Valerie Gilbert posts dozens of times a day in support of an unhinged conspiracy theory. The story of this "meme queen" hints at how hard it will be to bring people like her back to reality.
Every morning, Valerie Gilbert, a Harvard-educated writer and actress, wakes up in her Upper East Side apartment in New York City; feeds her dog, Milo, and her cats, Marlena and Celeste; brews a cup of coffee; and sits down at her oval dining room table.
Then, she opens her laptop and begins fighting the global cabal.
Gilbert, 57, is a believer in QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory. Like all QAnon faithful, she is convinced that the world is run by a Satanic group of paedophiles that includes top Democrats and Hollywood elites, and that President Donald Trump has spent years leading a top-secret mission to bring these evildoers to justice.
She unspools this web of falsehoods on her Facebook page, where she posts dozens of times a day, often sharing links from right-wing sites like Breitbart and The Epoch Times or QAnon memes she has pulled off Twitter. On a recent day, her feed included a rant against Covid-19 lockdowns, a grainy meme accusing Congress of "high treason," a post calling Lady Gaga a Satanist and a claim that "covfefe," a typo that Trump accidentally tweeted three years ago, was a coded intelligence message.
"I'm the meme queen," Gilbert told me. "I won't produce them, but I share a mean meme, and I'm kind of raw."
These are confusing times for followers of QAnon, a deranged conspiracy theory birthed in the bowels of the internet. They were told that Trump would be re-elected in a landslide, and that a coming "storm" would expose the global paedophile ring and bring its leaders to justice.
But there have been no mass arrests, and Trump is leaving office Wednesday under the cloud of a second impeachment. Many prominent QAnon followers have been arrested for their roles in this month's deadly mob riot at the US Capitol. They are being barred by the thousands from major social networks for spreading misinformation about voter fraud, and law enforcement agencies are treating the movement as a domestic extremist threat.
These setbacks have left QAnon believers like Gilbert hoping for a last-minute miracle. Her current theory is that Trump will not actually leave office Wednesday but will instead declare martial law, declassify damning information about the "deep state" and arrest thousands of cabal members, including President-elect Joe Biden.
Like any movement its size — which is almost certainly in the millions, although it is impossible to quantify — QAnon contains a wide range of beliefs and tactics. Some "anons" are veteran conspiracists who have spent years exploring the theory's many tributaries. Others are newer converts who have only a vague idea how it all connects. There are law-abiding keyboard warriors as well as violent, unhinged radicals.
There is no question that QAnon, which began in 2017 with a series of anonymous posts on the 4chan online message board by "Q," a person purporting to be a high-ranking government insider, has outgrown its roots on the far-right fringes. It is now a big-tent conspiracy theory community that includes left-wing yoga mums, anti-lockdown libertarians and "Stop the Steal" Trumpists. QAnon believers are young and old, male and female, educated and not. Every community in America has its fair share of them — dentists and firefighters and real estate agents who disappeared down a social media rabbit hole one day and never came back.
"This is not just young, male incels who live in their parents' basements and can't get a real job," said Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher who is writing a book about QAnon. "QAnon gives you a target to point your anger at, and it gives you something to do about it. That's something that can appeal to anyone who is disaffected in any way."
Gilbert's elite pedigree — she attended the Dalton School in Manhattan and worked on The Harvard Lampoon with Conan O'Brien in the 1980s — illustrates the wide range of people who have ended up in Q's thrall. And her story hints at how hard it will be to bring those people back to reality.
What attracts Gilbert and many other people to QAnon isn't just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It's the community and sense of mission it provides. New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos but patriots gathering "intel" for a righteous revolution.
This social element also means that QAnon followers aren't likely to be persuaded out of their beliefs with logic and reason alone.
"These people aren't drooling, mind-controlled cultists," Rothschild said. "People who are in Q like it. They like being part of it. You can't debunk and fact-check your way out of this, because these people don't want to leave."
I first met Gilbert in 2019, a few months after she had gotten seriously into QAnon. Friendly and soft-spoken, she explained that Hollywood elites conducted Illuminati blood rituals behind closed doors, that former Representative Anthony Weiner's laptop contained a video of Hillary Clinton committing murder and that photos from a recent meeting between Trump and Queen Elizabeth II proved that he had secretly dethroned her.
Despite these delusions, Gilbert — a self-described mystic who has written four books, with titles like Swami Soup — mostly struck me as a New Age eccentric who could use some time away from screens. She disdains the mainstream media, but she agreed to be profiled, and we kept in touch.
