QAnon was on the fringe until this Citigroup executive came along

Even so, the movement had been contained mostly to the internet’s trollish fringes until around the time Gelinas came along. In 2018, while doing his job at Citi, he created, as an anonymous side project, a website dedicated to bringing QAnon to a wider audience – soccer mums, white-collar workers and other “normies”, as he boasted.

A Citigroup executive helped turn an obscure and incoherent cult into an incoherent cult with mainstream political implications.

By mid-2020, the site, QMap.pub, was drawing 10 million visitors each month, according to the traffic-tracking firm SimilarWeb, and was credited by researchers with playing a key role in what might be the most unlikely political story in a year full of unlikely political stories: a Citigroup executive helped turn an obscure and incoherent cult into an incoherent cult with mainstream political implications.

‘Trump wasn’t sick’

In January the House of Representatives will almost certainly welcome its first QAnon supporter, Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, who’s running without serious competition in a district in north-west Georgia, and many other candidates for public office have professed support for aspects of the movement.

The Trump campaign has sometimes asked people not to display QAnon signs at rallies, but they show up all the time anyway. QAnon supporters were also ready with an easy spin on the biggest threat to the President’s hold on power: his own COVID-19 diagnosis. Trump wasn’t sick, the theory goes, he merely retreated from the public eye so that the Storm could begin.

Because it’s so much more involved than a typical conspiracy theory, QAnon has often been described as a religious movement – and, like many religions, the core of the belief system stems from revelations in a foundational text. In this case, that text didn’t appear on stone tablets handed down on a mountaintop or on golden plates buried in the ground in upstate New York, but through a series of cryptic postings on a website best known for racist memes and the manifestos of mass shooters. Ironically, for a movement obsessed with the evils of paedophilia, the site, 4chan, was also known as a place to download child pornography.

QAnon supporter, Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, right, is running for a US House seat without serious competition in a district in north-west Georgia. AP

The revelation was delivered on October 28, 2017, and came from a user calling him or herself QAnon. This person, who claimed to be a government employee with top-secret “q-level” clearance (a real thing in the Department of Energy), said Clinton would be arrested in two days and that the event would set off massive organised riots.

At the time, 4chan was full of similar nonsense attributed to highly placed government officials. But QAnon – or simply Q – caught on in a way that competing accounts such as FBIAnon and CIAAnon didn’t. The user became the narrator of a tale that cast Trump as the central hero in an epic global struggle, doling out the story in thousands of posts known as “Q drops”, first on 4chan, then on the even more outré 8chan and its successor site, 8kun.

The identity of Q has been a subject of speculation since the beginning. The theories are all over the place, variously suggesting that Q is Edward Snowden, or former national security adviser Michael Flynn, or the conspiracy-minded radio host Alex Jones, or even Trump himself. One self-published book, which Amazon includes free as part of its Kindle Unlimited subscription, claims to have used a mathematical model to determine that Q is former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake. Drake has denied this – but Q would do that, wouldn’t he?

Gathering place for believers

If Q’s drops are the new movement’s divine revelations, its rites involve the production and consumption of videos and social media posts – often screenshots annotated with arrows and circles revealing hidden connections – designed to interpret them. “Digging deeper,” Q’s followers often call it.

Just a few minutes before 1pm on Father’s Day 2018, for instance, Q and Trump each posted a Happy Father’s Day message. Coincidence? Or how about this August, when Trump visited a Whirlpool plant in Ohio and posed in front of 17 washing machines? Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet. Surely this was the President signalling that Q was going to clean things up. Or maybe it had something to do with money laundering?

At first, the primary documents for Q were available only to the bravest of web surfers. Most regular people don’t spend much time on 8kun, which is awful in terms of content and interface design. The need to spread the word beyond core users led to the creation of aggregator sites, which would scrape the Q drops and repost them in friendlier environs after determining authenticity. (The ability to post as Q has repeatedly been compromised, and some posts have had to be culled from the canon.) This task, Gelinas once told a friend, could be his calling from God.

On April 5, 2018, Q posted a short message – drop No. 1030 – insinuating that a recent spate of military aircraft crashes was part of a “silent war”. Later that night, Gelinas registered QMap.pub. His intention, as he later explained on Patreon, the crowdfunding website widely used by musicians, podcasters and other artists, was to make memes, which are harder to police than tweets or Facebook text posts. “Memes are awesome,” Gelinas wrote. “They also bypass big tech censorship.” (Social media companies are, at least in theory, opposed to disinformation, and QAnon posts sometimes get removed. On October 6, Facebook banned QAnon-affiliated groups and pages from the service.)

