Into the Rise of QAnon During the Pandemic
Trymaine Lee: One day in early July, marketing professional Melissa Rein Lively went to her local Target store in Scottsdale, Arizona. It wasn't a normal shopping trip.
Melissa Rein Lively: I've been looking forward to this (BEEP) all my (BEEP)-in' life. So, Target, I'm not playing any more (BEEP) games. This (BEEP) over.
Lee: In a profanity-laced Instagram post that went viral, she recorded herself trashing a rack full of face masks.
Lively: This shit's all (BEEP)-in' over. This (BEEP)'s (BEEP)-in' over.
Lee: And refusing to stop.
Lively: No, I'm not doin' it. We don't want any of this anymore. This is over.
Lively: No, unh-uh (NEGATIVE). No.
Store Employee: Can you please stop?
Lively: Why? Why? You let everybody else do it. You let everybody else do it. What, I can't do it 'cause I'm a blonde white woman? I'm wearin' (BEEP)-in' 40 pounds of (UNINTEL). I don't have the (BEEP)-in' right--
Lee: This attack on masks was quite a turnaround for Melissa. Just five months earlier, at the beginning of the pandemic, Melissa says she bought a supply of N95 masks and even a hazmat suit. So how did she get from there to here, surrounded by a pile of masks on the ground, Target employees staring at her, and earning the nickname "QAnon Karen"?
Lively: This (BEEP)'s over. This (BEEP)'s over. This (BEEP)'s over. Yay, this (BEEP)'s over. Whoo! Yeah!
Lee: (MUSIC) I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, while we all need to be paying attention to the dangerous conspiracy theory known as QAnon and how social media makes it all too easy to turn people like Melissa against masks and send conspiracy theorists to Congress.
Ben Collins: People can write this off as something very silly, but the fact of the matter is there is enormous historical precedent for this sort of Satanic panic. This sort of thing happens very fast. So we have to be very careful.
Lee: Ben Collins is a reporter for NBC News. He covers disinformation, extremism, and the internet. He's been reporting on the QAnon conspiracy theory for years. So, Ben, what is QAnon?
Collins: QAnon is a wide-ranging set of beliefs. But basically, it started like this. QAnon is this idea that there is a high-level government insider who is posting on this website called 4chan or 8chan, which is like an extremist website. And this guy is telling everyone that Donald Trump is personally saving the world from a group of Satanic pedophiles and baby eaters that secretly run the United States government and the world.
And they believe that Hillary Clinton is part of that group. And they also believe that this group is defeatable basically and that Donald Trump personally has the (UNINTEL) to do it and that he's doing it in secret. So when you see stuff like, "Save the children," on Facebook or Twitter or wherever, that's what this is. You know, they believe that this high-level group of Satanic cabal members are all trying to steal all the children, and take them, and traffic them, and eat them quite literally. And the only way to stop it is to support Donald Trump in secret.
Lee: This conspiracy is doin' a whole lotta work, right? (LAUGH)
Lee: Who is behind QAnon?
Collins: It's hard to know who's behind QAnon. We do know who initially spread it. So these moderators of this message board 4chan, they initially took these Q posts. So Q is the insider. He's the guy in the mythology that, you know, knows everything about what's about to come. They take all of his posts, and they sort of amplify them to other parts of the web.
Now, Q's first post said that Hillary Clinton was about to be arrested for her work in the Satanic cannibal ring and that her passport was frozen and the National Guard was about to be activated for all the riots this would cause. This was in October of 2017, and they said it was gonna happen the next day.
Obviously, it didn't happen. That was the very first post. And what they did was these moderators took these posts and they made YouTube channels out of it. And then they started posting on Twitter and Facebook. And then it eventually gained steam over the last few years.
Even though none of these things came true, by the way. You know, all these posts are nonsense. But it merchandises well with people on the far right. It's a collection of all their favorite conspiracy theories. It's really interesting. I'll give you that. But it's just not true.
Lee: You say it was on 4chan originally, kinda insular, kind of a subset of people. But how did it spread, and how popular is it?
Collins: Sure. Now, we're talking millions of people. Facebook did an internal audit of how many people are in QAnon groups. Now, we don't know publicly how many that is because a lot of these groups are private and they sort of work off each other and they drive people into more and more private groups. But we found an internal memo that found out that in fact millions of people were in these groups now as of a few weeks ago.
Lee: But this isn't just, you know, wacky, lunatic fringe, you know, benign stuff. Is there concern that, you know, QAnon could become the next kind of spark for actual violence?
Collins: Well, it already has. You know, there's a murder tied to a QAnon. A guy wrote "Q" on his hand during his sentencing. People forget about this, but it was at the start of the pandemic. A man hijacked a train and tried to drive it into a boat that he thought had children in it that were being trafficked.
