Philadelphia — Omar Sabir explained his decision to his wife quietly, out of earshot of their six children, who were all under the age of 12. He needed to start spending nights at a hotel. Just in case.
The Nov. 3 presidential election was just days away. A year earlier, the bearded, broad-shouldered Sabir had won a campaign to serve as one of Philadelphia’s three city commissioners, an unglamorous position dedicated to the behind-the-scenes machinery of elections — voter registration drives, staffing polling stations, verifying election results.
Sabir, 41, sought the job because he worried about voter apathy in disadvantaged communities. Too many people didn’t believe there was a point to standing in line to cast their vote, and he figured he could convince them otherwise. But now he felt like a bull’s-eye had settled onto his back.
A caller to Philadelphia’s 311 center around that time had vowed that “Democrat politicians and election officials who support Black Lives Matter and who use voter fraud” would learn why the Second Amendment existed. “We are a thousand steps ahead of you motherf—–,” the man said, “and you’re walking right into the lion’s den.”
For months, President Donald Trump had used every bullhorn at his disposal — his rallies, his social media accounts, his sycophantic surrogates — to rile up his followers with baseless warnings of a sinister conspiracy: The presidential election would be stolen by Democrats. According to this twisted fantasy, urban cities like Philadelphia were especially complicit.
The drumbeat of doom was growing louder, more frenzied, amplified by tens of thousands of social media accounts that urged Trump’s supporters to take back their country, to “stop the steal.” Sabir’s mind wandered into the past, to Black civil rights pioneers like Octavius Catto and Medgar Evers, who were murdered for their efforts, and he was seized by a chilling thought: What if someone followed him home at night?
“The safest way for me to be with my family,” he said, “was for me to be away. I had to change my behavior patterns.”
They agreed to not tell the kids the real reason he had moved into a hotel.
In the days after the election, as thousands of mail-in votes that would help Joe Biden win the presidency were counted within the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Sabir got a better sense of how the constant conspiracy chatter could provoke real-world responses.
Al Schmidt — a Republican commissioner who Trump claimed, in a tweet, refused “to look at a mountain of corruption & dishonesty” — received death threats, some of which included photos of his house, and, more ominously, the names of his children: “HEADS ON SPIKES, TREASONOUS SCHMIDTS.”
Lisa Deeley, the commissioners’ chairwoman, and a Democrat like Sabir, was followed and filmed by a Trump operative as she walked alone across Arch Street, toward the Convention Center’s Broad Street entrance. The video was shared on Parler, a right-wing social media platform, and on Twitter, where it attracted nearly 400,000 views.
“That’s when the real crazy comments started,” Deeley said. “”Let’s go to her house and kill her! She should be hung for treason!’ … I was scared to death.”
Nearly 280 miles from Philadelphia, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a 61-year-old named Antonio LaMotta — who drew cartoons about government conspiracies and shared them on Twitter, and wrote on his website about using tanks to take over “law-less cities like New York and Seattle” — texted a man he knew, Joshua Macias.
“What’s going on in Pa.? You need me there?” LaMotta wrote.
“On standby,” responded Macias, the co-founder of a group called Vets for Trump.
“Is it a problem? … What kind? We need arms?” asked LaMotta.
“For each of us,” Macias responded.
He and LaMotta loaded 150 rounds of ammunition and an AR-15-style rifle into a silver Hummer. On its rear window was a red Q — for QAnon, a conspiracy movement that attracted scores of followers who bought a mind-bending message: Trump was single-handedly fighting a cabal of Democrats and celebrities enmeshed in a child sex trafficking ring, many of whom would be rounded up and arrested on Jan. 20, 2021.
Macias and LaMotta drove to Philadelphia. They planned to raid a “truckload of fake ballots.” Instead, they were arrested Nov. 5 outside the Convention Center, armed with Beretta handguns, amid a crowd of demonstrators who’d gathered under the night sky.
