A QAnon Digital Soldier Marches On, Undeterred by the Unraveling of Theory
In favor of an unhinged conspiracy theory, Valerie Gilbert posts hundreds of times a day. The tale of this "meme queen" shows how difficult it would be to get people like her back to reality.
In her Upper East Side apartment, Valerie Gilbert, a Harvard-educated writer and actress, wakes up every morning; feeds her dog, Milo, and her cats, Marlena and Celeste; brews a cup of coffee; and sits at the table in her oval dining room.
She then opens her laptop and starts battling against the multinational cabal.
Ms. Gilbert, 57, is a believer in the pro-Trump theory of conspiracy, QAnon. She is persuaded, like all QAnon loyalists, that the planet is run by a Satanic gang of pedophiles, including top Democrats and elites in Hollywood, and that President Trump has spent years leading a top-secret mission to bring these evildoers to justice.
On her Facebook page, she uncovers this web of falsehoods, where she posts dozens of times a day, often posting links from right-wing websites such as Breitbart and The Epoch Times or QAnon memes she pulled from Twitter. The feed featured a rant about Covid-19 lockdowns on a recent day, a grainy meme accusing Congress of "high treason," a post calling Lady Gaga a Satanist, and a suggestion that a coded intelligence message was "covfefe," a mistake that Mr. Trump mistakenly tweeted three years ago.
"Ms. Gilbert told me, "I'm the meme queen. I'm not going to make them, but I'm sharing a mean meme, and I'm kind of raw."
For adherents of QAnon, a deranged conspiracy theory born in the internet's bowels, these are troubling times. They were told that in a landslide, Mr. Trump would be re-elected, and that a coming 'storm' would expose the global pedophile ring and bring justice to its leaders.
There have been no mass arrests, however, and Mr. Trump is leaving office under the cloud of a second impeachment on Wednesday. Many influential QAnon supporters have been arrested in this month's deadly mob riot in the U.S. for their positions. That Capitol. Thousands of people from major social networks are barred from sharing disinformation about election fraud, and law enforcement authorities regard the campaign as an extremist domestic danger.
These losses left believers in QAnon, including Ms. Gilbert, hoping for a last-minute miracle. "Her current hypothesis is that on Wednesday, Mr. Trump will not really leave office, but instead will impose martial law, declassify damning "deep state" documents, and arrest thousands of cabal members, including President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.
QAnon includes a wide variety of principles and strategies, like any movement of its scale, which is almost certainly in the millions, although it is difficult to measure. Some "anons" are veteran conspirators who spent years investigating the various tributaries of the theory. Others are more recent converts and have only a vague understanding of how it interacts. As well as violent, unhinged extremists, there are law-abiding keyboard warriors.
There is no doubt that QAnon, which started in 2017 with a series of anonymous posts by "Q," a person purporting to be a high-ranking government insider on the 4chan online message board, has outgrown its origins on the far-right fringes. "It is now a big-tent conspiracy theory community that includes left-wing yoga moms, libertarians against lockdown, and Trumpists "Stop the Steal. The believers of QAnon are young and old, male and female, educated and not educated. Dentists and firefighters and real estate agents who one day vanished down a social media rabbit hole and never came back, have a fair share of them in every city in America.
Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher who is writing a book about QAnon, said, "This is not just young, male incels who live in the basements of their parents and can not get a real job." QAnon provides you with a target to target your anger, and it gives you something to do about it. That is something that can cater to someone who, in some way, is disaffected.
The elite pedigree of Ms. Gilbert-she attended the Dalton School in Manhattan and collaborated with Conan O'Brien on The Harvard Lampoon in the 1980s-illustrates the large spectrum of people who ended up in Q's thrall. And her story suggests how tough it's going to be to get those people back to reality.
What draws Ms. Gilbert and several other individuals to QAnon is not just the substance of the theory of conspiracy itself. It's the culture it offers and its sense of mission. New believers in QAnon are welcomed to chat rooms and group emails, and likes and retweets are showered on their messages. They make friends, and they are told that Facebook addicts are not lonely squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi pictures, but patriots collecting "intel" for a just revolution.
This social aspect also implies that with logic and reason alone, QAnon supporters are not likely to be convinced out of their beliefs.
"Mr. Rothschild said, "These folks are not drooling, mind-controlled cultists. "People like it who are in Q. They love being part of it. You can't debunk and fact-check your way out of this, because you don't want these people to quit.
In 2019, I first met Ms. Gilbert, a few months after she had seriously gotten into QAnon. She explained, friendly and soft-spoken, that Hollywood insiders carried out Illuminati blood rituals behind closed doors, that the laptop of former Representative Anthony Weiner held a video of the assassination of Hillary Clinton, and that pictures from a recent meeting between Mr. Trump and Queen Elizabeth II showed that she had been secretly dethroned.
Despite these delusions, I was mainly struck by Ms. Gilbert, a self-described mystic who wrote four books with titles such as Swami Soup, as a New Age eccentric who could use some time away from screens. She disdained the mass media, but agreed to be profiled, and we stayed in touch with her.
I discovered through a series of conversations that she had a long-standing mistrust of elites dating back to her days at Harvard, when she felt out of place among people she considered snobby rich children. She joined the anti-establishment left as an adult, promoting animal rights and joining the demonstrations against the Standing Rock oil pipeline. She respected Anonymous, a hacktivist collective, and looked up at whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. For most of her life, she was a registered Democrat, but after determining that both political parties were corrupt, she voted for Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee, in the 2016 presidential election.
The journey to QAnon by Ms. Gilbert started in 2016 when WikiLeaks released a cache of leaked Clinton campaign documents. She began seeing messages about something called #Pizzagate on social media shortly after. She had previously dabbled with conspiracy theories, but Pizzagate, who wrongly posited that powerful Democrats were running a child sex trafficking ring out of a Washington pizza parlor, blew her mind, and that all this was outlined in code in the Clinton emails. If that were real, she thought, all her assumptions about elites would be connected and the awful realities they had been covering up would be clarified.
'The world has opened up for me in Technicolor,' she said. "It was like the Matrix-it all just started downloading."
For QAnon, which she learned through the YouTube videos of a British psychic, Pizzagate primed Ms. Gilbert. It took over her life easily, and dramatically yanked her politics to the right. Her Facebook feed apparently shifted overnight from Change.org petitions and adorable animal images to Gateway Pundit links and memes of "Killary Clinton."
Ms. Gilbert has a strictly virtual connection to the campaign, like many of the QAnon die-hards. She said she had never taken part in a QAnon rally, or even directly met another believer in QAnon. As a freelance audiobook narrator, she works from home, rarely leaves her apartment and scoffed when I asked if she would ever take up Q's arms.
She said, "I am a digital soldier." "I'm working on the computer."
She was not at the riot at the Capitol, and she denied that the QAnon campaign was aggressive. She said there was no indication that the participants were believers in QAnon, and indicated that they may have been dressed as antifa demonstrators, all items that have been widely debunked. She sounded disappointed that Mr. Biden was certified as the election winner, something Q had never expected, but she said that her confidence had not been shaken.
Since I get it," she said, "the ups and downs have not fazed me. "This is an information war, a propaganda war, and I am only riding the waves."
Every time Q posted a new message, Mrs. Gilbert used to get push notifications on her phone. But in recent weeks, Q, who once sent hundreds of updates a day, has virtually disappeared from the internet, posting only four times since the November election. Some believers have started to raise questions because of the sudden disappearance. Impatient followers have flooded chat rooms and Twitter threads asking when the mass arrests will begin, and whether Q's slogan "trust the plan" is just a stalling strategy.
Ms. Gilbert is not concerned, however. QAnon was always less about Q for her, and more about the crowdsourced search for reality for her. In real time, she loves assembling her own reality, patching fragments of knowledge together and linking them to the central story. (She once spent several minutes describing how a domino-shaped decoration on the Christmas tree of the White House showed that Mr. Trump sent coded messages about QAnon because there were 17 dots in the domino, and Q is the alphabet's 17th letter.)
She posts it to Facebook when she solves a new piece of the puzzle, where her friends at QAnon post heart emojis and congratulate her.
A large part of what attracted Ms. Gilbert to QAnon and holds her there now is this interactive aspect, which others have compared to a massively multiplayer online video game.
She said, "I am really good at putting symbols together."
Believing in QAnon helps to make one's social calendar transparent, and no exception is Ms. Gilbert. After fighting with them over Pizzagate, she broke ties with her closest friends years ago. She is estranged from her sister, who attempted to interfere via her Facebook posts and failed to do so.
She is estranged and has been living alone for years, and her loneliness has only been sharpened by the pandemic. She thinks Covid-19's danger is overblown, and refuses to wear a mask (except at the grocery store, where she has no choice). As a result, her neighbors stay clear of her, and any time she steps outside, she feels their wrath.
She told me during a recent call, "I'm called names and abused." "Today, on the sidewalk, a 90-year-old woman who lives in my building cursed me."
Ms. Gilbert maintains that, by definition, she is a lone wolf, but being a pariah clearly took a toll. She compares Nazi Germany to Manhattan, and talks sadly of the friends she lost. (I spoke to some of those former colleagues. They miss her, but in her current condition, they can't imagine reconciling with her.)
It will be a massive blow to QAnon's central mythology this week, as Mr. Biden becomes president and Mr. Trump exits the White House, and it may cause some believers to admit that they were lied to. Many will cope by spinning the creation as a victory, or saying it shows that the long game is being played by Mr. Trump. Others are going to secretly ditch Q and pass their passion to a new theory of conspiracy. Maybe a few will be jolted back to reality.
Ms. Gilbert realizes that she is losing patience with some of her fellow travelers. Their daily well of QAnon material is drying up, and every app except Calculator and Stocks has barred their favorite QAnon influencers. Some are explicitly threatening, if Mr. Biden is inaugurated, to condemn Q and abandon the movement.
But it is undeterred by the meme queen. At least for a little while longer, she trusts Q's strategy and she needs them to trust it, too.
"Be prepared, and stay cool," Ms. Gilbert recently wrote to her friends on Facebook. "Win the race slow and steady. We're now in the home stretch.