How QAnon rode the pandemic to new heights — and fueled the viral anti-mask phenomenon

A person wears a protective face mask while carrying grocery bags outside Trader Joe’s on August 11, 2020 in New York City.

Noam Galai | Getty Images

In February, five months before she became known as “QAnon Karen,” there was no one more terrified of the coming pandemic than Melissa Rein Lively.

“I bought the N-95 masks. I bought the hazmat suit,” she said. “In my mind, a zombie movie was imminent.”

At the time, Rein Lively said her career was at its peak. Her self-owned marketing company had just helped launch the high-end restaurant Nobu in Scottsdale, Arizona. Hyatt Hotels had signed on for marketing help.

By July 5, she had gone into a Target store and trashed the mask section, streaming her rage in a viral post that drew over 10 million views. Before the police closed in on her garage, she livestreamed her own mental breakdown on her company’s Instagram account, telling police to “call Donald Trump and ask him” why she shouldn’t be arrested for her actions.

She was, she told the police, the “QAnon spokesperson.”

Rein Lively’s experience is one that researchers recognize.

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While QAnon bubbled on the fringes of the internet for years, researchers and experts say it has emerged in recent months as a sort of centralized hub for conspiracy and alternative health communities. According to an internal document reported by NBC News this week, Facebook now has more than 1,000 of these QAnon groups, totaling millions of members.

Users like Rein Lively who started off in wellness communities, religious groups and new-age groups on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram during the pandemic were then introduced to extremist groups like QAnon, aided by shared beliefs about energy, healing or God — and often by recommendation algorithms.

And while anti-mask sentiment has surfaced in a variety of ways for a number of reasons, viral videos of anti-mask confrontations have become causes for celebration in conspiracy circles, embraced as examples of people taking the fight against their shadowy enemy into the real world.

Rein Lively followed a similar path as a growing community of conspiracy theorists, radicalization experts told NBC News.

Cooped up inside her home and losing work due to the pandemic in the weeks before her outburst, Rein Lively filled the time she would’ve spent hanging out with friends and emailing clients by diving down conspiracy-fueled rabbit holes on Facebook and Instagram, worsening her feelings of isolation and fear.

Some find themselves believing in elaborate conspiracy theories about Bill Gates, 5G wireless technology, vaccines and masks, which researchers say are in part pushed by an algorithm and shared community members that group all of the theories together.

Within days, they begin to believe that President Donald Trump is waging a secret war to save trafficked children from a cabal of Satan-worshipping baby eaters who control the United States government.

Then, responding to the positive in-group reaction, some users take their anger and confusion out on essential workers in the real world — and livestream it for their followers to see.

Rein Lively said her viral outburst was in part a product of a depressive episode, a symptom of the bipolar disorder she was diagnosed with last year.

“It’s really intense for a few weeks when you’re going through the mania part,” she said. “Then what happens is the depressive episode, in which, for all intents and purposes, I destroyed my own life.”

But in the moment, Rein Lively believed she was doing a public good, speaking for the fellow followers of Facebook groups and Instagram pages who spoke out against masks, calling them “muzzles” and a form of slavery.

“There’s just such a lack of human connection right now,” said Rein Lively. “That engagement that you’re getting on social media, it’s addictive.”

‘All I did was doomscroll’

Rein Lively wasn’t particularly political on social media before COVID-19, and neither were some of the new-age groups that focused on the Earth’s energy, which she read voraciously.

She said she was most active in a 20,000-member Facebook group called “THE EVENT/THE SHIFT,” a group focused on how the world is set for a dramatic “shift” because of frequencies and energies.

“I’ve always been the type of person where I’m very natural health oriented — all of the, you know, hippie stuff,” Rein Lively said. “I am a very spiritual person who believes we are on the precipice of a new era of humanity.”

Group members shared conspiracy theories about an accessible fifth dimension, beliefs that frequencies were changing for the better across the Earth, and offered advice on how to “ascend.” But over the last several months, members of the QAnon community began to seep in. President Trump, they claimed, is a “light worker,” working to save the world and bring about the energy shift.