Over a series of conversations, I learned that she had a long-standing suspicion of elites dating to her Harvard days, when she felt out of place among people she considered snobby rich kids. As an adult, she joined the anti-establishment left, advocating animal rights and supporting the Standing Rock oil pipeline protests. She admired the hacktivist group Anonymous and looked up to whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. She was a registered Democrat for most of her life, but she voted for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, in the 2016 presidential election after deciding that both major parties were corrupt.
Gilbert's path to QAnon began in 2016 when WikiLeaks posted a trove of hacked emails from the Clinton campaign. Shortly after, she started seeing posts on social media about something called #Pizzagate. She had dabbled in conspiracy theories before, but Pizzagate — which falsely posited that powerful Democrats were running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington pizza parlour, and that all of this was detailed in code in the Clinton emails — blew her mind. If it was true, she thought, it would connect all of her suspicions about elites, and explain the horrible truths they had been covering up.
"The world opened up in Technicolour for me," she said. "It was like the Matrix — everything just started to download."
Pizzagate primed Gilbert for QAnon, which she discovered through the YouTube videos of a British psychic. It quickly took over her life and yanked her politics sharply to the right. Seemingly overnight, her Facebook feed switched from Change.org petitions and cute animal photos to Gateway Pundit links and "Killary Clinton" memes.
Like many QAnon die-hards, Gilbert has a purely virtual attachment to the movement. She said she had never attended a QAnon rally, or even met another QAnon believer in person. She works from home as a freelance audiobook narrator, rarely leaves her apartment and scoffed when I asked if she would ever take up arms for Q.
"I am a digital soldier," she said. "I work through the computer."
She was not at the Capitol riot, and she denied that QAnon was a violent movement. She said there was no proof that the participants were QAnon believers and suggested that they might have been antifa activists in disguise — all things that have been widely debunked. She sounded frustrated that Biden had been certified as the winner of the election — something that Q had never predicted — but she said it hadn't shaken her faith.
"The ups and downs have not fazed me because I get it," she said. "This is a war of information, of propaganda, and I'm just riding the waves."
Gilbert used to get push notifications on her phone every time Q posted a new message. But Q, who once sent dozens of updates a day, has essentially vanished from the internet in recent weeks, posting only four times since the November election. The sudden disappearance has caused some believers to start asking questions. Chat rooms and Twitter threads have filled with impatient followers wondering when the mass arrests will begin, and if Q's mantra — "trust the plan" — is just a stalling tactic.
But Gilbert isn't worried. For her, QAnon was always less about Q and more about the crowdsourced search for truth. She loves assembling her own reality in real time, patching together shards of information and connecting them to the core narrative. (She once spent several minutes explaining how a domino-shaped ornament on the White House Christmas tree proved that Trump was sending coded messages about QAnon, because the domino had 17 dots, and Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet.)
When she solves a new piece of the puzzle, she posts it to Facebook, where her QAnon friends post heart emojis and congratulate her.
This collaborative element, which some have likened to a massively multiplayer online video game, is a big part of what drew Gilbert to QAnon and keeps her there now.
"I am really good at putting symbols together," she said.
Believing in QAnon tends to clear one's social calendar, and Gilbert is no exception. She cut ties with her closest friends years ago, after arguing with them about Pizzagate. She is estranged from her sister, who tried and failed to stage an intervention over her Facebook posts.
She is divorced and has lived alone for years, and the pandemic has only sharpened her isolation. She thinks the danger of Covid-19 is overblown and refuses to wear a mask (except at the grocery store, where she has no choice). As a result, her neighbours steer clear of her, and she feels their wrath every time she steps outside.
"I am called names and abused," she told me during a recent call. "A 90-year-old woman who lives in my building cursed me out today on the sidewalk."
Gilbert insists that she's a lone wolf by choice, but becoming a pariah has clearly taken a toll. She compares Manhattan to Nazi Germany and speaks bitterly about the friends she has lost. (I talked to several of those former friends. They miss her but can't imagine reconciling with her in her current state.)
This week, when Biden becomes president and Trump leaves the White House, it will be a huge blow to QAnon's core mythology, and it may force some believers to acknowledge that they've been lied to. Many will cope by spinning the development as a win, or saying it proves that Trump is playing the long game. Others will quietly ditch Q and transfer their enthusiasm to a new conspiracy theory. A few might be jolted back to reality.
Gilbert knows that some of her fellow travellers are losing patience. Their daily well of QAnon content is drying up, and their favourite QAnon influencers have been barred by every app except Calculator and Stocks. Some are openly threatening to denounce Q and leave the movement if Biden is inaugurated.
But the meme queen is undeterred. She trusts Q's plan, at least for a little while longer, and she wants them to trust it, too.
"Be prepared, and stay cool," Gilbert wrote to her Facebook friends recently. "Slow and steady wins the race. We're in the home stretch now."
Written by: Kevin Roose
Photographs by: Meghan Marin
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES