A Texas man who, according to court documents, recently stated that he is definitely “not a dumbass,” is now potentiallyfacing decades in prison for plotting an alleged terrorist attack to “blow up” the internet.
Seth Aaron Pendley, 28, was taken into custody by the FBI on Thursday, after attempting to procure what he thought were explosives from an undercover agent in Fort Worth, Texas, a federal affidavit shows (the bombs were, in fact, fake). According to authorities, Pendley wanted to use C-4, a powerful plastic explosive, to target an Amazon Web Services (AWS) data center in Ashburn, Virginia.
Pendley’s target, Ashburn, is home to over 100 data centers and is the site where a majority of the so-called “Cloud” exists. The arrestee allegedly stated in online chats that he wanted to “kill off about 70% of the internet” and, thereby, annoy “the oligarchy” and, naturally, the deep state.
An apparent Trump supporter who claims he was in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6 during the Capitol insurrection, Pendley recently implied in online chats that the ugly riot that killed five people hadn’t gone quite far enough. On MyMilitia.com, a rightwing website that ostensibly helps connect people to regional and local militias, Pendley used the screen name “Dionysus” to write a number of increasingly disturbing posts, the feds allege. In one, he wrote:
I feel like we all went into this with the intentions of getting very little done. How much did you expect to do when we all willingly go in unarmed. Let me tell you what I think (knowing going to touch some nerves.) For weeks I had prepared to show up at the capital [sic] as strapped as possible. The whole time I had high hopes that SOMEONE would understand.
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In another post, he let it be known that he was not your run-of-the-mill terrorist:
I’m not a dumbass suicide bomber but even if I only have a handful of fellow patriots standing beside me I will happily die a young man knowing that I didn’t allow the evils in this world to continue unjustly treating my fellow Americans so disrespectfully.
The posts aroused the suspicions of a “concerned citizen,” who later gave screenshots of his comments to the FBI.
Afterward, the feds ascertained Pendley’s email address and issued a search warrant for his Facebook while also subpoenaing the subscriber records connected to his Gmail account. From there, the government appears to have conducted surveillance of Pendley’s home in Wichita Falls, Texas, and also infiltrated his communications with an informant and, later, an undercover agent.
During a conversation with both the informant and agent, Pendley laid out his masterful plans and nuanced political philosophy like so:
The main objective is to f*** up the Amazon servers. There’s 24 buildings that all this data runs through in America. Three of them are right next to each other, and those 24 run 70 percent of the Internet. And the government, especially the higher ups, CIA, FBI, special sh**, they have like an 8 billion dollar a year contract with Amazon to run through their servers. So we f*** those servers, and it’s gonna piss all the oligarchy off.
In his apparent crusade to end the world wide web and thereby piss off the powers that be, Pendley has accrued a federal charge of maliciously attempting to destroy a building with an explosive. If convicted, he faces 20 years in prison.
“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 collaboratedwith 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 justfeel likeI 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.”
In the early hours of Christmas Day in 2020, an RV in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, began broadcasting the sounds of gunfire and warnings for anyone in earshot to immediately evacuate. After about 15 minutes, it exploded, killing the perpetrator, wounding at least eight others, and damaging hundreds of buildings.
A New York Times article on Wednesday has some more information on the ongoing federal and local police investigation, which authorities have said they don’t expect to be released until March. It’s further confirmation that the bomber, 63-year-old Anthony Quinn Warner, believed in and may have been motivated by a conspiracy theory that asserts a hidden cabal of reptilian humanoids posing as humans secretly controls world governments and affairs.
Warner was a computer specialist who used to work for a Nashville-area electronic security firm and did freelance IT work, according to the Times, and he appears to have first become convinced that the U.S. government perpetrated the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Crystal Deck, who had become friends with Warner in the months before his death, told the Times she immediately knew he was the bomber after she connected seemingly random incidents in the weeks before to the details of the attack.
Deck had witnessed Warner fiddling with a pre-recorded female voice on his computer and playing the 1964 Petula Clark song “Downtown,” she told the Times, both of which were broadcast from a loudspeaker on the van used in the attack that warned residents to evacuate. Deck added Warner had mentioned he was about to do something that would attract police attention (without going into specifics) and had cleared his house of all but a few possessions, alluding to a terminal cancer diagnosis.
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Deck and others received essays composed by Warner describing his conspiracy theories, according to the Times, and the bomber also went on manhunts for what he believed were bulletproof reptilians gathering in a local park. From the NYT:
Mr. Warner also camped regularly in Montgomery Bell Park, west of Nashville, a pastime that fed his conspiracy obsessions — he considered the park to be prime ground for hunting alien reptilians.
He described struggling to spot them with an infrared device, believing they could adjust their body temperature to the surrounding environment, and warned that bullets would just bounce off. “If you try to hunt one, you will find that you are the one being hunted,” he wrote.
