Colleen Protzman (CNN)
How conspiracy theories are tearing apart American families. CNN's Donie O'Sullivan investigates on "Waiting for JFK: Report from the Fringe," on "The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper," Sunday at 8 p.m.
(CNN) -- "Now the family tree is like this," the man in the film confidently extolled. "John John and... Trump are cousins. And Trump's uncle is JFK Sr., and Joe Kennedy, who isn't dead either. And Trump's father is General George Patton and his brother is Mussolini..."
Colleen Protzman listened, dejected. The man speaking on the tape was his son, Michael Protzman.
"And the thing is, he believes that," she said.
His son had become the leading figure in a QAnon branch that believed John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash near Martha's Vineyard in 1999, was alive and secretly working with former President Donald Trump to save America from an evil cabal.
It's the kind of conspiracy theory one might assume manifests itself only in the dark corners of the internet.
But that changed on Nov. 2, 2021, when hundreds of people from across the country gathered on the infamous grassy knoll in Dallas' Dealey Plaza, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. The congregation was not there to commemorate the death of the 35th president of the United States. They were there to see what they desperately hoped would be the return of the Kennedys.
A crowd gathers in Dallas in November 2021. (WFAA)
"It is said on the street that Junior, JFK Jr, will appear and introduce his parents," one believer told the local WFAA news team who had rushed to the square after hearing reports of a large crowd gathered. When asked what he expected to happen, the man replied earnestly: "He (JFK Jr.) will probably be the vice president with Trump."
The late JFK and his son failed to materialize. Most of the assembled crowd went home and went on with their lives, some of them disappointed that the impossible hadn't happened. But others stayed, waiting for months in Dallas for the return of the Kennedys.
In some ways, the Kennedys, a family dynasty that once embodied the Democratic Party, had become heroes of a movement that also worshipped Trump. A strange mixture of American tradition dating back to the assassination of JFK, along with biblical prophecies and adjacent to QAnon, suggested that the Kennedys and Trump were direct descendants of Jesus Christ and heroic protagonists of an ancient battle between good and evil.
The story is objectively crazy, but it managed to strike a chord. Hundreds of people showed up that day in Dallas hoping that at least one Kennedy would resurface. Others left their lives, their families and their jobs behind for months waiting for that false promise. But why?
To dismissively reduce the answer to this question as a collective illusion of the "QAnon nuts" is to ignore the profound impact that fringe conspiracy theories are having on American families and American democracy.
These false beliefs are a symbol and symptom of a broader ideology that feeds on anger, disillusionment and loneliness and is fueled by politically and financially motivated opportunists who have weaponized community-building capabilities on social media.
Michael Protzman was carried away by this alternate reality.
Depending on who you ask, Protzman was a victim whose convictions and worldview were altered so radically by what he read on the internet that it cost him his family, his home, and his business. Or he was a manipulative opportunist who deceived his followers into believing a twisted QAnon-style Bible prophecy that alienated them from their families, some of whom believe he spawned a cult.
Michael Protzman (CNN)
To better understand how online misinformation is affecting American families, CNN spent last year tracking down Protzman and his followers for a documentary to be aired on CNN as part of the series "The Whole Story" with Anderson Cooper.
We speak to dozens of Americans whose lives and families have been affected by conspiracy theories, including Protzman's own family.
In June, Protzman was seriously injured in an accident at a motocross track in Minnesota and died a few days later. He was 60 years old.
But the tragic story of Michael Brian Protzman began long before the accident.
Michael "was not a computer expert," said his mother, Colleen Protzman. But in the years after the 2008 financial crash, he began researching silver investing online. Many websites promoting the sale of precious metals like silver rely on apocalyptic conspiracy theories about a global monetary collapse to convince people to hand over their money.
At the time, Michael was living with his wife and two children near Seattle. He ran a demolition business but was worried about his family's financial future. "He knew he wasn't going to be able to keep doing this job forever because it's so the body," his mother told CNN.
