20 May 2021
Standing on a bridge overlooking the northbound Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, I offer Wilma a coffee and donuts, which she politely declines for herself but agrees to take home to her daughter. For the next few hours, we would stand and chat — about her daughter’s high school, my college education, and, of course, the hidden messages in Disney movies that turn people into violent sleeper agents. Wilma was my first informant in a study I conducted on QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory that has recently cannibalized portions of the United States Republican Party. Appealing to people’s fears about moral decline, white genocide, and political corruption, it alleges that the American left is engaged in a Satanic coup that Donald Trump is working to stop. She introduced me to this conspiratorial world, providing the impetus and direction for an expanded virtual ethnography. While she and I disagreed on most things, in our time together we were able to form a productive, if not friendly, relationship. The recent retiree and devoted mother of one treated me like another child, gauging my reactions to her theories and allowing us to discuss the vast chasm between our experiences and understandings of the world. There was discomfort, of course, especially when she would flag down passersby and implicate me in her recruitment tactics, or when she insisted on posting a picture of me with some QAnon merchandise to her public Twitter, but for the most part, I was happy to be myself around her, glad that we could connect as more than researcher and informant.
When I told my advisor that I was going to pursue a broader study of QAnon, one that would require befriending many more conspiracy theorists online, she (understandably) offered cautionary advice and asked that I take the necessary precautions to not get harassed or put myself in unnecessary danger. In a sudden episode of paranoia, I decided that anonymity, not complete transparency, would be my friend. Anonymity was the primary safeguard against doxxing — the tactic of uncovering an online user’s personal information and leaking it to those who could target my university, employer, or friends and family with harassment and threats. My fears weren’t entirely unfounded. As a child of the internet, I had been exposed to the seedier sides of the web in the periphery of my online social life. I grew up in online role-playing games frequented by wannabe American militiamen, deftly avoided the rampant misogyny in forums such as Reddit, and hung out with regular contributors to 4chan, the infamous online message board whose anonymity and shock culture encourage the adoption of bigoted online personas. I worried that the conspiracy theorists I would meet online — many of whom overlapped with the cyberbullies, trolls, and extremists I had once snuck past by way of anonymity — would see me as a target. Much of my life online isn’t anonymous — like this article — so it wouldn’t be difficult to find out information about me. I also knew that these conspiracy theorists, annoyed by journalists’ condescending, derogatory depictions and wary of academics’ pathologizing, would not be entirely receptive of a message or reply from a sociologist.
As I got my bearings in the online community, anonymity seemed like the right choice: I threw together social media profiles with only my first name, unidentifiable pictures of myself, and a bio establishing me as a sociologist based out of my university. I followed many people, and most followed back, a common tactic for increasing the community’s size. Most of my information-gathering was what some term “lurking”: without posting, I watched YouTube videos, joined Facebook pages, binged TikTok videos, and read up on QAnon websites, finding accounts and webpages to follow through Wilma, posts online, and algorithmic suggestions. There, I read through countless promotional tweets sharing popular hashtags and watched hours-long documentaries detailing the innerworkings of the Satanic cabal.
With a semi-anonymous online presence established, I was soon met with people who, examining my profiles, saw me as a threat. On Twitter, one woman immediately leveraged conspiratorial language to out me as a “false flag,” suggesting that I was disguising myself as a researcher to extract information from QAnons and then cast them as lunatics. Her timeline was filled with similar accusations where she called out “fake QAnons,” and she had ingratiated herself in a community of patriotic, militant mothers who believed their online work was vital to the protection of children from pedophiles and Satanists. In a series of tweets, she tagged other QAnons — including some large, popular accounts — requesting backup for her cross examination, “Where is the money coming from? Who is paying you?” The tagged accounts joined in, and my notifications went wild as they rapidly sent out tweets interrogating me or consulting with each other. My identity within the community was on the line, and as these accusations piled up, they would remain visible on my profile forever.
Another potential informant, one who had similarly amassed a large following on Twitter and who treated the online space as a “battleground for truth,” privately messaged me expressing interest in the study. Our conversation descended into hostility: “I’m curious what aspect of Qanon [sic] you disagree with?” he asked out of the blue. In response, I tried to explain that I wasn’t here to disagree with QAnon but to learn more about people involved. This was clearly an unsatisfying response which only prompted a critical attack on my work, and he said, “Here’s a tip. Be more honest next time…I woulda been more likely to talk to you if you said I understand nothing about QAnon. Also you’re offering people minimum wage for an hour of personal time is kinda a joke. There’s your peer review for your study.” After thanking him for his time, the attacks continued — without reply. He felt the need to justify his beliefs to me, continuing:
“I was raised in a rich neighborhood and was an all conference [quarterback in high school]… My best friend is a [Major League Baseball] all star. He finally accepted me for my views, were [sic] still best Bros… I graduated with cum laude…Then got 3 promotions in 4 years to management…You’re welcome ya wolf in sheepskin.”