And, you know, this was a QAnon thing. This keep happening. This is a thing that has captured the brains of some very vulnerable people. And it makes sense it has. It's an elaborate fantasy that allows them to be the good guys in this sort of, you know, large-scale heroic story where they're saving the children.
Lee: Where does QAnon fall when it comes to white supremacy, white nationalism, racist, Black Lives Matter?
Collins: Obviously, it's against all forms of social justice, is antithetical to the point. They believe that they are enemies to Donald Trump. Therefore, if they're enemies of Donald Trump, it must be bad. But the other thing is, like, the anti-Semitic stuff that is baked into QAnon is the most important part of the cake, I would say. You know, this is based on an ancient conspiracy theory.
Lee: I will say eating babies is purely anti-Semitic, terrible, "Jews are monsters, and they're gonna eat your babies," right?
Collins: Exactly. Blood libel. That's what it is. It's predominantly a anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. That's definitely part of it. And also, like, a whole concept of a new world order and an illuminati and things like that, that is anti-Semitic. So those things can't be separated. This is not just a racist conspiracy theory. It just others anyone that has any sort of problem with the president. And they will use racism and anti-Semitism as a means to an end.
Lee: As this story grows and more people are buying into the narrative, has it gotten political, like, steam? Have we seen candidates running for office who actually believe this stuff?
Collins: Yes. So there's this woman named Marjorie Taylor Greene who is in a plus-27 Republican district in Georgia, which means it would be very hard for her to lose this seat. And she just won the primary.
Marjorie Taylor Greene: (APPLAUSE) I want to tell you guys, the fake news media, the D.C. swamp, the political establishment tried to take me out. But there is definitely more of us than there is of them. (CHEERING)
Collins: And she is a QAnon supporter. She is full-throated. She wrote about it in blogs on the internet, about the deep state, and Satanic cannibals, and all of this stuff. She's all the way there, and she's about to be a member of Congress.
Lee: How have mainstream Republicans responded? And I guess how has President Trump, since he's central to this narrative, how has he responded?
Collins: The GOP has accepted her, Marjorie Taylor Greene. They've taken her since this happened and said that, you know, she would be on committees, she would be fine. There is one guy named Adam Kinzinger who, he said that, you know, basically, "We can't allow this to become part of our party. This is not acceptable. We can't allow this to be part of our platform. It's nuts." And he is alone. (LAUGH) I will say this straight up. He is the only person that I've seen in Congress who will have a seat next year who has denounced this outright.
Lee: And what about Trump?
Collins: He was asked about this at a press conference last week.
Female Reporter: I want to ask you. You congratulated Marjorie Taylor Greene in a tweet. You called her "a future Republican star". Greene has been a proponent of the QAnon conspiracy theory. She said it's something that would be worth listening to. Do you agree with her on that?
Donald Trump: Well, she did very well in the election. She won by a lot. She was very popular. Comes from a great state. And she had a tremendous victory. So absolutely, I did congratulate her--
Collins: And then there was a follow-up, too. And he just ignored that part of the question.
Trump: Go ahead.
Female Reporter: And specifically on QAnon--
Trump: Go ahead, please--
Female Reporter: --embrace that conspiracy theory. Do you agree with her on that? That was the question.
Trump: Go ahead, please.
Lee: Is there any chance at all that Donald Trump is just unaware?
Lee: Like, he just didn't hear the question, he just doesn't understand what QAnon is? Is there any chance at all?
Collins: At this point, it would be basically impossible. He has retweeted dozens of QAnon-related accounts on Twitter. So he knows what the word is. He knows that there is a cult devoted to the idea that he is some sort of messianic figure. In fact, why wouldn't he? That seems like something he would be really interested in.
Lee: Right, right. From his entire rise, he's benefited from these wild conspiracy theories. It started with the birtherism, right? And it's been fueled--
Lee: --by all of these kinda wild conspiracies that, you know, it's the deep state, it's someone out to get him.
Collins: People used to write off birtherism in the same way. People used to be like, "How can somebody believe something so ludicrous like this?" And then, you know, the guy who is most notable for that became the president. This sort of thing happens very fast. So we have to be very careful.
Lee: (MUSIC) When we come back, we talk to Ben about the woman we heard at the top of the episode, Melissa Rein Lively, and her descent into QAnon. Stick with us.
Lee: Tell me about Melissa Rein Lively.
Collins: Melissa Rein Lively came into my life maybe over two months ago at this point. She during a bipolar episode discovered QAnon. And she didn't do it through the traditional way you think. She wasn't necessarily a Donald Trump fan going into this. She was in a bunch of wellness communities, healing communities on Facebook and Instagram.
She looks like a lot of people in your life on Facebook and Instagram. She used to go on a lot of vacations, sort of a couple of friends with drinks in their hands, until March. So the pandemic happens. She has a lot of time on her hands. She runs a marketing company, and not a lot of people are spending money on marketing. So she's losing clients.
