Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican nominee for Georgia’s 14th congressional district, is like a lot of white women you might encounter in the suburbs. She has long blonde hair and does CrossFit. She wears cute dangly earrings, tasteful blouses, and sheath dresses you could get off the rack at Ann Taylor. She was born in 1974, and received a business degree from the University of Georgia; she and her husband purchased a construction company in an Atlanta suburb in 2002. And like an increasing number of suburban women, Greene has publicly supported QAnon, both in videos on Facebook and Q-related articles she wrote for a now-defunct far-right website called American Truth Seekers.
A common thread among many of the QAnon theories is that there exists a group of “elites”—George Soros, the Clintons, and other enemies of Donald Trump—who are responsible for horrible deeds, and the president is working covertly to stop them. Perhaps the most extreme example (which Greene has not herself espoused) is that those elites are kidnapping children and drinking their blood. During COVID, Q has expanded to include false theories about the virus (it isn’t real, masks don’t work, the vaccine is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs) and George Floyd (a crisis actor). Just to be absolutely clear, there is no evidence that any of these preposterous notions is true.
The source of these conspiracy theories is supposedly a government “insider,” with a high-level “Q” security clearance, hence the name. A user known as Q posts theories, often in cryptic, rambling prose, to the extremist message board 8kun (formerly 8chan). Each post, known as a “Q drop” or “breadcrumb,” is picked up by close followers, who study, interpret, and extrapolate from it the way a biblical scholar would with scripture, communing with followers on Q-related social media pages.
At least that’s how it used to work—and the forum through which Greene, whose Q-related posts on Hillary Clinton’s “kill list” and Satanist pedophiles date back to 2017 and 2018, might have first accessed such ideas. (Greene has since attempted to distance herself from QAnon, and did not respond to requests for an interview.) Back then, QAnon was still percolating at the fringes of society. It was bizarre and extremist, in addition to being unrooted in reality or facts. QAnon is still, at its heart, all those things. But Q, like all conspiracy theories, isn’t just an idea. It’s an organism, readily capable of adapting. Most recently, it’s set down roots in the social media feeds of middle- and upper-class women who would never deign to affiliate with something as crass or trashy as an online conspiracy theory.
How did this happen? The most straightforward answer is that QAnon got sanitized and packaged in a way that attracted a whole lot of suburban ladies. It started back in 2013, pre-Q, when, according to Harvard senior researcher Brian Friedberg, #SavetheChildren first became a rallying cry among conspiracy theorists attempting to root out a deep state pedophile ring. After Trump’s election, it collided with QAnon and #pizzagate (the false idea that Democrats were using a Washington, DC, pizza restaurant for sex trafficking) and, this past spring, the theory that the overflow hospital tents set up in Central Park were actually being used to smuggle children out of the country.
It wasn’t until July 30—in posts drawing attention to the UN’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons—that the hashtag, which shares its name with an actual, long-standing anti-trafficking organization, exploded. The next day, a Child Lives Matter rally was held in Hollywood by a self-described “independent news show” that circulates conspiracy theories. It attracted some 200 QAnon supporters, toting signs like “Child sex trafficking is the real pandemic.” One marcher vandalized the Hollywood Walk of Fame star of Tom Hanks, who is believed by some Q followers to be a part of the larger pedophile cabal.
That is all very extreme, but online, softer, less alienating iterations of the anti-child-trafficking messages are also spreading, far removed from QAnon extremists. Some of it is purposeful; when Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram began banning accounts that posted QAnon content and hashtags, followers co-opted others. Doing so inadvertently created a new radicalization pipeline around #SavetheChildren, which circulated freely in the aesthetically pleasing, female-dominated corners of the internet, appealing to moms who, amid the upheaval of the pandemic, just wanted something to believe in.
Depending on how many influencers, yoga teachers, wellness gurus, and life coaches you follow, you might have seen a Q meme in your feed and not even noticed it. New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose was scrolling through his Instagram Stories one day, and happened upon a U.S. map marked with red dots: “This is not a map of Covid. It is a map of human trafficking. #SavetheChildren.” The person who posted wasn’t a Q follower. She just, well, cared about saving children.
Posts often blend in with the rest of the carefully edited, perfectly lit, pastel vibe of the page. They just say things like “SLAVERY STILL EXISTS.” (posted by an influencer with 126,000 followers) and demand readers “think about children loaded up into the back of trucks like cargo to be bought and sold like property, for their tiny bodies to be used and abused.”