As frightening and bizarre as QAnon sounds — the FBI designated it a domestic terror threat — the movement is just the latest mutation in a long line of conspiracy theories that are nearly as old as America itself, many of which fed on the darkest impulses in the country’s psyche: racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, white supremacy.
But the last decade has shown that new communities of deluded believers can form almost overnight. The Sandy Hook school massacre, the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election have all become rallying cries for conspiracy theorists who live in an alternate reality, one where tragedies are just set pieces in a shadowy play.
Some of these theories have become a central thread in America’s political fabric — especially in Pennsylvania, where eight Republican U.S. Congress members voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. The party’s most prominent local members avoid discussing how to reckon with the harm of election conspiracy theories. State Rep. Martina White, who is also chair of Philadelphia’s Republican City Committee, declined an interview request on the topic. And the 139 Republicans who hold seats in the state House and Senate didn’t respond when The Inquirer asked if they believed in QAnon, or false claims about COVID-19 being a hoax.
The risk of allowing conspiracy theories to run unchecked — or, even worse, to be politically endorsed — became clear on Jan. 6, when thousands of Trump supporters, some of them dressed in Q regalia, stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s victory. The failed insurrection left five people dead. Of the 360 people who have been arrested so far for participating in the attack, about 10% are from Pennsylvania.
Polling data shows that 73% of Americans believe that conspiracy theories are spiraling out of control, and U.S. intelligence officials warn that some of those theories are inspiring domestic terrorism. In cities and towns across the country, some of the more wild-eyed beliefs are dividing families and lifelong friends, and seeding future threats to public safety. The image we hold of each other has become warped, fueled by fear and disinformation. Undoing this damage won’t be easy.
Ultimate good vs. ultimate evil
Eric Ward caught a glimpse of the future as he stood inside a convention center in downtown Seattle in 1995. Thousands of people streamed into the building for an annual preparedness expo, a benign title for what was actually a big tent gathering for conspiracy theorists, white nationalists and militia members.
For a couple of days, attendees at presentations could discuss a paranoid theory — that the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City a few months earlier had actually been carried out by the U.S. government, as a pretext for seizing guns from Americans — and buy copies of “The Turner Diaries,” a bloodthirsty novel about white supremacists waging a supposedly just war against the government and Jewish and Black people.
As a Black man, Ward, who was then 30, attracted some stares. He pretended to belong to a group of people who wanted to resist the federal government; in reality, he worked for an organization that sought to reduce hate crimes in the Pacific Northwest. He studied groups, like the Militia of Montana and Police Against the New World Order, that were trying to build large coalitions of “patriots.” They would be succeeded, years later, by anti-government organizations like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys. Members of those groups — including Zach Rehl, the president of the Philadelphia Proud Boys — have been charged with planning or participating in the Capitol attack.
“Conspiracy theories take an individual and kind of place them as a central character in the unfolding of a story. They have the components of ultimate good vs. ultimate evil. Everything becomes seemingly very clear in terms of where one stands, and how the world is explained,” said Ward, who is a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Who gets vilified by these theories has consistently proven to be marginalized communities: Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ individuals or Jews.”
He was troubled then by federal, state, and local authorities’ reluctance to treat conspiracy and far-right extremist movements as an urgent threat, and worries that the Capitol attack will prove to be the prologue to darker incidents. “We’re going to find ourselves right back to this moment in three years, and it will look much more serious than Jan. 6,” he said. “But no one will believe it until it happens.”
Decades before Ward attended the preparedness expo in Seattle, Richard Hofstadter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, traced the tangled roots of conspiracy theories in America in his 1965 book, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
The 1830s brought warnings of an Austrian plan to have Jesuits attack the U.S., and stories about Catholic priests and nuns murdering infants. In 1920, Henry Ford, the automobile magnate, used a weekly paper he owned in Michigan to print an appalling series called The International Jew: The World’s Problem. Thirty years later, Sen. Joseph McCarthy was whipping up fears that America faced a communist “conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
A person who drinks deeply from a well of conspiracy theories “constantly lives at a turning point,” Hofstadter wrote. “It is now or never in organizing a resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever running out.”
Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor at the University of Miami, has spent years using polling data to measure the public’s fascination with and understanding of conspiracy theories. He sees little change, over time, in the basic nature or reach of paranoid beliefs. “It’s the same theories with different nouns,” he said. “It’s like a Mad Libs game.”
Not all theories, or movements, are the same. Some attract people who are lost or feel powerless, and are easily swayed by the promise that chaos and suffering in the world are simply the handiwork of powerful, hidden figures. Others lure those who are more clear-eyed about their beliefs, and motivated by hatred and a desire to see the country reshaped through violence.
But Uscinski cites one major difference about this particular moment in time: Trump.
The former reality TV personality launched his political career in 2011 by touting racist claims that former President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. As a 2016 presidential candidate, Trump revived a disproved allegation about Muslims in New Jersey watching and celebrating as the World Trade Center twin towers came down on 9/11. That sort of rhetoric didn’t live on in a vacuum; there were 127 reported assaults committed against Muslims in 2016, the highest total since 2001.
“He wasn’t chasing your regular Republican,” Uscinski said. “He was chasing someone who was motivated by conspiracy theories and anti-establishment views.”
Once Trump had the platform of the presidency, he continued to speak directly to that constituency, shrugging off any suggestion that it could be dangerous to give oxygen to conspiracy theories. He claimed that the pandemic was the Democrats’ “new hoax” — the virus has killed more than 560,000 Americans so far — and retweeted a QAnon-linked post that falsely claimed Osama bin Laden’s death had been faked.
When faced with the prospect of a resounding election loss, Trump again invoked the specter of a grand conspiracy. It didn’t matter that his handpicked attorney general, William Barr, said federal investigators had found no evidence of widespread election fraud, or that Trump’s legal attempts to halt or overturn the election ended in a string of often-humiliating defeats. He simply doubled down on language that cast him and his followers as heroic, aggrieved figures in a holy battle — ultimate good vs. ultimate evil.
“We will never give up, we will never concede,” he told a sea of supporters at a rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, before some in the crowd overran the Capitol in a display of violence that wouldn’t have been out of place in “The Turner Diaries,” and led to Trump being impeached, but not convicted, for a second time.
Among those in the city that day were LaMotta and Macias — out on bail from their Philadelphia gun charges — and Jennifer Gugger, a QAnon-supporting Philadelphia police detective who would label Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor and a cabal operator and a pedophile” in a tweet a few days later. (Internal Affairs is investigating Gugger’s presence at the Trump rally.)
Uscinski uses polling questions to measure participants’ disposition, to get a sense of whether they possess dark personality traits, or are open to violence being used against the government — a marker for more troubling tendencies.
“Actions can spring from belief,” he said, “if a belief is disconnected from a shared reality.”
‘I knew we were in trouble’
Nelba Márquez-Greene, a family therapist, and her husband, Jimmy Greene, a jazz saxophonist, moved from Canada to Newtown, Connecticut, with their two children in the summer of 2012. Situated less than two hours from New York City, with a population of about 28,000, it was statistically one of the safest places to live in the state.
They found a nice little school for their 8-year-old son, Isaiah, and their 6-year-old daughter, Ana Grace. The two would sometimes sit side-by-side at a piano, Isaiah carefully playing notes to an old Christian hymn, “Come Thou Almighty King,” while Ana Grace counted off — “One, two, three. Ready and go” — and sang along, her voice filling the room like sunlight.
A few months after the family settled into Newtown, the kids went off to school one morning, and nothing was ever the same. A hollow-eyed 20-year-old man, dressed in black clothing and a green vest, showed up at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a Glock handgun. In the space of a few minutes, he unleashed an incomprehensible amount of horror, murdering 20 first graders and six school staffers, and then died by suicide.
Among his tiny victims was Ana Grace.
Isaiah, a third grader, escaped the school uninjured.
In the months that followed, Márquez-Greene and her husband tried to find their way through a fog of grief that enveloped their lives. One of their new tasks was sorting through a sudden deluge of mail from strangers. They separated letters into piles: one for charitable donations made in Ana Grace’s memory, another for heartfelt expressions of sympathy. There was a third pile, one that was an unsettling harbinger of what was to come.
“They were always easily identifiable by the weird penmanship on the address label,” Márquez-Greene said. “It would be this bizarre handwriting. And then you would open it, and there would be photos of our family, taken from the internet.”
In dark corners of the web, handfuls of delusional people began to theorize that the school massacre never happened.
Alex Jones, a bullfrog of a man given to red-faced hysterics, used his website and talk show, Infowars, to amplify that falsehood, suggesting that the parents of Sandy Hook victims were paid actors, and that the government was planning to use a faked tragedy as an excuse to seize Americans’ firearms — recycling some of the same paranoid talking points that had originated with the Oklahoma City bombing.
This was the dawn of a dangerous new phase. Sandy Hook hoaxers ventured beyond their echo chambers and began threatening and taunting families of the murdered children. Some traveled to Newtown to confront school board officials; they also used Facebook groups to grow their reach.
Márquez-Greene remembers conversations she had with local police officers as the hoaxers grew more aggressive. “There was never really an easy answer about what sort of consequences there would be for them,” she said. “That’s when I realized we were in trouble. Because there was no way to punish people who put up a website that’s designed to tell you that your daughter isn’t real.”
Jones was sued for defamation in 2018 by some parents of Sandy Hook victims, and has since claimed he had “a form of psychosis” that made him think the massacre had been staged. But by then, too many people had believed the hoax theory for far too long.
In recent months, she has been asked by reporters to comment on the rise of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a freshman U.S. Congress member from Georgia who publicly agreed with a person who wrote that Sandy Hook, and several other school shootings, had been staged. The congresswoman has expressed support for QAnon, as has Lauren Boebert, who won a congressional race in Colorado last year. Boebert said she hoped QAnon was real “because it only means America is getting stronger and better and people are returning to conservative values.” (Boebert was invited to speak at a February breakfast for Lehigh County Republicans, but didn’t appear. Tim Ramos, the county’s interim chairman, said Boebert had been invited to discuss her support of the Second Amendment. “We do not deal in theories,” he said. “We deal with reality.”)
Márquez-Greene and her husband moved from Newtown. A handful of the predominantly white Sandy Hook hoaxers have faced criminal charges, but most felt no repercussions for harassing victims’ family, in person and online, and adding misery to their lives. About a year and a half ago, Márquez-Greene learned that one notoriously belligerent Sandy Hook obsessive had collected photos of her friend’s teenage daughter — and then visited the girl’s family, because he wanted to prove she was actually Ana Grace.
“A lot of people think [conspiracy theorists] would make really great dinner party guests. You need to understand they’ve hurt millions of people really deeply,” she said. “Culturally, we find people who have hurt so many to be cool and fascinating. And I have a really hard time with that.”
The next wave
After Sandy Hook, even more feverish narratives percolated in the depths of the internet, and found an easy path to the minds of people who would then step away from their computers and embark on self-appointed missions.
First came Pizzagate, in 2016.
Posts from a white supremacist Twitter account and 4Chan, a message board steeped in anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia, falsely claimed that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was involved in an international child sex ring. Eventually this storyline grew to include Comet Ping Pong, a small pizza shop in Washington, D.C., where theorists imagined children were being trafficked.
A 28-year-old North Carolina man soon became so convinced that he drove to D.C., barged into Comet Ping Pong, and fired an AR-15 rifle at a locked door. To his shock, he found only some computer equipment inside, not enslaved children. “The intel on this wasn’t 100%,” he told The New York Times.
