Long before Mark walked in the door of their Chicago home one day last year carrying a machete, Elena knew that their 20-year marriage was coming to an end, thanks to QAnon.
It all began with 9/11 conspiracy videos on YouTube.
“I knew he was prone to get hyper-focused on something, and it would consume him for a time before he would lose interest," she said. "At first, it was the stock market, then video games, but then he started looking at the 9/11 footage on YouTube, especially the videos that claimed it was a setup, and that the towers and buildings nearby were purposely demolished.”
Mark’s focus then shifted to listening to Alex Jones' “Infowars” and watching Fox News “because he was obsessed with ‘finding the truth’ and would nightly spew this rhetoric at me. He would get frustrated because I just wouldn't buy into it.”
“He believed the numerous school shootings and the Boston [Marathon] bombing were faked, pulled off by crisis actors,” Elena said. “When I told him one of my co-workers had a friend who was injured at the bombing in Boston, he said my co-worker wasn't trustworthy and I shouldn't believe anything he said.”
Subsequently it was Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, Obama conspiracies, Hillary Clinton’s emails, and, ultimately, QAnon, which is where everything finally fell into place for Mark.
“I don't know how he found QAnon, or 4chan, but to him, it was the place where everything made sense, and he met like-minded people who reinforced the conspiracies,” Elena said.
Mark has a master's degree in economics, served four years in the military, and works in healthcare. He might not strike you as a stereotypical QAnon follower. There are no stereotypical QAnon followers.
They are artists. They are young and old and middle-aged. They are brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers; they are grandparents; they are sons and daughters. They are highly educated and barely educated. They are tech-savvy and they are digitally illiterate. They are pastors preaching from the pulpit. They are from all corners of the United States—and, increasingly, outside it. They are Republicans and Democrats. They were Bernie supporters and Obama supporters. They are business owners and elementary school teachers; they are professors and construction workers; they are IT directors and former FBI agents; and they work for the White House.
There are no stereotypical QAnon followers.
And yet despite all this diversity, there are some common threads, based on conversations with dozens of family members of QAnon followers who spoke to VICE News about the damage the conspiracy is doing to their loved ones.
Christian evangelicalism appears to be a major gateway to QAnon belief, with many of those VICE News spoke to reporting that their family member’s belief in the conspiracy theory was tightly integrated with their faith.
The majority of the QAnon believers we spoke about were in their 50s, 60s, or 70s. The vast majority were white, and over half did not identify as QAnon supporters—even as they spouted, verbatim, the conspiracy theories boosted by QAnon.
The pandemic has clearly played an important role in radicalizing many people, especially older people who’ve found themselves isolated and without any real human contact as a result of lockdowns.
While the majority have come to QAnon from a right-wing political viewpoint, a significant number have been radicalized through wellness and spirituality communities online.
All of those we spoke to said their family members were informed about the conspiracy through mainstream social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Some have now moved on to more fringe sites like Gab and Telegram, but most still use the mainstream sites as a way of communicating with fellow QAnon believers.
For Elena, things got so bad that she no longer wanted to go home, afraid of what her husband might say or do.
“I was coming home from work and I was so stressed when I was walking in the door that I didn't want to be there, and I'd linger at work longer, just so I could have some peace and not have to go home," she said. "Just something to get my head together again, so I can go home and be like, ‘OK, I'm strong. I can face this’.”
But then the pandemic hit, giving Mark much more time to conduct his conspiracy research and forcing Elena into a much, much worse situation.
“Lockdown was frightening,” she said. “I never knew if he was going to snap, and what that would look like. He announced one day that he wanted to buy a gun, and I told him I did not feel comfortable with a gun in the house, and I would leave. He said he understood, but a few days later, he came home with a machete.”
Elena says she’s “already mourning her relationship” and knows her marriage is over, but she is not in a position to leave.
“I'm trying to set aside as much money as I can so I can just walk away, and if I had the money, I would have done it already, I would have gone long ago. I don't want to waste another second. I just need to get away.”
