Let’s Chill a Bit About the Plastic-Driven Sperm Count Apocalypse

Illustration for article titled Let’s Chill a Bit About the Plastic-Driven Sperm Count Apocalypse

Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP (Getty Images)

A rash of sensational headlines in recent months have warned of a rising infertility crisis in men as sperm counts plummet. Some outlets have claimed that plastics are behind the great sperm dieoff. But it turns out the truth about fertility could be much more complicated.


Researchers have suspected since the early 1990s that human sperm counts may have been on the decline, but a seminal study in 2017 really changed the conversation. The study in question, referred to Levine, et al. after its authors, is a metanalysis of a bunch of other studies on sperm counts between 1973 and 2011. The analysis showed sperm counts in samples taken from Western men declined by more than 50% over that time period.

These striking findings sparked a media frenzy upon the study’s publication, with headlines trumpeting about how sperm counts “could make humans extinct.” One of the coauthors of the Levine, et al. paper, Shanna Swan, published her own book this year on the declining sperm phenomenon that sparked the new wave of headlines, arguing that endocrine disruptors in plastics, chemicals, and other products are largely to blame for shaking up the natural order.


“Simply put, we’re living in an age of reproductive reckoning that is having reverberating effects across the planet,” the book’s prologue reads. (Subsequent chapters advise readers to trash items in their house like mothballs, air fresheners, scented candles, and antibacterial soaps in the name of sperm health, and advise parents to get rid of plastic bins for toys in favor of baskets.) “If these alarming trends continue unabated, it’s difficult to predict what the world will look like in a hundred years. What does this dramatic decline in sperm count portend if it stays on its current trajectory? Does it signal the beginning of the end of the human race—or that we’re on the brink of extinction?”

It’s enough to make anyone want to throw out all their Tupperware, watch The Handmaid’s Tale as a documentary, and take notes on what we can all expect for the coming spermpocalypse. But other experts say that there’s still much more work to be done before we sound the alarm.

First, there’s the question of whether or not we’re experiencing some sort of massive sperm die-out in the modern age. In a paper published earlier this month in Human Fertility, some scientists argue the panic is driven in large part by some structural problems in the Levine, et al. study.

“The issues with this study were these core basic issues that affect the field of sperm decline research as a whole,” said Marion Boulicault, one of the lead authors on the recent paper. Boulicault stressed that the Levine, et al. study is very empirically sound, and there’s nothing wrong with the statistical analysis itself. However, she said, it exemplifies “implicit assumptions that get built into the research and seem so plausible that they become invisible.”


Boulicault said one of the core issues is that the study assumes men in the 1970s had the ideal level of sperm—she noted there’s no “specific scientific evidence” for that—and doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge that there’s a wide range of sperm counts that men can naturally have and still be fertile. Current World Health Organization standards dictate that a “low” sperm count is less than 15 million sperm per milliliter of semen. Notably, the decline in sperm counts Levine, et al. documented went from an average of 99 million sperm per milliliter in the 1970s to 47 million sperm per milliliter in the early 2010s. The decline doesn’t necessarily mean the end of our society as we know it; men are still fertile, they’re just working with a little less ammunition.

I reached out to Swan to see if she had any thoughts on the paper by Boulicault and her colleages. Swan’s publicist sent me back a quote her co-author, Hagai Levine, gave to another outlet: “We are glad that our paper aroused discussion and raised attention to the much neglected issue of male reproduction. The response paper does not add new data. Of course, there is always distinction between facts and interpretation.”


Another issue Boulicault and her coauthors point out is how the conversation about low sperm counts has been falsely shaped based on how the original research divided its results. The Levine, et al. study separates its findings into “Western” countries (those in Europe, Australia, and North America) and “other” (basically, everywhere else, a group that includes places as disparate as Tanzania and China). This move mostly reflects the fact that there was a larger sample size of studies conducted in “Western” countries versus “other” places, and that the proportion of the results wasn’t productive to compare.

But the resulting message that was picked up by the media is that there was a specific crisis in the developed world, leading to a barrage of panic-induced coverage that, implicitly or explicitly, foresaw doom for a very specific group of people with a very specific lifestyle. The correlation of “Western” with “white” in the public imagination also meant that a subset of reactionary media characters have really taken this narrative and run with it.


Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones connected the Levine, et al. findings with his own theories that the drop in sperm counts was due to the feminization of men, while right-wing YouTuber and Proud Boys member Joe Biggs said in a video responding to the study that “men [are] going from being alpha males to essentially being cucked-out, skinny-jeans-wearing, man-bun-having, feminized little girls.”