She's home a lot, and she starts to go down this rabbit hole. She was really into, like, crystal, kind of alternative health, alternative medicine sorta things. And those communities got invaded basically by QAnon communities in part because Facebook's algorithm determined that if you were into alternative health things, you were also probably into anti-vaxx things. And if you were also into anti-vaxx things, like vaccinations, then you were probably into Donald Trump and the idea that he could be, you know, taking down the deep state, and big pharma, and all of these things.
And even though she started in these wellness communities, she winds up in these QAnon communities. And within a month, this woman who owned her own business, you know, worked with really high-end companies like Hyatt, and Nobu, and all these things like that, she is the woman in a Target throwing masks off the shelves, yelling at all of the staff.
Lively: This (BEEP)'s over. This (BEEP)'s over. This (BEEP)'s over. Yay, this (BEEP)'s over. Whoo! Yeah!
Lee: Let's go back a little bit. One thing that I think is really interesting about this is the isolation brought on by COVID-19. She's losin' business. She's at home. And she told you that she was doom scrolling. And I had never heard that term before, "doom scrolling." What is doom scrolling?
Collins: Doom scrolling is this idea that you're stuck at home, there's nothin' else to do, it's the middle of the night, and there is some sort of release in your brain that makes it so you just keep pressin' the refresh button on Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram, trying to find something new that makes you feel a little bit better about the world. Like, "Maybe there is some hope at the end of this tunnel."
But what you get is more doom. And that's absolutely what happened with Melissa. She kept telling me, like, you know, "Every day I would get a drink with friends. I was, like, one of the most social people you could find. And that was gone. Just, you know, because of the pandemic, that was gone pretty much overnight.
"And there was just this huge hole in my life for validation and socialization. And the only way that it was filled was with these communities that were dead set on the idea that the world was being taken over by something and that, you know, you were part of a bigger movement."
Lee: In terms of that isolation, when you think about, you know, white supremacist groups and other organizations that feed on folks feeling like outsiders, and loners, and misfits, and people who just don't fit in, how much of that are you finding in the QAnon community?
Collins: Oh, it's almost 100% that kind of thing. With Melissa's case, it wasn't just the social isolation and things like that. She was sort of predisposed to magical thinking. She believed that there was something called, like, an energy shift happening in the universe.
So there was no direct path to being radicalized. Like, you don't just wake up one day and become a white supremacist. The same is true here for QAnon. You don't just wake up one day and assume all of these, like, really wild, almost like mythological ideas are true. You get led down a path over a period of time. Difference is this sorta thing used to take years. Radicalization used to take years. With Facebook and Instagram, it can take a day or two.
Lee: So then Melissa ends up at this Target. What happens next?
Collins: Melissa is upset about masks. In QAnon mythology and generally on the internet now in far right spaces, they believe that masks are more of a symbol from the left than they are a public health thing. They believe that masks are muzzles, that they are used to silence you, that they're used to show you that you are a slave.
So when she walked into a store and saw these masks, she was furious because she had been reading all week about, you know, the upcoming slavery of humanity. And, again, it preys on people who have these sort of thoughts to begin with. Melissa is bipolar, and she was like, "This medicine isn't workin' for me. It's like, you know, I'm a creative. It's taking all my creativity."
So there was this really bad cocktail of she was going through a manic episode. She had all of this literature saying, "You're not going through a manic episode." And then once she's for the first time in a couple of months in a social situation where she sees the enemy, right, which is masks, she determines that the best course of action for her is to rip them off the wall, throw them on the floor, yell at everyone, say, you know, "Am I not allowed to this 'cause I'm white?" All of these grievances that are standard in the QAnon community were taken out in real life.
Lee: And let's talk about the role of video. Obviously she went viral. What's the role of viral video? What's the connection between the videos and QAnon and spreading the disinformation?
Collins: If you've been on the internet in the last few months, you have 100% seen what is commonly referred to as a Karen video. Instant moments of fear that are captured usually by white women who then proceed to freak out. So I don't know if you saw this video of this woman. Her name is Christina Gomez.
Christina Gomez: You literally cannot mandate somebody to wear a mask knowing that that mask is killing people. It literally is killing people. And we the people are waking up. And we know what citizen's arrest is.
Collins: She is at the Palm Beach County commissioners meeting.
Gomez: Okay? And every single one of you that are obeying the devil's laws are going to be arrested. And you, Doctor, are going to be arrested for crimes against humanity. Every single one of you have a smirk behind that little mask. But every single one of you are going to get punished by God.
Collins: And she is telling everyone that they're all pedophiles and that they'll all be citizen's arrested and that Bill Gates and 5G. And there's no, like, clear thread. But it's just like a laundry list of conspiracy theories that you would hear on Facebook or Instagram.