Elena is one of three dozen people VICE News spoke to over the last month whose families have been torn apart by the QAnon conspiracy: Husbands who are worried their wives will radicalize their children; sons who don’t want their parents to see their grandchildren; siblings who no longer speak to each other; daughters who are already grieving the death of their mothers.
Like all the other people quoted in this piece, Elena is not the person’s real name. All of those who spoke to VICE News were granted anonymity to protect themselves and their family members.
QAnon emerged from the toxic fever swamp of the 4chan message board in October 2017 when an anonymous user calling themself Q Clearance Patriot posted the first of almost 5,000 so-called "Q drops," which have become a sort of foundational text for the movement.
The name QAnon came from a combination of Q and anon, which is what the anonymous posters on 4chan call themselves.
The central thesis of the conspiracy is that there is a group of elites running a cannibalistic, satanic, child sex-trafficking ring being facilitated by the “deep state” and that Trump is waging a secret war to expose it all, which will culminate in an event known as "the storm."
Over the years, as QAnon made its way from 4chan to 8chan and then to Reddit and other fringe sites before exploding onto mainstream platforms in 2020, the conspiracy morphed and expanded to include more-extreme conspiracies dreamed up by believers, rather than coming from Q directly.
These include the belief that John F. Kennedy Jr. is still alive and will return as Trump’s vice president, and the frazzledrip conspiracy, which falsely asserts that Hillary Clinton was caught on video raping and torturing a young girl before drinking her blood.
Speaking to family members of QAnon victims across the country, it’s clear that QAnon is not an easy conspiracy to categorize. Some people spoke of loved ones who openly boasted of their loyalty to Q and their belief in every single conspiracy associated with the movement. Others said they didn’t even know if their family members had heard of QAnon, and yet they repeated verbatim the core conspiracies pushed by the group’s followers.
What’s common to all of those who spoke to VICE News is that they see QAnon as a malign force that has radicalized their loved ones to the point where relationships have broken down, families have been divided, and people are living in fear for their safety.
The unhinged nature of some of the conspiracy theories have led to much derisive coverage in the media, where followers are described as crazy and kooky for believing in such obvious falsehoods, and painted as a uniform group of poorly-educated, right-wing conspiracy nuts.
What is lost in such coverage is that the people who fall down the QAnon rabbithole come from all walks of life.
Carrie is a college-educated mother of two who grew up in a middle-class family in Oregon and was, until 2016, a “die-hard Bernie supporter.”
“What is astounding to me is that we were raised the same, have similar education backgrounds, and used to believe similar things, yet she was so easily swayed to believe all these crazy ideas by crazy people,” Carrie’s sister Julie told VICE News.
When Bernie Sanders lost the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, Carrie quickly switched from being a Bernie fan to a Hillary hater, priming her to believe all the conspiracy theories about the former secretary of state that would be spread by QAnon supporters.
Carrie’s path to radicalization came through Facebook groups, specifically those that sprang up in the spiritual and wellness communities and one in particular called “Weaponized Soccer Moms,” which Julie joined as a way of tracking the conspiracies her sister was talking about.
“This group, and other groups my sister was in, really started going down dark paths,” Julie said. “She talked about the cabal, Hollywood, politicians, alternate kinds of economies, mind control, indictments, body doubles, false flags, the whole nine yards. She'd send letters warning us about this or that.”
Over the next few years Carrie became more and more radicalized and became enthralled by Trump. The day before the election in November, she and her partner attended Trump’s rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A few months before, during a brief meeting, Julie saw that her sister had had a special Q necklace made.
“If my sister had more money to travel, I feel like she would have been at the insurrection. She could have been that woman that died. She could be that awful Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert—though I don't think she is a gun enthusiast, but who knows.”
Carrie’s radicalization route was echoed by a number of people VICE News spoke to during the reporting of this piece. In 2020, as QAnon was going mainstream, it moved away from fringe sites like 8chan and spread rapidly on mainstream platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. A large proportion of this growth came through the spirituality, wellness, and yoga communities, which spread a more palatable version of QAnon, designed to radicalize a much larger number of people.
Like Veronica, a stay-at-home mother of two whose husband owns a construction company and works all the time. Veronica was, according to her friend Kathy, very isolated during the pandemic and found herself questioning whether her friends had vaccinated their children.
It escalated quickly in March 2020 as lockdown kicked in, and soon Veronica was posting angry messages on Instagram about trafficking children. “She was obviously becoming detached from reality,” Kathy told VICE News.
The last straw came when Veronica posted a racist comment about Vice President Kamala Harris. “Who the fuck have you become?” Kathy asked her friend.
John is another person who saw a family member radicalised in this manner. He told VICE News that his sister was “extremely far left” and deeply embedded into the wellness, yoga, and spirituality communities before she found QAnon.
“It's been quite shocking to see my sister, who used to be the hippiest of all hippies, now supporting Stop the Steal and being anti-Black Lives Matter,” John told VICE News.
Just like many of those we spoke to, Carrie has dragged other members of her family along, spreading her beliefs to her 81-year-old father, a former mayor who now believes that Trump is the real president and that Joe Biden's presidency is illegitimate.
As a result, Julie’s relationship with her father, who now lives in Florida with Julie’s stepmother, has become as superficial and shallow as her relationship with her sister.
“My dad is a super-healthy, fit, and active 81-year-old, but I know his healthy years are numbered. And he lives so far away from me. I'm so sad I don't feel I can have an open relationship with him. I feel like I constantly have conversations in my head that I wish I could have with him about my feelings … but I know it would do no good.”
“They're choosing that over us,” she said. “Like, that's more important to them.”
Julie sees her sister’s and her father’s decision to prioritize QAnon conspiracies over their relationship with their family as a deeply personal attack.
“They're choosing that over us. Like, that's more important to them. That stuff is more important to you than your own grandchild,” she said.
And for Julie, the potential damage of the QAnon cult doesn’t end with those broken relationships. It goes much further than that, as her son is gay.
“It makes me so scared. My son doesn't live with me. He lives in New York going to college. And the hate crimes are increasing. That's the stuff that is really personal. You worry about the people you know in your life and how their beliefs can affect the people you care about, and that they should care about,” Julie said.
There is nothing new in QAnon. The core conspiracy it peddles is an anti-Semitic trope that dates to the Middle Ages and can be found in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a pamphlet written by Russian propagandists in 1902 that claimed a group of Jews was plotting to take over the world. Central to this was the blood libel, the claim that these Jews were kidnapping Christian children to slaughter them, drain their blood, and mix it with the dough for matzos consumed on Passover. The pamphlet was used as a propaganda tool by everyone from Henry Ford to Adolf Hitler, and it’s been repackaged once again by QAnon.
But as with many aspects of QAnon, followers seem to be blind to the reality of the conspiracies they’re peddling.
Just like most of those whose family members follow QAnon, Nina views her father’s decision as an abandonment—particularly given the anti-Semitic tropes QAnon traffics in.
“I told him that it disturbs me greatly that he is hooking himself to people who are extremely anti-Semitic, knowing that I am married to a Jewish man,” Nina said of her father, Tom, 77, recalling the last proper conversation she had with him. “He got very defensive and said he's not against Jewish people, he’s not anti-Semitic. Then, almost the next sentence out of his mouth was calling out the usual suspects that conspiracy theorists call out, like George Soros and all that.”
Tom, a former IT director for a major corporation, had always followed conspiracy theories, but it wasn’t until he fell down the QAnon rabbithole that it caused a serious rift with his family.
What’s worse is that Nina and Tom live in the same building, so every day she’s reminded of the broken relationship.
“When you walk in my house, you walk in a common door where you either go upstairs or you can go directly into the door ahead, which would be my kitchen. Now in that kitchen door, there is a large glass panel,” Nina said. “After January 6, I covered that up because I didn't want to talk to him, I didn't want to see him. I needed a barrier. I made an excuse as to why I covered that up, but the real reason is because I don't want to see him on a daily basis.”
