The QAnon conspiracy theory isn’t just spreading. It’s evolving. Over the past few months, we’ve learned that women are becoming the primary drivers of a cult that started where most conspiracy theories do—on seedy hypermasculine spaces like 4chan or /pol/ or the febrile brain of Alex Jones—and are making a story about a satanic “cabal,” with Donald Trump as the savior, seem pretty, palatable, and an obviously good thing. Who doesn’t want to protect children and restore order? People who might not ordinarily be amenable to this kind of thing are flocking to it during this distressing period when we’re all spending more time inside and online because of the disaster-laden state of the country. QAnon offers the comfort of an answer, above all else, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the conspiracy theory is popping up on Peloton forums, circulating among Instagram influencers, and gaining traction with anti-vaxxers, yoga communities, and new moms.
The makeover has not diluted the cult’s virulence. “The deep state is evil and Satanic,” one ’gram reads in a font as soothing and bland as a skin care ad. In a thread on “Pastel Qanon,” researcher Marc-André Argentino suggests that women on Instagram are sugarcoating the dark stuff with the soothing graphic design we’re used to associating with the platform. The Atlantic’s Kaitlyn Tiffany reports that Q stuff flourishes on Instagram “with little visible pushback from the influencers’ communities or from the platform that hosts them.” The result is a kind of aesthetic context collapse. What’s more, there’s a winking vagueness to the way QAnon stuff circulates (much of it never mentioning Q explicitly). Nutty theories about Tom Hanks harvesting the fear of children don’t always appear outright; they materialize via elaborate “finally speaking out” videos in which influencers announce that they never talk about stuff like this, and most of their content will continue to be “normal,” but they have to speak “from their heart.” These videos rarely go into specifics; they tend to reference a documentary (that they’ll share with you over DM) or encourage the viewer to really prepare their self-care regimen before they go poking around into these dark truths and finally get “woke” in an entirely different sense. (“The reason we are ‘woke’ is because I became a mother and we saw a documentary that we’ve never been able to unsee,” one influencer says.) The allusions to darkness blend in with lemmas about well-being and are celebrated in that indistinguishably supportive you-go-girl argot. Specific Instagram Stories tend to be more explicit than posts. An influencer who mostly posts about her children and interior design captions a video with an all-caps reference to ELITES and the Q-marking #SaveTheChildren hashtag before resuming fuzzier warnings on a beige backdrop with delicate white stars. This stuff sometimes appears in combination with other theories about masks being bad for children, COVID-19 being “over,” a conspiracy to make everyone get vaccines, or a noble Trumpian ploy to make vaccines so obviously untrustworthy that more Americans will be recruited to the anti-vaxxer cause.
It’s an uncanny combination of paranoias and legitimate concerns, but it’s undeniably working. These accounts are growing quickly, even as Instagram tries to shut down some of the bigger players. The appeal is morally unambiguous, simultaneously frightening and reassuring, and perfectly crafted to draw in a certain slice of suburban women. There’s the psychology of the approach: Leftist discourse on these platforms can have a preacherly aspect that asserts moral truths without giving the listener the option of disagreeing. This can strike the not-yet-persuaded as condescending, bossy, or dismissive of their right to form independent judgments. Q-proselytizing folks err in the opposite direction: They tell tantalizing stories about their heartfelt conversions that are extremely light on detail and almost invariably conclude by saying, “Do your own research.” Of course this has power. It has the frisson of secrecy—find out what they’re not telling you. Most of all, it’s flattering: It expresses full faith in the reader’s abilities to discover the truth, promises a light at the end of the tunnel, and appears to invite independent verification and free inquiry. In practice, searching those hashtags tends to lead people into closed information ecosystems (and, yes, lectures) that are every bit as didactic as any “woke” explainer. The key is this: The new recruits feel that they have discovered these things.
All conspiracy theories try to make sense of paradigmatic ruptures to the world. Think of it as a kind of trauma response. Sometimes (in the United States) the psychic insult is to a nationalistic illusion of invulnerability—9/11 and Pearl Harbor broke that illusion, so it became easier for some to imagine both incidents as “inside jobs” Americans did to their own in order to justify going to war. Sometimes the theories emerge in response to horror and capitalize on preexisting suspicions: The murder of small children at Sandy Hook was so disturbing that many preferred to process it as a hoax intended to take away Second Amendment rights. The grief and horror you’re feeling isn’t real; it’s what “they” want you to feel. The psychological function these all serve is the same: They turn events that make the world frightening and incomprehensible into a plot. And the shared project of investigating these “theories” binds disoriented people together.
This summer has been especially tough on mothers, who have seen normal life completely disrupted while bearing the disproportionate burden of pandemic child care. And the acuteness of that challenge has occurred at the same time as the rise of Q-stagram. You can almost understand the allure of succumbing to what I think of as a normalcy fetish—a dogma that insists things are actually fine, no matter what the media says. That the visible stressors are made up, that COVID-19 isn’t real, or it’s over, or that masks are just a “test” separating the sheep from the proudly noncompliant. The normalcy fetish must, paradoxically, create a different boogeyman for people to identify as the real problem, and Q does: No one wants to talk about the pedophile rings! But it posits that the president is competent and these real problems are being fixed as we speak. “For a ‘conspiracy theory’ it’s strange how many prostitution rings are being shut down & how many children are being saved. must be a coincidence,” reads one post, in white text over a watercolor gradient of coral and teal.
