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  • ★★★★★-5

Review: Trust the Plan: The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America by William Sommer

Ultimately, I think the best solution to conspiracy theories comes from building a government that fulfills its citizens' basic needs, so people aren't driven to find comfort in conspiracy theories in the first place.

I've fallen down the rabbit hole. Well, more like the anti-rabbit hole.

It all started several years ago when I came across the HBO/Vice short, "This is What the Life of an Incel Looks Like". I could not believe what I was seeing. At the very least, I thought, these were isolated cases. Men like this, they lived in their own corner of the internet. They wouldn't leak out into the real world.

But then there it was in my YouTube recommended, another Vice short: "Hunting Down Incel Extremists". I won't use his name as to avoid glorifying him any further, but there was a man who killed six people and injured over a dozen others because of the beliefs he learned on incel forums. He even uploaded a video detailing his plans beforehand. And instead of being horrified at his actions, other incels applauded him. They started using his face and name as iconography, like he was the messiah of their newfound religion.

A few months ago, another short on the topic caught my attention. "Shy Boys: IRL" is a much tamer piece on the issue, but it reopened my gateway of interest in the subject. In the comments of that video, I saw recommendations for the documentary Feels Good Man, and a few short clicks later I exposed myself to an even larger set of floodgates than I could have ever anticipated.

Feels Good Man isn't really about incels. It's about Matt Furie, a cartoonist and creator of the Boy's Club comic series. In that series, there's a panel in which one of Furie's characters, Pepe the Frog, is caught peeing with his pants around his ankles. When one of his friends asks why he pees that way, Pepe has nothing to say but, "Feels good man." For reasons unbeknownst to us all, this image of Pepe's face was latched onto by incels on 4chan. It became a competition, to see who could make the most offensive content using the cartoon as possible. Pepe the Frog is now federally recognized as a hate symbol.

You may be wondering why, in this review on a book about QAnon, I have yet to say anything about QAnon. The reason for that is simple. In my personal foray into the sickest corners of the internet, it wasn't until this moment that everything clicked into place. Pepe the Frog wasn't just a symbol to incels or the politically incorrect. I remembered kids joking about him in middle school. I'd seen him all over Instagram. He was a meme, as well as a legitimate call for violence. But how could both versions be true simultaneously?

Something was spreading the symbol innocuously. Or at least, pretending to be.

QAnon began as a random post on 4chan in 2017. A user on the site, Q, started posting cryptic predictions and statements about the US government, claiming to have insider access. These cryptic posts gained a massive following. Eventually, Q moved from 4chan to 8chan, an even worse site founded by Fredrick Brennan, a former incel himself who wanted to make a site with even fewer restrictions than 4chan. (Interestingly enough, Brennan no longer owns the site and has become a good guy in the grand scheme of things. He sold 8chan to Jim and Ron Watkins, and now viciously hates his own creation. Also, when Q made the switch from 4chan to 8chan, he almost assuredly got hacked by Ron Watkins himself. The original Q isn't even the one that created the majority of the QAnon mess. But that's too much of a tangent to go on here. Watch HBO's Q: Into the Storm if you want to hear that whole wild story.)

If you've reposted Pepe the Frog, you've inadvertently made a Q supporter happy. If you've entertained the idea of the Wayfair conspiracy or used the hashtag Save the Children, you've inadvertently made a Q supporter happy. If you've debated the moon landing or flat earth, 9/11 conspiracies or lizard people, laughed at that video of Trump complimenting a baby, you've inadvertently made a Q supporter very, very happy.

I had no idea it ran this deep. QAnon is responsible for at least three mass shootings (Christchurch, Poway, El Paso). It is responsible for the January 6 attack on the Capitol. It's responsible for nearly every major COVID-19 conspiracy. Arguably, it's responsible for the outcome of the 2016 election.

The core beliefs of QAnon stem from posts from Q himself, that a cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles control the entire world, from the government to Hollywood celebrities. These powerful people are not only cannibalistic pedophiles, but seek a drug called adrenochrome that can only be extracted from the brains of sexually abused children. This drug can rejuvenate the body and possibly grant eternal life. By exposing this truth, Q is preparing his followers for the Storm, the day when every powerful person who engages in this practice will finally be arrested.

That's just the tip of it. William Sommer goes into much greater detail in this book, but I'll spare you the minutiae.

What really matters is that QAnon has splintered. It has wormed its way into the alt-right and beyond. Q's supporters planted seeds that outlived Q himself, who has been radio silent since 2022, and had been silent for 18 months prior, after Trump lost the 2020 election.

On the surface, it sounds crazy. That a random internet troll has significantly affected the trajectory of American history. But that's the power of conspiracies. And the danger of the internet.

Sommer has dedicated the past several years of his life to studying how we got here. How QAnon became what it did. In the conclusion of this book, he knows he's supposed to provide something more: how to keep it from happening again. But the thing is, there is no easy solution.

QAnon is uniquely slippery. It isn't just one thing. It may have started as Q posts, "baking", and the incoming Storm, but it's evolved into something else entirely. QAnon is comfort for the disillusioned, it's an explanation for why the world is unfair, it's going to save you. That's what so many people are desperate to believe.

QAnon believers sometimes have legitimate critiques of how the world runs, but they decide to blame individual people in a cabal for their problems, rather than the entire economic system. Austin Steinbart-follower Michael Khoury, for example, was driven into QAnon after his application for Social Security disability benefits was denied. He came to feel that the government didn't care if he lived or died. QAnon offered him a way to act on that disappointment.

Sommer is well aware that dramatic political change cannot and will not happen to a degree that will solve everyone's problems. He also asserts that law enforcement and the mental health industry need to take the threat of conspiracies much more seriously. They need to believe targets of harassment and know how to help family members of converts. Even now, with QAnon as big as it is, people have no one better to turn to than journalists like Sommer for help in saving their loved ones from the iceberg.

And that should not be a responsibility for him to bear alone.


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