I had some conversations with Long Islanders in recent weeks that went in strange directions. The kind of directions that make you want to jump in the ocean and keep swimming for a while.
The reason for the strange directions was the QAnon phenomenon. If you haven’t heard about QAnon, a helpful way to describe it is that it is a mass delusion. It starts with an anonymous internet poster or posters who "leak" out "information" about what are in reality wild conspiracies. The general gist is that pedophiles secretly rule the world and President Donald Trump is battling them and the so-called deep state as he tries to save the children. But the conspiracies touch on child sex trafficking, English comedian Ricky Gervais, the Kennedys, the Clintons, complicated clock cosmology, and lots of other tangled threads. It’s baseless and potentially dangerous, and has been identified as a potential domestic terror threat by the FBI. However, Trump plays along for political gain — including when he refused to denounce the collection of conspiracies during a Thursday night town hall and said instead, "They are very much against pedophilia."
This internet-born material matters because it is infecting the beliefs of real people, including some congressional candidates and perhaps even some of your neighbors and friends. It takes real, complex, terrible things — like sex trafficking and deceased financier Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged crimes — and twists them into fakery. Other mistruths get pulled along in its wake. In this way, QAnon has become an unreality vector.
A look at some Twitter users whose bios feature QAnon slogans — like WWG1WGA (Where We Go One We Go All) — and whose geo-location is set to Long Island lets out an idea of what has filtered to the world. Those accounts include some from Jericho and East Islip saying that Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris has actually died or been arrested, or that Trump was "INFECTED somehow by the Deep State." The accounts involve a vocal Long Beach Islanders fan who also raised an exaggerated incident much cited in right-wing media about military mail-in ballots found "in a ditch" in Pennsylvania.
It includes Terence Hohlman, a 43-year-old father from East Meadow who in a phone interview said some wild stuff about CIA operations and how the media gets a daily 4 a.m. email with talking points that dictate what journalists will talk about each day.
It includes Radomir, a 39-year-old Suffolk County resident who agreed to speak if identified only by his middle name, given that he believed his internet presence has led to someone putting up fake cellphone towers to "monitor my cell phone calls."
Hohlman and Radomir acknowledge that some of the QAnon stuff is pretty out there, but that doesn't stop them from believing much of it, because — and here’s the key — they did their research.
"People log on to this messaging board, and they do research," Hohlman said. "It's like a breadcrumb trail."
To give you a sense of where that research leads, here’s something Radomir believes enough to repeat, based on an anonymous post purportedly by Epstein’s driver (though Radomir wasn’t sure whether they actually were). Radomir thinks that Epstein’s driver also drove for Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and "used to pick up girls for his son, and you know, they would get drugs, they would get high." The outcome of the supposed story is that Romney’s son Cole does drugs with a girl, "OD’d her and killed her," and dumped her body.
To state only the most minor factual points about the above: Romney does not — as far as any biography goes — have a son named Cole. There are no traces of this story in any reputable newspaper clips. And a tale about Romney’s phone number being found in Epstein’s cellphone that you might have seen floating around the internet comes from a satirical website, according to the fact-checking website Snopes.
Other things that Radomir or Hohlman ascribed meaning to: the watch on a Rockefeller’s hand on the cover of an old magazine and the time on another clock on the president’s desk, and a certain way Trump holds his fingers.
These are the kinds of pathways by which conspiracy theory believers might get to the conclusion that elites from actor George Clooney to Sen. Chuck Schumer are complicit in a child-sex-trafficking cabal.
Fact checking sites have tirelessly debunked claims like these, and social media companies are beginning to catch on and working to deplatform QAnon.
But conspiracies can be easily encapsulated in other conspiracies, and they take on a life of their own. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank focused on extremism, recorded "69,475,451 million tweets, 487,310 Facebook posts and 281,554 Instagram posts mentioning QAnon-related hashtags and phrases" from October 2017 to June 2020. The group’s report found that the pandemic sped things up, and the spring moment of lockdowns saw "a notable increase in conversation volumes."
All that activity means that for many people, a sense of alternate reality has been seeded, just as the nation begins to vote.
Radomir said he’s been stepping back from QAnon recently because he feels he’s already done everything he can as far as "spreading it around."
"The election’s right around the corner," Radomir said. "And that's really the goal is to get Trump to win it, so he can just continue. So my job is really done."
Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday's editorial board.