It wasn’t always this way. For a long time, one of the things that Nina and her husband connected with her father on was politics.
“We would go out back by the fire pit and have a drink or whatever. We don't do that anymore," she said. "Ever since January 6, my husband has refused to talk to him.”
“I'm not willing to give up hope completely or give up on him.”
Like many of those interviewed, Nina said her father’s adherence to QAnon conspiracies blinded him to the fact he was sharing and boosting deeply troubling beliefs.
“I tried to explain to him that there are two ways of being racist: One of which is you carry a Confederate flag into the Capitol, and you have a Camp Auschwitz T-shirt on, everybody knows you are loudly racist," she said. "And then the other way is being ignorant of stereotypical anti-Semitic tropes that have been around forever and then once you're aware of them, still backing the people that you're with.”
Nina said that she and her husband both “feel like there's a death in the family,” and while she has said she’s done trying to bring her father back, there’s still a small part of her that will never give up.
“My position that I say out loud is that we've lost him, he won't come back, and I've kind of accepted that,” Nina said. “But then really, really deep down, I'm not willing to give up hope completely or give up on him because I think ultimately this is dangerous for him, not just me and everybody else. I won't stop trying. I'm not actively trying to do anything, but I'm also not writing him off.”
Cutting off all contact with your mother, or refusing to talk to your sibling, or deciding that you have to end your marriage are not decisions that people make lightly. These decisions are made only when nothing else works, and the family members who’ve made them nearly-uniformly described the anguish of not knowing if they were making the right decision but having to do so for their own mental wellbeing.
They’d also made the decision to cut off their loved ones knowing they might be the person’s last real links to the non-QAnon world.
Like Amy, whose Q-believer sister Mary lives in Arizona.
“If I’m the only voice of reason, and she has 25 people emailing her nonsense, and I say I’m done, what might happen to her?” Amy told VICE News. “I fear I’m keeping her from going completely off the cliff. I want to be the safety net.”
For others, like George, it was a matter of keeping their own family safe.
“I made it explicitly clear to my wife that under no circumstances are we to let my parents know our address, or where we live, ever again,” the Minneapolis resident told VICE News. “I don't trust them. I don't know what they are capable of at this point, they've been so radicalized.”
George was speaking about his mother, Martha, who raised him single-handedly after his father died when he was young. George says he grew up in a “secular, non-religious, non-political household,” but things began to change when his mother remarried when he was a teenager.
She became a “fundamentalist, evangelical Christian” whose media diet included obsessively watching Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.
“They didn't believe in global warming, all that stuff, just your typical, far-right stance. But then it just kind of kept going, getting more and more radical. They built a doomsday bunker. I didn't even know that they had a basement,” George said. “My wife and I were there for Christmas one year, and then all of a sudden, they're like, 'Hold on, I have to go downstairs.' And I was incredibly confused, because I’d been in that house for a decade and there had never been a downstairs to go to, and then she explained to us that they have a doomsday bunker.”
The bunker wasn’t for Martha, who was certain she’d be ascending to heaven when the Rapture came.
“The bunker was actually for me and my wife, and everything we need to survive post-Rapture: guns, food, water. It was very strange,” George said.
Martha’s radicalization through Christianity and right-wing media personalities is a route many have taken to QAnon.
“With her, it was 100% rooted in extremist Christianity, and fundamentalism and the Rapture and all that stuff,” George said. “It's been such a slow, consistent radicalization for them within the varying churches they've been a part of. They thought that Obama was the Antichrist. So they think that Trump has been anointed to this role, and so for them, their religion is so tightly intertwined with politics that there's really no delineation.”
And while her son was willing to put up with most of her beliefs beforehand, QAnon marked a red line he wouldn’t cross.
“It has gone on for so long, and it has progressed so far, devolved to the state that it is in now, that I have to prioritize my own well-being first, and right now that doesn’t include having a relationship with her,” George said. “She’s actively siding with racists within our family over her own son. I just can't continue to take that emotional and mental and verbal abuse from her.”
Martha and his stepfather weren’t the only members of George’s family to come under QAnon’s spell.