Mr. Warner composed countless essays that he printed out or loaded onto flash drives, distributing them to Ms. Deck and other friends and acquaintances.
The lizard people theory is fringe even in conspiracy circles, occupying a status not dissimilar to Flat Earth truthers—a Public Policy poll in 2013 that should be taken with a grain of salt pegged the rate of true believers in the general population at 4%, far below other hoaxes like a broader New World Order conspiracy, the nonexistent vaccines-autism link, Bigfoot, and the claim NASA faked the moon landings. As NBC News noted, the anti-reptilian movement has roots in anti-Semitic and xenophobic propaganda insinuating certain ethnic groups or nationalities like Jewish people were societal infiltrators or parasites, but it was also shaped by occultism and later pop culture items like the snake cult in Conan the Barbarian and Dracula.
The idea didn’t really take off, though, until the last few decades. In the early 1990s, British footballer and broadcaster David Icke decided he was the messiah and began publishing what became a series of a dozen far-right books claiming among other things that interdimensional reptiles have secretly taken control of the planet. (Icke, despite believing in the virulently anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has regularly denied the reptile theory has anything to do with Jews.)
Raymond Throckmorton III, a former attorney for Warner friend Pamela Perry, told the Times that Warner had assailed his client with “apparently crazy things or threatening or unusual things” and that she had reported a possible bomb plot to police in August 2019 but was ignored.
Conspiracy theorists have taken center stage as a terror threat in the U.S.; on Jan. 6, 2021, a crowd of pro-Donald Trump rioters stormed the Capitol while seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 elections, resulting in at least five deaths. Many in the crowd were organized online on venues ranging from Facebook to fringe internet sites and believed in QAnon, a conspiracy theory that asserted Trump was fighting a secret war against a (generally agreed to be human) global network of Satanic pedophiles. The Times article noted that Warner was not a QAnon supporter, though authorities similarly failed to act on warnings of an attack and the growing threat of violent right-wing extremism.
According to the Times, police and municipal committees are now looking into why the August 2019 warning of a possible attack was never investigated.
Social HygieneSocial HygieneThe internet is hell, particularly social media. In this series, we discuss the ways it’s flawed and how it could be better.
My ex was the first person to tell me about Q. This was near the end of 2016, and we were in the beginning stages of our relationship. I took it as us having the same, passive interest in conspiracy theories. The kind of interest where you go, “LOL sounds like a Dan Brown novel!” I laughed it off, but he dug deeper and continued to dig deeper after we split soon after the election. Good thing too, since he turned into something more than a simple QAnon believer.
He turned into someone who made it his mission to “wake people up,” introduce them to far-right Facebook groups where talks of civil war weren’t simply an insurrectionist fantasy, but a real plan. One post I reported to Facebook, which it removed, was a call for Trump supporters to take up arms and get ready for battle. There was no veil in the threat of violence.
He posted photos of himself at the 2020 Richmond gun rally, AR-15 long barrel rifle slung over his shoulder, with captions that read, “When the #Boogaloo commences, you know we’ll be there!” I haven’t spoken to him since 2017, but I keep tabs on his public social media accounts in case I needed to provide information to law enforcement. That’s how much he scares me.
But it wasn’t just him. After the 2016 election, a distinct split between my friend groups on social media, Facebook in particular, emerged. While most of us were in the Bernie or Hilary camp, those who became Trump supporters were mostly white, male, and military veterans.
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The pieces didn’t start to fall together for me until January 2020 (way later than it should have happened), after the first covid-19 case was recorded in the U.S. That’s when I and those friends cut ties with those people—on Facebook and in real life. These were people we went to high school with. Our family members. Best friends’ significant others. People we will likely never talk to again. One conversation, in particular, ended in myself and seven other people cutting ties with someone we had known for over 15 years.
What began as an exchange about an anti-Black Lives Matter protester getting into a physical altercation with some BLM protesters devolved into me being accused of being biased and “victim blaming” the man with a “FUCK BLM” sign. It progressed into an exchange about a KKK rally that turned violent in Anaheim, California. By then, a mutual friend was declaring that the KKK had the right to their opinions, asking, in so many words, when did a “random” person’s opinion ever hurt anyone directly, on the thread that he presumably thought was magically visible to only people who have never been victims of racism.
The conversation quickly deteriorated. More mutual friends joined in to futilely try to explain that the KKK’s white supremacist views have tangible, real-life, devastating consequences that have been documented since the deadly hate group’s inception. The soon-to-be-former friend argued that short of directly advocating violence, the KKK had the right to espouse hate freely, seemingly without consequences. In the end, we all unfriended him and he ended up blocking me after that.
The belief that it is ok to just say whatever hateful thing you want—even when spreading dangerous conspiracy theories from a position of influence and power—has been manifesting in our government for years.
