Gogi Kamushadze

How US veterans get sucked into QAnon

Ahead of the U.S. election, a growing number of former military personnel are identifying with the sprawling conspiracy theory

The video of retired U.S. Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn taking the QAnon oath was an important moment for military veteran Joseph Smith.

The clip was posted to Flynn’s Twitter account on the Fourth of July. It shows the former White House national security advisor standing shoulder to shoulder with his family, their right hands raised. After vowing to protect the United States from “enemies foreign and domestic,” they repeat the QAnon mantra: “Where we go one, we go all.” 

“Oh my God, I was flabbergasted,” recalled 40-year old Smith, who lives in California and has been following the sprawling and increasingly popular conspiracy theory since its birth on the online messageboard 4Chan in 2017.

Ahead of the upcoming presidential election, QAnon has exploded in popularity across the U.S. Its adherents believe that President Donald Trump is a lone savior figure battling a corrupt “deep state” that shelters and aids a powerful network of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. According to a Daily Kos/Civiqs poll, 56% of Republicans believe QAnon is mostly or somewhat true. This base of support also includes a growing number of military veterans who, in turn, form an important voting bloc. 

Smith’s father, grandfather and uncle all served their country. He walked the same path, as an Army paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1999 to 2003. Like thousands of others across the U.S., he had taken the QAnon oath before Flynn. But watching a high-ranking military official pledge allegiance to the cause reinforced his commitment. 

“The fact that General Flynn basically said it — I was like, ‘That’s all the proof I need, right there,’” said Smith. 

“The symbolism of having Michael Flynn take that oath cannot be overstated,” said Alex Newhouse, a researcher with the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at Middlebury Institute for International Studies. “That’s such a massive message to communities who are associated with the military or with the police.”

In just three years, QAnon has proliferated around the world, from the U.S. to Europe and Australia. As it has spread, its themes have influenced anti-vaccination activists, lockdown protesters and a host of other movements. As a decentralized online phenomenon, it is hard to say exactly how many former military members have become “digital warriors,” as many Q adherents refer to themselves. However, according to experts like Newhouse, the number is significant.

Anecdotal evidence certainly backs this up. Even the most cursory look at QAnon hashtags on Twitter turns up scores of profiles citing a military past. Some experts also believe that the close relationship between veterans and Q fits into a long-running and complicated relationship between veterans and conspiracist movements. 

The lure of conspiracy theories 

Jack Murphy joined the Army in 2002 and was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, first with the Ranger Battalion and later with the Special Forces. He remembers some of the men he served with sharing conspiracy theories. 

“I noticed that some of the other guys, other young Rangers, were really into this stuff,” he told me. 

Some were fans of David Icke, the notorious British conspiracy theorist who believes that politicians and powerful figures such as Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II are reptiles masquerading as human beings. Others thought the moon landing was faked and that humans walked among dinosaurs. 

“I came across people like that, who believed really strange things,” said Murphy, who has since left the military and now works as a journalist.

When Murphy joined the Special Forces, his team sergeant believed a number of outlandish theories, and has since fallen into QAnon. Once good friends, the two men no longer speak. 

“It’s very destabilizing for me and my own psychology that the people I admired so much became this,” Murphy said. 

A distinguishing feature of QAnon is that it has managed to drag completely new demographics into the darkest corners of conspiracist thinking, from Instagram moms to political candidates such as Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene to celebrities like the actress Roseanne Barr

“Veterans are not that sort of group,” explained Newhouse. “They have been long targeted by extremist movements and conspiratorial communities.”

Some experts believe that the shared life experiences and personality traits of many veterans make this group particularly susceptible to such narratives. QAnon has proved especially potent by playing directly to a sense of responsibility to protect the vulnerable that may have drawn many of these people to the military in the first place. 

In recent months, the movement has pushed its theme of Satanic child sex slavery hard. These efforts have included the creation of the widely used hashtag Save the Children. Claiming to rescue young people from sexual abuse and ritual murder has helped Q pull in large numbers of new followers, but Murphy believes that such themes will resonate strongly with veterans. 

