On 7 January this year, a day after the mob stormed the Capitol in Washington DC, a curious exchange occurred in the netherworld of global conspiracy. Alex Jones, the rasp-voiced mouthpiece of fake news for the past decade, was in conversation with the most visible leader of the previous day’s shocking events: Jacob Chansley, the self-styled “Q Shaman” who featured on the world’s front pages, in buffalo horns, animal skins and face paint.
Jones, on his fake-news platform Infowars, with its million-plus viewers and sharers, had for years been the loudhailer of unhinged stories that included the belief that Hillary Clinton was the antichrist, that Michelle Obama was a man, that the Pentagon and George Soros had detonated a “homosexual bomb” that turned even frogs gay, that 9/11 had been a “false flag” operation and, most viciously, that the Sandy Hook school murders, in which 20 children and six teachers died, were staged by “crisis actors” to promote gun control. Jones had inevitably been among those who addressed the restive crowd at Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” march (having donated $50,000 for the staging of the rally) and calling for supporters to “get on a war footing” to defend the president. Two days later, however, when faced with the rhetoric of Chansley, whom he had invited on to his show to explain the insurrection, it seemed even he, America’s conspirator in chief, finally couldn’t take the lies any more.
As the Q Shaman launched into his justification of the mob violence that had left five people dead, a diatribe involving reference to the supposed QAnon revelations that the Democratic party was a front for a satanic paedophile ring that Trump was destined to expose and destroy, Jones repeatedly interrupted him. When Chansley asked plaintively why he wouldn’t listen (“you’re a hero to me, man”), Jones cut him off: “Because you’re full of crap!” he yelled. “That’s why! Because every goddamned thing out of you people’s mouths doesn’t come true. I knew what you were on day one and I know what you are now and I’m sick of it! I’m sick of all these witches and warlocks… I can’t talk to you any more. Jesus Christ! Lord help me. Aaargh!”
This apparent volte face, disowning a web of untruths that he himself had enthusiastically propagated, was a surprise even to the most dedicated of Jones-watchers. During the Trump era, Dan Friesen and Jordan Holmes, a pair of standup comedians from Chicago, had performed the invaluable public service of debunking some of Jones’s wilder theories in a conversational podcast, Knowledge Fight. The events of January, however, gave them the sense that Jones “just felt less and less in control of what he was doing”. They had long been reluctant connoisseurs of the Texan’s rants but from that moment in January onwards, they felt they were witnessing a man flailing in the tide of his own untruths.
One reading of this abrupt change suggested that Jones, who had made millions of dollars selling “potency pills” to his cultish followers, finally understood that the game was up. For the past year or more, he has been losing a series of legal appeals against the right of the Sandy Hook parents to sue him for defamation and end the unpardonable harassment that had seen them hounded by trolls who believed Infowars’ lies (the channel sent “investigators” to Sandy Hook to try to disinter the bodies of their murdered children and posted pictures that purported to show them alive and well; one parent, Leonard Pozner, who has led the case against Jones, has had to go into hiding to protect himself from reprisals). That legal process threatens to ruin Jones financially; later this summer it should see him face a fuller judicial reckoning. Having exhausted all other defences, his last line of argument appears to be that he – and his millions of followers – had known it was simply a joke all along.
Another, more widely optimistic, reading of Jones’s meltdown is the proposition that the destructive forces of alt right conspiracy are finally in retreat. It is hard to imagine the rise of Trump without the environment of outlandish falsehood that preceded him. If Fox News offered mainstream support to that war on reality, then Jones was a big part of its militia wing. When Trump first announced that he was running for the presidency he appeared on Infowars to tell Jones: “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down”, endorsing the host’s message that there was a secret liberal deep state cabal that controlled the world. In the months of campaigning that followed, when Trump shouted “Lock her up” of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, he knew he was preaching to the Infowars converted. On the morning after his inauguration, in 2017, Jones was among the first people Trump contacted to thank him for the help he had given.
The optimism that sees the events in the Capitol as the last chapter of that story, however, must be heavily tempered with the fear that rather than representing an endgame, it instead highlighted a first dramatic skirmish in a new kind of warfare. That contention is at the heart of a compelling book, The Storm Is Upon Us, to be published this week, by the California-based journalist Mike Rothschild. The book examines the internet-based conspiracies that led to the assault on the Capitol in forensic detail, in particular the story of QAnon, the obscure series of anonymous “prophecies” that became the declared philosophy of many of those who travelled from across the country intent on overturning Joe Biden’s election victory, the philosophy that even Jones thought was a conspiracy too far.
Rothschild’s book is a profoundly sobering read for anyone who retains faith in the inevitable progress of human reason, or a belief that in a free-speech environment where all opinions are given equal weight, Enlightenment views will necessarily prevail over violent untruths. It traces how a series of “data drops” from an anonymous poster QAnon – claiming to be a senior Pentagon insider – on the renegade internet platform 4chan came to be taken as prophetic gospels by thousands of disgruntled middle Americans staring at their screens.
