The first sign for Hala Khouri that something dangerous, if not exactly new, was spreading in her world of health practitioners was Plandemic, a viral video filled with misinformation and conspiracy theories about the spread of covid-19. Friends and acquaintances, all people that Khouri, a yoga instructor and founder of the activist collective Off the Mat Into the World, described as fellow spiritual travelers, shared the viral 26-minute video with her and urged her to watch. They believed that Plandemic was full of revealing truths.
The slickly produced, sombre-toned “documentary,” is largely a lengthy interview with the discredited scientist and medical conspiracist Dr. Judy Mikovits, who’s portrayed as a stern-faced Cassandra. “[I]f we don’t stop this now, we can not only forget our republic and our freedom, we can forget our humanity because we’ll be killed by this agenda,” Mikovits warns at the beginning.
But Khouri found it eye-opening for a different reason. She was alarmed by its wildly outlandish claims, including that masks “activate” the novel coronavirus and that any future covid-19 vaccine will “kill millions.” When she questioned the documentary in comments on Facebook, Khouri said that she got “slammed.”
“Do your research,” she recalled people telling her. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re afraid to see the truth.”
She shared articles from the fact-checking website Snopes.com to push back and was told sneeringly that the site was run by the government and not to be trusted. “That’s when it became very real to me,” she told Jezebel. In a moment, she realized that a disturbingly large number of people in the loosely defined health and wellness community, one whose members have already proven themselves over the years to be remarkably susceptible to unverified and refuted claims on everything from vaccines to toxins to supplements, were quickly being radicalized online.
Whenever she logged into Facebook and Instagram, Khouri saw more and more posts declaring that covid-19 was a hoax and that wearing a mask was “submission” and “slavery,” alongside memes railing against a future covid-19 vaccine. Typical wellness memes, with their airy fonts and light colors, had been replaced by cookie-cutter rightwing images with their aggressively ugly design—a vaccine, read one of them, the fuzzy, bold text superimposed over a stock image of a Black woman happily getting vaccinated, was a modern-day update to the gas chambers employed by Nazi Germany. “Nobody will even know it’s a Holocaust,” it warned darkly.
This content, Khouri told Jezebel, “is being shared by the very same people that were ‘love and light and yoga’ just last year.”
It’s being shared by the very same people that were ‘love and light and yoga’ just last year.
For Shannon Algeo, a yoga teacher who also runs mindfulness and meditation training and hosts a popular podcast called SoulFeed, his moment came in June. A friend and fellow yoga teacher had posted a list of his beliefs on his Facebook page, which started off by him proclaiming he would not vote for Joe Biden. Covid-19, Algeo’s friend wrote, was a “scam,” just another sign that “Satanism” and “corruption” were everywhere, but especially prevalent in politics, the media, and our financial system, and needed to be “genocided from the planet.”
“I was like, wait, that sounds crazy. What is that?” Algeo told Jezebel.
“It,” Khouri and Algeo soon realized, was QAnon, the multi-faceted conspiracy-driven movement that got its start in the fallout from Pizzagate that has since morphed to become an all-encompassing worldview, one in which anti-vaccine and anti-mask sentiment exists easily alongside beliefs that Donald Trump is working to take out a global cabal of Satanists and pedophiles who drink children’s blood and are running a child sex trafficking ring. Call it Satanic Panic 2.0, an updated, incredibly flexible repackaging of some very old ideas.
Far from a movement lurking on the edges of the internet, many of the ideas under the QAnon umbrella have found a ready home among large parts of the wellness community. In recent months, fairly prominent influencers have embraced the ideology and used their platforms to share the gospel of Q and QAnon-adjacent memes, articles, and ideas, spreading them like a virus.
