Jitarth Jadeja is a hirsute man in his early thirties, charming and jovial, speaking with equal effusiveness about economics and his baby niece. He’s an atheist, pro-choice and pro-drug decriminalization, who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would be deeply invested in a dangerous far-right conspiracy theory involving baby-eating Democrats and Hollywood actors. But for two and a half years, he says, that’s exactly what he was.
“It’s almost like a drug,” he tells Rolling Stone from his parents’ house in Sydney, Australia. “You read a Q drop and he tells you something, and you’re like, ‘Whoa dude, that’s crazy’….a hit of dopamine goes off in your brain, and you have to go in deeper and deeper and deeper in order to get that feeling again. When Q first started posting I felt like, ‘Here is an explanation that, while it doesn’t make sense, if it were true explains the situation better than the current explanations I’m getting.'”
QAnon is a loosely connected system of conspiracy theories and unfounded beliefs spawned by Q, an anonymous on forums like 8chan (now 8kun) claiming to have high-end military clearance within the Trump administration. QAnon adherents believe, among other things, in the existence of a deep state cabal of pedophiles and child traffickers led by prominent liberals like the Clintons, and that President Trump is lying in wait to arrest and execute his enemies.
Recently, QAnon has gotten a great deal of attention in the media due to QAnon-promoting congressional candidates such as Republican nominees Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, thus bringing the theory mainstream. It has also been linked to violence, such as the 2019 shooting of a Staten Island mob boss by a QAnon supporter and a Texas woman attacking two strangers with her car earlier this year because she believed them to be child traffickers. President Trump has refused to overtly discredit or reject QAnon ideology, to the delight of believers, whose primary goal is to win Trump’s attention.
“They desperately need a place to put their anger and a way to make sense of the world. Us versus them, the horrible bad guys, is something they all seem to cling to,” says cult expert Diane Benscoter, who has spoken to numerous people whose loved ones are involved in QAnon. “The doctrine makes it easy to say, ‘Clearly we have to make a stand against this,’ and it feels really good to believe you’re on the side of righteousness and saving children.”
The mainstreaming of QAnon has also led to the advent of subreddits like r/QAnonCasualties and r/ReQuovery, for family members of QAnon believers to discuss the impact the ideology has had on their lives. Former believers who’ve extricated themselves have also taken to such subreddits to share their own stories, recounting what drew them in and providing tips and resources for those trying to get their family members out.
“I was disillusioned with the system, and seeing the system reward corruption, the idea that these people were so corrupt there was nothing they couldn’t do wasn’t that outlandish to me,” says Lem, 26, a computer programmer in Columbus, Ohio.
Like Jadeja, Lem did not identify as conservative, and supported Sanders during the 2016 primary; his disgust with the liberal establishment after having seen Sanders passed over for Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention is what led him to become obsessed with Pizzagate, the antecedent to QAnon, a conspiracy theory suggesting that Clinton and other Democratic operatives were running a child trafficking ring out of the basement of Comet Ping-Pong Pizza in Washington, D.C.
Anti-Clinton sentiment stoked by vloggers on YouTube set the stage for him to believe even the most outlandish claims proposed by Pizzagaters. It also helped, he says, that he grew up in an extremely religious Christian Baptist family (He says his father is still an ardent QAnon believer). “[Growing] up 18 years in that household played a role into my being primed believing something that was outlandish,” he says. “[The] fact that you can have that kind of faith in certain things leads you to be open into believing certain things without there necessarily being proof.”
Another common thread among the stories of former believers on Reddit is a history of mental illness. Jadeja had recently disconnected himself from many of his friends; he was isolated and intensely struggling with depression and undiagnosed bipolar II disorder. Because he was in graduate school, he also had a lot of time on his hands. “I was, I guess you could say, a prime candidate for Q to take a hold of me,” he says.
Ivan*, 26, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym for fear of getting doxxed, was struggling with anxiety and depression when he stumbled on Pizzagate in the subreddit r/cringeanarchy in 2016, right before Trump’s election. Though r/cringeanarchy, which would later be banned, was a haven of far-right “edgy” content, “I was politically illiterate,” though alienated and embittered, he recalls. Swapping theories about Pizzagate “wasn’t about politics. It was about team sports. It was about cheering for this side, for Team Right.” Scraping together bits of “evidence” whole cloth to support Pizzagate was not just fun, it was also empowering at a time when he was desperate to feel some semblance of control.
Ivan was conscious enough of how deranged his views sounded that he instinctively knew not to mention them to others — not, he says, that it would have helped. “I distinctly remember that if I read some article about this debunking or fact-checking, I would feel bored. I’d feel like, ‘What am I reading here? They are just probably hiding the truth. It’s not even worth the attention,'” he says. “From my own experience, when you get deep enough, any kind of fact-checking, it just flies right through you and you don’t really capture the information at all.”
Benscoter agrees that fact-checking is essentially useless. As difficult as it may be, she urges, those with loved ones deep into QAnon must refrain. “To try to make rational arguments is not going to work because they’re not going to think rationally,” she says. “You can throw rocks in it and try to make cracks,” for instance, by asking the other person to consider the possibility that Q may not be who they claim to be. But arguing with a person who is not operating according to logic or reason “just makes them stand firmer,” she says.
Instead, she advises people to try to appeal to their loved ones’ “higher selves.” “People who get involved in extremist mentality are usually really good people who care deeply about wanting to use their life for something bigger than themselves,” she says. She urges loved ones of QAnon believers to approach the conversation by saying something like, “I know the reason you care so much about this is because you’re a good person and I know you want to do right, but just consider the possibility that you are being lied to,” or, “It would be a shame if you put all this good sincere energy in something that turns out to be a lie.” “If they don’t immediately argue back fervently, if they stop for a moment, that would be a sign of a crack” in their belief system, she says. It may take a long time for such cracks to emerge, but without them believers can’t do the difficult work of setting off on the process of self-rediscovery and recovery from the false delusion of Q.
It took years for the cracks to emerge for Jadeja, who slowly started to realize that Q drops were laden with logical inconsistencies. A turning point for him was a follower asking Q to get Trump to say the term “tippy top” as proof of Trump’s knowledge of the conspiracy; when Trump did say the phrase during a 2018 Easter egg roll speech, Q believers rejoiced, believing it to be confirmation that Q was real. Jadeja did some research and saw that Trump had said the phrase many times before. “That’s when I realized this was all a very slick con,” he says.
Today he views the rise of QAnon with abject horror, which is compounded by the fact that he’d also managed to rope his own father into the conspiracy. (Like Lem, Jadeja’s father is still a true believer.) “It’s gone out of control. And it continues to grow out of control. And they’re not going away. Even if Trump loses, they’re not going to go away, they’ll just look at it as part of the conspiracy,” he says. He sees speaking out about his own involvement with the cult of QAnon as a form of penance — even as he worries it may be too late to curb its toxic, potentially lethal influence.
“Any time you dehumanize any part or segment of the population to such a low level, to the lowest level you can go, people are happy on the opposite side to do the worst against them,” he says of QAnon believers’ views of Trump’s enemies. “That’s the real danger here — not that [QAnon adherents] will get into the Senate. When you frame your opponents [as subhuman], you won’t just watch them burn. You’ll be happy about it.”