There had been precedents for such cultish frenzies of course, particularly in the US, but none has received the kind of official amplification and sanction as QAnon. What began as a development of the wilder culture and antisemitic tropes of so-called Pizzagate, quickly became a catch-all “philosophy” to politicise and explain the many “evils” of the world. That code was amplified by Trump supporters ranging from Jones to former national security adviser Michael Flynn and presidential confidant Roger Stone, who identified with QAnon’s theories about the way the deep state had “stolen” the election and urged Trump to declare martial law – another QAnon prophecy – in advance of the 2020 election. Trump’s sons Donald Jr and Eric both played to a QAnon audience, while nearly 100 Republican candidates declared themselves to be QAnon believers, with several winning their elections, including House representative Marjorie Taylor Greene.
As Rothschild details, the bulk of Q followers had little history of extremism but they came to see themselves as “patriotic researchers”, uniquely able to distil fragments of truth from the “drops” of fictional coded information. Some proudly described themselves as “autists,” insinuating patterns unavailable to the unenlightened, patterns that allowed them to understand, for example, “that when [CIA chief] James Comey tweeted about the death of his dog Benji in early November 2018, he was really signalling to the world that George HW Bush would be executed two weeks later – because autists know that pictures of dogs sent by prominent deep-state members are actually secret messages announcing an execution”.
So seductive were the internet rabbit holes into which they descended, a process of radicalisation familiar to cult-watchers, that in some cases families were abandoned and plots were hatched, including bomb threats, kidnap attempts and plans to destroy a coronavirus hospital ship. By 6 January 2021, QAnon devotees had for so long promised that a “storm” of mass arrests and executions would sweep “child molesters” and liberals out of government for ever that some were triggered to carry out that long-promised purge themselves.
In detailing this radicalisation, Rothschild’s book emphasises the truth that among all the complex crises of our times the fundamental one is that of information, its quality and its reach. I remember at the time of the arrival of social media, 20 years ago, sitting through various presentations from a series of highly paid “internet gurus” who talked in messianic terms about a coming age of “citizen journalism”. Once the “gatekeepers” of the “legacy media” were removed, they argued – all those dogged hacks on local newspapers who have subsequently lost their livelihoods – there would be a wondrous revolution in transparency. This utopian vision could apparently see no potential issues with a mass system of anonymous communication in which there was no accountability for inaccuracy and no barriers to entry. I sat in those presentations thinking: have these people never read a history book?
Speaking to Rothschild at his home in last week, he suggested that one of the lessons of the QAnon story is how that naivety worked both ways. “Even now,” he suggests, “there is still something in most people’s mind that believes things that happen on the internet don’t really matter. That it’s not real life.” What the QAnon story shows is that “online communities are more real to a lot of these people than their actual lives”.
When Rothschild first started reporting on QAnon, a couple of months after the first drops, most reporters, if they looked at the story at all, viewed it “as just the next version of whatever crazy thing the Trump people were pushing that week”. He detected in its profile something a little different – it had very similar makeup, he thought, to these “affinity frauds” that have been running now for 20 years, which exploit the trust of peer recommendations in certain tight communities to fleece people of their life savings. But here, he says, you were selling not financial investments but “the powerful feelings that you would have when your enemies were brought to justice”.
His book examines all the theories about QAnon’s original identity, without needing to come to a conclusion. Among the most plausible is that this was a kind of wicked experiment in human credulity. QAnon understood the power of story and parable. “I think, those early Q drops, the first maybe 130 drops [out of 4,592] were very skilfully written,” he says, “almost like the first chapters of a Tom Clancy novel… and it was a story that a lot of people bought into very quickly, because they wanted it to be true.” The first disciples were more than ready to believe that there was a judgment day approaching for these people at the heart of what Trump, Fox News and Jones had already spent a couple of years calling the deep state: Obama, George Soros, the Clintons. “I mean, there’s a reason why the first post was ‘Hillary Clinton will be arrested’,” Rothschild says. “This represented 30 years of wish-fulfilment. It was a Clinton, but it was almost more about Hillary than Bill. She was the one they really, really hated.”
The story quickly found fertile ground among an audience spending many hours looking for the next excitement online, something to shock their followers with, a magnet for likes. Rothschild suggests that in the past some of this repressed anger might have been directed at neighbourhood issues, but in the vacuum of local newspapers a whole class of people who might have stood up in a PTA meeting and vented at the school board now believed they knew more about what was going on at a deputy assistant undersecretary’s office at the White House than at the end of their street. Social media algorithms offered no hierarchy to information and fed them more of what they liked. There was, in this conservative audience, Rothschild suggests, still a vestige of that feeling: “If I’m seeing a piece of media, it’s probably true. Nobody would lie in a news story…”
Anybody can get sucked into cults. The moment you feel you are better than everybody else, you might be more vulnerable
In some ways, his book suggests, the only thing that prevented a deeper catastrophe in January was the demographic of those QAnon believers. A 2019 study by researchers at Princeton and New York University showed that Facebook users over the age of 65 were as much as seven times more likely to share fake-news stories and that held true with QAnon. Fortunately, Rothschild says: “This wasn’t Weimar Republic era paramilitaries. These were people who were 40, 50, 60. Many travelled a long distance and had a lot of disposable income to spend on tactical gear and flights and hotels. QAnon brought out something in these people who felt like their way of life was being destroyed by the relentless onslaught of progressivism. Donald Trump became their champion standing in the breach against the rising tide of liberalism.”
