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It has been four years since online posts claiming to be from a self-styled government insider, known as Q, first appeared making extreme assertions about those at the very top of US power and society. It spawned a far-reaching conspiracy theory that has torn families and friendships apart.

It was January 2021 when Nicole Lauber's 14-year-old son took her to a hospital emergency room. Hours earlier, Nicole had been driving out of her small hometown in Kansas when she started having palpitations, and her arm and face went numb. "I thought I was having a heart attack."

Nicole had experienced a panic attack after 10 months of watching her mother disappear into her phone screen, and a world of conspiracy theories. Specifically, QAnon – an expansive movement that has inspired protests, split families and continues to find new followers online.

Doctors at the hospital told Nicole that they knew what she was going through. They, too, had heard about QAnon, as it had swept through the small towns in her state.

QAnon is a wide-ranging, completely unfounded theory that former US President Donald Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.

The conspiracy movement emerged on the online message board 4Chan in 2017, when posts appeared attributed to someone claiming to be a government insider with top-secret "Q" level security clearance. Using the pseudonym "Q", they claimed to be leaking classified information online.

Many QAnon followers believe that the inauguration of President Joe Biden was faked, and that Mr Trump will soon be reinstated as leader. In the age of Covid, some followers also believe that vaccines are being developed by the wealthy to control the minds of the masses.

Believers think these secrets will one day be revealed to the wider public and lead to a day of reckoning, ending with the arrest and execution of prominent people like former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

To Nicole, QAnon is completely ludicrous. But to her mother, the theories were hard facts, and by refusing to believe that, her daughter was choosing to side with an evil "cabal" over her. Though they had not been close when she was young, they had come to have a warm relationship in recent years, after Nicole had children.

"She made a wonderful grandma," Nicole said. "She was so supportive. I would have a mental breakdown with the kid crying all night, and she would be like, 'just come here for a couple of weeks' – and she would be right there helping me with them."

When Nicole started studying at university as a mature student, her mother would brag to her friends about how proud she was. It was the relationship Nicole had grown up wanting with her mum. Then last year, Nicole's mother watched a film called Out of Shadows, which accuses the media of widespread manipulation.

"And that was it. She was instantly into this QAnon world."

Nicole initially tried to humour her mother's new beliefs. When she'd send her an article and ask her what she thought, Nicole would read it and try to refute it in a respectful way. Though she thought the articles she was being sent were "out there", with their claims about fake news and media manipulation, she didn't realise exactly what her mother was getting sucked into.

Then one day last year, her mum sent her an article with a list of more than 100 celebrities who opposed then-president Trump. These celebrities, the article claimed, were going to get arrested and executed on live TV.

"I was like, why would you want this? Why would you even want to see this?" Nicole said.

Nicole's mother replied that the celebrities listed, like Beyonce and Ellen Degeneres, harvest children's blood for youth and energy. "That's when I knew she was in a cult. A death cult."

Why people get lost in conspiracies

Though support for QAnon is hard to measure, as many as one in five Americans said they believed in some of its tenets, according to a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute.

People of all different backgrounds can get drawn into conspiracy theories, but experts say the thing they have in common is that they are often looking to fill a void in their lives.

"Conspiracy theories tend to be particularly prominent in times of crisis," said Prof Karen Douglas, a social psychologist at the University of Kent who specialises in the psychology of conspiracy theories.

"People are looking for explanations that help them cope with difficult situations when there is a lot of uncertainty and contradictory information. They might also be looking for simple answers that make them feel better, and conspiracy theories might seem to offer those simple answers."

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People turn to these theories "when important psychological needs are unsatisfied or frustrated". They may need to feel like they are knowledgeable or the theories might give them a feeling of safety and security, she said.

Studies by political scientists have also found similarities between how political communities and conspiracy theories operate. For example, Republicans in the US are more likely to believe conspiracy theories about the government when a Democrat is president, and vice versa. QAnon is slightly different, in that it is a right-wing conspiracy theory that flourished under a Republican president.

For loved ones watching this happen from the outside, it can be devastating.

"People often contact me to talk about family members they have 'lost' to conspiracy theories," Prof Douglas said. "They often ask me what they can do to 'find' their friend or loved one again".

'He thinks there's a government tracker in the vaccine'

Sometimes people also fall into these theories for social reasons, like looking to replace a lost sense of community.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which pushed billions of people across the world into isolation, a new strand of conspiracy theories was born – those that claimed the virus was a hoax, and that vaccines were developed to enable the powerful to control the minds of the masses.

For Lauren*, her parents' obsession with QAnon has meant that they won't be coming to her wedding this year.

"I grew up very religious, my parents are evangelical Christians and they adhere to that quite a bit," Lauren told the BBC. "They later deviated from the religious aspect, but they still wanted that sense of community – and then they found it elsewhere."In 2016, Lauren's dad became engrossed in "Pizzagate" – a viral conspiracy theory claiming that Hillary Clinton was running a child abuse ring based in the basement of a specific pizza parlour in Washington DC. The theory led to a man firing a rifle inside the restaurant in December 2016.

Now Lauren's father believes Covid vaccines are "government trackers that are going to kill us all". Lauren's fiancé is immuno-compromised, so she wanted everyone at the service to have been vaccinated. She knew this was a tough conversation she would have to have with her parents.

"I talked to my mom about it… my mom is just more uninformed, and I think she's more amenable." She hoped that her parents would be willing to compromise, and wouldn't miss what would be one of the most important days of their daughter's life. But her hopes were dashed.