While conspiracy theorists have seized on, well, conspiracies, people concerned about the environment have tied the decline in sperm to the plastic pollution crisis. Yet the small cluster of findings in the non-Western world—some of which are from countries like India and China with serious levels of industrialization and pollution—surveyed in the Levine, et al. study don’t reflect the same declines in sperm count as the larger group of Western studies. That doesn’t mean that this group is not somehow impacted by whatever is messing with sperm, but rather more research on sperm counts is urgently needed in all corners of the world.


Richard Sharpe, a professor at the University of Edinburgh’s MRC Center for Reproductive Health, said that there’s no scientifically infallible way of proving that sperm counts are historically falling. “Until we can invent time travel and go back and sample men from the past and then compare it with present-day things done in the same lab—and we’re not going to do that, obviously—then we can never be certain,” he said.

But Sharpe, who called the new paper in Human Fertility “laughable,” said he’s “100% convinced” that men across much of Europe—and possibly other areas of the world—are experiencing sperm counts today that could cause problems for those men trying to get pregnant with female partners, especially if those partners are older, as is the case with many modern couples. These lower levels of sperm don’t necessarily mean the men are infertile, he said, but lower sperm counts mean “it will take them longer to get their partner pregnant, and in a modern societal context that’s a recipe for couple infertility.”


But Sharpe also cautioned against panicking over plastic or giving it an outsize role in what’s going on. Counter to Swan’s claims in her book, Sharpe said that in his estimation, the comparatively large amount of research done on the effects of phthalates on reproductive health over the past few decades has shown “no convincing evidence that these have effects on humans.” Many of these studies, he said, are based on lab animals’ exposure to high levels of the stuff in plastics that human beings have low exposure to in our day-to-day life. Meanwhile, he said, other areas of research, like on pregnant women living near industrial areas or the role of over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol during pregnancy, have been comparatively overlooked.

“Are the effects we’re seeing ascribable to the plastics themselves, or the modern lifestyle that exposes us to those plastics?” he said. “We’ve been looking under the wrong lamppost. What we’ve been looking at is chemicals we’ve been exposed to at low levels, but on the other end of the scale we’ve seen incredible use of pharmaceuticals that we’ve been repeatedly exposed to at high levels.”


There’s so much that we don’t know about how our bodies work and, if you get too far into the internet rabbit hole, everything can seem to be a threat, from plastic cling wrap to body lotion to spending too long in damp spaces. It’s very clear that we’re going to need to mobilize an army of researchers to figure out how endocrine disruptors, industrial pollution, and other aspects of modern life are impacting us. But it’s always worth examining the forces shaping the conversations around pieces of scientific research, especially ones that induce panicky and prophetic headlines that play into specific tropes.

And regardless of which factor of modern life you’re examining, the conversation demonstrates how tricky it is to design sound research on the effects of certain inputs on human fertility.


“What are you going to do, administer a bunch of Tylenol and wait 25 years to find out if there’s an effect on sperm count?” Sharpe said. “Who’s going to give you the funding for that? The cards are sort of stacked against researchers.”

Florida Introduces ‘Tag Your Reptile Day’ as Iguanas and Pythons Continue Reign of Terror

An iguana in Miami, Florida.

An iguana in Miami, Florida.
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

Florida is banning the practice of keeping invasive reptiles like iguanas and tegus as pets, but those who already own one of these scaly guys need not worry too much. The pets can be grandfathered in if you get them tagged with a microchip. This may sound like a mishmash of Alex Jones conspiracy theories, but it’s the real deal and an attempt to get invasive species under control. State officials are trying to make it easy to do so, too.


The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has established Tag Your Reptile Days. On these five days, spread out from late May to late June, Florida residents can show up at five locations around the state, including three zoos, an aquarium, and an animal hospital to get their cold-blooded homies registered and chipped for free. Owners can bring up to five pets per person. Maybe they’ll hand out little “I got microchipped” stickers to match the ones from covid-19 vaccination sites.

“Just as with cats and dogs, microchipping your green iguana or tegu is one of the simplest and most effective ways to keep them safe while also protecting Florida’s native wildlife,” said Kristen Sommers, who leads the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Wildlife Impacts Management Section, said in a statement.

The initiative is specifically for 16 reptile species that the state recently banned the breeding, ownership, and sale of. Among the group are green iguanas, all kinds of tegus, several kinds of pythons, and green anacondas. This isn’t unfair discrimination, though. These animals have been released in the wild by careless owners or by being wily enough to escape. Iguanas have also become nuisances in urban areas, particularly on cold days when they become stunned and can fall out of trees. But the real issue is the damage they’re doing to the state’s delicate and rare ecosystems like the Everglades. That includes preying on native species, as they’ve gobbled up local birds, fish, amphibians, and even deer. The invasive species can also pass on diseases to native wildlife.