It was with those concerns, and a few other family issues, that conspiracy theory sites began to absorb it.
Over time, their fear became palpable: the US dollar was about to collapse. She wanted her mother to collect her 401(k) retirement savings and invest them in silver, she said.
"He was just so adamant about the fact that he was afraid that we, his family, his sisters, me, his wife and his daughter would be left with nothing if we didn't understand this was going to happen and didn't invest," she explained.
Colleen Protzman (CNN)
After a few years, Michael's worldview had extended to conspiracy theories about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
"I think he became more isolated," his mother said. "And the more isolated he was, the more he needed his family to agree with him, to believe everything he believed. And we didn't."
Colleen Protzman agreed to speak to CNN in February of this year because she wanted people to know who her son was before he became an accused cult leader; in his eyes, the real Michael.
He spoke of a loving son, a hardworking father, someone committed to caring for his family. He recounted a time when Michael was driving on Interstate 5 near his home in Washington state and saw a family whose car had broken down in the pouring rain. Michael stopped and helped the family get to a garage and get new, dry clothes. "That's the kind of person he was," his mother said.
But, he said, as the years passed and Michael fell deeper into the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, he began to get involved with QAnon, the growing online hoax claiming that former President Donald Trump is a hero destined to save America from an evil cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles.
It was quite a transformation: Michael had voted twice for President Barack Obama, according to his mother, and had been a fan of liberal icon Rachel Maddow. He "thought she was fantastic, smart and perfect," he recalled.
Over time, conspiracy theories became the only thing Michael could talk about. His mother tried to help him debunk some of the misinformation he sent her, but to no avail.
Eventually, he became frustrated that his family refused to believe the very false claims he advocated. His family was also frustrated, exhausted by his proselytizing.
CNN correspondent Donie O'Sullivan interviews Michal Protzman in Dallas (CNN)
In November 2021, when Michael and his supporters made headlines across the country with their bizarre gathering at Dealey Plaza waiting for the Kennedys to inexplicably show up, he was no longer living with his family, his wife was preparing to file for divorce, and his business had ended up closing.
The fascination with the Kennedys emanates from a branch of QAnon mythology. The anonymous online account with a long history of false predictions and meaningless posts at the center of the QAnon phenomenon, dubbed "Q," suddenly went silent for a period in 2018, giving way to another anonymous account that introduced Kennedy's narrative.
The conspiracy theory suggests, without evidence, that JFK Jr. did not actually die in a plane crash in 1999 and that he is working with Trump to save America. Believers claim that JFK Jr. will become vice president in the next Trump administration, and some go so far as to suggest that JFK himself could walk among us again because he is Jesus Christ.
In fact, some QAnon followers think this is crazy, and the original "Q" account, once it started posting again in 2018, rejected the conspiracy theory. But still, the belief among some lives on.
"He took me," Erica Vigrass said, holding back tears.
His brother Jason went to Dallas in November 2021 to witness what he believed would be JFK's return and stayed there. He spent months in Dallas and traveled around the country with Protzman and his supporters to Trump rallies.
Erica Vigrass (CNN)
Erica believes Jason found Michael Protzman on Telegram, a social media messaging app that gained popularity in the U.S. after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, when major platforms like Facebook and Twitter shut down the accounts of prominent conspiracy theorists.
It was there that Protzman found an audience, people validating his beliefs in the conspiracy theories his family had been telling him for years were absurd. "I remember him telling his friend, 'I'm on Telegram and all of a sudden I have these followers,'" Protzman's mother recalled.
Protzman used to deliver live sermons to his followers for hours at a time on Telegram. The long, meandering monologues included a dizzying use of gematria, the practice of assigning a numerical value to each letter of the alphabet (A=1, B=2, C=3... etc.). Protzman used gematria to try to demonstrate connections between the likes of the Kennedys and Trumps.
Nonsensical claims have proven effective in attracting people (Protzman had tens of thousands of followers on Telegram), including Jason, Erica Vigrass' brother.
