I Went Undercover In QAnon For A Year, And Here’s Everything I Learned

You might think that a homicidal cult of aspirational psychics threatening to murder members of government would be full of interesting people. You would be wrong.

Conspiracy theorist QAnon demonstrators protest child trafficking on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, August 22, 2020. - A 2019 bulletin from the FBI warned that conspiracy theory-driven extremists are a domestic terrorism threat. (Photo by Kyle Grillot / AFP) (Photo by KYLE GRILLOT/AFP via Getty Images)

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You might think that a homicidal cult of aspirational psychics actively threatening to murder members of elected government, thereby provoking a Judgment Day-like military coup and mass-arrest event to install an authoritarian world government under leader-for-life God-Emperor Donald Trump would inform some fascinating personal stories. You would be wrong.

I’ve spent a year undercover in the conspiracy community, researching for my book QAnon and On, which is about internet conspiracy cults. To get to know QAnon adherents and believers from overlap cults, I whipped up some online personas approximating the kind of person my preliminary research indicated was most likely to infiltrate their social media circles.

My original plan was to befriend grassroots believers, observe them, learn their rituals and behaviours, and tease out something like a first-person, gonzo ethnography, focused around the narratives of the most compelling individuals. Through trial and error, I attracted so many friends with my false personas, I maxed out my 5000-friend limit on just one account.

My contact with these people may be exclusively online, but it’s not been superficial, either; I’ve spoken to a gang of acquired pals almost daily for the last 12 months. My false, pixelated face is pinned to the margins of their direct-messaged problems, compiling a fat, digitised wad of intimate confessions and complaints. The problem is: a book has got to be interesting, and all too soon I discovered that the real individuals of this movement just… weren’t.

My home state of Victoria and other places around Australia have been swamped by protestors drawn from the conspiracy community, whose colourful disruptions have veered between sensational extremities of inconvenient and alarming. The people I’m “friends” with online have been enthusiastically participating in these demonstrations. They proudly share photographs of themselves choking the streets, crowding shops into shutting, and doing things like grinding to Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ at a rally. They also casually threaten to hang the premier in the chat.

The street demonstrations have been festooned with nooses. The vox-pop media insistence by participants that they are a peace-loving movement fighting for “human rights” are somewhat contradicted by publicly available Facebook comments from people hoping the premier will be kicked down flights of stairs and left to die.

How is this possibly boring? Two ways. Firstly, there’s a “don’t tell me what to do” narcissism to their denunciations-of-cabals that has the familiar, foot-stompy energy of teenagers refusing to tidy their bedrooms. Secondly, from their content on social media to the contents of their lives, there’s a sameness to their engagements that’s beyond bleak. It’s mostly either nonsense, whining, or cut-and-paste hate.

The “Elites” vs “The People”

The community I’m studying broadly includes hippie wellness-types, ultraconservative Christians, and a gun-wielding, more traditional far-right, but as I’ve watched their paranoias merge over the past year, cultural distinctions between these groups have grown less clear.

These days, the shared tenets of their beliefs that dominate online conversation are the QAnon-flavoured claim that COVID-19 is but one of the dastardly conspiracies cooked up by the “elites” to keep “the people” — only ever conceived as them — under tyrannous control. They insist that vaccines are part of the dictatorial plot to poison and kill off true patriots and must be resisted at all costs, even — and it’s disturbing how quickly this justification is made — with violence.

In their worldview, no politician is to be trusted, aside from Donald Trump, whose re-election they are convinced was stolen. All other politicians are lying, rapist paedophiles: Joe Biden is both pathologically evil and incompetent with dementia, Kamala Harris is a communist whore, Daniel Andrews a murderous psychopath.

Joe Biden is both pathologically evil and incompetent with dementia, Kamala Harris is a communist whore, Daniel Andrews a murderous psychopath.

At the same time, they are special, enlightened, imbued with spiritual superiority. They have “woken up” to the conspiracy and amongst themselves share secret insights into the source of their own specialness. A theme recurs — that experts don’t know anything, and the world’s scientists are of inferior analytical capacity to whatever’s insisted in shadowy, unsourced propaganda, or by dudes who make Facebook videos on their phones.

Trying to push for clarity around claims — even gently — results in angry denunciations of the questioner. If the claims lack detail, well, that’s just because the cabal is hiding those details. Meanwhile, the spiritually awakened have vengeful proof of their superiority to the “sheep” that may think of them as dumb-arsed conspiracy theorists. Some of the awakened believe they are “starseeds” or “indigo children” — the reincarnations of space aliens, possessed by old souls with super-duper, galactic intelligence that we lesser beings just can’t see.