State officials have attempted to clamp down on the problem by killing non-native reptiles, notably through python hunts in the Everglades and shoot to kill orders for iguanas. Those hunts have provoked controversy, though, and the new restrictions on reptiles are pissing some people off, too. When considering the new rule, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission obtained more than 1,400 written comments. During the February meeting where the commission unanimously passed the rule, they heard from dozens of angry citizens begging them to reconsider the ban because it would hurt the reptile trade, Florida Today reports. That trade, however, is the source of so much of Florida ecosystem’s misery. Conservation groups have come out in support of the new rule in an attempt to reduce pressure on ecosystems.

“It’s just common sense that you can’t succeed in bailing out your canoe without first plugging your hole,” Elise Bennett, a staff attorney for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, said at a hearing.

There are also signs that the reptile trade can lead to the misery of the captive reptiles themselves if not properly cared for.


The new reptile rules went into effect last Thursday, but the state has implemented a 90-day grace period for current owners. Even if owners can’t make it to a tag day, they can apply for a free permit during that time. Pet owners also have 180 days to get up to speed with new regulations mandating that if these species are kept outdoors, they must remain in concrete enclosures rather than roaming free.

The restrictions on the sale and breeding will also be phased in over the coming months, giving businesses time to come into compliance. The total ban on commercial breeding will only go into effect next June. Seems pretty accommodating to me. Plus, imagine how fun it would be to actually see one of these Tag Your Reptile Days in action. A line of people holding big iguanas and snakes? Amazing.


YouTuber Tim Pool Sounds Like He’s Doing Great Except for Alleged Cat Hostage Thing

Tim Pool seen here in 2012 at an All In For The 99% event in Los Angeles.

Tim Pool seen here in 2012 at an All In For The 99% event in Los Angeles.
Photo: David Livingston (Getty Images)

Right-wing YouTuber Tim Pool’s plan to found a media company is allegedly collapsing amid infighting over footage of the Jan 6. Capitol riots and allegations he held a cat hostage for leverage over one of his partners in the venture, the Daily Beast reported on Wednesday.


Pool first came to prominence in the Occupy Wall Street era and bills himself as a liberal journalist, but a rational and cool-headed one so alienated and disgusted enough by illiberal leftists that he voted for Donald Trump. As one might expect, in practice, Pool seems to act very much like a professional panderer parroting whatever pet grievances a certain segment of extremely online right-wingers are nursing at any given time, be it “Cancel Culture,” whether or not clowns are racist, or how the media is a bunch of hysterical elitists. Pool spent most of the Trump presidency insisting that the Donald was a strategic genius whose every move was designed to goad liberals into politically damaging overreactions and prognosticating a Trump victory in the 2020 elections, later promoting hoaxes alleging mass Democratic voter fraud and insisting Trump’s loss is actually very damaging for Democrats.

This grift has proved very lucrative for Pool; he’s hawked merch like survival rations to gullible conservatives and, according to the Beast, owns “a million-dollar mansion in the Maryland woods, complete with a podcast studio and a skate park.” More recently, he’s tried to pivot his career as a podcaster/streamer into founding a larger media operation, which would be a big switch from mostly reading other people’s content in an angry voice and is where the apparently very lengthy and headache-inducing dispute over the cat comes in.

Pool and his now-former partners in the venture, Emily Molli and former Vice editor-in-chief Rocco Castoro, raised $1.2 million from investors on crowdfunding platform Wefunder to build a “decentralized news network” named Subverse—later redubbed SCNR—that would be heavily tied to Pool’s 1.24 million YouTube subscribers, 800,000+ Twitter followers, and nearly 170,000 followers on Facebook. Molli, the startup’s chief content officer, is the owner of the aforementioned cat, while Castoro apparently helped lend the venture some Vice-style energy.

According to the Beast, Molli and Castoro promised backers in November 2020 that SCNR would “yank what you thought you knew straight out your nose like Tutankhamen’s brain.” They added that backers displeased with a lack of YouTube updates that “YouTube sucks a fat one,” and said that complaining through Wefunder is the behavior of a “ding-dong.”

Yet at some point last fall, the relationship between Pool and his compatriots reportedly went south; the two bickered with Pool over who had access to “various internal systems,” according to the Beast, and launched their own investigation that Castoro claimed dug up evidence Pool was involved in some kind of unspecified, shady digital plot. The Beast wrote that the SCNR update from November appeared to mock Pool’s fans and imply he wasn’t paying attention to the project. On Jan. 6, the day of the Capitol riots, Castoro tweeted an image of “IP logs and domain names” that somehow implicated Pool in something:

In response to questions about why Pool appeared to have a diminished role in the site, Castoro and Molli told Pool’s fans to email their “glorious leader.”

