A Conspiracy Theory Is Proved WrongThe Daily
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- 29 Jan 2021
This episode contains strong language. Inauguration Day was supposed to bring vindication for adherents of the pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon.Instead, they watched as Joe Biden took the oath as the 46th president of the United States.What happens to a conspiracy theory and its followers when they are proved wrong?Guest: Kevin Roose, a technology columnist for The New York Times. For an exclusive look at how the biggest stories on our show come together, subscribe to our newsletter. You can read the latest edition here.Background reading: As Mr. Biden took office and Mr. Trump landed in Florida, with no mass arrests in sight, some QAnon believers struggled to harmonize the falsehoods with the inauguration on their TVs.Valerie Gilbert posts dozens of times a day in support of QAnon. Her story hints at how hard it will be to bring people like her back to reality.What is QAnon? Here is an explainer on the “big tent conspiracy theory.”For more information on today’s episode, visit nytimes.com/thedaily
In the days leading up to Joe Biden's inauguration on January 20th, as my colleagues in Washington were getting ready to go cover the inauguration, I was checking in with the followers of Kuhnen Boom.
What's up, guys? Welcome to another show. We're here on Monday morning, January 18th. Only a couple of days left until Inauguration Day or whatever that might actually happen on that day. Basically, people who believe in this Kuhnen conspiracy theory had locked into that date January 20th.
We're all waiting in anxious anticipation to see what this week might bring, aren't we? Which they saw as kind of the final deadline, the true culmination of all of these beliefs and predictions they've been talking about for the last three years?
I don't know. I feel in my gut that something is going to happen and we go from there. They were promised that Joe Biden would not actually be inaugurated that day. Trump can call martial law even up to five minutes before Biden's inauguration if he has to wait that long. Donald Trump would declare martial law and reveal all of these shocking and terrible government secrets and that Trump himself would get inaugurated for a second term.
The shot heard around the room is going to be when they arrest Biden right there on stage while Joe Biden would get arrested. Either they're going to arrest him on stage. He's going to come out and say that the election was fraudulent or something is going to happen and they're not going to be able to do the inauguration.
And the thing I was trying to figure out is like when that doesn't happen, when Joe Biden is inaugurated in contradiction of all of these prophecies that Kuhnen had believe, like what with the millions of people who have been expecting this to happen, do. From New York Times, I'm Michael Borrow, this is Italy. Today, my colleague Kevin Rose on what happens to a conspiracy theory and its followers when it's proven wrong. I mean, even if we don't get out of our way, we're going to get our way one way or another.
It's Friday, January 29th. Kevin, why is January 20th such a make or break moment for believers in the Kuhnen conspiracy theory, Kuhnen at its core is a deeply data driven belief system.
So just to recap, Cliff Notes version Kuhnen is this big sprawling conspiracy theory about this global cabal of satanic pedophiles who run the world no basis. In fact, it's totally made up. But it got started in twenty seventeen when?
Q This anonymous message board poster who claimed to be a high level government insider, started posting these cryptic clues on a message board about what was going to happen.
Basically unschooling this theory about how Donald Trump was secretly working to take down this cabal and that there would be this day in the future, this moment of reckoning called the storm or the Great Awakening, when Trump would reveal his plan, exposed the deep state cabal and bring its members to justice. Mm hmm.
And Kevin, does anyone know I don't know if this is measurable, how many people believe in this clearly false conspiracy of Q and his prophecies? Well, it's hard to say exactly.
I mean, they don't keep an official membership directory, but it's almost certainly in the millions. I mean, Facebook, Twitter, these other companies that have taken action against Q and on accounts have taken down pages and groups with millions of members between them.
So this is not like a small fringe movement anymore.
And what's interesting is that it's continued to grow really rapidly, even though from the start lots of the predictions that Q is making weren't coming true.
Like the very first Q post in twenty seventeen predicted that Hillary Clinton was about to be arrested and that didn't happen, obviously.
And how do these people rationalize that? Well, mostly they tell themselves, you know, we must have misinterpreted the clue. Maybe the clue wasn't wrong. Maybe we just weren't smart enough or savvy enough to understand what date Q really meant.