More messages came in, and eventually he began posting screenshots of our conversations to Twitter: I had stirred in him the exact form of paranoia and victimization that researchers tend to pathologize. In his eyes, I became an agent of evil working against his very existence, and somehow he had to prove himself to me.
Sometimes these attacks worked out in my favor, allowing us to productively resolve our initial disputes, and such encounters pushed me to interrogate how I presented myself to my informants. After posting an advertisement for the study — which offered $15 for an interview — Jared, one of the few Swedish QAnons, called me a “honeypot”— an enticing offer with hidden, malicious intentions. “I hope this doesn’t get me suicided,” he joked in the replies, and then asked for proof that I was real. I posted a picture with the date written on a piece of paper to demonstrate that I wasn’t a bot, and he then messaged me privately and offered to be interviewed. We chatted a bit beforehand, and when we finally got to our video call, he flickered to life on a grainy cellphone selfie camera, aimlessly wandering about his room as he explained how the EU has been creating a New World Order under the guise of socialism. With a hesitant excitement and infectious laugh, the young industrial worker looked to me as the academic authority who could vindicate his theories, but he still approached the interview like we were good friends. Before his account was banned, he would regularly follow up with news articles or memes, and in those moments — the slight exasperations about work or the giddiness about a new YouTube video he had found — I was reminded of my time with Wilma. Despite our mediated lives, it felt as though we had bridged a gap between our separate realities.
Following Jared, when any potential informant started with hostile questioning, I recognized the importance of being as honest as possible, offering up consent forms which naturally included my full name and an explanation of the study. One informant took this as an opportunity to do some background research and identified me, my advisor, and my grant funder — a leftist, a gender theorist, and a Jewish family — as some of the primary enemies of QAnon. He posted all of this information to his public profile, and approached me with a list of reasons for his hesitancy:
“1. Chicago, really? Not the hotbed for wanting to know the truth. 2. Information gathering on Anons is on an increase, particularly those who have a voice and are dedicated to erasing the Cabal. 3. Questioning about Q leads me to believe that you are not confident in your convictions for the Q movement.”
I was prepared to write him off as another failed interview, but instead I sent him a message that read, “I want to thank you for your messages, I have heard many reasons why people do and do not want to talk with me…I am a research assistant…I am not a follower of Q, though I do keep up to date on his message.” I went on to talk about how I don’t believe in Q’s theories, but I think we need to hold political elites up to scrutiny. His suspicion faded, and he even apologized, “It’s not you that makes us suspicious, it is the institution of universities who…have taught lies instead of truths that make us suspicious.” From there, the conversation was productive.
For the sake of my own safety and the productivity of my work, some level of anonymity had seemed necessary, but after I got over the regular little rejections and attacks on my character, my initial plans of using a fake name, mimicking QAnon sloganeering and iconography, and employing covert “screening” mechanisms seemed not only silly but unethical and ineffective. Being myself in the field — and confronting any of the challenges that such honesty posed — felt like part of the ethnographic work that couldn’t be avoided offline and shouldn’t be attempted online. My time with Wilma was productive because there was no way of hiding myself from her; together, we developed a relationship that was rooted in confronting our differences as people, not as online personas. Introducing digital methods that disguised who I was didn’t allow for that productive working out of our relationship; instead, the new challenge was to recreate that honesty online.
At some point, the fears eased, and I put my full real name on display, learning to brush off any would-be attackers and maintain relationships with informants. The clear, institutionally regulated deception was off the table: I presented as a sociologist with a consent form to sign.
However, participant-observation and recruitment remained a struggle due to the little acts of lying. Could I share Facebook posts that didn’t represent my views, could I retweet memes that constituted disinformation, how was I supposed to engage with people who were expressing racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynistic beliefs in a way that was casual, immersive, “deep hanging out,” other than replying with “oh huh, why do you believe that?” Now that I was a more active participant, commenting on YouTube videos, posting tweets, and reaching out to people in social media posts for interviews, I was cognizant of how my likes or retweets indicated something about my relationship to the community. With my full self on the line, I still had to work hard to convince some informants that my intentions were in the right place, and they asked me again and again: are you here to call us crazy? Of course I wasn’t, but being there to study them didn’t win me many favors either. I was regularly blocked mid-text exchange, especially after sending consent forms, and in one conversation, an informant suddenly turned hostile, “you think I’m insane, don’t you?” In a stream of profanity, he accused me of exploitation. According to their worldview, neutrality was often as bad as opposition, to treat them fairly and sympathetically was to dismiss their fears and assist the enemy. Was I exploiting them?
