In lockdown with a conspiracy theorist

On a bright afternoon in early February Mary’s relationship with her mother became untenable. Mary (whose name has been changed) is in her early 30s but had fallen on hard times and had recently moved into her mother’s two-room trailer, a small dwelling surrounded by farmland that has been in the family for generations.

Mary had been doing gruelling shifts offering emergency medical support to the ambulance service in North Carolina. On a rare day off, she woke late and went outside to feed the fish in the pond and collect eggs from the chicken run. When she stepped back into the brightly lit living room, her mother was sitting at the kitchen table watching a YouTube video on her phone.

As the clip finished, Mary’s mother looked up at her daughter. “Do you know where 5g was first introduced?” she said. Mary said she didn’t. “Wuhan!” her mother replied, naming the city in China where covid-19 emerged. “Can you believe that? And they are using 5g to spread and cause the coronavirus. Not to mention 5g uses microwaves – that will kill you, too.”

Mary asked her mother to stop talking. She was wrong, Mary said. The theory was groundless. “You’re stupid and not awake,” her mother shouted at her. “You always attack my opinions and try to force yours on everyone else.”

“What? Like you’re always doing to me?” Mary snapped back. She remembers her mother replying with venom: “This is my house. You better keep your thoughts and lies to yourself. You’re just a bitch who doesn’t know shit.”

Mary retreated to her bedroom. This confined space, which barely fitted a fold-away camp bed, nightstand and chest of drawers, had become a refuge. Her mother continued to scream at the closed door for the next 30 minutes, yelling about Donald Trump, the Rothschilds, Nancy Pelosi (the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives), and other prominent American politicians. The tirade was audible even with earplugs.

Mary was used to disagreeing with her mother: she was the only Democrat in a staunchly Republican household. But in the past, they’d been able to talk easily; Mary describes her mother back then as like a best friend. But the tenderness between them had been replaced by shouting and harassment ever since 2018, when her mother started following the QAnon movement, a conspiracy theory propagated by many pro-Trump nationalists.

Who is this person? She’s not the same mother I used to have, and probably never will [be] again

That day in February, Mary emerged from her room after an hour. She pretended nothing had happened, as did her mother. Mary had a piercing headache, which she put down to the tension of living in constant fear that her mother was about to let loose on her. “You think to yourself, this person raised me and she suddenly believes that Hillary Clinton is eating children and sacrificing them in rituals,” Mary said. “Who is this person? She’s not the same mother I used to have, and probably never will [be] again.”

The idea that a secret and satanic elite control the world is a long-standing trope of conspiracy theories. In Europe in the 18th century a short-lived secret society known as the Illuminati, which was set up to oppose superstition and promote an Enlightenment spirit of rationalism, was accused of orchestrating the French revolution.

More recent events, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, prompted numerous theories that pinned responsibility on the cia, various heads of state or a “shadow government”. In the 1980s there was a period of mass hysteria in America, which became known as the “Satanic Panic”: a string of false allegations of ritualistic child abuse was blamed on satanic cults said to involve members of the global elite. During the presidential campaign in 2016 Hillary Clinton was accused of involvement in #Pizzagate, a bogus story claiming that high-ranking members of the Democratic Party were operating a child-sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria in Washington, dc.

QAnon (pronounced Q-Anon) first appeared in October 2017 on 4chan, an online message-board popular with supporters of the Alt-Right, and closely associated with white nationalists (it later moved to 8kun, a similar website, which was formerly called 8chan). The identity of its creator is unknown – all posts on 4chan are anonymous – but this individual, who calls themself “Q Clearance Patriot” or simply “Q”, claims to be a high-ranking official in the Trump administration who supposedly has information about a plot to overthrow the president from deep within the state.

Illustrations Patrick Svensson

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