Hmm. It's on us, not. Q Exactly.
So these Kuhnen prophecies, they come and go and the goalposts get moved and the explanations get reformulated.
But one of the big setbacks for Kuhnen happens in November of last year when to their great surprise, Donald Trump loses the election. Kuhnen believer's had been told that Trump would win re-election in a landslide, and so they were confused, but they still had an out because there was still this theory, this unfounded theory that the election had been stolen and that, you know, when the truth about election fraud and other various conspiracy theories came out, they would be vindicated and Trump would indeed become a two term president.
So even this the greatest setback to Dede is somehow rationalized, incorporated into the Q belief system as something that can be explained. Right.
But all of this is sort of made more confusing and complicated by the fact that after the election q this anonymous message board account that posts these cryptic clues basically disappears.
There are a couple posts since the election, but you used to post 10, 20 times a day, and now these posts, these these sort of clues that help people in the movement understand what's happening, they're basically gone.
Q Just disappears, stops posting, doesn't really address the election at all.
And so that creates a power vacuum in the Kuhnen community.
And what is the reaction among followers? Well, some of them think that this is, you know, part of the plan, that Cuba has sort of gone incommunicado because things are heating up or, you know, there are various ways to sort of explain why Cuba has disappeared. But what ends up happening is that instead of drawing their guidance from Cuba, people in this movement start looking to these kind of influencers in the movement, these people who sort of aren't cute or who they don't believe are AQ but who sort of speak with authority about what's happening in this progression toward the storm or the Great Awakening.
Hmm. And so where do these new influencers guide Kuhnen followers?
Well, they start to point people to another date January 6th, the day Congress is supposed to certify the results of the election.
And how do CU supporters sort of think about that date, what's supposed to happen?
So, Kiran, unbelievers spend weeks leading up to January 6th convincing themselves and each other that Joe Biden is not going to be certified as the winner of the election by Congress. That, you know, maybe Mike Pence will step in and block it or maybe Patriots will take to the streets themselves and sort of, you know, convince Congress not to certify the election results, that all of this is going to somehow end in a reversal of what's been happening and that Donald Trump will actually be declared the winner.
Well, one slice of that, of course, does materialize. People do stormed the Capitol, including, as we now know, Kuhnen supporters, but they fail. And, of course, Joe Biden's victory is certified. So how do Kuhnen supporters absorb that news? Well, the reaction among Kuhnen believers to January 6th was kind of mixed and confused, like there were believers who said, like, yeah, this was us, we did this.
But there were also people who said, no, this this wasn't us.
All right. Can you hear me? Yes. Great. So you catch me up a little bit.
I mean, when we last talked and I heard some of that kind of mixed feeling about the riots, when I called up a source of mine, this woman I had been talking to for more than a year, who believes in Kuhnen. She lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She's middle aged white woman went to Harvard. Her name is Valerie Gilbert. And I called her after the riots and sort of asked her what she thought had happened.
Like, what were you thinking as you were watching them? What was going through your mind? I don't believe those were two people. I don't know, one violent, two person I don't know one two person who advocates. But I mean, there were, you know, people, you know, on the ground who I follow, you know, who I've been following for a long time, who were there. I mean, I can I can give you some names, but there were you know, there were people posting things like this is the storm.
I yes. And so, look, maybe some of the more I can't say who is or who isn't, I'm not following all of them. But overall, you know, I don't well, I want to see justice served and treachery to the United States government exposed. I don't know who is who and who can definitively say that there is a lot of spy versus spy going on and infiltration. She said maybe it's antifa, maybe it's not.
But she said that it didn't shake her faith.
It bother you that that Q has sort of vanished? I mean, he's posed once. It really doesn't bother me. I think you was to it was to inspire thought and it did that it sparked a movement in Kuhnen.
There's this saying. And the bottom line is, you know, trust the plan, trust the plan.
And that's sort of what they tell each other after these setbacks. They say, you know, trust the plan.
I'm not one of the planners. I'm not a team. Q I'm I don't know.