Whatever your political predilections, it is not an easy time to be an American. Thanks to the pandemic, the fires, the hurricanes, the smoke, the high-profile police violence, the nationwide protests, the volatility (to the naked eye, at least) of the president, rarely have Americans felt more fragmented, isolated, confused, frightened, embattled, and unsafe. Suburban Americans tend to prioritize safety and order more than their urban compatriots do, and we’re living through a period where (at least in the West) not even the air is safe. Our social environments have changed too. The milieus in which Instagram influencers and their biggest audiences would usually get positive reinforcement aren’t thriving. You aren’t necessarily going to be celebrated for going on glamorous trips right now.
A 2017 study at the University of Kent shows that “belief in conspiracy theories appears to be driven by motives that can be characterized as epistemic (understanding one’s environment), existential (being safe and in control of one’s environment), and social (maintaining a positive image of the self and the social group).” We’re living through a perfect storm that undermines all three. And so a skyrocketing movement is taking advantage of an environment rife with uncertainty. It does so by providing a magical explanation that replaces a chaotic and distressing reality that doesn’t seem likely to improve anytime soon with proactive agents—people in charge working hard to bring down identifiable (and no less organized) “bad guys.” If this requires imagining that things aren’t what they appear to be but the opposite, so be it: The man who appears to be a lazy and self-interested liar hell-bent on winning the presidency even if he destroys every institution in the process is in fact a hardworking savior selflessly toiling to bring down the group that’s actually hurting children (and the country).
This is a comforting story. It is genuinely frightening to a lot of people that every new scandal that gets reported about Trump might be true. Thanks to the normalcy fetish, a segment of the population will decide that they cannot be. To think otherwise is intolerable. The office of the president commands a lot of respect, and the just-world thinking that Americans are particularly susceptible to dictates that a man who won the office must somehow be worthy of it. If America is what we think it is, no one who is as bad as Trump seems could possibly win. We can only take so much cognitive dissonance, and for those who still believe in American institutions, something has got to give.
In general, suburban women—white ones, especially—have been turning away from Trump since 2016. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be a splinter group branching another way. Desperate for moral clarity and proud of questioning everything, many of them read through the conventional wisdom until the truth flips inside out. It’s hard to blame them. For women in this group of recent converts who were already skeptical of expertise—like anti-vaxxers—the pandemic has confirmed their worst suspicions. We have all watched both the CDC and the FDA change their pandemic recommendations in response to the science and in response to political pressure from the Trump administration. It just depends which you want to believe was right.
It’s ironic but not actually counterintuitive, therefore, that pedophilia became a source of stability for a segment of our disoriented populace—as well as a much-needed basis for unquestionably correct moral action. If pedophilia is everywhere, if hundreds of thousands of children are being trafficked and no one is talking about it, then all the other news you see or hear doesn’t have to be taken as true. That is a huge relief. This is how “child trafficking” got weaponized into a gateway drug of sorts for Trump support even though Trump specifically—and singularly, and publicly! And repeatedly!— said of Jeffrey Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell that he “wished her well” when she was arrested in connection with sex trafficking and raping minors. What Trump does in public doesn’t matter. And whatever else Q is, it’s a story about a man with a plan. Trump is a hero whose private conduct is what matters; his public actions are just a cover, or a strategy, part of his brilliant 12-dimensional chess. His private achievements are innumerable; they just cannot be spoken of yet. What a relief it would be to believe that.
Americans have spent the past four years brawling over what reality is. Any shared consensus about the state of the union has eroded, partly because Americans no longer consume news from the same sources and partly because social media has made the incompatible sets of “beliefs” that divide us painfully clear and sadly unbridgeable. It’s also a predictable result of the generationslong Republican strategy to destabilize any shared framework through which claims can be evaluated for things like accuracy or merit. A major party staked its political viability on the denial of facts. In July of 2016, Newt Gingrich was asked about Trump’s nonsensical and untrue claim that crime rates were soaring. He said, presciently, “The average American—I’ll bet you this morning—does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer.” Alisyn Camerota pointed out that according to FBI data, crime was down and Americans were safer. Gingrich waved that away. “What I said is also a fact,” he said. “The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics, which theoretically might be right, but it’s not where human beings are.” Republicans had a theory about where “human beings” were, and it wasn’t with “liberals” or “statistics.” It makes sense, then, that the “current view” Gingrich articulated produced a Republican president who is, himself, a conspiracy theorist—and came to power not by appealing to any shared American ideals but by legitimizing the racist “birther” conspiracy theory about Barack Obama.
If conspiracy theories flourish when one’s understanding of one’s country is badly shaken, it’s clear that many white Americans found the election of a Black man antithetical to their private sense of the American order of things. Their solution: He must not be American. Many women in America have had to deal with other traumatic revelations: They have watched their countrymen admire and celebrate a man who demeans female heads of state and brags about assaulting women. As citizens, they’ve watched him lie to the country he is supposed to be leading—even and especially about the pandemic. He falls short of everything most of us have historically understood the American presidency to require. Their solution? He must not be failing, or lying, or ignorant. Much better for the press to be wrong than for the president of the United States to be unconstrained by anything but his own self-interest. “Forget the press. Read the internet,” Trump said in October of 2016.
A lot of people have.
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