The seeds of Pizzagate resurfaced, a year later, in QAnon. An anonymous 4Chan user — Q — claimed to be a high-level government insider, and predicted the imminent arrest of Clinton. Scores of cryptic follow-up posts on another message board, 8chan, sketched out a wider plot, which followers believe included politicians murdering children to harvest adrenochrome, a chemical compound produced by the oxidation of adrenaline — a perverse reimagining of ancient lies about Jews killing Christian children as part of rituals. Crucially, QAnon followers were invited to do their own digging, to study photographs and videos for hidden clues. This created a different kind of emotional investment, with true believers now seeing themselves as players in an unfolding crusade.
As president, Trump retweeted 258 posts from QAnon-linked accounts, and QAnon shirts, hats and flags became part of the tapestry of his rallies. Yet when a reporter asked him about the movement last summer, he claimed he didn’t know much about it, “other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.”
The movement suffered a devastating dose of reality on Jan. 20, when Joe Biden was sworn in as president, and Trump didn’t make a prophesied last-minute return. Some QAnon followers confessed to being disillusioned; others clung to the notion that Trump would retake the presidency, but this time in March, or theorized Biden’s inauguration had been fake, attended by look-alikes posing as the Obamas and the Clintons.
“I have no f—— clue what is going on but the reality is clearly NOT whatever the news is telling you,” one wrote on 4Chan.
The Capitol attack cried out for some kind of rededication to truth and sanity, a chance for both political parties to stand together and reject the extremism that nearly led to public executions — or, as one rioter, a Pennsylvania woman, put it: “We were looking for Nancy [Pelosi] to shoot her in the friggin’ brain, but we didn’t find her.”
That rededication hasn’t happened. Pennsylvania Republicans considered censuring one of their own, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, for his impeachment vote to convict Trump for inciting the Capitol attack. And Republican state lawmakers have transitioned from supporting false claims about Pennsylvania’s election results to using committee meetings to explore restricting the state’s use of mail-in ballots.
When presented with a chance to disavow Trump’s lies about the election, or conspiracy movements like QAnon, elected Republicans like Martina White have demurred. (The Philadelphia Inquirer repeatedly reached out to Republicans in the state House and Senate about QAnon, the election, and the pandemic through their caucus spokespeople, who did not return emails and phone calls.)
Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican who represented Lehigh Valley in Congress from 2005 to 2018, isn’t surprised.
“It’s all a function of fear. There are many elected Republicans who are fearful of facing primary pressures, and fearful of Trump elements inciting the base against them,” he said. “Many of them also recognize those base elements can’t necessarily help them win a general election, but they can certainly make their lives miserable in a primary.”
On Easter, Trump issued a statement that referenced “Radical Left CRAZIES who rigged our Presidential Election, and want to destroy our Country!”
“More Republicans need to speak up and say it’s not true,” Dent said. “You need more voices. They can help change the narrative and provide a credible alternative to the nonsense the president has been espousing.”
Meanwhile, when The Inquirer recently asked on Twitter if Philadelphians had lost personal relationships because of conspiracy theories, nearly two dozen people responded and described how some of their friends and relatives disappeared into whirlpools of disinformation, their perception of reality reshaped by a toxic blend of YouTube videos, social media posts, and radical sites posing as legitimate news.
Last spring, as the coronavirus began spreading across the country, Nate Velazquez noticed that one of his friends, a former member of the U.S. military, had started sharing articles from far-right sites that claimed the virus was fake. They were used to occasional political disagreements that everyone forgave and forgot the next day. This seemed different.
“It got exponentially worse,” Velazquez said. “He was saying 5G [communication] towers were causing the virus. Or George Soros was behind it, the most ridiculous, anti-Semitic conspiracy out there. And then he got into the religious side of it, thinking Trump is the savior, elected by God.”
The exchanges grew tense. Velazquez and his group worried about their friend’s mental health. They tried to reason with him privately, but were rebuffed. By the summer, their decadelong text thread fell silent.
