When a viral video caught one of the first rioters to breach the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, chasing a police officer up a flight of stairs, he was wearing a QAnon T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Trust the plan.”
Even after he was arrested three days later and charged with six federal counts including assaulting a police officer, Doug Jensen, 41, still described himself as a QAnon “true believer” who told interviewers he was “trying to fire up this nation” and “I’m all about a revolution.”
The high-profile presence of Jensen and many other QAnon followers at the insurrection was a shock to many watching the events unfold live on their TV screens. But for millions of families across the U.S. whose loved ones have fallen down the QAnon rabbithole, the events of Jan. 6 showed the world what they already knew: QAnon has become a dangerous cult whose believers will go to extreme lengths to carry out fantasies, whether it’s fighting cannibalistic pedophiles, spreading disinformation about stolen elections, or, more recently, sharing COVID-19 denialism theories.
Even a cursory glance at online forums reveals that families across the U.S. are being torn apart thanks to QAnon. Wives are scared of what their husbands will do next, siblings are no longer talking to each other, and children have cut all ties to their parents. For many, it’s as if there’s been a death in the family.
“I grieved her death in the summer. I spent three weeks non-stop crying,” one woman whose mother is a QAnon believer told VICE News on the condition of anonymity to protect her family. “I don't want to cut my kids off from their grandmother, and so it's like constantly being presented with a reminder that she's gone.”
Families struggling with QAnon have few places to turn. Traditional cult experts are only beginning to sort out the intricacies of QAnon’s belief systems, and there is no central repository of resources for anyone looking for help.
But just weeks after the Capitol riots, a group known as the Thinkin Project launched with the promise of helping these families. The group says it has already helped tens of thousands of people, and claims to have 500 volunteers working to counter QAnon disinformation and send resources to QAnon victims’ families. It also boasts the help of a well-known cult expert in the U.S., Steve Hassan.
“When people share with us what kinds of disinformation they are dealing with, we share supportive fact- and evidence-based reporting curated to the topic,” Desiree Kane, the group’s spokesperson and co-founder, told VICE News. “We also share conversational tools to open up a non-confrontational dialogue and re-engage our loved ones and friends — many of whom have been in scary doomsday echo chambers and had a terrifying, demoralizing, and isolating year.”
But despite the group’s big claims, it does most of its work in secret, making it hard to measure its effectiveness at extracting people from the QAnon cult, and its admirable ambitions have been undermined by the increasingly erratic actions of one man: its founder, Jim Stewartson.
Stewartson, an alternative-reality game designer, spent months last year obsessively researching QAnon and publishing controversial blog posts about its origins. By the end of December, he’d had enough, and so brought together a small group of allies and started a private Discord server to launch the Thinkin Project, a pun on the anti-Trump GOP group, The Lincoln Project.
Alongside Stewartson was Kane, an indigenous investigative journalist who produced a feature-length documentary about Standing Rock that debuted at Sundance in 2018. Also involved at the beginning were network analyst Dave Troy, and Aubrey Cottle, one of the founders of the hacktivist movement Anonymous.
The group and Stewartson initially made big promises about what it was going to do, including working on scaling up efforts to deradicalize QAnon followers so that it would work for millions of people. But so far it appears the group has succeeded mostly in attacking and alienating journalists and QAnon researchers while conducting their operation in almost complete secrecy to the point that no one really knows what the group is doing.
“It's really dangerous,” Mike Rothschild, researcher and author of a forthcoming book on QAnon, told VICE News. “There is an enormous need for help with deradicalizing people certainly from QAnon but just from conspiracy theories in general. I mean, it's enormous. The problem is that I don't know who these people are. I don't know how they're qualified to help anybody. I mean, who are they?”
When asked to produce someone who has been helped by the Thinkin Project or to provide data on how many people have been helped since the project launched, Kane failed to do so.
The work being conducted on the Thinkin Project’s Discord server is focused on the collection of disinformation, sharing of articles about QAnon and building resources to share with those who contact the group. There is no effort to intervene personally with anyone, or even speak to QAnon believers directly. Instead, those who get in touch are directed to a range of online resources with best practices about how to speak to someone who believes in QAnon.
But Stewartson’s habit of overhyping the group’s activity is threatening to derail any of the good work being done by the volunteers. And now Hassan is saying even his association with the group has been exaggerated.
"On Oct. 22, 2020, I gave a TEDx Mid-Atlantic talk on Dismantling QAnon that included Dave Troy, Jim Stewartson, and Desiree Kane,” Hassan told VICE News. “My only direct involvement with the Thinkin Project is a Zoom talk I gave several weeks ago, to the volunteers.”
A source inside the Thinkin Project told VICE News that Hassan was now considering cutting all ties to the group, a move that would significantly harm the organization’s credibility and its ability to raise money, the source said.
Troy also downplayed his involvement with the group in a statement provided to VICE World News. "While Jim Stewartson did approach me to participate in the founding of his organization, I declined to do so, and never accepted any formal position with the group; I have no connection to the group legally or financially, and have no written or verbal agreements with the group, or with Stewartson,” he said
Stewartson, 51, came to the attention of the QAnon world in 2020, and without any background in conspiracy research, deradicalization, or anything even remotely approaching these topics. Prior to spending all his time researching QAnon, Stewartson worked for a variety of companies, including Google, creating immersive experiences such as virtual and augmented reality games.
He first gained widespread attention in QAnon world in August last year when he published the first of a series of bombshell blog posts claiming that the conspiracy movement was a giant alternative reality game, or ARG, run by “malevolent puppetmasters who are located both here and overseas, including the Russians.”