And more and more of the people flooding online forums and social media channels with what would seem to the uninitiated bizarre rumors—case in point: the theory that Tom Hanks is part of that Hollywood network of pedophiles—are women, who have reimagined QAnon into their own, often Instagram-ready pastel-tinted vision. For some, their entry point is the threat of child sex trafficking, a real if often misunderstood issue that this summer morphed into the theory that Wayfair was trafficking children. For others, it was an easy slide from sharing conspiracy-driven anti-vaccination content (the online anti-vax community is mostly women) to watching content like Plandemic, to doing more “research,” and falling down the rabbit hole.
The wellness industry has been built on questioning established science and successfully mainstreaming fringe ideas
It’s no surprise that wellness adherents—people who earnestly believe that there is a deeper truth out there, accessible to those who seek it out—would find an easy overlap with the ideas that animate QAnon. After all, the wellness industry has been built on questioning, often understandably, established science and the medical industry, successfully mainstreaming fringe ideas and providing easy solutions to complex problems.
When I spoke with Khouri, she recognized the similarities. “It’s the same language that a lot of spiritual folks use,” she said. “We want to wake up, we want to see the truth.”
That wake-up call is what many like Khouri and Algeo have built their careers upon. Left unspoken, however, is a question—what happens when that same message leads people to a place untethered from reality?
In recent months, the popular women’s holistic health and wellness influencer Dr. Christiane Northrup has taken to tagging her video dispatches with the QAnon phrase “the Great Awakening.” In one of her recent videos, Northrup stares into the camera from what looks like her living room, her pale blonde hair in a sleek bob and her lips coated a bright red. “Everything is within us. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, it doesn’t matter if you look at somebody who follows QAnon, it doesn’t matter,” she tells her viewers, before referencing the noted conspiracy theorist David Icke. “The takeover of who we are as humanity started thousands of years ago..” She encourages her followers, “Keep doing this beautiful job of alchemizing.”
Christine Northrup may be a crank, but she’s far from fringe. Northrup’s “empowering” 1994 book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom reached the New York Times bestseller list, and she was for years one of Oprah’s favored experts. An ob/gyn and noted anti-vaxxer, she has almost 750,000 followers on her various social media accounts. In May, Northrup played a role in spreading Plandemic when she shared a link to the video with her hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook, writing, “It’s all here.”
These days, interspersed between posts about how to cure cancer without chemotherapy are interviews with the QAnon YouTuber and enthusiast Sean Morgan, during which she rails against wearing a mask, warns of taking a future covid-19 vaccine, and recommends sunlight, laughter, and hydroxychloroquine as prophylactics against covid-19. “I think there is a dark agenda behind all of this, I can’t really think anything else,” she told Morgan. Her social feeds are full of warnings about the threat to children posed by Hollywood, which she imagines is filled with pedophiles, and commentary that wearing a face mask “is about social engineering, control, and submission.” “California is waking up,” she crowed in an August tweet, sharing a photo from a #SaveTheChildren protest featuring a sign with the hashtags #pizzagate and #pedogate.
Other wellness influencers have made a similar pivot. Take Joseph Arena, a “plant-based” nutritionist who has recently pivoted to, as Mother Jones noted, “push[ing] explicit QAnon theories about massive pedophile rings run by the deep state on his Instagram account and has directed his followers to pro-QAnon pages to find ‘the truth.’” In a July 29 post on his Instagram page about herd immunity and covid-19, he wrote to his tens of thousands of followers, imploring them to “WAKE UP” to the threat posed by the “new world order and a globalist agenda.” “If you think your rights will be taken just for them to be given back,” he wrote, “you are dead wrong.”
Ann Marie Michaels, aka “Cheeseslave” as she’s known on all of her social media accounts, has undergone a transformation I find particularly instructive, because it neatly illustrates how once one sees life as a journey of enlightenment, it only requires a little stretch of the imagination to then apply that logic everywhere— each step taking them further down the road until they arrive somewhere unrecognizable to anyone but someone who has gone on the same journey. A food and health blogger, Michaels has in the past posted about topics that are mainstream in the wellness world: her weight-loss journey, the dangers of fluoride and vaccines, and, yes, cheese and the supposed benefits of raw milk. But Michaels has been transformed and, as she wrote in a note on her YouTube account, is now “using all my social media to support the Q movement.”
As Michaels tells it, her “dedication to telling the truth” has been there all along—now, she’s turned her attention from “the truth about pesticides, vaccines, and fluoride” to our political system. “Food is not the problem we face. Our food supply is only a symptom. As is our failing health. The real issue is the Deep State,” she wrote in June on her website. In that blog, she details how she went from a supporter of Bernie Sanders to a Donald Trump voter, a shift that included personal financial hardship. (She pins her problems on her husband being “hacked by an international crime ring, censorship by Google, and a targeted campaign by pharmaceutical and chemical companies.)
Trips to CPAC and Politicon that helped her recover from a lifetime of being “brainwashed to hate Republicans” nudged her along; the covid-19 pandemic, which she describes as a “scam [that] was just a cover for the storm,” was the final push. In her telling, she had researched Hillary Clinton in 2016, been horrified by what she had found, and then turned to Trump. “After spending half a year researching, turning over every rock, and digging every tunnel, I realized that the only candidate fighting for America was Donald J. Trump,” Michaels wrote. “I realized that the media hated him (and still does) because they are bought and paid for by the globalist elites.”
Michaels concludes, “The satanic cabal that has been ruling the world for thousands of years is about to be exposed and exterminated.” On her website, next to the tabs “FOOD,” “HEALTH,” “PRODUCT REVIEWS,” and “TRAVEL,” one can now find links to resources on QAnon. On her personal Facebook page, in between quips about drinking wine at 3 p.m. “because 202o” are rants about “pedophiles at Netflix,” memes about the New World Order, and breathless updates on the next info drop from Q.
QAnon is scaffolding onto a strand of conspiratorial thinking that has always been part of our DNA
The ease with which growing numbers of wellness adherents have seamlessly incorporated QAnon into their worldview illustrates a broader point—that QAnon, far from a new phenomenon, is scaffolding onto a strand of conspiratorial thinking that has always been part of our DNA. As many have pointed out, including my former Jezebel colleague Anna Merlan in her book Republic of Lies, there is a sort of twisted logic to conspiracy theories, built as they are on half-truths. In an increasingly chaotic world, many of us are searching for meaning; many of us are looking for someone easy to blame; many of us feel disempowered, feel helpless, distrust our government, and the institutions that shape our lives. Seen from this angle, the tenets of both QAnon and the wellness world are remarkably alike—it’s a shorter leap than one might assume from believing that Big Pharma is pushing dangerous vaccines onto an unsuspecting public to believing that Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and Bill Gates are part of a global network of Satanists who kidnap children and drink their blood.
Both Algeo and Khouri were part of a recent effort spearheaded by a group of wellness practitioners to publicly combat the growing embrace of QAnon-related ideas within the world of wellness. On their Instagram pages, they and other influencers posted a statement directly addressed to the “wellness community” and warning of the dangers of believing the conspiracy theories animating QAnon: “QAnon is taking advantage of our conscious community with videos and social media steeped with bizarre theories, mind control, and misinformation—don’t be swayed by these messages!” They continued, “QAnon does NOT represent the true values of the wellness community.”
But that last statement may be more aspirational than they’d like to believe. Their Instagram campaign received some splashy press, including a write-up in the New York Times, but if some of the reaction I saw is any indication, it may only serve to their intended audience as proof that they’re on the right path. As one outraged QAnon follower wrote in a critique of the intervention, describing the critical group as “yoga poseurs,” “There is no hate in Q. There is no racism in Q. There is a good dose of healthy distrust of pedophiles and the people who enable them either willfully or by their willful ignorance.” Who did he pin the blame on? It was, naturally, the fault of the “relentless fake news media.”