“I’ve lost a couple of friends to QAnon,” Velazquez said. “You definitely don’t want to give up on someone. But I just don’t know if there’s a way to go back. They’d have to renounce [it], and I don’t know how that happens.”
An ugly reflection
History suggests that specific conspiracy theories — whether about a communist infiltration of the U.S. government, or the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks having been staged — will lose steam and become less prevalent, but there will always be other supposedly secret plots waiting to be discovered, and spread across social media. So how do you limit their reach, or awaken followers who have fallen under their spell?
Rick Alan Ross has spent much of the last four decades crafting solutions to such murky problems. The executive director of the Trenton, New Jersey-based Cult Education Institute, Ross has helped deprogram hundreds of former members of cults, including David Koresh’s Branch Davidian movement. Now he fields phone calls from people who ask if he can pull their loved one out of a QAnon spiral. He starts with emphasizing the importance of maintaining a connection.
“If you have a loved one who has bought into conspiracy theories, don’t argue with them,” Ross said. “You don’t want to do anything that could make them further isolate themselves within the movement. The crucial element to bringing people out is communication.”
Actual deprogramming is a painstaking process that can sometimes take days, and requires cutting believers off from their sources of disinformation, and explaining how they were recruited and manipulated. The task is even more difficult if a person already possessed beliefs that a cult, or a cultlike movement, simply amplified.
“It’s really tough,” Ross said. “You have to have their cooperation, and you have to have time. It needs to be organized, like a drug or alcohol intervention.”
Deplatforming has been one route to limiting the reach of people and movements spreading conspiracies and inciting violence. In the days following the U.S. Capitol attack, Twitter banned 70,000 QAnon-affiliated accounts, while Facebook expelled more than 18,000 profiles and 10,500 groups since last summer. Amazon and eBay no longer allow QAnon merchandise to be sold on their sites.
Gavriel Rosenfeld, a history professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut, draws some parallels between post-World War II Germany and the U.S. in the aftermath of the Capitol attack. It is an imperfect comparison, but German leaders at that time worried people might once again fall prey to Nazi ideology and weaponized lies. They barred swastikas and other Nazi imagery, and speech that could incite violence or hatred.
Free speech limitations would be anathema to Americans. But the Capitol attack was a grim reminder that powerful figures who whip large numbers of people into a frenzy and urge them to take action — to believe it’s now or never, as Hofstadter once put it — can fuel terror and bloodshed. Rosenfeld argues the U.S. needs to consider the “defensive democracy” approach Germany adopted to try to contain harmful movements.
“I’m more inclined to think, because we’ve reached a critical stage, and mass delusions have now unleashed violence, that maybe we have to curb some of those absolutist principles that we thought we had the luxury of enjoying,” Rosenfeld said.
Calls for a 9/11 Commission-like investigation into the Capitol attack, something that could reveal ugly truths about the roots of the hatred and violence that erupted in January, have already broken down over Republican opposition. But the urgency remains. In March, federal intelligence officials wrote in an unclassified report that a combination of factors — election fraud claims, the pandemic and conspiracy theories that promote violence — “will almost certainly spur some [domestic extremists] to try to engage in violence this year.”
In Philadelphia, the three city commissioners who survived being dropped into a churning national conspiracy theory saga are still recovering from the experience. They continue to receive security protection — and threats.
Al Schmidt decided against running for a fourth term in 2023.
Lisa Deeley has trouble sleeping. When she goes out, she worries someone might recognize her and douse her with hot coffee. “Never in my wildest dreams could I have anticipated this job could cost me my health, my safety and my life,” she said. “But it’s a real fear.”
And Omar Sabir has grappled with the fact that the false claims about rigged elections have sometimes been parroted back to him by constituents in predominantly Black communities in North and West Philadelphia, people who wonder if they shouldn’t bother voting if everything is being controlled, behind the scenes, by some malevolent force.
“We have an unrealistic, romantic view of America,” Sabir said. “It’s good we really see exactly where we are.”
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