There's a plan and maybe we don't understand what it is yet or when it's going to happen. But there is a plan and it's going to happen, so don't lose faith. And that's basically where she had landed.
So I get the fact that this is a cliffhanger and there are so many days, you know, when you look at the queue signs and things line up on the queue clock and you're waiting for a bang and nothing fucking happens and you're like, OK, you know what? I don't know. I don't know. But I think, you know, the wheels of justice grind slowly. And I think what we are going to see when it's all systems go whenever the hell that is, is it is revelation declassification of some pretty horrible stuff that people are going to be surprised by.
I mean, it's not all that dissimilar from how some people in religious communities feel about the second coming or the apocalypse. I mean, there have been lots of groups that have predicted things that have not. The pass, and they don't lose faith after it, they just reformulate the belief and keep going. What if you're wrong? What if Biden is inaugurated on the 20th, what Trump fades into public life? What if cue never comes back? Like what is this whole thing was fake it.
I don't anticipate that. But if that comes to pass, then I will deal with that. And that that's how I roll. You know, like what we're dealing with that look like. I'm not going to waste energy even postulating that we can talk about that if it comes to pass. When we come back, January 20th. This podcast is supported by Facebook and Facebook. We're taking action to keep our communities safe. We've tripled our safety and security teams, built new privacy tools and invested billions to keep our platform safe.
What's next? We support updated Internet regulations that set clear rules for addressing today's toughest challenges. Learn more at about FT.com slash regulations. So, Kevin, tell me about January 20th as you experienced it. Yes, I have two monitors in my home office and one of them.
The presidential inauguration from the U.S. Capitol. Live coverage all day I was tuned to a live stream on YouTube of Joe Biden being inaugurated. And on the other one, what's going on on the Internet.
Buzz, guys, you got some links to send over. Come on. Let's do some research to see what's going on behind the scenes.
I had arranged all these like Q and on chat rooms and telegram groups and Facebook groups and basically trying to sort of have one reality on one screen and the other reality on the other screen.
And today on the west front of the Capitol, it's the inauguration of the 40.
Hey, just wait for mainstream media to get really confused like they don't know how to cover this. That's when you know, it's gone off script.
Now, this marks the fifty ninth time in our nation's history that this transfer of power, I just have really hope and pray that he signs over everything to the military. I want the military in complete control, has to literally split screen realities of the world.
Right. And tell me what you see.
So the day starts off very hopeful for these kuhnen believers. Yeah.
You kind of got to look at all the things Trump put into play and it's kind of lining itself out.
You know, they're looking for symbols like Trump gives his sort of going away speech and they see that he has 17 flags behind him.
He's got something up his sleeve. 17 is sort of like a magic number in Q and on, because Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet.
He's giving us hints right here.
So they say like, oh, he's sending a signal that this is the day that Trump is going to declare martial law and invoke the Insurrection Act and announce the mass arrest of all these elite pedophiles.
It would be hilarious if Trump did the emergency broadcasting in the middle of the inauguration. That would be hilarious.
As inauguration started, politicians walk in, take their seats, these people that they believe are members of this global cabal of criminals, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, they're all in one place.
I got the popcorn ready.
I'm I'm I'm optimistic. Almost like it's the moment of truth. So as you're watching this, you're seeing people continue to speculate like any second now this is going to happen. This is going to happen any second now. One person on a Q and on message board writes, The next 48 hours will be like the entire Revolutionary War and the fall of Berlin compressed into two days. I have called off work so I can witness history in the making. What a time to be alive.
And then as noon approaches. And Joe Biden was getting ready to actually take the oath of office and get sworn in as the president. They started to get a little nervous. What's your heart say, guys? My heart wants faith, my head says we're screwed. Listen to your heart, OK?
I think we all want to cry sick to my stomach, very sick to my stomach, trying to hold the line.
It ain't over yet. I know after 12 o'clock, if he gets in there, we'll see what happens in. People just sort of trying to tell themselves that there was still time something could still happen. Well, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend and then protect and defend.
As soon as Joe Biden took the oath of office, the United States.
So help you God. So help me God. Congratulations, Mr. President. And was officially the president and Donald Trump was officially no longer the president. The mood really shifted.