You can see how easy it would be to get on board with this message and even repost it. There’s no mention of QAnon, no red flags. Just advocating against child exploitation. But if you want to dig a little deeper, there’s a labyrinth of darker conspiracies, connecting the dots between Jeffrey Epstein and George Floyd and COVID, for you to explore. Recently, a college-educated, middle-class, liberal acquaintance of mine admitted that after the Epstein revelations, she found herself obsessively reading about the case. That led to speculation about others in his circle, which led her down a dark rabbit hole filled with Q-related theories. It was immersive and addictive. It only lasted a day, but she had to shake herself out of it.
That’s the thing about QAnon: The entryway is beautiful, like the waiting room at a spa, only the spa itself is a fearsome dungeon. Canadian researcher Marc-André Argentino has been tracking Q-related social media accounts since before the pandemic. He found that followers of “anti-trafficking” pages, almost all affiliated with QAnon in some way, have risen over 3,000 percent since July. As of October 5, he was monitoring more than 109 Q-related mom accounts, with a combined 3.9 million followers. Some of that growth is easily explained. Instead of going to yoga or driving kids to soccer practice, people are spending more time on their phones. And conspiracies have always flourished during times of societal and social insecurity, because they make a chaotic world make some sort of sense, even if that sense is not rooted in fact.
You might be wondering, What’s so wrong with fighting child exploitation? Isn’t it good to have a bunch of moms dedicated to the cause? The problem is, Q-inspired advocacy not only misrepresents and exaggerates trafficking statistics, it misdirects attention to what it sees as the cause: a cabal of sinister Hollywood stars and high-ranking Democrats. (Neither Greene nor the influencer identified above have shared posts blaming the Democrats or Hollywood for child exploitation.) It also distracts from nonprofits, like the real Save the Children, that have been doing this work for years, diverting resources that could be used to actually protect vulnerable children.
It might seem harmless to post a meme. But that can escalate to real-world actions like calling in every white van you see in every parking lot, or ramming your car into a stranger you believe to be a pedophile intent on selling a girl into sex trafficking, as may have been the case for one Waco, Texas, woman.
In her mug shot, that woman, Cecilia Fulbright, has long, slightly wavy hair and a soft smile. She doesn’t look like a conspiracy theorist. But according to her arrest affidavit, when officers arrived on the scene, Fulbright, who was charged with aggravated assault and has pleaded not guilty, was “crying hysterically…yelling that the [driver of the] van was a pedophile and had kidnapped a girl for human trafficking.” An officer noted it was “quickly apparent that Ms. Fulbright’s story was delusional” and, during the investigation, her “behavior was erratic, including screaming about pedophiles and thrashing around in the back seat” of the patrol car. Fulbright added that she rammed the other car to “sav[e] a child” from a pedophile—but of course none of that matched “the timeline or any of the facts or evidence,” the affidavit states. Although the affidavit says nothing about QAnon, the bizarre conduct it recounts is consistent with someone deep into the conspiracy theory.
You might not think that you, or your close friends, would ever act this way. But conspiracy theories don’t follow established behavior patterns. They create new ones, and they’re incredibly comforting. Even those who might sneer at an uncle who believes the moon landing was staged are desperate for something like moral order in their lives—a moral order offered, albeit in perverse form, in QAnon. “You can almost understand the allure of succumbing to what I think of as a normalcy fetish, a dogma that insists things are actually fine, no matter what the media says,” staff writer Lili Loofbourow wrote in Slate.
Some of QAnon’s recent adherents are women who’ve been “asking questions” for years of doctors, the pharmaceutical industry, and teachers. You could call these people “untraditional” or “hippies” or, as the influencer who posted “SLAVERY STILL EXISTS.” put it in her Instagram bio, “non-conformist.” Many are vaccine “skeptical”; others are into raw milk or hawk essential oils via multilevel marketing schemes. They span the political spectrum, but share a distrust of large institutions and a desire to arrive at their own understanding of what works for them and their families. They place a premium on “doing their own research,” which is exactly what Q invites followers to do.
