The conspiracy theory is based in part on the unfounded belief that a secret cabal of elites -- including billionaires, Democrats and Hollywood stars -- are running an underground pedophilia ring and that former President Donald Trump is working to bring it to justice.
Once confined to the darkest corners of the internet, QAnon has grown in its number of followers. Vanderbilt, a lifelong Republican from South Carolina and mother to a 4-year-old daughter, last fall joined the millions of Americans who have come to believe in the conspiracy in recent years.
"I was never one that was into politics," Vanderbilt said on "The View" Monday. "I just always voted red. I wanted to be like my family and that's as much as I ever thought into it."
Vanderbilt says she began seeing posts related to the conspiracy theory on TikTok during the heat of Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign when she began liking more Trump-related content.
"I guess the algorithm must have changed it to where I was seeing, obviously, more ... pro-Trump videos and then it led into conspiracy things," Vanderbilt said of TikTok’s "For You" page.
"I was unintentionally getting conspiracy theories," Vanderbilt said. "I didn't know that it was QAnon. I didn't know any of that, but it started on TikTok."
TikTok removed the ability to search for the hashtags related to QAnon on July 23, 2020. On Wednesday, a TikTok spokesperson told CNN that the company is "committed to countering misinformation and advancing media literacy in our community. Content and accounts promoting QAnon aren't allowed on our platform and are removed as identified."
Vanderbilt said she didn’t only come to believe in QAnon’s main conspiracy theory, but others as well, including the baseless belief that celebrities would kidnap children and drink their blood.
"I know it sounds crazy," Vanderbilt told co-host Joy Behar. "When you start getting information from these groups... It starts with something small."
"It wasn't starting off like, ‘These celebrities are drinking these kids' blood,’ and I was like, 'Yep, I'm going to believe that,'" she added. "It didn't start that way. It was really small."
"Child trafficking is real. Sex trafficking is real. It's a real problem … It piques your interest because as a mom, I want to protect my kid. I want to know everything."
As Vanderbilt dove deeper into researching the unproven theories, she said she would speak about them with people that she "trusted."
"They would send me more information and it snowballed to just build bigger and bigger," she said. "Eventually, you get that huge crazy theory and you believe it, but it didn't start that way."
Many QAnon followers also embraced the false belief that there was going to be a blackout on Jan. 20 during President Joe Biden’s inauguration. More recently, some have come to believe that Trump will be sworn in as the United States’ true president on March 4, the country’s original inauguration date.
Vanderbilt told "The View" that she prepared for the possible blackout by stocking up on groceries and filling up her car's gas tank. On the eve of Inauguration Day, she said she was glued to her phone and that she had little to no sleep that night.
"Come Inauguration Day, I really didn't think it was gonna happen," Vanderbilt explained. "I kept watching the TV, watching the inauguration, and when I saw Kamala Harris get sworn in, I was like, ‘OK, they're cutting it really close.’"
As Biden was being sworn in, Vanderbilt said she was in tears as she waited for an emergency broadcast warning about a power outage. When it didn't happen, she said she was "devastated" and "scared to death."
"I thought, ‘So my worst fears and my worst nightmare is coming true, and we're seeing the funeral of the country,’" she said, thinking, "We're all gonna die. I need to take my kid out of school because they're gonna take her."
"There's so much anxiety and fear," she added. "It's hard to explain that."
However, it was on the very day that she thought her worst fears would come true that she was given advice that ultimately led her to become skeptical of QAnon and question the conspiracy theory.
In the midst of her Inauguration Day meltdown, Vanderbilt said she called her mother at work.
"She tried calming me down, and she was just like, 'Ashley, it's OK. You're safe. China's not gonna take over. We're not all going to die,'" Vanderbilt said.
She said her mom told her, "This must have been God's will. If President Biden was sworn in, then this is God's plan. He's never wrong.”
Although Vanderbilt said that her daughter “was always taken care of” during her time as a QAnon supporter, she said it still “made me emotionally unavailable to a point with her.”
"I'd pick her up from school and I'd bring her home and make her dinner, [bathe] her, put her to bed, but we didn't play that much. I wasn't cuddling with her and giving her ... the emotional attention that she needed because I was too wrapped up worrying about everything."
"I just had so much going on that I feel like I couldn't be there for her the way that she needed me to be," she added.
Experts who track extremist ideologies and movements, as well as domestic terrorism in the U.S., said in August 2019 QAnon is a unique and unpredictable new strain of extremism in America's far-right political landscape.
In August 2020, Trump made comments on QAnon’s conspiracy theory featuring him as its savior. "Well I don't know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much -- which I appreciate"
He also said, "I’ve heard these are people that love our country."
A reporter then explained the conspiracy theory to him, saying it’s "this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals,” and asking him, “Does that sound like something you are behind or a believer in?"
"Well, I haven’t ... heard that," Trump replied. "But is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, you know, if I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there."
Vanderbilt told co-host Sunny Hostin that if Trump had disavowed the conspiracy theory and told its supporters that politicians and Hollywood elites weren't torturing children or drinking their blood, she would have listened. Maybe she said, others would have, too.
"If [Trump] would have said that the election was not fraudulent, I would have listened," Vanderbilt continued. "He had a lot of lies that he could have cleared up."
In hindsight, Vanderbilt offered a message to those who still follow the QAnon conspiracy theory.
"Life outside of that group is nowhere near as scary as what it seems," she said. "If you're questioning or doubting and wondering what's true ... leave all of that disappointment and anger and lies and come be with me and so many friends that I've made that are so supportive."
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