“Say a little prayer, maybe he’ll see it!” they wrote.

[…] Castoro began posting cryptically about his investigations into Pool on Twitter, taunting Pool, who was ostensibly still his business partner. The fight climaxed on Jan. 6, as Molli prepared to cover protests outside the U.S. Capitol. As Molli filmed the protests that would soon culminate in a riot, Castoro, in Los Angeles and increasingly alienated from Pool, tweeted a cryptic message he now claims would prove that he was aware of some scheme of Pool’s… It’s difficult to discern the meaning of Castoro’s tweet, which consists of screenshots of IP logs and domain names.


Molli was on site at the Capitol, covering the situation, which was devolving into an attempted pro-Trump coup that eventually claimed five lives. According to the Beast, Pool texted her that “Rocco is posting insane shit and private details,” and that someone who sounds like Pool left a voicemail ordering her to leave events in the Capitol and return to his Maryland residence:

“You need to call me back right now,” a person whose voice closely resembles Pool’s said in the message, which was shared with The Daily Beast. “I don’t know what you did, but this is beyond serious.”

Pool continued, without naming exactly what he was angry about.

“I don’t know what’s going on, other than what the fuck did you do?” Pool said. “You need to call me back right. This one’s on you. Whatever ends up happening, I had nothing to do with it.”


Note that Pool is a prolific interviewer of far-right personalities, including InfoWars conspiracist Alex Jones and the chairman of the neo-fascist, street-brawling Proud Boys group, Enrique Tarrio. Molli and Castoro wrote in a California state labor complaint that Pool demanded Molli return footage she had filmed of Capitol rioters, including of “several Pool associates” like Jones. On Jan. 6, Pool removed the pair’s access to the SCNR YouTube channel; the next day, he fired them, according to the Beast.

“We can only assume he did not want something specifically that was happening at the Capitol to be filmed by Emily that day,” Castoro wrote.


A messy situation, and one that was sure to draw bad blood over the future of SCNR and those who had equity in it. That brings the situation back around to Molli’s cat, which the Beast reported she had left with Ian Crossland, a Pool podcast co-host who “eventually joined a rotating cast of Pool associates living in the Maryland mansion.”

Molli showed the site text messages that Crossland had then refused to act as an intermediary for the cat’s return, writing she “will have to run everything by Tim.” She told the Beast she didn’t want to go to Pool’s house because she was convinced Pool would demand she turn over footage. Molli added she was reluctant to send anyone to Pool’s Maryland skater palace, as he owns multiple guns, is “terrified of cities, because he thinks antifa is going to attack him,” and the idea of encountering him or going to his house “freaks a lot of people out.”


Molli did finally email Pool asking if she could have friends pick up the cat at his house and pay for a vet visit so the cat could be cleared for an airplane ride home. According to the Beast, Pool said he “will not reply to further emails” and directed her to instead go through SCNR’s attorney.

It gets weirder from there; the Beast reported the lawyer working on the SCNR, Wylie Stecklow, refused to assist:

“To the extent your question involves a cat or pet, I can affirmatively set forth that I am not representing anyone regarding a cat or pet,” Stecklow wrote in a Feb. 22 email to Molli and Castoro.

“Clients, like cats, come in all stripes,” Stecklow told The Daily Beast. “I did not represent any cat as I do not have the requisite experience to represent cats.”


Eventually, Molli contacted the Washington County, Maryland, sheriff’s department, where a lieutenant negotiated a compromise in which Pool would take the cat to a local shelter and one of Molli’s friends could pick the pet up.

Pool told the Beast the Jan. 6 text messages were related to an “internal corporate legal dispute” that would soon be resolved, that “I live in the DC area, the political hotspot, and am not worried about antifa,” and that his involvement with cat issue was never more than minimal.


“The Sheriff asked about Ian returning the cat and that was it,” Pool told the site.

Things sound like they’re going just great over there, just like it is at other prominent conservative ventures including Parler, the MyPillow guy’s new social media site, and the Office of Donald J. Trump.


QAnon, CultTok, and Leaving It All Behind

“I was impressed that it only took four years,” Danielle, self-identified ex-cult member, 34, said on a phone call. This was a few days after Joe Biden’s inauguration, and we were talking about the previous week of SOS social media posts from wide-eyed QAnon followers, like a TikToker propped up on a pillow, pleading, like a disoriented hostage: “If nothing happens on the 20th, how many of you are going to feel stupid as hell?”

