned the coronavirus outbreak. Despite its absurdity that theory has taken hold. In May a poll by YouGov/Yahoo News found that nearly half of Republicans believed that Gates wants to use a covid-19 vaccination campaign to implant microchip tracking devices in people.
QAnon is no longer a fringe group. The theory may have as many as a million followers, according to Travis View, who hosts QAnon Anonymous, a podcast about conspiracy theories. Nearly a third of Americans – and half of those who “frequently” watch news on Fox, a conservative cable channel – believe that the QAnon conspiracy is mostly or partly true, according to a poll by Civiqs, a data-analytics company, in 2019.
qanons present the pandemic as a hyped-up distraction generated by the mainstream media
Its supporters include individuals with influence. Media Matters, a non-profit media watchdog, reckons that at least 40 current or former congressional candidates have embraced the conspiracy. Most of these candidates have little chance of taking office, but in May, Jo Rae Perkins won the primary in Oregon to stand for the Senate. “I stand with President Trump, I stand with Q and the team,” she said in a video posted on her Twitter account on election day. “Thank you Anons, and thank you patriots. Together we can save our republic.” (The video was later deleted.)
The coronavirus pandemic has helped to fuel the conspiracy, which has adjusted its narrative accordingly. QAnons present the pandemic as a hyped-up distraction generated by the mainstream media, designed to divert attention from the fact that Trump is closing in on “the cabal” inside the elite. When Tom Hanks and his wife tested positive for coronavirus on March 11th, QAnon supporters saw it as proof that The Storm had begun. Hanks didn’t have the coronavirus at all, they argued – he had simply been arrested for his crimes (his appearance on “Saturday Night Live” shortly afterwards was dismissed as a deep fake).
Sceptical of the threat posed by coronavirus, QAnons have been instrumental in peddling fake cures and circulating disinformation. Some followers of the conspiracy have taken part in demonstrations against the lockdown in America, according to news reports. In April a QAnon follower who had threatened on social media to kill Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden was arrested in New York carrying a dozen knives. An internal fbi memo last year declared QAnon a potential domestic terrorist threat.
Mary’s mother didn’t always believe in conspiracy theories. But she was definitely a protective parent. In 1999, when 13 people were killed at Columbine High School, she took Mary out of school, aged ten, along with her younger brother. For four years they were home-schooled. Looking back, Mary can see that the ease with which her mother was swayed by mass hysteria over the shooting was a red flag. But at the time the experience brought the family closer. They’d go out hunting, fishing and take their four-wheelers out at the weekend. Mary, a self-described “huge nerd”, was an avid horse-rider.
A decade ago, soon after Mary left school, her parents got divorced. That’s when her mother started falling down all kinds of holes online, she says. In the years that followed, she started talking to Mary about chemtrails – a theory that the condensation trails behind aircraft are chemical agents being used by the government for nefarious purposes. She tried to convince Mary that the American task-force that handles large-scale disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was planning to use its powers to force people into secret concentration camps in Texas.
Even then, Mary didn’t pay close attention to her mother’s views. At least once a month she’d go on a “girls day out” shopping with her mother. They’d play billiards and eat at their favourite Mexican restaurant. When Mary’s marriage broke down, she turned to her mother for comfort.
Then Trump was elected and along came QAnon. It was 2018 when Mary first heard her mother mention the conspiracy by name. Living in a (Republican) “red state”, Mary was “used to hearing people with their anti-government, distrustful kind of thinking”, but she soon realised this was something bigger. Her mother was constantly posting messages about QAnon theories on Facebook. To Mary, her mother would tell story after story, each more incredible than the next – that John F. Kennedy junior was still alive, or that children were being kept in underground tunnels below New York. Her mother’s face would turn red as she spoke and her breath would quicken, as if she was about to have a panic attack. “She’s never wrong,” said Mary. “If she’s upset it’s because you pushed her to it. I wish I knew what it was about QAnon that brought out such a fevered attitude.”