It’s times like these that cults can thrive. We have leadership that has tried very hard to change our relationship with reality.

Janja Lalich, sociologist

Gelinas raised thousands of dollars on Patreon each month, posting updates using his pseudonym, QAppAnon. “Like many of you, I felt that something wasn’t right in the world, that our country was headed in the wrong direction,” he wrote. “Then something magical happened in 2016 that defied expectations – a complete outsider to the political establishment, Donald J Trump, won the presidential election! Amazing. A glimmer of light in the darkness.” A few months into the Trump administration, Gelinas changed his party affiliation to Republican, and this spring he contributed $US200 ($280) to Trump’s re-election efforts – his first-ever political contribution, according to federal disclosures.

QMap developed into a central place for fans to read the drops, to plot and to commiserate on the site’s “Where We Go One We Go All Prayer Wall”. The site wasn’t just a repository of QAnon posts; Gelinas served as an active co-author in the movement’s growing mythology. The clean, minimalist site was designed around tiles dedicated to each Q drop, which Gelinas titled to make them easier to understand. Tabs across the top enabled users to sort by theme or tags, and the hidden players and themes were explicated along the left side with a series of icons – a few chess pieces, a globe, a skull. Brief descriptions sorted “players” by category. (French President Emmanuel Macron and New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman are in the “Traitor/Pawn” category; Senator Ted Cruz is a “Patriot”.)

QMap also had a tab for suspicious deaths. John McCain didn’t die from brain cancer, according to QMap. “One theory is that he was secretly tried [by] military tribunal and sentenced to death,” the site said. Q had never made these claims explicitly; they were insinuated by his posts, then interpreted by QMap. “It was all laid out in a way where someone could easily start to believe it’s all true,” says Joe Ondrak, a researcher for Logically.ai, a fact-checking website that follows the movement. “It was like a red pill factory.” (“Red pill” is a reference to the movie The Matrix, in which characters who want to see the world as it actually is take a tablet of that colour. It’s been adopted by right-wing activists to connote the conversion of new believers.)

One young QAnon supporter encouraged QMap to annotate posts with supporting evidence and links to additional reading materials, providing “background info for the uninformed so that even his grandma could understand what’s going on”, Gelinas wrote approvingly on Patreon in the summer of 2018. “What a great idea. It’s hard to jump into Q if you haven’t been following it closely.”

Attracting an enemy

On Patreon, he laid out a plan to add a team, which he hoped would be staffed by disaffected software developers. “Facebook devs: how mad are you. You’ve been lied to,” Gelinas wrote on Twitter in March 2019. “Your talents have been used/abused for evil purposes. Let’s build a new platform for the GOOD of Humanity.”

By this point, Gelinas claimed he was the No. 2 figure in the movement, behind only Q, according to a friend, and began to dream about turning his QAnon hobby into his main gig. “Who knows, maybe QMAP becomes the media platform of the future one day? :-)” he mused in early September.

By now, QMap’s growth had attracted an enemy. Frederick Brennan, a 26-year-old polymath with a rare bone disease, had decided to unmask the person behind QMap. Brennan was a reformed troll. He’d created 8chan, but had a change of heart after the man responsible for the 2019 mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, posted his manifesto on the forum in advance and inscribed 8chan memes on the weapons he used to kill 56 people.

Brennan had come to believe that Jim Watkins, an American entrepreneur who’d taken over 8chan and its successor site, 8kun, was somehow involved in QAnon. The mixture of regret over what the sites he’d started had become and the grudge against Watkins, who runs 8kun from his pig farm in the Philippines, had sent Brennan on a mission to bring down the site and QAnon. Watkins did not respond to a request for comment.

Brennan started by trying to figure out which companies were operating servers that hosted 8chan’s content. Then he would post public messages, on Twitter and elsewhere, urging the companies to cut ties with the site. After 8chan was dropped by the cybersecurity company Cloudflare, which protected it from denial of service, or DDoS, attacks, it found safe harbour in a new US-based DDoS protection company, VanwaTech, which had taken an extremely permissive attitude towards controversial content. “If it’s legal, I don’t care,” says 23-year-old chief executive officer Nick Lim.