“These are people who very much exist inside that frame of reference of good versus evil,” he explained. “They cast themselves as the hero in their own story.”

“The conspiracy theory is just the scaffolding that supports what you already believe about yourself.” 

That is certainly true for Smith. He joined the Army because of a desire to serve his country and help people. Before he was injured jumping out of a helicopter and honorably discharged in 2003, his goal was to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and join the Green Berets — the elite special force that marches under the Latin motto “De Oppresso Liber” (Free the oppressed). 

He has three daughters and a stepson. Of the many strands that QAnon comprises, Save the Children was the one that affected him most. 

“I have always been the protector. Especially small children — people that can’t do it themselves,” he said. “So, yeah, that’s a huge part of it.” 

Some consider that the isolation many veterans experience after military service could also increase their vulnerability to conspiracy theories. Entering civilian life can be a shocking change, in which a highly structured, cohesive community is suddenly replaced by a society that doesn’t always understand what they have been through. 

“This kind of social turbulence that happens when a guy leaves the military and becomes a civilian — the harder you try to fit in, from my experience, the less you do,” said Murphy. 

“Social alienation is the single best predictor of radicalization that we have,” Newhouse explained. “For alienated groups, conspiracy theories provide the answers, they provide the structure that is lost.” 

Some QAnon followers have also spoken of becoming estranged from friends and loved ones after embracing the movement. For many, the conspiracist community has stepped in to fill this gap. When adherents report such experiences on social media, others will often respond: “We are your family now.” 

A connection to power

QAnon followers believe that a high-level intelligence or military insider has been posting cryptic dispatches, or “Q drops,” on online messageboards for the past three years. Within them is a supposed wealth of classified information related to the deep state and its activities.

But QAnon isn’t the only conspiracy theory built on the ideas it espouses.

“It is really a mishmash of a whole bunch of different things and overlaps very often with some other extremist movements,” explained Newhouse.

QAnon crosses over with a wide range of conspiracist beliefs that have been in circulation for decades, spread by the likes of Icke and the far-right broadcaster Alex Jones. According to Newhouse, such ideas have also been adopted by earlier anti-government militias, such as the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, both of which were formed after the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

Some such militias share a number of similarities with QAnon. Taking a pledge is integral to the Oath Keepers, founded by former Army paratrooper Stewart Rhodes in 2009. The group also claims to be dedicated to upholding the promise to defend the constitution made by veterans, former police officers and first responders when they first sign up for duty. Meanwhile, the right-wing United Constitutional Patriots frequently referenced Q drops in their daily YouTube briefings.

Some fear that, as QAnon gains popularity, there is a danger that veterans will be introduced to more violent anti-government groups. For instance, in the lead up to the election, the Oath Keepers’ Rhodes has warned of an impending civil war. 

“Q has bridged the gap between fringe and mainstream and allowed a lot more people to become familiar with these ideas,” said Freddy Cruz, who researches anti-government militias for the civil rights advocacy organization Southern Poverty Law Center. 

“It has created this pipeline that facilitates it for people and puts them down this rabbit hole,” he said.

“Maybe just exploring Q, it’s not very hard to find yourself learning and exploring ideas that are staples within the anti-government circle.”” 

Reaching out

As QAnon grows in size and influence, some concerned individuals are wondering how to persuade people out of the movement. While some veterans may be especially receptive to conspiracist groups, the bonds of service may open doors for dialogue with other former members of the military who disagree with them. 

Newhouse believes that encouraging veterans to engage with their peers is crucial.

“People don’t listen to The New York Times,” he said. “They listen to people who look like them and have similar experiences to them.” 

Murphy, however, has tried to talk to people like his former sergeant. It makes for difficult conversation, requires a considerable amount of time and patience, and is not guaranteed to succeed.

“They’re not going to change their mind overnight,” he said. “You have to be cool with them. If you start blowing up on them, they’re going to turn away from it. 

“You try to gently push them in the right direction, and maybe hope that they figure it out.”

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Caitlin Thompson

Caitlin Thompson is the audience development fellow at Coda Story. She previously worked at Foreign Policy and WBUR's Here & Now.