Her mother told her: "I understand where you're coming from, but we're not getting vaccinated."

An attack on the Capitol

On the morning of 6 January, Nicole noticed a cryptic Facebook post from her mum. She had no idea what it was referring to, but for some reason it made her feel uneasy. Unlike her mother's usual long, rambling posts, this one was only one sentence: "Wait for the show." It was followed by bomb emojis.

Later that day, Nicole saw on the news that a crowd of pro-Trump rioters were storming the Capitol in Washington DC. It was one of the most shocking things she'd ever seen.

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"Did she know something?" Nicole wondered. "I'm looking back, and… did she know something from her groups, that something was going to happen?"

Some 500 suspects have been arrested for the riot in January, and most have been charged with entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds. There is now an ongoing House select committee investigation into what happened that day.

According to recent reports, an expanded inquiry is going to look at whether Donald Trump's White House was involved in planning or had advanced knowledge of the riot.

'The moment I knew my best friend was gone'

When they were teenagers growing up in Pensacola, Florida, Will and Zak were inseparable. "I would consider Zak my best friend," Will Phillips, now in his 30s, told the BBC. He even spent time living with Zak when his own parents were fighting. "I have a bond that's almost beyond words with this guy."

The two remained close into adulthood, but around the time of the 2016 presidential election, Zak started sending cryptic messages in their group chats – things like, "You should take a red pill – do you want to take a red pill?" – which made no sense to Will at all.

Politically, Will considered them both quite liberal. But after Trump won the 2016 election, Will noticed that Zak and another friend, Jimmy, became, as he put it, "a little bit more unwound".

"It became sort of a joke among our group of friends that their opinions were sort of extreme – but we didn't take it that seriously," he said. But it was soon hard to ignore that their views were increasingly becoming not just eccentric, but sinister.

"They scare the hell out of me now," Will said.

Things really took a turn in 2020, when an already bitterly divided nation faced a new virus that was bringing the world to its knees. The Covid-19 pandemic caused the world's worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of 1929, and for much of the year the US was the epicentre.

At the same time, the presidential election campaign polarised the nation even further – and after Trump lost the election to Democrat Joe Biden in November he accused his opponent, without evidence, of stealing the presidency.

A legal battle ensued, but Trump's case was thrown out by courts in multiple states.

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Shortly after the election, Will and Zak got into an argument about its results.

Zak argued that it had been stolen from Trump and deluged Will with messages claiming that Trump would be reinstated as the rightful president and saying there was "evidence" that a Satanic cabal was keeping him out of office. He even brought up "Pizzagate".

"Zak still believes there are children in that basement, you know," Will said.

He argued back but the more he resisted, the more intense Zak's messages became. "He was insulting me and telling me I'm a liar, that I'm 'spoon-feeding this country into a communist regime' – I don't even know what that means!"

When Will told Zak he had voted for Joe Biden, and that calling for Trump to remain president was "disenfranchising" his vote, Zak called him a traitor.

"It honestly felt like a gut punch – like my mother or my father had told me that," Will said. "We grew up together, we saw our parents go through divorces, we were in poverty together… and now he's telling me that I'm a traitor."

Will and Zak no longer speak. He reflected on the last year of their friendship: "Maybe that's why I kept entertaining what he was saying, just to see if there was anything salvageable from this."

Will also disclosed that his former friend Jimmy was seen on video taking part in the Capitol Riot.

"I watched it – and it's the most incriminating damn thing I've ever seen," Will said. He gave the video to the FBI.

'I bring the victims of QAnon together'

Jitarth Jadeja, a 33-year-old from Sydney, Australia, spent 18 months engrossed in QAnon theories. It was all he thought about, all he would read – and eventually he was unable to hold a conversation with anyone, even his closest family, that wasn't about QAnon.

That is until one day, in June 2019, he "essentially rebooted".

At the time he had started a course of treatment for a previously-undiagnosed mental health condition, and his perspective was becoming clearer.

"I was sitting in front of my computer… and I thought, 'What do I do now… I was wrong. That's the fundamental thing, I was wrong.'"

As his health improved and he became more used to life post-QAnon, he reflected on what a devastating effect the past 18 months had had on his family. He posted about his experiences on Reddit – "it just sort of spilled out, all my feelings and emotions". He expected to be "ripped apart" but, he said, "the complete opposite happened".

image source, Jitarth Jadejaimage captionQAnon took over Jitarth's life for 18 months

"It was like these guys gave me permission on behalf of society, like, 'you messed up, it's OK, you're human'. They put me back together again, and gave me permission to retain some dignity and self-respect. If they hadn't done that, I don't know what would've happened – I wouldn't be here."

About a month later he found out about a new forum on Reddit to help support people whose loved ones had been radicalised by QAnon. He joined, and started posting about his experiences on there. According to Jitarth there were only about 400 users when he joined two years ago. Now, there are more than 180,000.

After a while, because of all the help and support Jitarth had given people on the forum, he was made a moderator – a role he still holds. Above everything else, he wants to give people on there hope that their loved ones will, like him, become their normal selves again.

For Nicole, however, that hope is thin.

"I never knew my own dad, so the only person who was actually present in my life, no longer is. I'm going through the mourning process of losing my mom before she's actually passed away. And I just don't see myself having her in my life and feeling safe right now," she said.

"I just want it out there that this is not something to take lightly. Even the people you think are there for you and love you can instantly – I don't know how it's done – snap."

*Some names have been changed

Images by Angelica Casas