At this point Mary’s own life took a downturn. She had an accident while horse riding, and didn’t have the money to pay for hip-replacement surgery. Like many in North Carolina, a state at the centre of America’s opioid epidemic, she became addicted to painkillers, including Lortab, Vicodin and Percocet, an oxycodone-based opioid. By the end of 2018 Mary was homeless, hooked on heroin (which was cheaper than the other drugs), and couch-surfing with friends, many of whom were also addicts. She tried moving back home but her mother insisted on talking about QAnon, and would fly into a rage if Mary refused.
Faced with a choice between the conflict in her mother’s home and the streets, Mary chose the streets. “It was a stupid decision, because I ended up back on drugs,” Mary said. “But I couldn’t handle my own emotions, let alone the emotions she would bring out when we argued.” She spent much of the year high. Any attempt to speak to her mother would end up back in a conversation about big pharma and QAnon. On cold nights Mary would sleep in a nearby barn, piling hay on top of herself along with the few clothes she had left. “One night, in my tent, I was just really wishing that I had my mom to talk to,” Mary said, nearly crying as she remembered the events. “I felt like my mom believed she had some crusade in spreading the word of Q that meant more to her than her own daughter.”
“i’m not the only one dealing with a family member that is acting like this, who is pushing their family away without even realising it”
Mary found some comfort in a Reddit group called QAnonCasualties, a support group for people whose loved ones believe in the conspiracy theory. It had nearly 4,000 members by June, nearly eight times the number three months earlier, when lockdowns were beginning around the world. One woman from New Jersey was planning to divorce her husband who she suspects became convinced of the conspiracy while at Alcoholics Anonymous – she reckons he swapped one addiction for another. Others talk about their baby-boomer parents whose belief in QAnon follows decades of devotion to other conspiracies. Finding the community has been helpful to Mary: “I’m not the only one dealing with a family member that is acting like this, who is pushing their family away without even realising it.”
It was circumstance rather than choice which brought Mary and her mother back together. Over Christmas last year Mary was hospitalised. The medicine she’d been taking for an auto-immune disease became ineffective and she slipped into a coma. During her recovery, she decided that she had to regain control of her life. Mary moved back in with her mum while she detoxed. She got a job with the ambulance service and started saving money.
Then coronavirus began to spread across North Carolina. That made her ambulance shifts more exhausting and stressful. But the pandemic also intensified her mother’s beliefs. She would spot something on Facebook and it would trigger a rant, or her phone would ping, alerting her to a new “Q drop”, and she would stop whatever she was doing to burrow deeper into the conspiracy. Social media have fuelled fantasies during the pandemic: those who get much of their information about covid-19 from Facebook and YouTube are more likely to have broken lockdown rules and to believe in conspiracy theories about the virus, according to a study conducted in May by King’s College London and Ipsos MORI, a pollster.
Mary was watching a pbs documentary about stem-cell research with her mother when she “started going off about people killing babies, then it went to the whole satanic angle, how Democrats are sacrificing babies”. As she listened, Mary was silent. She realised she had become afraid both of her mother’s ideas and her anger.
One evening in late March Mary told her mother she was moving out – she had saved enough money to rent a small place nearby. “I knew I couldn’t continue living with someone who believed so strongly in those things,” Mary said. “Now, if I don’t want to speak about it [QAnon], she can’t force it on me.” But the conspiracy continues to unwind.
Mary’s mother had warned her for weeks not to panic if the power went out on April 1st, which was expected to bring “ten days of darkness” before the Great Awakening, when the world would finally be set free. Mary happened to be watching the news with her mother on that day when the lights suddenly switched off: “It’s happening, it’s happening!” cried Mary’s mother. But a couple of hours later the lights came on again. Mary’s mother said nothing. “The goalposts just keep getting moved,” said Mary. “It’s almost impossible to keep up.” In May protests across America over the death of George Floyd, an African-American who died when a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, set Q circles abuzz. Recent Q drops claim that George Soros and others are funding Antifa, an amorphous group of anti-fascists, and Black Lives Matter. “potus action coming,” Q predicts, referring to shorthand for the president of the United States.
Mary now has her own home to find refuge in. But Q has become such a large part of her mother’s identity that they have little to talk about when they meet. “Watching the relationship get destroyed by this…it hurts, a lot,” Mary said, “I see myself pushing her further and further away. And that breaks my heart, because that’s your mother. I’d love nothing more than to have her back.”