With Danielle’s long catalogue of TikTok videos poking fun at Trump worship and conspiracy theories, I waited for her to chuckle, but she was serious. “Just realizing that it’s a lie is only the first step in the process right there,” Danielle reflected. “They’re going to go through some stages until they come out on the other side.”

Like many “#excult” TikTokers, Danielle–aka DutchessPrim on TikTok who wishes to be identified by a first name only—refers to her white Evangelical megachurch as a cult. She’s not broadly describing white Evangelicalism, which would imply that 29 percent of white people in America are cult members. She uses “cult” specifically in reference to her hometown megachurch and monthly stadium-sized televangelist “Crusades” she attended throughout her childhood, where she was told if she strayed from the rules, she would be on the wrong side of “spiritual warfare” of good angels and bad angels battling over souls of potential church defectors. “A lot of the things that I was taught were very hateful towards a lot of groups of people,” she added.

Culttok and similar fundamentalist religious defector TikTok accounts sort of feel like something between educational channels and therapeutic practice; they (often former Evangelicals and Mormons) affirm that they were completely engulfed by a very specific kind of dogmatic ideology. They recall how they rejected what they describe as alternative facts and prejudiced messaging. They discuss the challenges of breaking free and letting go.

“Right now, QAnon and Trumpism [are] part of their identity, and recognizing that they were wrong is going to require a lot of introspection and self-analysis and critical thinking,” an ex-Mormom TikToker said in one video about QAnoners. Others have pointed out that Q, whose drops are littered with Biblical passages, distorted fundamentalist teachings. “Growing up as a fundamentalist Evangelical, we were taught that there was a greater purpose for everything, and that the rest of the world just didn’t know it yet,” an ex-Evangelical tells the camera. “Which is exactly what QAnon believes. They believe that there’s one savior playing a 3D chess game to save them from an evil they can’t see or fight.” Now that there are enough people grieving the loss of Q-pilled family members and friends to fill at least a medium-sized subreddit, it seems natural that some exculttokers and other defectors have addressed the question floating around for months—what’ll it take for all these Q people to leave?

For Danielle and other #excult TikTokers interviewed for this article, TikTok is a safe distance from her family, who are over on Facebook, and the pseudonymous handle makes searching nearly impossible (though a few people from her other life have found her there anyway).

On her TikTok, along with gleeful reacts to news bloopers and ridiculous tweets, Danielle parodies absurd church gossip and the many, many calls from her Q dad, who is portrayed in a tinfoil hat. On January 12th, she reenacted a late night call in which he tells her to withdraw all of the cash from her bank account, fill up her car with gas, and stock up on food; he informs her that Kamala Harris is building concentration camps in Northern Alaska. By January 18th, he tells her that all of the tubs are full of water and there’s a loaded gun next to the door.

In another TikTok, her more despondent “dad” says he suspects he might’ve been lied to, on the day after the inauguration: “I don’t know if you heard, but the founder of Q quit. I mean, that fool just said that we need to accept the results of the election!” Danielle doesn’t seize the opportunity to validate his doubts. Instead she asks if he’s heard about the “face-swap” fantasy that Trump and Joe Biden had literally swapped faces (a scenario propagated by an anonymous 4chan poster, likely a troll). He finds that reassuring, and she warmly hangs up and laughs to someone camera: “I’m just fucking with him at this point, I’m over it.”

She explained, “I think we have to laugh so we don’t scream.”

Danielle’s parents have fallen into the Q pipeline and what she and many call Trump’s “Cult 45” after she left the church. She can’t speak to how many of her former community members adhere to QAnon dogma but added that her education and unwavering devotion to the Republican Party would certainly make people more receptive.

QAnon (as a virus, with the sole purpose of spreading) feeds on the idea that Satanic forces are waging war for control of America and the minds of its citizens; it is explicitly founded on the idea of Satanic pedovores controlling a shadow government and driving media narratives.

But the big one—which dovetails nicely with the elusive, unforeseeable Plan—is the Rapture, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, an apocalyptic event to unfold on an unknowable schedule. Danielle’s mother believed quite literally that, on any day, trumpets from the sky would awaken the family, that God would ride in on a white horse, and the faithful would vanish to meet Jesus while nonbelievers were left behind to suffer the Apocalypse on Earth.