I don't know what to believe anymore. I feel like we've all been playing. Think of all the people that we follow and trust that you have told us about you and explain the drops, that's really the heartbreaking part. They were getting despondent, people were saying we've been played like fools. I'm tired of this, everything that we read, we're chasing dreams, it's, um, I'm exhausted or out trying to chase the hopes and dreams. Realizing that none of them are coming through so.
And said this wasn't everyone, there were still some people who said, you know, I still trust the plan, you know, I'm still holding out. But a lot of people are getting very disillusioned on behalf of the moderation team.
They were leaving the group chats like they were working on some stuff in the background.
Some of the big Q and on message boards had so many people sort of posting about their doubts and their disillusionment that they started banning these people who they called Dumars. So you weren't allowed to post anything negative about Kuhnen, but that couldn't contain this feeling that a lot of them were having, that they had been lied to and betrayed and that actually there wasn't a plan.
Mm hmm. So there's a theory that always seems to get reinvented. Justified, explained, rationalized all of a sudden, there are people who are suddenly acknowledging. We can't defend this, this is not real yet that the scales fell from their eyes. And then, you know, later that afternoon, a couple of hours after Inauguration Day, this guy, Ron Watkins, who used to run the site that Q posted on some people have suspected that he actually posted Askew himself.
He posts this message to his telegram channel.
He writes, We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able as we enter into the next administration. Please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years.
That does not sound like a believer, that sounds like. Somebody admitting it was all wrong? Yeah, it was very weird, it was like kind of like the real Q was the friends we made along the way. It was like it had a very like last day of summer camp feel to it. Hmm. You know, this was one of the biggest, most prominent figures in the Q and on movement.
And he's basically saying, like, sorry, better luck next time.
Hmm. What is the reaction to Watkins' post? There's a lot of anger. People are furious. I think it's important to understand that this is not a small part of these people's lives. This is not like, you know, I had a fantasy football team that I really hoped was going to win the game and they didn't win the game.
Like people have lost years of their lives to this movement.
And as I was watching these and unbelievers kind of turn on the influencers in their movements, I was thinking about my conversations with Valerie Gilbert.
I don't want to talk to people that think I'm crazy, you know, and they don't have the support network in the way that some people do.
You know, I am my support network, so I've come to this who basically had told me that her belief in Kuhnen and other conspiracy theories had cost her a lot of her closest, longest relationships.
Has anyone ever or anyone from your sort of old life ever tried to. I don't know, don't talk with you about their worries about, like from your sister, my sister, and that's one of the reasons we're not talking right now. It's it's been just not easy for me, for her. I saw her last summer, 20, 19, and it was right after that that queue clicked for me and, you know, cleared. They were looking at what I was posting on Facebook.
And I post a lot of you know, and then my sister said, you know, I'm worried about you and that's it, you know? No, no, no. If that's all you got out of what I'm posting is your concern for me, then there's no conversation. Because what I'm doing, I feel really great about it. I feel really great about my online community. You know, if I asked your sister in general what she what she thinks of your relationship, what do you think she would say?
She's very hurt. She's very hurt by the fact that. I pull-back. Would it be OK if I tried to contact your sister? I would really rather not. And it's an awkward relationship. And so are there other people that I might call and just say, what's your relationship with Valerie like? And. Anyone that you could tell you for, I don't I am not talking to anyone right now, and that is my choice. So when I you know, if there was someone that I felt there's no one that comes to mind.
And when I you know, so no. She cut off ties with her friends, she'd been estranged from family members like Kuhnen had really become not just a thing that she believed it had become her entire social life. I guess I felt unsign with certain people and with to community, you know, it's it it is moving to me. So anyway, it feels right and, you know, in terms of finding myself alone right now and wanting it that way, it's it's OK.
It's all OK. And like I say, if friends who are different from me didn't patronize me or scream at me and say I'm worried about you, that is the most fucking patronizing thing you can say. Well, isn't somebody worrying about you, about love? I mean, that's a no no, not when I am, not when I then tell her I have never felt better in my life. Now, when I'm actually happy, if I was complaining, that's one thing.