One 45-year-old alternative health care provider in Brooklyn, whom we’ll call “Andrea,” got interested in QAnon 18 months ago when she first heard the term, and started following what she calls “the information thread.” She found it interesting, fun even. “There’s a piece of this that feels like a game, and a piece that feels like entertainment,” Andrea says. “I can see what the appeal is to the human need for both of those things.” She thinks of herself as an outside observer and isn’t sure how deeply she believes some theories. But she doesn’t trust mainstream media—one of the reasons she didn’t want to publish her real name—and feels drawn to the way Q questions accepted narratives. “It makes people break from the belief that our news sources and our authorities are the ones that we trust to tell us what’s going on in the world,” she says.
Explanations like Andrea’s account for anti-vaxxers, libertarians, and “natural mamas.” But they don’t quite explain the middle- and upper-class moms who consider themselves “apolitical” who have been reposting Save the Children memes. The sorts of moms who, when confronted about the specifics of QAnon, would likely balk. Q seems to offer these women something that’s been missing from their lives for months. They want to belong to something, believe in something. Maybe, before the pandemic, that was the church, or the PTA, or the Junior League. Whatever it was, it’s gone now, or at least is far less satisfying. “Save the Children” offers them a cause, a group, a forum to direct fear and energy.
Of course, there was an obvious place these women could have directed that energy: the Black Lives Matter movement. But many of them disagree with its goals, like defunding the police, or don’t think of themselves as “political,” a word that’s often used as a placeholder for “someone who talks about race.” They’re faced with few options: put up “Blue Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter” yard signs, which still doesn’t feel like a movement, or remain silent. And that silence, especially for white women used to having their voices heard and respected—used to being included—can feel like suffocation.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton, whose doctoral research focuses on online motherhood, recently checked in on one of her research subjects: a wealthy white woman from the South. This blogger, who has more than 125,000 followers on Instagram, had been troubled by the BLM movement. She felt that even though she had never posted anything political, there was an expectation that she make some sort of statement.
But she didn’t want to make a statement. She didn’t want to be “political,” even though a refusal to make a statement is, in itself, political. She knew she’d lose followers by not posting, but she’d lose more if she posted what she actually believed. So she posted something practically apolitical, still lost followers, and resented it. This woman, Jezer-Morton adds, would likely never dabble in QAnon. It’s too far afield. But you can see how “Save the Children” would be appealing: It feeds on a mother’s desire to protect children, and it’s also a way to reclaim the real estate of the public square that has been ceded over the last four years to progressive women. To put it differently, it’s a way to be political while rejecting the “political” label and not be called a racist while doing it.
And then there’s the work you can do at home—seeking out pedophiles and their protectors, or sending tips to hot-lines—which has a participatory aspect, picking up on what one researcher calls the “mama bear” instinct. You get to feel like a detective on a massive online hunt, with the thrill of the chase. The result is a sense of achievement—even if no actual pedophiles are caught— that, for many women, particularly conservatives, has been hard to come by. “For moms with a big following, to overtly talk about Trump is risky,” Jezer-Morton says. “They’re worried liberal women are going to unfollow them. So they want to do as low of a dog whistle as possible, and Save the Children is one way to do that. Who’s going to argue with you?”
When QAnon first gained visibility, it was dismissed as a fringe movement, the domain of the worst and weirdest people online. Researchers and journalists practiced caution. There was a fear that reporting on it, even to highlight its unfounded beliefs, would make it more accessible. But QAnon isn’t an easily contained story. It’s slippery, and incredibly adaptable. When 8chan went offline, it found a new home; when its hashtags were banned, it softened and adapted its focus. It was once dominated by men, but is increasingly the province of women. Its aesthetics were brutal and alienating; now they’re palatable and inviting.
Three years ago, the only person I’d met in real life who believed in Q was screaming incomprehensible things at a Trump rally. Now someone who’s dabbled in Q is poised to become a member of Congress. It’s a classic case of the fringe becoming mainstream. Not through any massive shift or societal change, but a gradual incorporation into the everyday lives and beliefs of the middle and upper class. It seems the most fertile soil for conspiracy theory, the place where it can grow and incite damage, isn’t the weird, abrasive corners of the internet. It’s not with Alex Jones, or on talk radio. It’s in the well-tilled, beautifully maintained lawns—and perfectly curated social media accounts—of the American suburbs.
*Photo used for illustrative purposes only.
This story appears in the December/January 2021 issue of ELLE.
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