The event is rivetingly described in the 1990s best-selling, almost pornographically gratuitous, semi-fictional end-times series Left Behind, co-written by Evangelical minister Tim LaHaye and Christian author Jerry B. Jenkins. (The Washington Post has described them both as dispensationalists, believers that we are living through unfolding chapters, or dispensations, pre-written by God.) The series lures the reader into an action-packed page-turner full of car wrecks and cities on fire, at turns weaving into conspiracy theories that could easily be imposed on real-world events. The harbingers of doom, according to Left Behind, are a sort of deep state cabal pushing for a One World Government, a single currency, unrest in the Middle East, and the emergence of a Satanic false prophet—themes which, in the 21st century, have been superimposed on the war in Iraq, Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Israel embassy to Jerusalem, the European Union, and virtually all political opposition.

With the looming Rapture in mind, Danielle’s parents and church didn’t so much view politicians as functionaries for maintaining infrastructure, allotting budgets to federal departments and such, but agents of God or Satan, a militant all-or-nothing stance amplified by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and Alex Jones. When she turned 18, she was overwhelmed by the number of elders, and her parents, telling her that she would be a warrior at the polls, that her role was to stand up for God and cast her Republican vote. She remembers watching a propaganda film about Obama and crying when he was elected. “I’m surprised more churches haven’t lost their 501c3s in the past four years because of how much politics you’re hearing from pulpit,” she said.

When online conspiracies of the 2000s arrived, her parents were ready for them. When she brought up Q last summer, Danielle’s mom admitted that some elements of the ideology “make sense.” “That’s when I realized I was starting to lose them,” she said.

Years before performance artist Marina Abramović sent the notorious 2015 “Spirit Cooking” email that sprawled into a wild InfoWars conspiracy supposedly implicating the Clinton campaign in Satanic pedovore rituals—about midway through President Obama’s first term, maybe—Danielle had started to square up to the sinking feeling that things were all wrong. According to her church’s teachings, even feeling that things were wrong was wrong and meant she’d gotten “lost.” Starting with the question of why women weren’t welcome in church leadership positions and a lack of apparent concern for racial equality, she began re-assessing her own internalized rules: obedience, non-threatening femininity, consignment to a silent battle against her own critical thoughts. Around age 25, she said, her mounting doubts boiled over to a “quarter-life crisis.”

This is, in part, why she sees TikTok as a place where she can “make amends with the universe.” She can no longer wave away the real-world harm caused when a critical mass of people ascribe to the idea that being gay is a choice, for instance. “I felt like I owed a very wide audience…not only an apology but what am I doing to make up for lost time?” Her earliest TikToks weren’t about cult mentality, but amplifying Black Lives Matter protest clips and educating Donald Trump on Confederate atrocities, to the tune of Frozen’s “Let It Go.” (“Take ‘em down, take ‘em down,” she sings, over a slideshow of monuments.)

It took two years for Danielle to gather the strength to get in the car, drive to her brother’s house, and process her breakdown.

“You wake up one morning, and you realize that you don’t have to be that way, but you don’t know what other way to be,” she reflected. Without a friend or a fellow defector, she had to navigate the outside world alone. “It’s like being dumped in a country where you don’t speak the language, and nobody’s willing to teach you.”

You wouldn’t be able to tell from her TikTok—where she regails followers with whacky stories, logically deconstructs the connection between cults and MAGA, and fields questions about her current beliefs—but she can’t delete her emotional programming. She has to hold her doubts and inspect them in a constant process of rewriting and re-analysis. “It’s funny because this is the one thing where I really sympathize with the MAGA crowd,” she said. “I’ll drive by a megachurch and I have this burning desire to go in, like an addiction. I miss it, and I still want to be a part of it. But my logical brain tells me that I feel susceptible to it still 10 years later.”

Danielle identified a series of her former church’s protocols which seemed particularly cultish: “love bombing” new members with a big open-armed Sunday spectacle, maintaining paranoid vigilance of demonic outsiders, keeping tabs on each others’ missteps, possessing secret knowledge which makes everyone else wrong, complete devotion to charismatic leaders (especially televangelists like Benny Hinn) and warning of Biblical consequences for dissidents.

The QAnon ideology doesn’t neatly square with those indoctrination techniques—QAnon followers do ostracize “sheeple” and defer to Q’s total authority, but Trump (his separate-but-parallel cult), checks more of the boxes: charismatic “love-bomber” who demands total fealty from his enablers (or sic an armed mob on them). Former QAnon adherent and QAnonCasulaties subreddit moderator Jitarth Jadeja pointed out to Gizmodo via email that QAnon is psychological manipulation, but “not really a perfect match to anything. It’s kind of like an entirely new phenomenon, like some kind of force of nature we haven’t quite experienced before.”