This summer, Gelinas also moved his site to VanwaTech. This made him a target of Brennan, who also began pressuring Patreon to block Gelinas’ site. He referred to QMap in a tweet as “the main vector for Q radicalisation”. QMap, Brennan explains in an interview, helped “turn this anonymous format into a way people can be notified immediately”.

Patreon never banned QMap, and Gelinas took down all his posts on the crowdfunding site after he was identified as QMap’s owner. In messages exchanged over WhatsApp, he told Bloomberg Businessweek that he has no connection to Watkins and has never met him. He said he began using VanwaTech because it protected QMap from frequent DDoS attacks.

Ondrak, the fact-checker, and Nick Backovic, another Logically.ai researcher, joined Brennan’s hunt. It took Ondrak and Backovic only a few days to trace an email address associated with Patriot Platforms, which had been listed as the publisher of a QMap mobile app in Google’s Android app store, to a post office box in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.

The next day, the pair published a story outing Gelinas as the operator of QMap. Public records show that Gelinas is the sole employee associated with Patriot Platforms, and New Jersey business records obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek list the company’s address as a house in the same town, a few miles from the post office box.

On the morning of September 10, a reporter drove to the house. It was a beautiful day in suburban New Jersey. Gelinas, in shorts and an American flag cap, was in the front yard, filling up a wheelbarrow with cut-up tree stumps.

Setback for the movement

Gelinas is tall and fit at age 43. He clearly didn’t want to talk. He paced around his yard, mostly evading questions, while the reporter stood in the grass. He first said he wasn’t Q, though he did allow that he was familiar with QAnon, which he described as “a patriotic movement to save the country”. Finally, his wife opened the front door and rescued him with a vague request for technical assistance. “I don’t want to get involved, I want to stay out of it,” Gelinas said before he disappeared into the house and, rather than asking the reporter to leave, called the authorities. A few minutes later, after the reporter had left the property, two police SUVs showed up.

That afternoon, QMap.pub and the social media profiles of Gelinas and his wife disappeared from the internet. Within days, Citi had put him on administrative leave and his name was removed from the company’s internal directory. He was later terminated. “Mr Gelinas is no longer employed by Citi,” the company says in a statement. “Our code of conduct includes specific policies that employees are required to adhere to, and when breaches are identified, the firm takes action.”

In the weeks after he was outed, Gelinas mostly ignored reporters’ calls and text messages, though he did acknowledge he was the only developer for QMap and clarified several other points. “I’m not going to talk about my own story right now,” he said. “When the time is right, it will come out.”

QMap’s disappearance has been a significant but temporary setback for the QAnon movement. “It’s not going to be a death blow to the QAnon community, but it is a disruption,” says Travis View, a conspiracy theory researcher who hosts a podcast dedicated to QAnon. QMap popped back online a few days later, but it now consists entirely of links to other QAnon aggregator websites.

Google has tried to make it harder to find such QAnon sites by keeping them from showing up in searches, and Facebook and Twitter have blocked links to them, though posts about Q are easy to find on Facebook and other social networks such as Telegram. Followers also sometimes spread the word about Q-related sites by writing their URLs on signs and holding them up at Trump rallies.

Meanwhile, Gelinas’ project of bringing the gospel of Q to the mainstream is alive and well. Late this northern hemisphere summer and early this autumn, Q supporters organised a wave of in-person rallies, ostensibly to combat human trafficking, many of them under the social media hashtag #SaveTheChildren. Some established anti-trafficking groups, including the real Save the Children, a 101-year-old British non-profit, complained they were being co-opted in dangerous ways.

Janja Lalich, a professor emerita of sociology at California State University at Chico who’s studied cults for decades, says internet movements such as QAnon have grown at an alarming rate, because of a political debate that’s become increasingly unmoored from a set of universally agreed-upon facts. “It’s times like these that cults can thrive,” she says. “We have leadership that has tried very hard to change our relationship with reality, and people are grasping at straws. The last four years have been precedent-setting in creating an atmosphere of disbelief.”

Returning from that collective delusion, Lalich insists, won’t be easy. “It’s very daunting,” she says. “You have to give up everything you believed in and decide what to believe again.”

Bloomberg Businessweek

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