“There is a weird phenomenon within mine and my wife’s families,” George said. “My mother was always very far-right and her mother was very far-left. She was on the Dennis Kucinich campaign when he was running for president. She has a traumatic brain injury and she was recruited by Q to help stop child trafficking and believes that JFK Jr. is alive and was going to run as Trump's vice president this time around. We've noticed this progression where if politics exists on a circle, they both got so extreme that they've now met on the other end and shared the same political viewpoints.”
“I wish there was someone out there I could find and beat the shit out of for tearing my family apart.”
This situation highlights just how powerful an influence QAnon can be, and offers hints at how it can radicalize such a wide range of people and personalities.
Austin, a 41-year-old artist from New England, was the most laid-back person his now ex-wife Emily had ever met—until he was radicalized by QAnon.
“His entire personality changed. He was really angry about Hilary Clinton but also angry about people who cut him off in traffic,” Emily told VICE News, adding that by the end he didn’t even recognize that she wanted a divorce.
“It took me four different conversations about me divorcing him for it to stick,” Emily said. “He would bring up Trump during our conversations about our marriage ending.”
Tony’s entire family—his mother, father, and sister—are all now QAnon supporters despite coming from very diverse backgrounds.
Tony’s father is an immigrant who was always a logical thinker, his mother has multiple degrees from Ivy League universities, and his sister had a left-wing political outlook. Now all three of them have fallen down the QAnon rabbithole.
“They are very good people and are coming at this from an altruistic standpoint,” Tony told VICE News, but it is “splitting the family in two. It has gone from fear to anger now. I wish there was someone out there I could find and beat the shit out of for tearing my family apart.”
What’s even harder is when someone doesn’t even admit—or perhaps doesn’t know—that they’re part of QAnon.
“That sect, that radicalized, fundamentalist, evangelical sect of Christianity, I think a lot of them were unknowingly tied to QAnon,” George said of his mother. “My mother is not on the 4chan forums and Reddit. She's not just not very technologically literate.”
A significant number of the people who spoke to VICE News for this piece reported a very similar situation, where the people in their lives who believed in QAnon conspiracy theories would not admit to being part of QAnon.
Leona, for instance, is a devout Lutheran and mother of four whose descent into QAnon happened in secret but came to light a year ago, her husband Ray told VICE News. Leona insists she doesn’t follow QAnon, despite espousing the very same conspiracies about Trump, the deep state, and the cabal of elites as Q has for years.
Despite not admitting she follows QAnon, the conspiracy has deeply impacted her personality, and Ray believes the impact is permanent.
“I don't believe that she'll ever come out of it,” Ray said. “Because I feel like if she were to come out of it in some way, it would involve some serious damage to her, because she would have to reevaluate her worldview. And for some people that can be traumatic."
There are various reasons why people who spout QAnon conspiracies don’t identify with QAnon, but it mostly stems from the fact that the vast majority of people who would typically be described as QAnon followers have not come to the movement directly, by reading the Q drops posted on 4chan and 8chan. Instead, they’ve been radicalized by a lighter version of QAnon that plays up the claims about saving children from the clutches of evil elites. While George’s mother was radicalized through her evangelical Christian groups, most believers get radicalized through social media.
“I think Facebook really destroyed them,” Helen, whose parents are both QAnon followers, told VICE News. “I don't know if it's their age—you know, the baby boomers—and they get sucked into that disinformation. They see a meme and they believe that and they share, share, share. So I think Facebook really, really destroyed them. It really helps them get sucked into QAnon.”
Social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have taken action against QAnon groups and accounts promoting the conspiracy, but they only did so in the second half of 2020—and Twitter only acted decisively in January after the Capitol riots.
As a result, the conspiracy flourished and spread in communities online where QAnon wouldn’t have been on the radar, ones concerned with topics like spirituality, wellness and yoga. This was driven primarily by piggybacking on the “Save the Children” campaign, which masked its true goal of “redpilling” people into darker QAnon conspiracies by claiming it was only a campaign to save kidnapped children.