As news networks have tried to explain QAnon to their viewers over the past few months, researchers have been arguing that we need to tighten up descriptors that adequately convey the danger of QAnon—it’s not just a “conspiracy theory,” any more than a religion is automatically an authoritarian cult. And then the word “cult,” a general term for devotion to a person, orthodoxy, or work—a word that accurately describes both followings of Ayn Rand and the Rocky Horror Picture Show—is kind of meaningless without other adjectives like “destructive” and “authoritarian.” Cult theorist Steven Hassan, author of The Cult of Trump and, himself, a former Moonie, calls this the “influence continuum,” placing QAnon on the “destructive authoritarian” axis of “political” cults, a class which also includes Aryan Nations, the Demoratic Workers’ Party, and the Symbionese Liberation Army.

The “destructive” cult suppresses what he calls the “authentic self” by forcing followers to adopt the dependent, obedient “cult self.” This is where the tightly controlled institution Danielle grew up in and more decentralized psychological manipulation of QAnon align.

“The vast majority of people in the United States in an authoritarian groups, in my opinion, have been raised in them,” Hassan told Gizmodo over the phone. If followers leave a cult but don’t reach a “perspective shift,” Hassan said, they might be just as likely to go along with another one.

“I guess the question is why are they leaving?” he said. “Are they leaving because they realize that their minds have been hacked? Or are they leaving because they realized that the prophecy failed and Trump isn’t going to be the president anymore?”

When asked whether he worried that more conspiracy theory-related destructive authoritarian political cults could simply step in, he said, “I’m very concerned.”

Q not only manipulates scripture to validate vague predictions and elevate Trump to messiah status, but specifically references passages that appeal to the dispensationalism of Left Behind. Q-drops are rife with passages alluding to spiritual warfare, like Ephesians 6:10-18: “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Major white Evangelical players reciprocated, early, disseminating QAnon-adjacent theories and sometimes just QAnon. (Danielle isn’t sure exactly how QAnon reached her parents, but it certainly wasn’t through 8kun, she said.)

In the 2020 pre-election book Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump, Sarah Posner covers the robust network of white Evangelical agenda-setters and televangelists who threw support behind Trump early and in return were granted “open door” access to his office throughout his presidency. The most prominent is televangelist Paula White, Trump’s longtime friend, “spiritual advisor,” and previous Trump Tower resident, who’s long maintained that she and Trump are on a mission from God to literally battle demons. White has collaborated with and spoken alongside, Dave Kubal, the director of an Evangelical political issues organization Intercessors for America, which recently put out a QAnon prayer guide titled “THE DEEP STATE PROBLEM.”

Even as a presidential candidate, Trump already attracted some white Evangelical figures who were certain that—even though he couldn’t and never really tried to quote scripture—God has sent, in Trump, a divine instrument to steamroll the heretical liberal cabal where other politicians had merely shown up for photo-ops. In 2015, evangelist Lance Wallnau described Trump on Facebook as “anointed in this season to break things open.” Comparing his to Jeremiah’s God-given assignment to “tear down and to uproot and to plant,” Wallnau continued:

“He has broken up a demonic cartel of political correctness and now it is up to you and me, each of us to move forward in our own sphere and knock down the obstacles that are silencing us and holding us back from what we are called to say and do.”

This and other prophecies would cement his relevance for the next five years.

Others made, and were rewarded for, similarly Apocalyptic prophecies. Televangelist Frank Amedia, a 2016 Trump campaign “liaison for Christian policy,” claimed before the 2016 election that God had told him that he’d sent Trump to bring on the Second Coming. (He’s also claimed to have resurrected people, and an ant, from the dead.) He went on to form POTUS Shield, an unofficial council of religious soldiers battling for Trump.

If you’re looking, you can even find a minister to mix Gospel with QAnon “spiritual intel reports” on a Twitch-style stream at the internet-infamous Omega Kingdom Ministry, which was inspired by QAnon “prophet” Mark Taylor, a former firefighter who claimed that he was told by God that Trump would be president in 2011, a tale that later manifested as a film.

White Evangelical pastors, Christian publications, and leaders in various Christian denominations have sounded the alarm early and often about QAnon, which isn’t only affecting their communities but also spitting back a bastardization of Christian teachings.

“I didn’t just feel like I was being fed overt Christian messaging, I was being fed [overt Christian messaging],” Jadeja, QAnonCasulaties moderator, said via email. (Despite embarrassment, he’s publicly shared his story in the hopes of helping others.) He hasn’t ascribed to Christian teachings before following QAnon. “It’s not a thread, it’s not intertwined, religious messaging is the rock upon which Q built his church.”