No, I think that's horrible. I really do. I'm worried about you. That is patronizing. You know what if I said that to you, I'm worried about you. You work for The New York Times. That's none of my business. You like it? It's your job. I mean, I'm guessing I don't know. But you know what I'm saying?
If we are in different roles. So what happens to people like Valerie, where do they go from here? It's a really vulnerable, uncertain moment for believers and Kuhnen, and I think some of them are doing what they always do. They're pushing the date back, they're moving the goalposts.
But a lot of them are just sort of floating.
They don't know what or who to believe. And there are groups that are preying on that uncertainty.
Like it's important to remember that Kuhnen has been in many ways, like a very destructive and dangerous movement, like there have been real acts of violence. There was a mob at the Capitol that was driven in some way by Kuhnen unbelievers and now some other extremist groups, white supremacist groups, far right militias have started trying to capitalize on this moment of confusion by recruiting Kuhnen believers into their movements and attaching them to their causes.
Really? So Kevin is cute over in a certain sense, is it on a path that is no longer sustainable, given what just happened?
I think the original form of Kuhnen, this conspiracy theory centered on the posts of this anonymous person on the Internet that was all about Donald Trump defeating the deep state. I think that part may be close to over.
But I think what Kuhnen represents this kind of alternate reality of conspiracy theories and lies, the sort of group of millions of Americans who don't trust official explanations, who want secret knowledge, who are sort of creating their own truth out of fragments of stuff they read and see on the Internet.
I think that's that's not going away any time soon. Have you talked to Valerie since the inauguration? Yes. How are you? I'm I'm OK.
And I asked her how she felt now that her prediction about the inauguration had proven false.
You know, I don't have an end date. The sands keep shifting. And in point of fact, Cuba never promised anything by any date. So, you know, there's been anticipation, impatience, frustration from from the get go.
But she's still very much a believer in her mind. The fact that Joe Biden is the president doesn't change anything.
His presidency will not stand. It's a stolen crown. And I am still 100 percent positive that that will be proved. The faith is really unshakable in the fact that this is not only a political plan and a military one, but a divine one, that there is something there is something bigger than all of us going on here. And if you think the. Thank you, Kevin. We appreciate it. Thank you for having me. We'll be right back.
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Here's what else you need to know today. The South African variant of the coronavirus has been detected in the United States. Two cases of the more contagious mutation have been found in South Carolina. Neither involved people who had recently traveled to South Africa, suggesting that the variant has been spreading for some time within the United States. And on Thursday, General Motors said that it would phase out gas and diesel powered cars and trucks by 2035. A historic change that will pressure rival automakers to do the same.
GM says that it will only sell vehicles that produce zero tailpipe emissions. The move will have a major impact on the oil and gas industry, which relies heavily on gas powered cars.
Today's episode was produced by Luke Luke and Austin Mitchell. It was edited by Alix Spiegel and Paige Kowit and engineered by Chris Wood. Special thanks to Stuart Thompson. The deal is made by Feel Welcome. Andy Mills, Lisa Tobin, Rachel Quester, Lindsey Garrison, Annie Brown, Claire Tennis. Geter Page. Gaute Michael Simon Johnson, Brad Fisher. Larissa Anderson, Wendy Dor. Chris Wood. Jessica Choung. Stella Tan. Alexandra Lee Young. Lisa Chow.
Eric Krupke. Mark George Luke Vanderbilt. Kelly Prime Sindhu Yanase Umbanda. MJ Davis Lyn Austin Mitchell, Nina Puttock, Dan Powell, Dave Shaw, Sydney Harper, Daniel Guimet, Hornes Butoh. Robert Jimmerson, Mike Benowa. Bianca gave her Liz Kabalan, Oscar Chaturvedi, Michelle Banjar, Alix Spiegel, Diana Wynne, Marion Lozado and Soraya Shockley. Our theme music is by Jim Gruenberg and Ben Lansberg of Wonderly. Special thanks to Sam Dolnick, Michael Bouchard, Lauren Jackson, Julia Simon, Mahima Khemlani, Nora Keller, Sophia Milan.
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