They are, all of them, precisely who you would never want to get stuck talking to at a party. Realising this makes the carnival air at their protests understandable. Sexy dancing in the streets to Craig Kelly’s Spotify playlist is legitimately where these folks go to get laid.

Back online, some of the stuff from the further end of the conspiratorial fantasy is incomprehensible gibberish unless you’ve been immersed in it for a while. Interpretations of secret messages rely on an encyclopaedic memory for previous iterations of group-accepted nonsense, and the patterns of letters, numbers and symbols they decode mostly resemble the set dressing from the paranoid sequences of A Beautiful Mind.

Sheep-Like Uniformity

On a more personal end, this is a group of people fiercely defending the continuation of social stereotypes they struggle to live up to themselves. Transphobia is a sacred value — symbolic of civilisation’s end, no less — amongst a crowd desperate to portray themselves in ultra-femme or masc presentations. Of the anti-vax women’s avatars, there are few without the pink unicorn glow of a soft-focus SnapChat filter. Two of my circle separately declared last night that masculinity is finished because they themselves are the last men “brave enough” to not wear masks to sporting events.

Amid sexy, gender-polarised posturing, updates speak frequently to arcs of heteronormative relationship disappointment. “Where are all the good men?” asked someone last night, more as a material demand than a rhetorical consideration. “Who on Facebook do you secretly want to fuck?” was somehow even less subtle. “I’m almost single, message me,” someone replied. In my various personas — with, believe me, zero effort on my part — people try to pick me up all the time.

Of the anti-vax women’s avatars, there are few without the pink unicorn glow of a soft-focus SnapChat filter.

It’s in these DMs and others that the real bleakness lands. For all the public-post bravura, these individuals are riven with resentments and blame towards current and former partners who won’t just don’t do what they want, parents and siblings who demand more of them than they’re prepared to give, and children who refuse to act as extensions of their own personae. Refusal to vaccinate themselves — especially when family are doing so — acts for many as another petty symbolic battle in an endless family and relationship war.

As feuds are explained, loved ones denunciated, adverse legal decisions — particularly divorce, custody, bankruptcy, and foreclosure — discussed, there’s an observable pattern, but you can’t advise “It’s time to take responsibility for your own role in this and move on” to someone who has long outsourced responsibility for everything to an imaginary paedophile cabal.

The sad dullness of these conversations comes from how the repetition of clichés replaces honest, useful introspection. One of my earliest “friends” in this world was a heartbroken man who told me the wife he loved had to end their decades-long relationship because she refused to “wake up” and join him in conspiratorial thinking. He expressed wistfully — painfully — that perhaps when one day she decided to believe that Hillary Clinton ate children’s faces under Washington pizza restaurants, she’d come back to him.

It’s both laughable and depressing, but my familiarity with the community has dried both my chuckles and tears. Their glazed-eye repetition of clichés doesn’t just impede a recognition of culpability in their own relationships. It assists a process of dangerous political dehumanisation.

When it was revealed that protestors had levelled death threats at the two-year-old child of Northern Territory Chief Minister, Michael Gunner — provoking his breakdown in a presser — those glazed-eye repetitions became more sinister. Online responses to Gunner were literally a thousand variations of:

You asked for this
Action meets reaction
Suck it up princess
No sympathy
Cry me a river
You reap what you sew
Fuck your crocodile tears
I don’t believe in death threats (but)…
I’m not an advocate for violence (but)…
Enjoy the consequences of your choice

With names, yes. With brazenness. Within the comfort of an affirming community, and with a chilling uniformity.

Ultimately, it was this truly sheep-like uniformity that became most fascinating to me. Not because of the individual participants in it — but because where there are sheep there are shepherds… and as I spent more time in Conspiracyland, who those shepherds were and how they’d worked out how to herd these people towards political targets, from Michael Gunner to the US elections, became a story that was far more interesting — and important — to tell.

That’s the book I wrote. I’ve kept my fake accounts open, for ongoing research… but I can’t say I’m sad to leave my fake friends behind.

Van Badham is a writer and activist. Her book QAnon and On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults is out now through Hardie Grant and is available at all good book retailers.

Photo Credit: Kyle Grillot/AFP via Getty Images