April (TikTok: aprilajoy), pillories the alarming QAnon-adjacent content that’s swirling around her conservative Christian community. She’s not #culttok; she’s still a believing Christian who’s disgusted by the abusive and hateful brinksmanship that’s eclipsed Christian empathy and love.

She uses her account, along with family content and news commentary, as a dump for all the toxic QAnon-adjacent waste she’s seeing on Facebook. In her long-running series “Things I saw ‘Christians’ post on Facebook,” she reads aloud a rapid-fire series green-screened memes and panic in a warbled voice effect.

A few samples: “AMERICA HAS FALLEN! ARE YOU LOCKED AND LOADED YET?” “Let he who hath not an AR15 take his $600 stimulus and buyeth a new one.” “Are we wearing red coats Wednesday or what? Sorry, it’ll be my first Civil War.” “What you see from the Capitol is from the Communist playbook. There are NOT Trump supporters!” “I guarantee you Judgement Day won’t be rigged.” “THEY’RE DOING THE SAME THING TO TRUMP THAT THEY DID TO JESUS ON A SMALLER SCALE. BEST PRESIDENT EVER.” “Two biggest LIES of 2020: 1. Epstein killed himself 2. Biden won.” “Father continues to release warrior angels to fight and bind the spirit of Jezebel coming against President Trump to destroy him! AMEN!” “Protected by our LORD AND SAVIOR” (over an image of Trump behind the Resolute Desk with Jesus over his shoulder.) “I tried to stop them, but I am only one man” (over Trump hugging a Statue of Liberty crying red tears.)

The paranoid hostility resembles nothing of the Christian spirit she’d embraced growing up in the 4,000-member church which her father pastored. “[Trump] has torn up families and churches over this,” she said. She says she gets messages daily from people whose parents practically disowned them. “If you speak out against Trump, they take it so personally that it’s like you’re speaking out against them or against Jesus.”

“I don’t know how to emphasize this enough,” she said, “but the Jesus that these people are talking about—a Jesus that is not all-loving—is not Jesus.”

Q’s plan complements certain (mostly white) fringe evangelists’ messaging, but it’s ensnared followers from all over the (mostly white) spiritual spectrum—believers in Norse paganism, Catholicism, New Age spirituality, and (in at least one case) Wicca.

As videos from the Capitol riot circulated on Twitter, a chunk of observers got a laugh out of a guy in what looked like a Roman armor Halloween costume. While he appeared to the uninitiated as a flamboyant oddball similar to the horned “QShaman,” ex-Mormon #culttoker Michelle, 29, immediately picked up on the reference: Captain Moroni, a commander who led an insurrection against “king-men” who attempted to topple democracy and install a monarch.

“The guy dressed as Captain Moroni really got me,” she said. “In the Book of Mormon, the king-men, who are portrayed as evil, are trying to overthrow the government because they lost the election. Captain Moroni is the one who has the title of liberty [a brief affirmation of democratic principles] and kills all the king-men because they’re not following the results of the election.”

Michelle—who asked that we use a pseudonym but goes by actual_agency on TikTok—focuses less on politics than personal transformation. Over the course of her #exMo TikToks, she enjoys forbidden coffee, finds her style, talks about clean-slate loving parenting rules.

She sees how the story of Gadianton robbers—a secret Satanic mafia from ancient America that infiltrates the government and kills people—could be adapted to dangerous narratives.

“People think that the government is run by the Gadianton robbers,” she said. “It’s very, very parallel to the Deep State. And so you search [for the Deep State] and think, well, that must be what this is.”

Her faith crisis began percolating with a latent awareness of the MAGA-like ability to wave away the leader’s abuses. She was horrified to learn in her twenties that apostle Joseph Smith had married teenagers—if the prophet wasn’t the person she believed him to be, what else was untrue? One question led to more questions, and she only got excuses for Republican-backed policies she didn’t agree with, like child separation, racist killings, and ignoring climate change (the last issue was something God would handle). “I really believed for a long time that if you’re a Democrat, you can’t be a Mormon,” she said. “But then I just started looking at my beliefs, and they just didn’t line up with the Republican Party.” When Black Lives Matter protests grew in size and frequency summer, she shared her concerns on Facebook, which only attracted a flurry of fretful texts and apologists on her doorstep.

“It comes back down to the idea that everyone is either working for God or Satan. There’s no alternative…I don’t know, it’s hard to be specific. That’s where I was like, I’m done. I can’t handle this anymore. “

In Mormonism, there is a “shelf,” the apologist term for the place you’re supposed to put your doubts. “Well, it gets to a point where your shelf breaks. There are too many things on there, and it just doesn’t make sense,” Michelle said. “Everyone has a shelf.”