The posts got the attention of many seasoned QAnon researchers, but they were quickly dismissed as lacking any real evidence.
“He posted these Medium pieces over the summer about the Russians funding all of this, that QAnon is this gigantic conspiracy that goes all the way up to the very top and it goes back decades and I was like, ‘oh, maybe I missed something here, maybe there's some aspect of this that I'm just kind of blind to,’” Rothschild said. “So I read his stuff and it's just more conspiracy theories, just to explain a conspiracy theory. None of it holds up.”
Stewartson readily admits he’s not a journalist and his only real investigative skill is “googling shit.”
“I’m not a spy or a journalist,” Stewartson wrote. “All I can do is google shit, talk to people and write about it —which I have done.”
But Stewartson found an audience for his opinions and gained an army of followers on social media as well as appearances in the media — including being interviewed for the “Search for Q” documentary series broadcast on VICE TV — as an authoritative voice about the QAnon phenomenon.
“Jim got really, really self-righteous, he started posting on Twitter incessantly,” a person who worked with Stewartson around this time told VICE News, who granted the person anonymity because of fears of retribution. “He just wouldn't slow down for the media thing. He just kept pushing for it.”
Last week, in the middle of VICE News’ investigation into the Thinkin Project, Stewartson announced he was stepping back from his leadership role as a leader.
Kane is now the public face of the group, and she told VICE News that the decision to change was Stewartson’s alone. “He himself recognized that his passion for this movement makes him best suited as an ally but not our spokesperson or leader. He’s welcomed warmly as one of our volunteers,” Kane told VICE News.
Stewartson refused repeated VICE World News requests for comment for this article, instead posting a series of threatening messages on Twitter about what he called “a hit piece” designed to “defame” him.
Stewartson believes he is the one being attacked and that these attacks are coordinated in order to maintain the status quo by researchers who don’t want to reveal the origins of QAnon because they are all making so much money from it.
But, like a lot of Stewartson’s theories, he has provided no evidence to back it up.
Stewartson has become something of a pariah within the QAnon research community, where other researchers have accused him of spreading conspiracy theories about the origins of QAnon. Stewartson has spent months having very public Twitter fights with many of the most prominent QAnon researchers, hitting out at anyone who questions his opinions.
This came to ahead last month when a leaked screenshot revealed a Stewartson had drawn up a list of a dozen researchers and journalists that he labeled “controlled opposition.”
In another leaked screenshot from the Discord server, Stewartson is seen threatening to “annihilate” a journalist who writes about QAnon.
He also participated in a conversation on the Project Thinkin Discord server where one of the volunteers threatened to punch Frederick Brennan, the founder of 8chan. Brennan suffers from brittle bone disease and uses a wheelchair.
“It's obviously very unnerving to be placed on a list of ‘controlled opposition,’” Travis View, co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, was also named on the list. “Especially since I'm not sure what I've done to deserve such hostility. My only sin, as far as I'm aware, is choosing not to buy into his preferred theory about the origins of QAnon.”
Stewartson said the list, which was leaked from the group’s Discord server, was taken out of context while Kane, the spokesperson for the group, said this was simply part of the group’s disinformation collection efforts, even though the people named on the list are widely respected journalists and researchers.
Even with new leadership in place, there are questions about what the group’s really doing and how effective it is at deradicalizing QAnon believers.
The group consists of hundreds of volunteers, some of whom are former QAnon believers as well as “dozens of other PhDs and mental health professionals working around the clock to create resources for our outreach and response teams,” Kane said.
A review of the activity on the Discord server by VICE World News found dozens of channels organized into groups such as Mental Health, Visuals, and Intel. Within those groups are channels dedicated to research on what TTP classifies as “dangerous individuals” including politicians like Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, and Devin Nunes, as well as general GOP channels.
There are also channels dedicated to research about “Silicon Valley oligarchs enabling fascism and disinformation with foreign influence,” as well as the Koch brothers and the Mercer family.
The work being done on the server by the volunteers, including disseminating basic talking points about how to talk to QAnon believers, appears genuine and many of those involved who spoke to VICE News appear to have only good intentions. But doing the work entirely in secret with anonymous volunteers, in conjunction with a campaign to demonize other experts, and while spreading conspiracies about the origins of QAnon, means the group may be making the situation a lot worse.
“You can actually do more damage by trying to help in the wrong way, which is what I think they're doing,” Brennan told VICE News.
Kane said the group is still figuring a lot of things out, including its corporate structure. It hasn’t decided if it’s best to register as a nonprofit or a “benefit corporation” which is a for-profit company focused on creating a positive impact on society.
So far the entire effort has been volunteer-based, but just over two weeks ago, the Thinkin Project launched a GoFundMe campaign seeking to raise $25,000 to cover a variety of costs, including back office, editorial, content creation, and some staff wages.
To date, the fundraising campaign has raised just $6,700, with the vast majority of that coming from a single donation of $5,000 on the first day of the campaign.
Multiple people who spoke to VICE News said they believed Stewartson’s heart was in the right place and his retreat from the public face of the Thinkin Project is likely to help the group’s public imagine, given that the former game designer appears to have ostracized as many people as he has attracted to the effort.
“I think that Jim is a well-intentioned person, he has a good heart,” the researcher, who worked with Stewartson when he first started looking into QAnon, said. “But Jim has some sort of insecurity thing going on because it doesn't just seem like a drive to help people but it also seems like a drive to prove himself in a way that seems desperate to me. And that is dangerous. It's really dangerous.”