Vigrass and other families whose loved ones left home to follow Protzman believed he was a master manipulator who separated people from their families and overwhelmed them with outlandish theories and gematria.
Erica said her youngest daughter once told Jason she was afraid of being kidnapped. After that, Erica said, Jason began reading online about cases of child abduction, trafficking and abuse in the United States.
These are very real problems. But online, crime reporting and reporting has become weapons, and bad actors spread misinformation designed to exploit one of our most basic instincts: protecting children. Democratic Party politicians and Hollywood celebrities have been labeled pedophiles and falsely claimed to be part of a cabal that abuses and traffics children.
It's a deeply unoriginal conspiracy theory that dates back to the Middle Ages, when Jews were accused of using the blood of Christian children in rituals. But it has been maintained over the centuries, perhaps because of the instinctive emotions it arouses among believers.
"I think one of the main things that caught Michael's attention was that there was such a concerted effort to harm children," Protzman's mother said. "There is this group, not only in our country, but in the world, that controls everything. And the main thing is that they harm children in all sorts of horrible ways. And that just infuriated him."
"These people are lost," he continued, "just like [Michael] was lost."
She believes that Protzman, like Jason, was also a victim of all this. He fell down the rabbit hole in the same way his followers had done, only he went down much lower.
"They didn't force them to go to Dallas. They're not required to be there, but they've been absorbed just like [Michael] was absorbed," Protzman's mother said. "He didn't start out having a cult," she said, though she acknowledged that her son had become complicit in the problem.
After Michael Protzman's death this summer, some of his followers refused to believe he had passed away. Like JFK Jr., some of them said, Protzman had faked his own death. In fact, some believed it was possible that Michael was JFK Jr.
Colleen Protzman hoped her son's death could be an opportunity for her former followers to reflect and return to their families. "Maybe they can put this behind them," he said, "and realize that everything they were following or looking for, at least in this part, is already done."
The cases of Michael Protzman and Erica Vigrass' brother may seem extreme – and in many ways they are – but they are also illustrative of a broader problem that potentially affects millions of American families. Vigrass never imagined that the conspiracy theories her brother was airing at the kitchen table could lead him to join what she considers a cult.
"Take it seriously and be aware that it's much more insidious than it looks," Vigrass said. "If they're talking to you about it, it's quite possible that the amount of those things they've consumed is much greater than you imagine."
Families are often the only ones who see the devastating damage that conspiracy theories cause when a loved one is consumed by false information.
"Much of the pain, trauma and destruction that QAnon is inflicting happens behind closed doors, behind the scenes," said Jesselyn Cook, a journalist and author who has spent years talking to families facing misinformation. "It's not in the news. It is not demonstrating to the public. It's happening at the dinner table. It's happening on the phone with your grandma."
These alternative and dangerous realities have torn families and the social fabric apart and manifested themselves in a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol. The deeper one goes down the rabbit hole, the more likely one is to encounter, and perhaps accept, racist and anti-Semitic hatred, the researchers say.
Diane Benscoter, a former member of the Unification Church (better known as the "Moonies") who now runs Antidote, a nonprofit that helps people who have fallen victim to misinformation and cults, told CNN she's seen an explosion of people seeking help.
While there are endless reasons why people have been sucked into these alternative realities, every family and expert CNN spoke to said a sense of belonging and community played a key role.
Bowling Alone, a seminal study published in 2000, documented the decline of social capital in the United States during the second half of the <>th century, in part by noting declining membership in bowling clubs and other social clubs.
The social media that has sprung up since then has distanced many of us. Earlier this year, the U.S. Surgeon General said loneliness and isolation had reached epidemic levels.
This has led Benscoter, a self-described former cult member, to believe that the proliferation of conspiracy theories in twenty-first-century America should be treated not just as a political or mental health issue, but as a public health issue.
The threat, he said, goes far beyond the division of American families, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol demonstrates the dangerous potency of these lies.
"I think we're in a real, real crisis situation," Benscoter said. "I think we could lose democracy."