Gomez: So when the cameras, the 5G comes out, what? They're gonna scan everybody? We gotta get scanned? We gotta get temperatured? The kids have to go to school with masks? Are you insane? Are you crazy? I think all of you should be in a psych ward right the heck now.
Collins: That wound up on every talk show in America. It was, like, viewed as, like, "Look at this crazy person." That was not what was actually happening. The woman who did this knew exactly what she was doing. In anti-vaccine communities, and these 5G conspiracy communities, and QAnon communities, these are recruiting tools. We might be laughing at these, but the point is to just generally get the word out. And if one in every 50 people isn't laughing and is like, "Oh my god. That woman has a point," that's what it's there for.
Lee: What role or responsibility has Facebook taken or played in all of this?
Collins: QAnon was going to exist without Facebook, but its growth into millions of adherents is directly tied to Facebook. They have consistently said they were gonna do something about this, but they never have. But, again, the most important thing is you can wind up being a QAnon supporter in a couple of hours if you're on Facebook.
You don't even have to be a Donald Trump fan. You can be somebody who is skeptical of some sort of either government program or health-based program. And, you know, by the end of the week, they can become people who believe that Satan is not just real but takin' all the kids. That is Facebook's fault, period.
Lee: What could Facebook be doing better?
Collins: They can limit recommendations easily. You know, if you're in an anti-vaxx group, which say they ban but they're everywhere, you can lead them down better paths algorithmically. It doesn't have to be strictly paranoia and skepticism. And also, you don't even have to ban this stuff. You can just make it harder to find.
You can limit it in search. You can make it so those things don't end up, you know, at the top of people's feeds. They amplify this stuff over other stuff because it's so controversial. Like, people will go in there and be like, "This is nuts. What are you talking about?"
And then they'll have, like, these, you know, 500-comment back-and-forths. And guess what the algorithm likes? The algorithm likes conversation. And it's reading that as positive content, when really it's people fighting over whether or not the Satanic cabal is real or not.
Lee: So as part of your reporting, I know you went to Facebook and asked them, you know, why they haven't done anything about this. What'd they tell you?
Collins: In this instance, they ignored us, which is not insane. They do that kind of consistently, and they have over the years. But they put out all these press releases saying they're trying to do something about election interference and they're trying to do something about, you know, pandemic misinformation. And then they do stuff like this. They ignore the press. Like, straight up at point we are trying to figure out why this company is handling this like this, and we don't have answers.
Lee: So from all your reporting and all that you've learned, do you think that the QAnon conspiracy could actually have a legitimate influence on the 2020 presidential election?
Collins: I think QAnon and the "save the children" thing, I think it's the shadow campaign for the 2020 election. I think that this is reaching undecided voters. I think it's reaching people who otherwise are not political. I think what you're seeing is that there are people with a lot of time on their hands right now whose job situation is precarious, they don't have a job at all, who just lost a loved one, who are sad and desperate, and they're looking for answers.
And they may not have read the news a lot before. Or, you know, they may not have been political anyway. Maybe they didn't vote at all. The idea that you can solve the world's problems overnight because Donald Trump is getting rid of all the bad guys, which is what QAnon is. It's this superhero-style movie. He is like Batman in this, and he is personally solving all the world's problems, but he's doing it in secret. So he can't tell you about it. That is so seductive to people who have no answers for why the world got so bad so quickly.
Lee: So let's go back to Melissa.
Lively: You let everybody else do it. What, I can't do it 'cause I'm a blonde white woman?
Lee: She was going through some serious mental health issues. And obviously we should all feel for people who are grappling with those issues. How is she doin' now? Like, what's going on with Melissa?
Collins: So that was the breaking point for her. I talked to her a month after that. She got some help. She got some therapy. She got the right kinda medication. She totally realizes that she lost her career here. And she realizes that she was taken in by I guess an external force, which is a mental illness and an algorithm gone haywire.
What's fascinating about this is that people relapse pretty substantially. Like, I checked her Facebook yesterday, and she went right back down the rabbit hole. And I don't even think she knows she did it. You know, she posted this Infowars video about masks and people being arrested 'cause they were speakin' the truth and all this stuff.
Collins: Honest to God, it was devastating to me, 'cause I thought she was starting to realize what was happening. And maybe she wasn't. Maybe it was one step forward, five steps back.
Lee: (MUSIC) That was NBC reporter Ben Collins. He covers disinformation, extremism, and the internet. We reached out to Facebook for comment. They didn't respond to us directly, but just before we published this episode Ben and our colleague Brandy Zadrozny broke the story that Facebook had decided to crack down on QAnon, banning hundreds of groups and pages and ads and also restricting 10,000 pages on Instagram, which Facebook also owns. Ben calls this, quote, "A notable shift in tone from Facebook."
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back later this week with a look at the Democratic National Convention.