The Emperor himself. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

October 9, 2020   4 mins

“I’m a 35 year old teacher,” a user complained in the Reddit forum r/Qult_Headquarters. “My mom has fallen to the QAnon cult because of this 15-year-old named Reed Cooper. He is popular in the Trump community and holds live streams… Why would such an adorable kid do such a thing?”

Reed Cooper, a smug blond boy in a Sunday school tie and blazer combo who festoons all his social media with American flags, is already a visual argument for the return of corporal punishment. But this reverse-Pied Piper is also the emissary of a more disturbing trend. Boomer radicalisation.

American Millennials always used to moan about their parents being “radicalised” by Fox News. While part of this was younger people complaining that their parents didn’t have the views of a Williamsburg dillettante, there was also a whisp of truth to it. A mono-diet of Hannity, the narrow wedge of talking points the station offers, can become velcro to which every other thought then sticks. The sadness was that the complaint was as much about parents subsiding into increasingly narrow and lonely lives — in which the fritzing hearth of TV is left to fill gaps in the home left by bereavement, retirement or illness.

But for some of that generation, the same comforting spool of “everyone’s talking about” content is now to be found in the infinite-scroll of social media. Mainly, on Facebook.

It’s long been obvious that Facebook is greying. Take the figures for UK users: in the period 2017-2018, Facebook shed some 400,000 18-24 year olds. For 25-44, the figures were flat, meaning that the only age groups still growing were 45-plus, with the over 65 cohort growing the most — up by 300,000 users. There are now more 65-plus users of Facebook than there are aged between 13 and 17.

In December 2018, Newsweek concluded that, for the first time in nearly a decade, less than half of all teenagers in the United States were visiting Facebook at least once in a month. The impact of that swing was becoming a vicious cycle: “this silver surge… had the knock-on effect of pushing younger people away from Facebook.”

The anecdotal evidence is, anecdotally, compelling. Around me, Big Blue has become something my generation log into only to check that it’s still there: a repository of ancient InterRailing friendships that increasingly feels just as mothballed. The teens are on SnapChat. The cool kids are on Instagram. Facebook is… well, it’s where your parents are.

Last year, two 20-year-olds created a Facebook page called A Group Where We All Pretend To Be Boomers. It went so viral that it now has its own Wikipedia page. There, younger generations roleplayed the cliches: confusion between the face with tears of joy emoji and the loudly crying emoji, unnecessary ellipses, repeated commas, and mid-sentence capitalisation.

There were updates that were narrowcast rather than broadcast (“say hi to Joe and the kids for me,,, love! You.”), complaints about minor travails of customer service (often using the fruity background wallpapers that have become the naff beating heart of what Facebook does), and the bizarre Boomer propensity to deploy gifs of Minions in any situation. And, of course, there was the heavy tack of Breitbart clickbait. And just behind it, the pure fake news.

The most shared news pieces on the site are increasingly on the Right. On 20 July of this year, for instance, the top-performing Facebook link posts by US pages were:

1. Fox News
2. Fox News
3. Occupy Democrats
4. Fox News
5. Ben Shapiro
6. Ben Shapiro
7. Ben Shapiro
8. An0maly
9. Blue Lives Matter
10. Dan Bongino

The last of these, Dan Bongino, is a former Secret Service agent, and Fox News commentator, who wrote a book about a conspiracy theory: Spygate: The Attempted Sabotage of Donald J. Trump, in which he mused wildly about how the Obama administration placed a spy inside the Trump campaign team. Bongino skirts the boundaries of respectability. He doesn’t talk about it himself, but he regularly links to Q supporters.

In the tumble from stumping-for-Trump towards Q land, those marginal connections count — especially for a generation who already start with a limited immune system for the fake news virus. In 2018, the Social Media And Political Participation lab, based at New York University, concluded that while only 3 per cent of those aged 18 to 29 shared links from fake news sites, that rose to 11% of the over-65’s. And critically, the association with age was independent of either gender or ideological affiliation.

Q, with its narrative of “fighters” in an “army”, with their comradely slogan of “Where We Go One We Go All”,  affords community to the lonely, while the fact that its a conspiracy about everything just makes it a fantastic WordSearch puzzle. Suddenly, the news comes alive.

On the forum QAnon Casualties, the stories bear out the pattern:

My mom on FB in 2011: Innocently playing FarmVille.
My mom on FB 2020: Constantly scrolling through QAnon posts, memes, and videos.
This change has been unbelievable. She used to pay attention to the news only when she would flip through the local newspaper. Nowadays she posts QAnon or political stuff almost every single day.

One talks of how, amidst a failing relationship, his father started staying up late, drinking heavily and watching Q conspiracy theorists.

Since then, he has been spiraling. He gets into fights with lifelong best friends. As a young person who worked for a Democratic campaign, he would instigate fights with me on a regular basis. It’s exhausting. I don’t want to cut ties, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to talk to him and be around him.

Another describes a text that her mother sent to her father that morning, which read: 

Trump is finally starting the declassification of many indictments! JFK Jr is coming out soon. Pence is out! Jr is to run with Trump! This will blow so many people’s minds!! This election is not about Dem vs Rep! It is about Dark to Light!!”

The subreddit held an unscientific poll: “What age is your Q casualty?” By far the highest band, with 70 votes, was “50s”.

So when, on Tuesday, Facebook announced it had removed over 1,500 Pages and Groups that supported Q, it was both a tacit admission of how deep the tendrils went inside the site, and the demoltion of a key node in the spider-gram of how Q spreads.

Those roots can be slashed back, but unfortunately, three years on from the first Q drop, this has become a Japanese knotweed of the marginal internet. Much like the Covid crisis that became its great incubator, the answer to the phenomenon may not be that we can snuff it out, so much as that we will have to learn to live alongside it.

Gavin Haynes is a journalist and former editor-at-large at Vice.