Like many other people, Tim (not his real name) had always maintained a casual interest in conspiracy theories. After all, who hasn’t indulged in hypotheses about UFOs over a pint?
But this one was different.
It was cultish, involved real people, and made claims that were deeply anti-semitic and damaging. This one was QAnon, the rapidly spreading conspiracy theory that, after originating online in the US, is now reportedly gaining ground here in the UK. Said to be led by an anonymous leader called Q, the repeatedly debunked conspiracy primarily revolves around the idea that President Trump is a patriot secretly working against the ‘deep state’ to reveal an extensive, elite network of child abusers, baselessly accusing high-profile figures from Hillary Clinton to Tom Hanks to Chrissy Teigen.
As lockdown took hold, Tim gradually phased from reposting funny TikToks to sharing outlandish posts on Facebook from unverifiable sources. During our weekly chats, I gently refuted his posts with news reports disproving his sources. But, without irony, he would always angrily tell me I was “brainwashed”, and that my consumption of mainstream media made me “part of the problem.” I was hurt and shocked, of course, but also alarmed: we’d had our fair share of arguments over the years, but never have I seen him be this combative. Over the next few weeks I continued trying to reason with him, to no avail. Eventually I was unfriended and blocked from viewing his Facebook profile. My calls and messages to him went ignored.
Just like that, a friendship of fifteen years ended. Not hearing from him after the first week sent me into a daze, considering we had exchanged memes nearly every day for years. I was overcome with pangs of guilt, wondering if I did enough to persuade him, or could have perhaps attempted my reasoning with him in a less overwhelming manner.
For Tim, it was only in the last six months that his obsession with QAnon really took hold. Having lost his job at the start of lockdown, he spiralled into frustration and anxiety and sought solace on Facebook groups and forums.
I also felt conflicted, wondering how much of this indoctrination was actually his doing. Conspiracy theories tend to spread more easily during uncertain times, often as a means for people to gain control and make sense of what’s happening in their lives. Understandably, many have become vulnerable during a pandemic that has thrown life as we know it into disarray. For Tim, it was only in the last six months that his obsession with QAnon really took hold. Having lost his job at the start of lockdown, he spiralled into frustration and anxiety and sought solace on Facebook groups and forums, eventually joining those with a focus on QAnon and similarly outlandish conspiracy theories.
After losing Tim’s friendship I, too, found support online – on the Reddit forum r/QAnonCasualties. Consisting of close to 30,000 members, the group has been a place for many around the world to vent their frustrations about estranged family members and friends lost to QAnon. I’d initially chanced upon the site whilst researching ways to get through to QAnon believers, but after it became clear that Tim was a lost cause, I found myself coming back to the forum to find communal empathy and make the process of grieving my friendship feel less isolating. No one else in my social circles had ever experienced anything remotely similar.
Worryingly, I’ve seen an increase in posts from others in the UK. The large attendance at the anti-lockdown protest in London last month was testament to the delusion of QAnon gaining ground in Britain, where a number of signs bearing the unmistakable “Q” logo and their slogan “Where we go one, we go all” (or “WWG1WGA”) were spotted in a largely maskless crowd that also supported conspiracy theories such as 5G causing coronavirus, coronavirus being a hoax, and vaccines causing autism.
QAnon is also being propelled to the mainstream by a growing number of Instagram influencers and self-styled wellness gurus, with followers numbering in the multimillions, not to mention Donald Trump himself, who has given implicit approval of the conspiracy by claiming they are people who “love our country”.
This mainstream credibility of QAnon has threatened the safety of innocent people, as individuals claiming to be or know the anonymous “Q” have accused people who have openly disagreed with Trump of being “deep state operatives”. Of course, these are outlandish claims, and anyone can claim or manufacture this “knowledge”. But given the increasing ubiquity of QAnon, I fear that these claims will come to be recognised as legitimate, when in reality they are simply disguises by disingenuous trolls to propagate racist and anti-Semitic views, even amongst unwitting (I hope) pawns like Tim.
We are living in one of the most socially and politically fraught moments in our lifetime, and conspiracy theories like this threaten to widen the divide even more.
News that major platforms such as Facebook, Etsy, and Depop have committed to banning QAnon-related posts and products may seem like good news. Yet knowing Tim’s deeply held anti-media beliefs – yet another product of QAnon – a part of me fears that any official action to combat its presence on these sites may be used to reinforce the self-styled “Q Army” claims of censorship by the media, and therefore only strengthening their mistrust of mainstream news and society.
I also worry such commitments may be too little, too late. As has come to be the norm for social media platforms, rules have been inadequately and unevenly applied. In the case of QAnon many Facebook groups remain active, and individual high-profile accounts are unaffected by this ban. Though I’m frustrated that I may have intervened too late to be able to dissuade Tim, I’m angry at these platforms for having allowed such misinformation to spread as quickly as it has. Investigations have revealed that Facebook’s recommendation algorithm had routinely pointed users who had expressed interest in other conspiracy theories to QAnon groups.
As it becomes mainstream, no longer can we consider QAnon a faraway, absurd fascination. Increasingly we will find people in our lives impacted in some way by these baseless accusations. We are living in one of the most socially and politically fraught moments in our lifetime, and conspiracy theories like this threaten to widen the divide even more.
Never would I have imagined someone in their 20s – let alone my own best friend – would have their lives taken over by such an improbable conspiracy, to such an extraordinary extent. Tim’s internet savvy was not enough to prevent him falling into this trap, and I fear that anyone, young or old, could be next.
Laura is a freelance writer, writing under a pseudonym
Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on email@example.com
More from HuffPost UK Personal
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.