Rein Lively started to see suggestions for other Facebook groups, including one with the name “The Great Awakening.” She, along with the group’s 43,500 members, became entrenched in the world of QAnon.

Rein Lively began to internalize the conspiracy theory. She started to believe that locals she knew were in on the plot to traffic children. She accused one nearby couple, former acquaintances, of covering up crimes as part of the “Deep State” in her Instagram Stories. She bragged that, in the world of QAnon groups, she was about to be famous.

“Literally all I did was doomscroll all day,” she said, using a word that has become popular during the pandemic for constantly absorbing bad news online. “The algorithm leads you to some weird groups, and I would say I’m in some weird groups that are really just looking for something hopeful.”

The Facebook algorithm’s proclivity for leading users toward increasingly extreme groups is no surprise to researchers who have studied radicalization during the pandemic.

Erin McAweeney, a senior research analyst at Graphika, a New York-based social media analysis company, discovered that some alternative health, religious and anti-vaccination communities appeared to become singularly focused on COVID-19 health misinformation right as the pandemic was beginning to ramp up in the United States.

“Over the months we saw these networks fully refocus to produce and communicate solely on the impact of the pandemic and the differing government responses,” McAweeney said.

But even more dangerously, many of the recommended groups seemed to converge around one community: QAnon. Since QAnon has becomesomethingof a catch-all conspiracy for an omnipotent power keeping society down, the details are vague enough to offer a “bridge” to all sorts of beliefs.

“The strongest bridge we found between QAnon and non-QAnon communities was spirituality and religion,” McAweeney said. “This content isn’t inherently problematic, but people are often most vulnerable when seeking spiritual information online and more susceptible to alternative and extreme views.”

At the end of Rein Lively’s slide down Facebook’s conspiracy rabbit hole, she eventually came to the same conclusion as many other QAnon followers: She wasn’t just watching the Awakening. She was part of it.

“I hate to say the word ‘Awakening,’ but I thought I was ‘it,'” said Rein Lively. “And I just completely went off the rails.”

‘A trauma pandemic’

Rein Lively’s example is an extreme version of what experts who study radicalization said has become a distinct pattern during the pandemic: people with time on their hands, looking for answers, are led down a radical path by niche interests and the internet’s tendency to feed their darkest curiosities.

Those communities have in turn been energized by the viral tantrums that now appear almost weekly, pushing conspiracy theories and talking points from fringe websites and QAnon Facebook groups onto strangers in real life.

One, in which a woman called a customer a “Democratic pig,” received 14 million views in one Twitter post., a maskless woman recorded with her phone as she coughed on passersby outside of a supermarket. In a Minnesota Walmart, two customers wearing swastika bandanas told shoppers “if you vote for Biden, you’re gonna be in Nazi Germany.”

At a now notorious Palm Beach County Commissioners meeting about mask mandates in June, Cristina Gomez drew national attention when she railed against a laundry list of conspiracy theories common on Facebook: 5G towers, Bill Gates, pedophiles. “Citizens’ arrests are already happening,” she said, because “we the people are waking up,” a frequent catchphrase for QAnon followers.

Gomez, who did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed, wrote on her Facebook page a month before the meeting that she had just started looking into QAnon in early May.

“I have to admit I was wrong about Donald Trump,” she wrote. “Donald Trump is on our side and he is secretly putting together a plan to arrest all the pedophiles.”

When a friend told her to look up QAnon, she said she had just finished a ten-part YouTube series about it. “It had me in tears the whole thing,” she wrote.

Shannon Foley Martinez, a reformed neo-Nazi who now works to deradicalize extremists, said there’s been a substantial uptick in people approaching her during the pandemic, asking for ways to reach family members who have become consumed by extremist content on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.

