QAnon's corrosive impact on the U.S.

Tens of millions of Americans believe QAnon's core -- and false -- theory that an evil cabal of Satan-worshipping elites commits atrocities against children and controls much of the world. Where does this movement stand and who has it impacted? Lesley Stahl reports.

QAnon's corrosive impact on the U.S.
QAnon's corrosive impact on the U.S. 13:31

In just three years, the extremist ideology of QAnon has captured the minds and imaginations of tens of millions of Americans. Their core belief: a global cabal including Democrats, Hollywood elites, and members of what they call the "deep state" control much of our lives. The cabal commits atrocities including pedophilia, Satan worship, and canabalizing children, but it will be vanquished by Donald Trump in an apocalyptic day called "the storm." 

QAnon was born when an anonymous character named "Q" began posting cryptic riddles in an online forum known for hosting hateful and racist content. The movement prospered in pandemic isolation -- its followers occasionally erupting in acts of violence, culminating in the assault on the Capitol. But the prophesied storm never happened, instead, Donald Trump left office and QAnon followers have found themselves at a moment of truth.

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  Elizabeth Neumann

Elizabeth Neumann: Joe Biden gets sworn in and you started seeing chatter online, "I've been conned. This has all been a scam." And they were out. Which is great. That is rare for radicalized individuals. 

Elizabeth Neumann was in charge of policy to counter domestic extremism at the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration. 

Lesley Stahl: The prophecies did not happen. The storm didn't happen. Is there an opportunity right now to-- as we say "off-ramp" some of these people?

Elizabeth Neumann: Absolutely. For many, it was-- it was a light-switch effect. But for others, you see them struggling. They're trying to make sense of it. And so they're very vulnerable right now. They're vulnerable to being convinced about some of these newer theories. There's a new one that March 4th-- March 4th is the day that President Trump is gonna return. And he's going to be president again.

Lesley Stahl: If we're at a moment where some of these people are disillusioned and may be open to new ideas- are far-right extremists, white supremacists, even neo-Nazis jumping into this breach right now? And trying to peel them off and radicalize them even more?

Elizabeth Neumann: Yes. They see opportunity. 

They have been posting guides on how to approach a disheartened QAnon adherent-- making it clear that you don't wanna make fun of their ideology, you don't wanna be too direct about your white supremacist views. You wanna be empathetic.

Neumann resigned in April because, she says, President Trump kept pouring fuel on the rising threat of homegrown extremism. 

Lesley Stahl: At Homeland Security, when you were there, was QAnon on your radar as a threat?

Elizabeth Neumann: The general consensus at that time period was, "It could be a low-level policing concern, because we had a few incidents of people conducting violence. But by and large, its ideology is not one that promotes violence"-- at least at that time.

Lesley Stahl: What shifted? What turned QAnon into a more violent kind of conspiracy group?

Elizabeth Neumann: It didn't become a violence problem until Donald Trump lost the election, and then they felt like, "Oh, well, we better fix that, because otherwise Donald Trump can't fix this other big problem of the deep state."

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QAnon supporters charged into battle with the crowd storming the Capitol on January 6. Some were easy to spot with their Q signs and Q chants.

Inside, Officer Eugene Goodman staved off rioters led by a man in a Q shirt. Ashli Babbit, killed at the Capitol, had previously tweeted a picture of herself in a Q tanktop. And then, there's the now famous Q-shaman. 

Nearly one in ten of those arrested had a QAnon connection. And like the movement overall, they were men and women, often older. There was a federal employee; a business-owner who covered his store in a QAnon mural; and a real estate agent who arrived by private plane.

Some of the attraction of QAnon is their use of Christian symbolism and apocalyptic prophecies. A new survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute found more than a quarter of White evangelical protestants and nearly one in five White Catholics believe the QAnon conspiracy.

Derek Kubilus: To see Christ used as propaganda for an insurrection - it drives a stake into my heart.  

Derek Kubilus, pastor of a small Methodist church in northeast Ohio, has seen QAnon tear through his community. 

Lesley Stahl: You have said that QAnon is a heresy.

Derek Kubilus: A heresy is something that is corrosive to the human soul. When you see the obsession and the paranoia that it inspires, it's hard to call it anything else.

For nearly a year now due to COVID, he's had to hold Sunday services in his church's parking lot, preaching from a makeshift hut into parishioners' car radios. 

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Pastor  Derek Kubilus

He says most of them appreciate his speaking up, but not all.  

Derek Kubilus: I think we may have had a couple folks that have probably left the congregation.

Lesley Stahl: Because of that?

Derek Kubilus: Yeah. There are-- there are churches in the area that won't challenge conspiratorial thinking.

Lesley Stahl: Is the church helping to spread QAnon's ideas?

Derek Kubilus: Unfortunately, in some places, yeah.  Unbelievably, I think there are some pastors that promote QAnon.  

The numbers of QAnon followers swelled during the pandemic, when people were isolated at home. 

Elizabeth Neumann: The pandemic was creating this angst. And it was driving people to extremist ideas.

Lesley Stahl: Did DHS drop the ball on QAnon?

Elizabeth Neumann: It's a tough question. I think we really just didn't understand what was happening as it was happening. 

QAnon was spreading under their noses in posts, memes, and videos on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. A lot of women were roped-in by appeals to rescue supposedly cannibalized children, and through unexpected ways: like popular yoga accounts on Instagram. The spread was also aided by then President Trump. 

Former President Trump in White House Briefing: I don't know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much. 

Actually, he shared content from QAnon Twitter accounts over 300 times. It wasn't until October that several social media sites began aggressively banning – or deplatforming – QAnon content. 

Lesley Stahl: If your motive is to sort of lure these people away from QAnon, does de-platforming help?

Elizabeth Neumann: It does help. And that's part of the big lessons out of 2020 that de-platforming didn't happen soon enough. It came too late in the game. And in part because we-- quite frankly, we'd never seen anything like this. We'd never seen-- what is largely just-- almost like a game, this fantasy-like game of "what ifs." And, you know, literally, it's like people deducing clues and, like, "Oh-- the president said these two words in his speech today. And I think he's referring to this conspiracy theory." It feels very much like a game for most participants.

For example, on a QAnon forum the president was asked to work-in the phrase: "tip top." And lo and behold...

President Trump: Tip Top…

Joel Finkelstein: Well, they had a messianic figure in a place of power that was responding to their cues.

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  Joel Finkelstein

At least that's what QAnon supporters believed, says Joel Finkelstein, director of NCRI, an organization at Rutgers University monitoring online misinformation. 

Lesley Stahl: Is QAnon based on a game? Is it a game?

Joel Finkelstein: QAnon doesn't describe itself as a game but it has all the hallmarks of being an alternative reality game.

Lesley Stahl: They're solving riddles, right?

Joel Finkelstein: Exactly. The problem is that, over time, they started calling themselves Q-Army. So, we saw the-- a growth in militarization in the organization. Revolutionary ideas started taking over QAnon. The ideas of political revolt started growing within the organization and that became a part of the game.

Lesley Stahl: What's happening now? The storm didn't happen. Where is QAnon today?

Joel Finkelstein: Now, they've been rebranded.

It's morphing and doubling down – on conspiracies about COVID vaccines and masks. Finkelstein says it makes sense for them to be anti-vax.  

Lesley Stahl: If the pandemic ends, and If enough people get vaccinated and we have herd immunity-- will this thing begin to shrivel?

Joel Finkelstein: Well, it's funny you mention that. Doesn't that make sense why-- why the new target of the conspiracies is the vaccine? Because that's exactly what gives the extremists powers, Lesley.

Lesley Stahl: You're saying they need the pandemic, they need the eyeballs – spending twelve and more hours a day. And if we can get rid of this pandemic and isolation and quarantine, then are you suggesting the oxygen is depleted--

Joel Finkelstein: That is the oxygen.

But the end of the pandemic is far off, and in the meantime, families are being torn apart by QAnon. On Reddit, we found a group of over 100,000 friends and family sharing horror stories of losing loved ones. 

While on another site, we saw believers posting that their severed family ties because of QAnon is proof of their moral superiority. Nate, a school psychologist in Minnesota, watched in pain as QAnon gripped his 70-year-old mother.

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  Nate

Lesley Stahl: Would you go so far as to say that your mother's detached from reality?

Nate: As of late, I would. She's not a crazy person. She's a very bright person. But this thing happens in a million little paper cuts.

Lesley Stahl: Was she a political person before this? Was she a big Trump fan in 2016?

Nate: No. In fact, we were Hillary supporters then. And my mom was even a Bernie Sanders canvasser in the primary in 2020.

Lesley Stahl: You're kidding!

Nate: Yeah.

Lesley Stahl: How do you explain the journey from Bernie Sanders to QAnon?

Nate: I attribute it more to my mom having a slow decline in trust. For media, trust for news. And then many threads of disinformation and ideas and conspiracy theories slowly started taking hold of-- of her overall worldview.

Lesley Stahl: Do you feel you're losing your mother?

Nate: I sometimes feel like I've already lost her. Because as somebody that works in psychology, I'm bringing everything I know to bear on how to reconnect with her. And I don't know what could bring her back. And it's devastating. 

Derek Kubilus: We can show them that there's a whole world of purpose and meaning outside of those lies.

In Ohio, Pastor Kubilus started a podcast to reach out to those impacted by QAnon- after discovering adherents in his own family.

Derek Kubilus: When I first found out how deep they were into it, my initial emotion was one of anger. "How could you believe this? Why would you think this? This is crazy," you know. Well, we're past that now. These folks are in it, and it is reality to them.  And now we have to do the very difficult work of untying this knot.

Produced by Shachar Bar-On and Natalie Jimenez Peel. Broadcast associate, Wren Woodson. Edited by Sean Kelly.

  • Lesley Stahl
    Lesley Stahl

    One of America's most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists, Lesley Stahl has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991.