Former QAnon followers explain how they were radicalised into believing conspiracy theories

Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of the Capitol insurrection was in revealing the extent to which conspiracy has become entangled in mainstream politics – notably QAnon.

So how has it come to this?

A December poll by Ispos Mori suggested just 47 per cent of Americans were able to correctly identify QAnon’s core tenet – that a “group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media” – as being false, with 17 per cent believing it to be true.

This was despite a previous poll suggesting that a significant number of those who believed in these extravagant mistruths in October may not have identified them as QAnon theories – or have even heard of it.

Meanwhile, the conspiracy – which painted Donald Trump as a people’s champion against this supposed cabal – has adapted to include Trump’s “big lie” that the election was stolen from him, in doing so binding itself closer to the Republican Party – which houses politicians at a local, state and federal level who have publicly expressed support for QAnon theories.

With these theories now common among the former president's supporters, former QAnon believers have said they think certain Trump-friendly news networks may not be helping the situation.

In a CNN Pulse of the Peoplepanel this week, three former believers discussed their fears for the violence the conspiracy could unleash in the future, and whether certain news sources acted as a “gateway” into this alternative reality.

“Definitely stuff like Fox News, One America News (OAN) – stuff like this is the easiest way to get into that stuff now,” said Jay Gilley, who followed the conspiracy between 2014 and 2019.

Other former believers pointed to their narrowing sources of news as enabling their own radicalisation.

“I found myself eliminating 98 per cent of media so I could exclusively watch Fox News, and they tell you: ‘Don’t go anywhere else, keep your attention here’. You know, if you go to any of these other stations it’s fake news. And that is a huge part of what’s radicalising people,” said former believer Melissa Rein Lively.

Ashley Vanderbilt added: “In my Telegram chats and in my groups, the only outside media sources of getting information outside the group that they ever said we could, I guess, trust would have been Newsmax or there’s Rightside Broadcasting Network, I don’t know if they’re actually on TV, I know that they’re on YouTube.”

She added: “I didn’t know that I was in a QAnon group until I got out of it. I mean I had no idea that the information I got was QAnon information.”

QAnon has been described as a “big tent” conspiracy – meaning it continually evolves to house a multitude of bizarre beliefs, drawing in followers of not only Trump’s election conspiracy, but of 9/11, UFO cover-ups, and the “deep state” theories typically carried on the likes of Fox News, to name but a few.

“I think that whatever your specific fear is you can find essentially what is a ‘choose your own adventure’ down a doomsday rabbit hole of whatever you are most afraid of,” Rein Lively told CNN.

And those on the CNN panel – several of whom talked of fear and paranoia being a driving force behind such beliefs – agreed that the pandemic had fostered conditions which made people more susceptible to the theory, in part by pushing people’s social lives even further onto social media.

“I definitely related to the pandemic bringing people into QAnon,” said Vanderbilt, who said she was radicalised on social media. “It made it easier because you were cut off from everybody. You’re just stuck at home all the time and all you’re doing is – if you’re not watching Netflix, you can only watch that so many times – then you’re on social media and I think that’s where a lot of people got in.”

And Vanderbilt previously told ABC’s The View that what started off as credible warnings about trafficking and abuse soon “snowballed”.

“When you start getting information from these groups, I had no idea in the first place that it was QAnon,” she told ABC. “It starts with something small. So child trafficking is real. Sex trafficking is real, and it’s a real problem.”

“It wasn’t starting off like, ‘these celebrities are drinking these kids’ blood,’ and I was like, ‘yep, I’m going to believe that’,” she said. “It piques your interest because as a mom, I want to protect my kid. I want to know everything. So I started diving in deeper, I started asking people that I trusted.

“They would send me more information and it snowballed to just build bigger and bigger. Eventually, you get that huge crazy theory and you believe it, but it didn’t start that way.”

Despite none of Q’s predictions having come to pass, some proponents then predicted that Trump, the 45th president, would be sworn in as the “19th president” on Thursday, based in part on a conspiracy theory that an act signed in 1871 secretly turned the US into a corporation.

The former believers on the panel warned of future violence, possibly exacerbated by Trump’s predicted inauguration having failed to come to pass.

“Just seeing what some of the people say, there’s a lot of anger and a lot of confusion. I think it’s going to get worse. I worry about a lot of violence,” said Gilley, while Rein Lively said she believed “people are emboldened to take matters into their own hands” as a result of 6 January.

Vanderbilt added: “You have this huge group of people who feel that their country is in danger, that their children are in danger, their freedom is in danger, and so they feel like they have to go to war and they have to fight to get things back right.”

“I’m trying to warn everybody of what I see that’s going to come, and if this group cannot be stopped, and when 4 March comes and goes, we’re going to be hoping and praying that they push another date out there,” she concluded.

“Because if not, the insurrection is going to be a drop in the bucket compared to what’s going to happen.”

More: The tragedy and irony of the storm on the US Capitol

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