“I believe that we actually are living amidst another pandemic — a trauma pandemic,” Foley Martinez said. “America right now is very unstable. It feels precarious. People are carrying huge amounts of stress, both financial and personal.”

“People in these situations want something that has very clear rules, where there’s a very clear definition of enemies; friends and foes,” Foley Martinez added. “There’s an allure to it, a feeling of empowerment when people are feeling abjectly disempowered.”

In a QAnon world, where those enforcing mask mandates are perceived as part of a movement that includes Satanic child sacrifices, that good-versus-evil narrative can provide a strange sort of comfort. Doing the opposite of public health advice can give conspiracy theorists a sense of control.

And that conspiracy world can also provide community and maybe even fame.

In the days after her speech at the Palm Beach County Commissioners meeting, Gomez basked in her newfound celebrity online. While she was mocked on late night shows, she was praised in anti-vaccination and 5G conspiracy groups on Facebook. She bragged on her Facebook page that she was invited onto InfoWars.

“I got my point across perfect. I don’t need facts to back up my feelings,” Gomez wrote on her Facebook wall after the meeting. “I had the audience backing me up.”

Viral on purpose

For many wannabe anti-mask influencers, the confrontation is the point. While comedians poke fun at the viral rants, anti-mask conspiracy theory communities on Facebook cheer them on, often in private groups with tens of thousands of members.

Renee DiResta, the technical research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory, which studies information technologies and social media, said that staging confrontations for niche online audiences was cribbed directly from the anti-vaccination movement.

DiResta said that the point of these outbursts can be for attention, money, or both, but ultimately “they’re performing for the audience at home,” not the people at the supermarket or the town meeting.

“They’re getting tons of likes, positive feedback and positive reinforcement. It helps to inspire donations, as well as to inspire other people to go and do this within their own communities,” DiResta said.

There are, however, human beings on the other side of the tirades.

Last week, a woman claiming to be part of the “Freedom to Breathe Association” stalked an Orange County, California supermarket with a clipboard, telling workers they were “putting themselves in major legal liability” for enforcing rules about masks. A companion of the woman was recording it, the resulting clip clearly meant for an online audience.

The “Freedom to Breathe Association” is not a federal agency, but people claiming to be part of the group sell fraudulent medical cards on Facebook, falsely claiming it gives purchasers exemptions from mask mandates.

The employee in the video, Liz Chavez, posted a separate video of the exchange recorded by her coworker on her TikTok account with a caption: “This is what it’s like to be an essential worker.”

Chavez said she and her colleagues are regularly berated by customers who refuse to wear masks, but realized this exchange was different when she saw someone else recording it.

“So at that point, you’re like, ‘They wanted this. They were prepared for this because they were just there with their clipboard and their paper,'” said Chavez.

Sometimes after speaking to a customer about wearing a mask, Chavez said, her coworkers sound like they’re going to cry.

“They can be brutal sometimes. There are teenagers who work here who don’t know what to say,” said Chavez. “After they leave, they just get upset. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this anymore.'”

‘Craving connection’

Rein Lively said she was “craving connection” in the weeks before the Target video, that she “couldn’t just go and sit with a table of people and have a glass of wine like I’m used to.”

Her audience on Instagram was providing a stand-in for that personal attention.

“My audience should’ve been a lot bigger before I flew into it,” she joked. “I thought I was like some guru. It was insane, it was insane, it was insane.”

Rein Lively is off social media “for a long time,” she said, because her husband convinced her she couldn’t handle it. Her clients are gone. She’s not sure where she can work now.

“I don’t think people understand what the reality is. Overnight, my life was over,” she said.

But Rein Lively is getting better treatment for her bipolar disorder now, she said. She’s learning to become a better advocate for herself, and receiving better medicine to deal with it. She’s writing a book about the whole experience.

“The words are flowing like you would not believe, which is great, but I also feel like I’m not gonna go trash Target. I’ve got the impulsivity under control,” said Rein Lively.

“My goal is to live a normal life.”

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