The disgruntled informant later apologized, but I felt the need to as well. Had I led him on? In so many phone calls and Zoom meetings my usual “mhms” and head nods felt disingenuous: were these, too, acts of deception? The friendly demeanor I had with Jared, the way I laughed along with his laugh, eyes searching for recognition: was this a lie too far? I certainly didn’t agree with their beliefs, but they trusted me to represent them, as one said to me, “I hope [your work] becomes one that carries so much weight for the Q-Anon cause that it sends ripples throughout the world to make even more aware and inevitably enhance The Great Awakening.” I had my sympathies, and I often agreed with their critiques of politics or government or news media, even if I agreed in a completely different form. Even when watching their videos, I sometimes found myself instinctually nodding along: one of their more popular videos showed how local news media had been taken over by a larger corporation. The video had been produced by a leftist in order to demonstrate the rise of corporate right-wing news, but it was leveraged by QAnons who didn’t know the original context. Still, telling them that I wasn’t a fan of corporate media and establishment politicians was different than saying I believed the world was run by pedophilic Satanists.
These mediated relationships, many of which never got to the point of them seeing my face or getting to know me, allowed them to construct a version of me that was more or less their friend, confidant, and ally, but would they feel the same way if we met in person? Even what they did know about me — that I was a young, polite White male with an Irish-sounding name—helped impose a more favorable image. This knowledge also shielded me from immediate attacks on my race, gender, and sexuality, and it likely helped some more politically incorrect informants be honest with me about their thoughts on racial minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community. What was I supposed to say when a supporter embarked on a rant about how former First Lady Michelle Obama was a secret transwoman and then concluded by saying, “But I’m not transphobic — I’m not afraid of anyone”? I stayed quiet. I asked her my next question.
I can’t deny that my identity endeared me to people whose approval I required professionally but didn’t desire personally. It put me in a privileged position and made transparency an easier task.
In some calls, which I routinely ended with “any questions for me?” they’d ask about my personal beliefs, and I was candid. It left some with a twinge of regret as they recognized that I was no more than a student, interested in their worldview but certainly not a subscriber to it. In other instances that was when the call really became something beyond a distillation of their beliefs, it was when we could enact the conversations they had described having with their friends or fellow QAnons, the ones where their beliefs were worked out and reimagined. Then, I could get a sense of how they engaged with other people, how they used QAnon logic in action to unpack the world.
My virtual ethnography wasn’t originally focused on the life worlds of these conspiracy theorists. I had initially taken an approach grounded in media and communication, looking at how algorithms, online platforms, and social networks helped form political beliefs. But when I dropped the veil of anonymity, when I was able to get at the heart of my informants’ lives and ideologies, it made the technological components all the more embodied and alive. The oft-discussed YouTube algorithms, Twitter hashtags, or viral Facebook memes meant nothing without an appreciation of the people producing mini documentaries, spending hours growing their follower counts, and curating close-knit Facebook groups. I found myself guided less and less by technology and more and more by the people inhabiting it.
It was the first major research endeavor that I undertook on my own, and it was difficult to negotiate the worlds I found myself in. Talking to other sociologists, my informants were just that, people to study and treat with the care that’s indicative of a good ethnographer. But this research was conducted in my home, in the comfort of my pandemic refuge, and I spent countless hours consuming abhorrent online content, talking with eugenicists, and getting a deep sense of the danger they posed — a danger that would become all the more clear when Trump supporters took to the Capitol steps. In those moments, I would step away from my research and get the usual questions from friends and family: you don’t actually care about these people, do you? Isn’t it just as important to interrogate them as it is to listen to them? Is it? Would I interrogate the downtrodden, the people whose politics I agreed with? Was it my duty to put their worldviews to the test?
I found few easy answers to my questions, and I tried to live in all of them, to answer them in different ways, sometimes pushing harder on informants when it felt appropriate and at other times pulling back. I still tried to practice empathy and kindness, but it took a little while for me to make “I can know these people as my genuine self” into something I believed and practiced and not just something I said, perhaps even lied to myself about. I was given the same opportunity that makes QAnon so appealing to people online: they could reconstruct their digital self as anyone they wanted, as a powerful, courageous warrior fighting for the good of the nation. At first I thought about making a new me for research, and I’m glad I fought — and had — that instinct. That impulse demonstrated in the clearest terms that ethnography is not just about authentic others but their engagement with the ethnographer’s authentic self.
 To protect the identity of my informants, I have used pseudonyms. This is, in itself, a tricky subject, since many are or were public figures with identifiable online presences (especially prior to tech platforms’ bans on QAnon content).
Peter Forberg is a joint degree student pursuing a BA in sociology and an MA in digital studies at the University of Chicago. He hopes to pursue a PhD in sociology focusing on political media and childhood. You can find Peter on Twitter @peterforberg or visit his website https://peterforberg.com to see some of his other work.