Greene’s has since been kicked off both her congressional committees for espousing QAnon conspiracy theories, but the damage was done. This shit spread all over Facebook. It was spread by friends. Aunts. Uncles. Randos who you can’t remember how they got on your friends list in the first place.It didn’t matter how many times I cited someone I knew who worked for PG&E, who worked on those exact power lines that caused the fire, or how many news articles and reports I tossed their way.
At the same time, the more I fought some of my own Facebook friends on unfounded theories like this to stop the spread of misinformation and hatred, the faster they unfriended and blocked me—if I didn’t get around to it first. Take my friend David* (not his real name).
It’d been a while since pictures of David’s adorable 6-month-old baby graced my Facebook timeline. Concerned by the lack of cuteness, I typed his name into the search bar and discovered his profile didn’t exist. Did he delete his account? Turns out he didn’t. Our mutual friends were still tagging him in posts, but I couldn’t see anything he wrote. I couldn’t click on his name to take me to his profile. I asked one of our mutual friends about it who said, “Sounds like he blocked you.”
That’s exactly what he did. No warning beforehand. No major blow-ups between us, aside from the time I asked him, “Why in the ever-living-fuck would you vote for Trump?” “I have my reasons, which I will not share here,” he said. I don’t know how long after he blocked me, but that was our last conversation. One of our mutual friends asked him why he blocked me. “She’s media. She can’t be trusted,” David told him.
That was back in November 2020, and considering everything that has happened in this country during the last two months alone, I probably would have ended up purging him from my friends list anyway, as I, since then, have blocked every QAnon follower and Trump supporter on my friends list. I’d rather not have my timeline trashed with cultish posts. I mean, Facebook certainly did not do anything to address QAnon on its platform until it was too late.
When a person close to you has fallen down that rabbit hole, when you’re left shouting into the void with nothing but anger and pain, sometimes the only solution is to unfriend and move on. That’s easier said than done, especially when it’s family. If they do ever manage to see the error of their ways, do you welcome them back into your life? I believe in redemption, but I also believe in personal boundaries.
The issue here is trust. What happens when a former partner or friend or family member decides to crawl back into your life? There is a reason why white supremacist groups target QAnon followers for recruitment. How can you be sure that the friend that once so easily fell for tales of pedophile cannibal Democrats running a massive child-sex-trafficking cabal isn’t into adjacent far-right garbage? In my friend-losing experience, QAnon and further deprecation of already marginalized groups went hand-in-hand.
The question I’m struggling with is a common one for someone who has, over decades, retained connections with people from all walks of life. I have been driven by a sense of personal responsibility to connect, to grab onto whatever commonality I have left with someone I once knew as their grasp on reality begins to slip, as their views turn from misguided to threatening and inexcusable. After decades of throwing facts their way, of battling it out in endless comment threads on social media and hitting wall after wall after wall, at what point do you stop feeling like it’s your job to “fix” them? And at what point, do you decide enough is enough?
Congratulations: If you are a Proud Boy, you’re now persona non grata in Canada.
As of today, the Canadian government has added the Proud Boys, along with the neo-Nazi group the Atomwaffen Division, the white nationalist group the Base, and 10 other groups to its list of terrorist entities. In its announcement, the government of Canada stated that it has a reasonable belief that the groups “knowingly participated in or facilitated a terrorist activity, or has knowingly acted on behalf of, at the direction of, or in association with such an entity.”
If you’re still wondering what kind of real threat could be posed by a group of polo shirt bros whose hazing ceremony is punching a dude who’s naming cereals—things have escalated. On a page detailing the rationale for each group’s designation, the Canadian government states that the Proud Boys “played a pivotal role in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.” One wonders what this means for the person who incited them to do such a thing.
“Leaders of the group planned their participation by setting out objectives, issuing instructions, and directing members during the insurrection,” the site reads, noting that Proud Boys’ chairman, Enrique Tarrio, was arrested two days before the siege in law enforcement’s efforts to apprehend those who’d planned to incite violence. Law enforcement has been rounding up a handful of U.S.-based ProudBoy members with the help of a long photo and video trail. Two have been indicted on federal charges of conspiracy, and the FBI says it uncovered DIY instructions for making poison and bombs in one of their homes.
This means that Canadian banks must freeze the groups’ assets, that no one in Canada nor Canadians outside of Canada may do business with the groups in Canada, and potential recruits are forbidden from traveling to meetings. The New York Times points out that the designation could make it easier for the government to deny the groups’ members entry into Canada, add them to the no-fly list, and deplatform them.
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As of September 2020, the Proud Boys’ now-deplatformed site listed 15 chapters in Canada, with maps showing towns where chapters are headquartered.