“They view Trump as a savior or a messiah or like the warrior of Christ, I think—you know, he's out there like the next messiah trying to save all these children,” Helen said. “I think that definitely attracted her to it because she liked that Christian appeal, I guess because he was trying to save children and kind of be the next messiah.”
Not only did the campaign undermine the real work being done by charities to rescue children in real danger, it also provided a palatable on-ramp for people to begin their descent into QAnon.
Just like George’s mother, Helen’s mom appears blind to the conspiracy she is a part of.
“She won't even admit that she follows QAnon,” Helen said. “I find it completely crazy that she's so into it, but she won't admit that she follows it. She went to the Washington, D.C., rally on January 6. She believes all the QAnon conspiracy theories, but she will not admit that she believes in QAnon.”
A unique aspect of QAnon is the lack of a central charismatic leader who dictates the direction of the movement. Instead, adherents are asked to “do your own research,” which leaves every Q drop open to a million different interpretations. That’s happening even more now. Q hasn’t posted a new message in almost four months, so followers are looking to influencers within the movement for direction and reinterpreting old Q drops to try to find some new meaning.
The result is a constantly morphing conspiracy where followers can choose the parts they want and ignore the rest.
And that’s how Christians are able to resolve the parts of QAnon that clearly do not align with their faith.
“She believes whatever aspects fit into what she wants, I guess. She's picking and choosing, so in her mind it doesn't clash with her religion,” Helen said of her mother, Michelle. “She's not ashamed of it, but she won't talk a lot of it with me because I don't agree with her.”
Like many who’ve been subsumed into QAnon, Michelle’s personality has been utterly altered by the conspiracy movement, to the point where her own family don’t recognize her.
“She's a really educated person, she has been a teacher for almost 30 years, she has a master’s degree, she's going to school every day teaching children, she's pretty well-respected in a community,” Helen’s husband, Bill, told VICE News.
“It's almost like somebody took over her brain.”
“But you can see how the QAnon conspiracies can really suck anybody in. This is a person in their mid-60s who would never really do things on their own,” Bill said. "It's almost like somebody took over her brain.”
While some families of Q-believers glued to their TVs on January 6 wondering if their loved one might appear draped in a Trump flag, Helen already knew that her mother and father were there.
“They went to Washington, D.C., on Monday morning [January 4], so [Helen’s mother] spent two nights in the hotel. They were really prepared with flags and banners, they were dressed up. I mean, she was so excited,” Bill said.
Other people who VICE News spoke to said their QAnon family members have become more isolated, unresponsive, angry, and even violent after being consumed by the conspiracy, doing things that are completely out of character or things theynever would have considered before.
Joan knew from very early on that QAnon was a danger to members of her family who were likely to believe in the lies it was selling. Joan was raised in a conservative, religious environment, where the gift of prophecy was considered to be a normal part of a church service and "hearing a word from God" was also normal and desired.
“I was really worried about how QAnon seemed to wrap up Christian nationalism with these kinds of ‘God-breathed messages’,” Joan told VICE News.
Then, in late 2018, Joan got a phone call from her sister Trisha, who lives in Oklahoma.
“She told me she was on the East Coast, in Virginia,” Joan said. “She had landed herself in a mental institution, being found on the street, in the middle of the night, stark naked.”
Trisha started talking to Joan about "entities" and acting paranoid, worried someone was listening in to their conversations. Back in Oklahoma, Trisha has been in and out of institutions and is now medicated. But she doesn’t always take her pills, and QAnon’s conspiracies appear locked into her head.
“She is sufficed with magical thinking,“ Joan said. “She was sure that she had caused the election to go to Biden because she wore a blue dress on Inauguration Day. When I lowered the blow that I now consider myself a Democrat and voted for Biden myself, she nearly went to tears.”
“I have told her repeatedly that QAnon is nonsense, and she has never admitted to believing it, but there are too many things wrapped up in these new delusions that echo the nonsense preached in the Q forums.”
“QAnon," Joan said, "is damage, destruction, and utter delusion."