Of the many potent images that emerged from the January 6 Capitol riot, few gained more recognition than the photos of Jacob Chansley. Dressed in horns, a fur headdress, and facepaint, Chansley—dubbed the “QAnon Shaman”—has become a poster child for a Trumpist brand of far-right extremism. Chansley once again made headlines last February when he launched a hunger strike, prompting a federal judge to rule that he be allowed to maintain his organic-only diet while incarcerated. At the time, many considered this alleged fear of toxins to be a deviation from Chansley’s hardened exterior and conservative politics. However, it seems that Chansley and his clean-eating obsession are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the growing link between wellness culture and far-right extremism.
QAnon is a set of online conspiracy theories centered around the belief that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles controls the United States government. The theory’s namesake, “Q,” who claimed to be a high-ranking government official, would spontaneously post “Q drops” on 4chan and later 8chan (which has since been renamed 8kun) detailing cryptic clues as to how then-President Donald Trump planned to bring down this alleged cabal through a series of mass arrests. Since the end of the Trump presidency, Q has gone silent. However, that hasn’t stopped the voracity of their followers or the influence of their message.
QAnon, with its talk of blood libel, child sex trafficking, and blatant bigotry, seems diametrically opposed to a wellness influencer culture otherwise focused on juice cleanses, yoga tutorials, essential oils, and overpriced matcha lattes. In fact, with roots in 1960’s Hippie counterculture, today’s growing health and wellness niche on social media is commonly associated with liberal consumers. However, the pandemic, assisted by social media’s radicalizing algorithms, has visibly linked these two worlds. As a result, once liberal-coded wellness culture has emerged as a full fledged gateway into the dark abysses of QAnon.
Social media has played a critical role in this radicalization process. Influencer Melissa Rein Lively, who went viral in 2020 for destroying a mask display inside an Arizona Target, is a prime example. “QAnon Karen,” as Rein was deemed by the news media, began her descent into conspiratorial thinking when she began reading more health and wellness content during the pandemic. According to Rein, who has since disavowed her QAnon beliefs, it wasn’t long before healthy recipe videos and mundane calls to “do your own research” spilled into anti-vaccination and QAnon-related conspiracy theories.
Rein Lively is not alone. Derek Beres, Julian Walker, and Matthew Remski, co-hosts of the “Conspirituality” podcast, have compiled a list of “red-pilled” influencers that have posted explicitly QAnon related content. The sheer diversity of this list is telling: While prominent health and wellness influencers such as Goop founder Gwenyth Paltrow and 2020 Democratic primary candidate Marianne Williamson may be vocal liberals themselves, beneath the surface, it seems that the vast majority of these influencers were at least publicly apolitical prior to the pandemic. However, QAnon-related slogans such as #SaveTheChildren, #WhereWeGoOneWeGoAll and #TheGreatAwakening, have become increasingly common amongst this crowd of micro-influencers in particular. Given this somewhat innocuous messaging, even the influencers posting these hashtags may not fully realize their profound political significance.
With climate change denial such a potent force on the right, Democrats seem to go out of their way to brand themselves as the party of science and expertise—a trend that has only intensified with the onset of the pandemic. In the United States, however, anti-vaccine beliefs have been growing steadily in pockets on the left for decades. Driven by fears of the debunked link between autism and the MMR vaccine, many parents in solidly liberal districts have decided to forgo some, if not all, early childhood vaccinations. In fact, according to a 2019 SFGATE report, more than half of all students were unvaccinated at seven Bay Area schools.
Conspiratorial thinking has long been commonplace in liberal circles—particularly amongst wellness influencers who depend on pseudoscience to back up their dubious health claims. In contrast to their far-right counterparts whose angst is primarily directed at government elites, liberal qualms with centralized authority tend to be aimed at “big pharma” and “Western” medicine. With the government now the face of public health policy amidst the pandemic, these previously separate enemies have converged. Thus, for wellness gurus already primed to distrust Western medicine, anxiety over stay-at-home orders and vaccine mandates have become the perfect vehicle for QAnon to launch its message into the mainstream.
Marc-André Argentino, a PhD researcher at Canada’s Concordia University, has deemed this social media trend “pastel” QAnon, a nod to the sanitization the theory has undergone while transitioning into more mainstream channels. As he explains, instead of first encountering “the cesspool that is 8kun with its racism, anti-semitism and pornography,” these repackaged QAnon beliefs are instead being delivered by “an influencer that many of their followers already trust for their lifestyle, medical and fitness advice.”
The intersection between wellness influencer culture and the dark conspiracies of QAnon has chillingly emerged as the new place where the left meets the right. During the pandemic, these seemingly strange bedfellows have been linked by their shared distrust of centralized authority and an insistence that they’re “just asking questions.” As a result, anti-vaccination and anti-mask rhetoric has become the key ideological linchpin linking these two seemingly opposed subcultures—making Covid-19 misinformation the perfect indoctrination tool to “wake up” a whole new wave of Q’s disciples.