The Canadian government’s terrorist index does not indicate that members of the Atomwaffen Division or the Base—both international networks, both originators of the Boogaloo bois’ paramilitary model—were involved in the Capitol siege, but their addition is not surprising. At least three people affiliated with the Atomwaffen Division have been accused of murder. (The name is German for “nuclear weapons.”) The U.S. State Department has pushed to add them to the domestic terrorism list. The Canadian government states that Atomwaffen Division members participated in and brutalized protesters during the 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Canadian government also notes that members of the Base stood trial for planning a mass shooting in order to start a civil war. Last year, the FBI opened a domestic terrorism investigation into a planned violent uprising.
After the Capitol riot, the Department of Homeland Security warned that domestic terrorist groups pose a “heightened threat” and were possibly “emboldened” by the attack on the Capitol. This pretty tame statement of fact was received as an almost stunning admission, or at least news, after four years of Donald Trump.
It appears no conspiracy is too outlandish for Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to peddle. There’s QAnon, false flag conspiracies about the Parkland shooting, and the whole election fraud lie. Now we can add a new one: That the deadly 2018 Camp Fire was ignited, intentionally, by a space laser so California could build a high speed rail system. (Naturally, the Rothschilds were involved somehow.)
Taylor Greene espoused her belief in the space laser—or “direct energy weapon” in conspiracy theorist parlance—in November 2018 in the wake of the most costly, deadly, and damaging fire in California history. In a Facebook post, first reported by Media Matters, Taylor Greene pulls out the classic frame of “just asking questions” about utility PG&E’s real role in causing the fire.
Before we go off the deep end, these are the facts: An investigation pinpointed the utility’s power lines as the direct cause. The fire was further stoked by fierce winds and hot, dry conditions as it stormed through the town of Paradise and the surrounding area. PG&E paid out more than $25.5 billion in settlements and has pleaded guilty to manslaughter; in an effort to stave off more potential tragedies it has turned to cutting power during times of high fire danger. But dangerous fire conditions are becoming more frequent due to the climate crisis, and avoiding more wildfires without a multi-decade effort to thin the forest and fix the power grid is nigh impossible.
But in the mind of Taylor Greene, there was perhaps something more nefarious afoot. In the now-deleted Facebook post, she does her best Glenn Beck impression.
“I’m posting this in speculation because there are too many coincidences to ignore, and just putting it out there from some research I’ve done stemming from my curiosity over PG&E stocks, which tanked all week then rallied Thursday night after CA official [sic] announced they would not let PG&E fail,” she wrote.
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Now, stocks plummeting when a company causes a multi-billion dollar catastrophe resulting in dozens of deaths is not surprising. Nor is it surprising they would rebound when it became clear the state would bail it out. There is nothing weird here! (At least as long as you understand the stock market is a sociopathic enterprise that values money over human life, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Taylor Greene’s “research” turned up that Roger Kimmel, a PG&E board member, also served as vice chairman of Rothschild, Inc., an institution that bears the name of a family that’s long been a boogeyman of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. She then weaves together some donations that the utility made to then-Gov. Jerry Brown, and a bill he signed that basically allowed utilities like PG&E to pass fire liability costs onto consumers just a few months before the Camp Fire. This is of course bad, because money is corrosive to politics, but nothing abnormal. (It also presents a strong argument for passing campaign finance reform laws.) But a shadowy cover-up it is not.
Things in Taylor Greene’s now-unearthed post go even further into the deep end, with the soon-to-be Congresswoman speculating about a high speed rail project that costs the equivalent of “3 border walls,” which is certainly one frame of reference by which we can measure expensive things. Senator Diane Feinstein’s investor husband also makes an appearance, as does a space solar power plant startup, as well as unsubstantiated, World Weekly News-levelclaims of people seeing “blue beams of light causing fires.”
The whole thing honestly makes my brain hurt. At the time, other QAnon followers pushed the space laser lie with different flavors. One version tied it to HAARP, a research program in Alaska which conspiracy theorists often misleadingly associate with weather and mind control. Another 2017 wildfire season theory suggested a plane or drone could be responsible for wielding a direct energy weapon and burning some homes and not others, an explanation for the pattern of seemingly discriminate destruction that’s common in fire-stricken areas based on defensible space around homes and not secret government programs.
Needless to say in the over two years since the Camp Fire was fully contained, no ground has been broken or contracts sold on any sort of high speed rail project in the devastated region. In reality, the towns devastated by the fire have struggled to recover, and more fires have burned in the region, indicating we need substantial intervention to stave off a repeat of the Camp Fire. Taylor Greene does not live in this shared reality, to the detriment of public discourse and my personal emotional equilibrium.
Republicans have refused to repudiate Taylor Greene or her wild-eyed conspiracies around events like the fire and school shootings that have caused real anguish and irrevocably altered people’s lives. But then, I suppose that would require them to confront decades of climate denial in their caucus as well. Instead, Republican leadership assigned Taylor Greene to the House Education Committee this week.