The vision of that bizarre insurrection served to conclude the ongoing argument with social media platforms about their responsibility for policing extreme and deliberately false content. At the beginning of the pandemic, when it seemed that fake news might overwhelm public health messaging, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and the rest were finally moved to take down some of the more threatening content, as bodies piled up in New York’s morgues.
Jones had been among those who predictably trumpeted the anti-vax lines and 5G mast conspiracy that Piers Corbyn peddles to his mask-averse cranks. “This is the plan, folks,” Jones grunted at his viewers, early on. “They plan – now they’ve fluoridated you and vaccinated you and stunned you and mesmerised you with the TV and put you in a trance – on killing you.” The antidote to the virus, Jones claimed, lay in his own “wellness” products: SuperSilver whitening toothpaste and ABL Nano Silver Gargle that, he claimed, “kills the sars-corona family at point-blank range”. (The only proven effect of the active ingredient in these products, colloidal silver, is that it turns your skin blue.)
The fact that social media giants had already cancelled Infowars accounts prevented the wider spread of this lethal nonsense; they now accepted a measure of responsibility to take down posts that claimed that 5G technology caused Covid-19, instead directing people toward accredited information.
In the months since the January riots, the social media platforms have cracked down in a similar way on QAnon content, outlawing hashtags and catchphrases related to the conspiracy theory – “WWG1WGA” (“Where we go one we go all”), “the storm” and the “great awakening” – and shutting down thousands of accounts (including those of the ex-president). A report published by the Atlantic Council’s digital forensic research lab concluded that QAnon-related “chatter” surged enormously at the beginning of the pandemic and rose further in the lead-up to the Capitol riot, but had been reduced to a murmur in the months after Biden’s election.
It is hard to read Rothschild’s book, however, without coming to the conclusion that the appetite for conspiracy has hardly diminished – some diehard QAnon followers still hold that the recount of the Arizona ballot will be decisive in overturning Biden’s election and restoring Trump to power. Meanwhile, the potent combination of tribal politics and the amplifying powers of social media continues to exert a hold. Rothschild reserves his anger in the book for those “conspiracy entrepreneurs”, including Jones and the Trump inner circle, who promoted these theories for financial or political gain, rather than the “digital foot soldiers”, often looking for community or belonging, who were seduced by them. “Maybe not everybody could be QAnon, because it takes a certain mentality,” he says, “but anybody can get sucked into conspiracy movements or cultic movements. You know, the moment you feel like you are better than everybody else, you might be more vulnerable than everybody else.”
The pandemic created the perfect petri dish for such radicalisation – forcing people into isolation and to spending more time online. One of the seductive qualities of QAnon in this respect is that rather than presenting converts with a raft of developed theories, it acted as an invitation for them, in that favourite internet phrase, “to do their own research”. “Autists” became active participants in conspiracy creation, piecing together and sharing and creating clues, like medieval Bible scholars. You only have to look at forums such as “QAnon Casualties” on the Reddit platforms, a de-radicalisation and self-help conversation for cultists and their broken families, to see just how deep a hold the ideas can take on individuals.
And of course this is far from a US-only phenomenon. Guardian research in the UK from the end of last year, before Facebook shut down tens of thousands of accounts, revealed a sharp rise in the use of QAnon terms among “an unlikely coalition of spirituality and wellness groups, vigilante ‘paedophile hunter’ networks, pre-existing conspiracy forums, local news pages, pro-Brexit campaigners and the far right”. Meanwhile a survey for Hope Not Hate, which monitors extremism, found that 17% of people when questioned said they believed Covid-19 was intentionally released as part of a “depopulation plan” by the UN or “new world order”; a quarter (25%) agreed that “secret satanic cults exist and include influential elites” and a similar proportion (26%) subscribed to the QAnon view that “elites in Hollywood, politics, the media and other powerful positions” were secretly engaged in child trafficking and abuse. The anti-lockdown gatherings in British cities, last week targeting the BBC journalist Nicholas Watt, are one meeting point for such theories.
These trends support Rothschild’s suggestion that though QAnon itself has gone silent for six months, and thousands of spreader accounts have been deleted, “you still have a very large group of very malleable people. And it doesn’t take a lot for somebody to step in, start selling those people what they want to hear.”
If there is a lesson of the past five years it is the ease and efficacy with which such lies can spread. QAnon is hopefully on its last legs, Rothschild says, “but there is a danger that whatever comes next might be even more powerful. My biggest hope is that we are able to recognise it and take it seriously. Not panic about it. But understand it, try to help debunk it and take it down before it gets to the point that QAnon got to. As we have seen,” he says, “it doesn’t take that long for these movements to curdle into violence.”
• The Storm Is Upon Us by Mike Rothschild is published by Octopus Publishing Group (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply