ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — They are two women from different backgrounds who fell down the same, strange rabbit hole, sucked in by outlandish conspiracies.
They don’t know each other. But they appear to know what the other knows. They believe what they know is true.
Many of us have lost friends these past few years over allegiances to Bernie or Trump or Black Lives Matter or white nationalism. Everybody gets to have an opinion.
But what happened to these two women was different. I can’t say with certainty that either became acolytes of the amorphous QAnon cult, but what changed them and our friendship is surely akin to what inspired some members of a violent mob who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
It would be easy to dismiss them all as worrisome wackadoodles on the fringe, though some undoubtedly are. But these two women are not fringe-y or unhinged, and neither were many of the rioters, some identified as firefighters, law enforcement officers, CEOs, a music teacher, a school therapist, a flower shop owner, an Olympic medalist and a county commissioner.
QAnon began festering on dark, extremist internet sites in late 2017 before oozing onto mainstream sites, attracting those who are angry and alienated and spend too much time on social media.
QAnon believes President Trump is a messiah battling the “deep state,” the media and antifa. Its supporters believe liberal “elites” are into Satanism, pedophilia and drinking the blood of babies.
Crazy? Sure. But four in 10 Republicans who have heard of QAnon say the movement is good for the country, according to a Pew Research Center survey taken before the election. In contrast, an overwhelming 90% of Democrats who have heard of it say it is bad for the country.
QAnon insidiously yet masterfully lures new members with bread crumbs of truth that lead to wild allegations.
I watched this happen to those two women.
One was a law enforcement officer, true and tough, a woman who didn’t suffer fools gladly even when those fools were her brothers in badges.
The other was tough, too. She had been a victim of crime, shot by a monster who left her for dead. She fought to survive and to put that monster in prison.
I admired both women, and I felt honored to know them.
I no longer know them.
Before this summer of COVID-19, the survivor had used social media primarily as a site to display her photos of food and Bible verses, but in late July she started posting items about child sex-trafficking rings and using the hashtag #savethechildren, a phrase usurped by QAnon.
By late August, she had shifted to baseless stories about how Trump, with God’s help, was on the verge of vanquishing “the biggest child trafficking ring in history” involving Satan-worshipping Hollywood celebrities and Democrats.
She posted about how she believed COVID-19 was a hoax and the presidential election was rigged. Last week, she posted a video from a Torrance County man who urged followers to stockpile firearms and food and download an encrypted communications app for secrecy. He warned that Chinese troops were massing at the Canadian border and that the Italian president had been arrested for rigging the U.S. election against Trump.
My cop friend also began posting concerns over child trafficking that grew wilder by the day. Sometimes, she said she posted bizarre items she knew were false but liked how they made people like me squirm.
“Check this out! This is being passed around,” she wrote in a private message in late July. “Some of this I did find some information on but if the majority of this is true God help us Joline.”
What followed was a lengthy list of nonsensical beliefs peppered with a few kernels of truth and preposterous extrapolations.
Wayfair trafficking children via suspiciously overpriced cabinets, Pizzagate, organ harvesting were all real, it contended, because child sex trafficking is real.
The post posited convoluted theories involving Hillary Clinton, $65,000 worth of Chicago hot dogs purchased by President Obama, Haitian orphans, Bill Gates, suicides, death threats.
“This runs deep, and you’re going to be shocked at the ending,” the post concluded. “Everything. Everything ties together. Everything is connected.”
I told her I was concerned she, a veteran police officer, would give even a moment of credence to such stuff.
She continued to publicly post disinformation on Facebook. Perhaps more disturbing were approving responses from people whose names I recognized as being former members of local law enforcement.
Seeing these women sink into this mean, murky cesspool was like watching them succumb to addiction or disease. They no longer talk to me. I am, to them, an “enemy of the people.”
Ben Collins, an NBC reporter who covers disinformation and extremism, warns that what transpired Jan. 6, the crackdown on QAnon internet access and loss of their messiah have not crushed the cult completely.
“We are at one of the hardest parts of this journey as a country,” he tweeted last week. It will take empathy and firmness to bring radicalized friends and family back to reality, he says.
For these two women, for the others, for the nation, let’s hope reality comes soon.
Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.