In March, as the coronavirus pandemic was forcing much of the U.S. into lockdown, Seane Corn, a prominent yoga instructor and social justice activist started to receive messages from friends and fellow teachers about the rapidly spreading virus that, she says, “just felt paranoid.”
“What they were trying to help get me to understand was ... not to trust the government, that there was this deep-state conspiracy related to COVID where, via Bill Gates, they’re going to be microchipping us through the use of mandated vaccines,” Corn told Yahoo News. They used terms like “great awakening” and “red pill.”
“If you just dug a little deeper, it was like all roads led to QAnon,” said Corn, referring to the cult-like network that promotes the delusion that President Trump is secretly working to dismantle an international child sex trafficking ring run by a cabal of satanic global elites.
Corn was witnessing the start of what Marc-André Argentino, a PhD candidate studying technology and extremist propaganda at Concordia University in Canada, has dubbed “Pastel QAnon,” which uses softer language and aesthetically pleasing imagery to spread the group’s paranoid worldview in the typically apolitical online world of yoga devotees, wellness and nutrition coaches and “mommy bloggers.”
Some were drawn in by QAnon’s adoption of anti-vaccination rhetoric, echoing a common New Age trope. Others believed that in spreading QAnon posts they were helping to fight sexual trafficking of children. Their participation both spread the conspiracies to new audiences, Argentino wrote, and helped the growing network of believers get around Facebook’s efforts to crack down on QAnon content. In a recent Twitter thread, Argentino highlighted several examples of the types of posts that he says are representative of this trend.
The appeal of Q-inspired beliefs to her friends and colleagues was a mystery to Corn, who describes herself as politically liberal. But a predisposition to reject mainstream political and scientific thought is a prerequisite to accepting the Q mindset. Yoga is a form of exercise, but also involves varying degrees of spiritual practice, with elements of mysticism that — not unlike the segments of evangelical Christianity that have embraced the prophecies of Q — resists the sort of fact checking that might undermine the core Q myth.
One example of an influencer who appears to have embraced Pastel QAnon is Rose Henges, a Christian mom blogger and “holistic living” advocate who sells a variety of herbal supplements and skin care products online. Back in April, BuzzFeed noted that Henges, who’d previously posted about her opposition to vaccines and the pharmaceutical industry, had begun sharing QAnon conspiracy theories with her then-substantial audience of 73,000 Instagram followers. One such post from that period includes a photograph that appears to show Henges, armed with a large yellow Gadsden flag (“Don’t Tread on Me”), posing maskless with her family at a “Re-open Florida” protest. At the bottom of the caption, Henges included the hashtag #WWG1WA, an abbreviation for the QAnon slogan “Where We Go One We Go All.” (The hashtag has since been blocked by Instagram, though the post remains visible in Henges’s feed.)
Explicit references to QAnon have disappeared from Henges’s more recent posts, although she’s continued to fill her meticulously curated Instagram feed with misinformed claims about the coronavirus, the alleged dangers of masks and child sex trafficking — building her audience to 125,000 followers in the process.
Some of Henges’s earlier posts indicate that she’d already had an affinity for right-wing causes as well as conspiratorial thinking prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. One post from December 2019 shows Henges posing with a Glock handgun which, in the caption, she encouraged other mothers to “purchase for their families survival preparedness go-bag.” In another, dated March 1, she promotes unfounded conspiracy theories about the dangers of 5G wireless technology.
Like Henges, yoga influencer Krystal Tini began attaching #WWG1WGA and other Q-related hashtags to her Instagram posts in early March. In August, Tini even posted a video explaining to her 145,000 Instagram followers how her “truth-seeking” about the coronavirus pandemic led her to embrace QAnon.
Not everyone is as willing to acknowledge the connection between QAnon (or Trump), and the misinformed claims about masks, vaccines and child trafficking that they eagerly share online. For some, that is likely a deliberate choice to distance themselves from other adherents of this extremist movement, who’ve been increasingly linked to acts of real-world violence and harassment, while also avoiding having their content blocked from mainstream platforms.
In May, Corn said she started receiving links to “Plandemic,” a 26-minute video filled with inaccuracies and false claims about the coronavirus that quickly went viral on social media, attracting millions of views before Facebook and YouTube scrambled to remove it from their sites. Among the film’s since-debunked claims include unsubstantiated assertions about the dangers of masks, part of its general premise that the coronavirus pandemic, and attempts to control it, are all part of a sinister plot by public health officials.
“That was my first big red flag,” Corn said of “Plandemic.” But it wasn’t until later this summer, as a new QAnon-based narrative was beginning to take hold within her community, this time in the form of inflated statistics and misinformed claims about child sex trafficking, that she felt compelled to speak out.
Corn, who is both an outspoken survivor of sexual abuse and longtime advocate for victims of child sex trafficking, felt that QAnon’s appropriation of the “Save the Children” hashtag, which has reportedly diverted valuable resources from legitimate anti-trafficking organizations, was particularly manipulative given the prevalence of sexual abuse within the yoga community.
Then, towards the end of the summer, Corn said students started contacting her about another YouTube video that was being circulated by some yoga teachers, which suggested Donald Trump is a “lightworker,” a New Age term referring to someone believed to have unique psychic abilities to heal people and change the world.
“That was when I was like ‘OK, I have a responsibility as a leader in my community with a pretty large and active following to just let them know that I don’t stand with this,’” Corn told Yahoo News. So, last month, she teamed up with other leaders in the fields of yoga and wellness to issue a statement disavowing QAnon, which, the statement warned, “is utilizing tactics that resemble cult psychology.”
The statement quickly went viral, but Corn said the response to it “went in a direction that I had not anticipated.”
The backlash was swift and layered. Corn said she understands the frustration expressed by some who felt that the statement sought to speak for the entire international yoga and wellness community, which she said was not the intent. Less understandable was the onslaught of personal attacks, including threats of sexual violence directed at her and accusations that she was supporting or covering up for child abuse and trafficking.
Perhaps even more disconcerting to Corn than the vitriol were the comments from apparently real people seeking to engage her followers and encourage them to check out other influencer pages, which cloaked their Q-inspired messages by presenting them in trendy fonts against warm-colored backgrounds, amid wholesome cooking videos and photos of yoga poses.
The spread of QAnon-related conspiracies and false rhetoric among yoga and New Age influencers online is just one example of how what began as a pro-Trump fringe movement has vastly expanded its reach during the coronavirus pandemic.
It also shows how, through selective language and appropriation of seemingly legitimate causes, QAnon and related conspiracy theories have been able to evade recent efforts by social media platforms to crack down on Q-related content.
Throughout the United States and most of the world, legitimate anxieties and existing societal tensions have helped fuel the spread of misinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic. Like other malign actors, such as the Russian government, U.S. domestic extremists and scam artists peddling bogus cures, QAnon sought to exploit the coronavirus “infodemic” by latching onto false narratives that seemed to align with the conspiracy movement’s increasingly distorted version of reality. Those narratives include claims that state lockdown measures designed to curb the spread of the virus were really being used by Democrats to destroy the economy and hurt President Trump’s reelection chances, or that the pandemic is part of a plot by the “deep state” and “big pharma” to control the public through mandatory vaccinations.
Aspects of such narratives appealed for different reasons to a variety of audiences: frustrated small-business owners, antigovernment extremist groups, anti-vaccination activists and other New Age-inspired doubters of Western science.
Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation expert at the Wilson Center, said that QAnon’s ability to infiltrate so many different communities online “shows how adaptable they are and they can really get their tenterhooks into any community as long as there is a seed of distrust toward government or public institutions.”
QAnon-related groups or accounts used social media algorithms to expose members of these susceptible audiences to more extreme conspiracy narratives. For example, Jankowicz said that someone who found themselves looking at posts on a Facebook group dedicated to “Medical Freedom” would immediately be recommended QAnon, anti-vaccination and white supremacist content.
“Essentially, the content on social media platforms that is the most engaging is often the most emotional content, and all of these conspiracy theories are dealing with stuff that’s extremely emotional,” said Jankowicz. “So I think that’s led to the unchecked growth of some of these really dangerous movements.”
Recently, in response to a number of real-world incidents of harassment and violence by QAnon followers, the social media platforms that have been most crucial to QAnon’s growth, like Facebook, Twitter and, as of Thursday, YouTube, have taken steps to crack down on further amplification of content related to the conspiracy.
However, Jankowicz said that, “the way that the QAnon conspiracy has morphed over time to avoid detection and to create a club atmosphere, like you’re part of something, I think means that it’s uniquely suited to try to get around these bans.”
Derek Beres is a longtime fitness instructor and writer who now co-hosts “Conspirituality,” a podcast that analyzes the cult-like dynamics of QAnon and its convergence with New Age thought. Beres told Yahoo News that he’s long been frustrated by what he described as a “lack of political engagement” within the privileged and predominantly white worlds of yoga and wellness, and suggested that this apathy may have ultimately left many in these communities ill-equipped to navigate the overwhelming deluge of information surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
“For the first time in their lives, they’re confronted with a political reality where they’re told they can’t do something. ... All of a sudden you have to wear a mask and you can't go outside and you can't commune with your friends,” Beres said. In response, people turned to social media, and the wellness influencers they follow, for information.
He said that many of the people in his own social and professional circles who have latched onto QAnon-inspired conspiracy theories about the coronavirus had also already “bought into homeopathy,” and other questionable alternative healing protocols, “so they were primed for a long time to believe that a big conspiracy is happening.”
“Conspirituality” was launched to raise awareness about the potential dangers of QAnon-based misinformation. Its website has a list of key words and phrases used by QAnon and its affiliated groups. Recently, Beres noted that he and his “Conspirituality” co-hosts have also been tracking the emergence of another troubling trend: calls for violence from wellness influencers and use of increasingly militant rhetoric.
Anecdotally, Corn and Beres said that while many in the yoga and wellness worlds who’ve embraced QAnon narratives go to great lengths to deny its connection to Trump, they’ve also observed many of the same people express support for Trump as the “only hope” for dismantling the supposed cabal of child kidnappers and abusers.
Others, Corn said, will “let me know that they are progressive but they’ll also, in the same breath, tell me that they’re very disillusioned with the Democratic Party and that they are, in this election, choosing to do what's called #walkaway,” she said, referring to a campaign aimed at getting Democrats to disown the party and either vote Republican or not at all.
The exact political implications of QAnon’s rhetoric on the yoga and wellness communities are not totally clear, though a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that voters are deeply divided along party lines over their opinions of QAnon and its beliefs. Trump, for his part, has repeatedly refused to disavow the cultic movement that views him as a savior.
Corn said her biggest concern with QAnon’s spread within the yoga and wellness communities is that it will benefit Trump’s campaign and lead to his reelection.
“On a personal level, I’m seeing that that is a possibility and I just can’t be neutral. Not when so many lives are at stake,” she said.
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