This Will Change Your Life

Why the grandiose promises of multilevel marketing and QAnon conspiracy theories go hand in hand

Jordan Schrandt—blond, beautiful, mother of eight, founder of The Farmhouse Movement magazine, which teaches readers how to achieve “a lifestyle of authenticity, simplicity, and kindness”—is a Royal Crown Diamond.

Less than 1 percent of the independent distributors who sell essential oils and related products through the Utah-based multilevel-marketing company Young Living reach that top ranking. Those who have net an average annual income of $1.5 million and resemble celebrities within the organization, counting tens of thousands of followers on social media. Their success sometimes even allows them to charge for access to advice on how to become more like them—a private Facebook group for business coaching from Schrandt costs $10 a month, and the cheapest single ticket for a recent “Diamond Bound” conference she hosted in Dallas was $309.

On a Friday night in March, Schrandt shared a revelation on one of her Facebook pages. “I’m awake!” she announced. President Donald Trump would soon prove that he had been Q all along, she wrote, and this was just the beginning of a “spiritual war” in defense of all that is good. The post continued for hundreds of words about the evils of the mainstream media and the mythology of QAnon, which holds that Trump is a warrior taking on a global ring of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, who are also in cahoots with the “deep state,” and tend to be Democratic politicians, Hollywood celebrities, or the owners of seemingly random small businesses. The post has since disappeared, but not before it went out to nearly 13,000 of Schrandt’s Facebook followers—in her post she notes that she had already sent the information to “1,000 or so” of them privately. (Schrandt suggested that Facebook removed the post; Facebook declined to comment.)

The Concordia University researcher Marc-André Argentino has a name for people like Schrandt: “Pastel QAnon.” These women—they are almost universally women—are doing the work of sanitizing QAnon, often pairing its least objectionable elements (Save the children!) with equally inoffensive imagery: Millennial-pink-and-gold color schemes, a winning smile. And many of them are members of multilevel-marketing organizations—a massive, under-examined sector of the American retail economy that is uniquely fertile ground for conspiracism. These are organizations built on foundational myths (that the establishment is keeping secrets from you, that you are on a hero’s journey to enlightenment and wealth), charismatic leadership, and shameless, constant posting. The people at the top of them are enviable, rich, and gifted at wrapping everything that happens—in their personal lives, or in the world around them—into a grand narrative about how to become as happy as they are. In 2020, what’s happening to them is dark and dangerous, but it looks gorgeous.

Over the summer, as networks of women on Instagram and Facebook stoked outrage over the Netflix debut of the French film Cuties, a movie about the exploitation and sexualization of young girls, Schrandt was among those who urged followers to cancel their Netflix accounts to avoid “supporting pedophilia.” Conspiracy theories about the pandemic have also spread through these groups; Schrandt recently suggested that contact-tracing programs were a plot to turn the United States into a communist country, and on one of her Instagram accounts, which has 22,000 followers, she explained that masks were “about mind control.” Distrust of the mainstream media and paranoia about the liberal bias of major internet companies are a common overtone in these circles as well—when telling her followers to watch ShadowGate, a misinformation-riddled “documentary” about a global plot against Trump, Schrandt was careful not to say the title outright, instead spelling it out via clues, and reminding followers to look for it on the alternative search platform DuckDuckGo instead of Google. (Though this is not particularly common in QAnon circles, Schrandt has also suggested that the Earth may be flat.)

Schrandt declined to be interviewed for this story beyond telling me that her posts were “completely genuine,” directing me to a Young Living spokesperson, and later signing off with a polite “Hugs, Jordan.” In a recent Instagram video, she talks straight to the camera, with a light-sepia filter smoothing away contours of the bones in her face. “I’ve literally built my brand and my businesses on being real and genuine and a thinker,” she says somberly. “An independent thinker.”

Young Living has not endorsed QAnon in any way, but it doesn’t appear eager to stop its biggest stars from endorsing it. “As a company, we do not have the right to censor the personal, political, religious views or opinions of our independent distributors, employees, or customers, unless it is directly related to Young Living,” a spokesperson told me in an emailed statement. Asked what the company’s response would be in the case of a Young Living distributor posting about QAnon and referencing their Young Living affiliation in the post, the spokesperson said, “We would reach out to remind the distributor that while they may share personal or political beliefs, they are not to do so in association with Young Living.” The spokesperson declined to comment on any specific situations, including Schrandt’s March post.

Young Living is a $1.5 billion brand, according to its most recent revenue report, and it is notorious for swirling together fact and fiction. It was founded in 1994 by Gary Young, an alternative-medicine advocate who had previously been convicted of posing as a health practitioner, and his wife, Mary Young—and it has developed a reputation for being particularly “cult-like,” a phrase used in a 2019 class-action lawsuit against it. The company has also regularly pushed the boundaries with claims about its products, and was warned by the FDA in 2014 not to imply that essential oils can serve as a treatment for the Ebola virus. More recently, Business Insider reported that some Young Living distributors had been advertising essential oils on social media as potential cures for COVID-19. (In a statement, a Young Living spokesperson said that distributors are “wholly prohibited” from making these claims, and that the company has been taking “corrective action” when they do so.)

“Direct selling” was a $35 billion industry last year, propped up by 6.8 million sellers in the United States. These sellers—who are 74 percent women, according to an industry analysis—typically buy products from the company at a “wholesale” price (in many cases much higher than the language would suggest) and then sell them through their social networks. In multilevel-marketing organizations, each new person who joins is assigned a mentor who is slightly higher up than they are, with whom they’re required to share a portion of their profits. Money runs up from the base of the, uh, triangle, through what’s called an upline. It is notoriously difficult—sometimes nearly impossible—to make money with direct selling if you enter the company once the top ranks are filled and the only room is at the bottom. Last year, Young Living claimed to have more than 3 million members worldwide, and 89 percent of those distributors hadn’t moved up the sales ranks at all, netting an average annual income of $3. Meanwhile, women like Jordan Schrandt are at the tippy top, which means that there are likely at least thousands of women beholden to her in some way—watching from afar as she posts about her success, and giving her a chunk of their income.

Julie, 46, became a member of Young Living in 2015. Some money from her sales and purchases gets tossed up the ladder—through several rungs—until it reaches Melissa Poepping, a Royal Crown Diamond who was apparently captivated by the Wayfair conspiracy theory in July. “Tell me it’s just a crazy theory. It’s not,” Poepping wrote. She also directed her 18,000 followers to go to Etsy’s website and search for listings that could be fronts for child trafficking, tagging the post “#darktolight,” a popular QAnon slogan. (Julie asked to go by only her first name, out of concern about professional consequences. Poepping did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

“I don’t really like contributing to Melissa’s bottom line,” Julie said. She believes Poepping’s posts are particularly dangerous because of her high rank in Young Living. “When you see leadership posting these things, there are people who just accept it, because they’ve trusted and accepted what these leaders have said in the past on other things.” Later, she added, “[These women] have a target audience out of the box. It’s different than just, like, someone’s cousin posting something.”

The multilevel-marketing industry isn’t just structurally conducive to spreading outlandish ideas: It also has some philosophical crossover with QAnon. “I can’t say that I’m surprised by ties between QAnon and multilevel marketing,” William Keep, a marketing professor at the College of New Jersey who started studying the industry in the 1990s, told me. “Unfortunately, their popularity and shared sympathy make some sense.” The industry has been at odds with governments “literally for decades,” Keep said. It loathes oversight and regulation. It loves a direct sales pitch. Many multilevel-marketing companies have had close ties to conservative politics, and many have antagonistic relationships with bodies like the FDA, or the idea of authority in general, in cases where products are marketed in ways that flout scientific consensus or medical expertise.

“[Multilevel-marketing companies] claim to sell the way they do, within these networks, because their products are so special or revolutionary that the mainstream marketplace can’t handle it ... the FDA would never approve this company,” says Jane Marie, who hosts and produces The Dream, a podcast about multilevel marketing. “I think it lines up really well with the QAnon attitude of, like, the government doesn’t want you to know this.”

And while the industry started offline, it is now reliant on its top sellers’ social networks. Success is dependent on incessant sharing, particularly on Instagram and Facebook. Where once a person’s downline would be people who lived near them, or were proximate to them through church or family connections, now, a person who is high up in an organization can reach people all over the country, and their social-media brand does all the work.

In 2015, when Kristen, a 49-year-old who lives in Minnesota, joined Young Living, she was added to a slew of Facebook groups, meeting tons of new people, and absorbing a lot of advice about how best to use the products. Now, she’s startled by how often she sees these same people sharing QAnon conspiracy theories on their pages. “When people join these [Facebook] groups, they want to be friends with the leaders of the groups,” she said. Though QAnon and other conspiracy theories don’t tend to turn up in the groups themselves—which are usually tightly associated with the Young Living brand—many members form secondary networks outside of them by friending or following each other.

“You’ve got these people who are really making a lot of money in the company, and people want to emulate them ... They have a ton of people following them, not just people in their downlines, but people from across the company who want their success.” In her experience, this is where the combination becomes toxic: A habit of believing information you see shared on social media collides with faith in the lovely and successful women who seem to know all. (She asked to go by her first name, out of concern about harassment from QAnon believers.)

“I don’t know the percentage of Young Living people who are in this,” she told me. “What I do know is the percentage of the people that I met through Young Living that are into it. And I would guess it’s like 75 percent.”

In August, Facebook announced a set of policy changes that would minimize QAnon’s “ability to organize.” Earlier this month, the company cracked down even further, saying it would remove Instagram accounts, Facebook groups, and Facebook pages devoted to QAnon, treating the group the way it would an extremist militia group. But the influencer model of QAnon benefits from a soft spot in the policy: Facebook will still allow individuals to express support for the movement on their personal pages. And now that social platforms have done serious work to remove the most obvious and most violent QAnon discussions, “Pastel QAnon” is perhaps the group with the largest, most uncontrolled reach. Many of the women you could sort into this category never explicitly use the word QAnon, or acknowledge where the information they’re parroting is coming from, and they are professionally trained to understand that the way they present themselves online is visible for broad scrutiny. They know exactly how to stay on a platform, how to avoid accountability, and how to captivate an audience, long term.

On Instagram, distributors for Arbonne, a multilevel-marketing company that sells a baffling number of skin-care and nutrition products, have been particularly active in promoting #SaveTheChildren—an anti-child-trafficking effort that has attracted thousands of ostensibly well-meaning people, but now runs primarily on conspiracy theories and bad information and is tightly entwined with QAnon. Cecilia Stoll, who has reached Arbonne’s top sales rank of Executive National Vice President, started discussing “elite pedophile rings” with her followers in July, then shared a screenshot of a Zoom call with many other Arbonne representatives, organizing to #SaveTheChildren. In August, she reposted a slideshow from the anonymous “Pastel QAnon” account Little Miss Patriot, which has been banned by Instagram several times and is now memorialized by a fan account. Along with nine other Arbonne distributors, all ranked National Vice President or above, she’s an administrator of the Facebook group “Operation Save Our Children.” (Stoll did not return multiple requests for comment; according to a post on her Instagram, the group has been disabled by Facebook.)

Many of the Arbonne representatives publicly supporting this cause seem unaware of its connection to QAnon, even when they use phrases like “darkness to light” and speculate about the complicity of “elites” and the media. Others appear to have been pulled further in. Allie Richards, an Arbonne distributor close to the bottom of the ladder, has been filling her Instagram Grid with cozy pictures of her dog, her boyfriend, her friends, and her Arbonne products, but her Stories were full of QAnon conspiracy theories this summer. Her “research” is fueled by Arbonne Herbal Detox Tea and Greens Balance powder, she notes. (Richards responded to an initial request for an interview, but not to subsequent attempts to schedule one. Later, when I asked why she had deleted some of her saved Stories, she said, “I deleted only [because] I don’t like social media, but everything that was in that [Story Highlight] I stand by.”)

Others make it difficult to tell how much they know about what they’re sharing. Miranda Burcham, a 43-year-old Arbonne Executive National Vice President, told me she’d been supportive of organizations that fight child trafficking for at least 10 years. During the pandemic shutdowns, she became more involved in Operation Underground Railroad—an organization that has no direct ties to QAnon but has become a favorite among the QAnon-adjacent. She emphasized that she was not speaking as a representative of Arbonne, before explaining her point of view: The media is writing off child trafficking as a conspiracy theory in general, and focusing on anything else but the kids.

When I noted that she was following, and had reposted screenshots from, one of the more popular QAnon accounts, she said that she found the account well researched and “very pro-American.” I asked how she felt about the theories the account shared, namely that cabals of Hollywood celebrities are drinking children’s blood. “I can’t guess if that’s true or not. I would hope it’s not true. However, I think there are many things wrong with the world that none of us are aware of, ” she told me. Asked how she feels about QAnon, she told me, “The only thing that I ever know about QAnon is that they’re patriotic.”

As with much conspiracy thinking, the spread of QAnon in these networks is not just dangerous, but also deeply sad. The grandiose promises of the QAnon worldview are mirrored and illuminated by the similar promises of multilevel marketing: equally false, and equally predicated on a desperate search for meaning and stability.

Alyssa Schmidt, a distributor for the multilevel-marketing company Monat, which sells hair products, blends these promises together expertly. Amid inspirational, aspirational posts about her experience with direct selling—tagged #bossbabe or showing off a new Cadillac—Schmidt also shares “the truth” on Pizzagate and the mainstream media’s campaign to “smear and censor” true journalists like her. (When I messaged her for this story, she said she had never mentioned QAnon on her page, adding, “You guys are nuts,” and threatening legal action.)

In a pinned Instagram Story, she talks about researching sex trafficking, posts in support of Donald Trump executing “child killers,” and then segues directly into a promotional post for Monat, writing, “If you need extra income, I cannot recommend this more … If you’re new around here, this is my ‘money-making’ gig that allows me to run my own schedule & fight sex trafficking.” The secret of attaining financial freedom is tied directly to uncovering all kinds of hidden truths about the world.

“You can fit any kind of message into the structures of a personal story,” Emily Hund, a social-media researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, told me. “It’s so much easier to weave things in when you’re just chatting, talking about yourself and your struggles and your stress levels and illnesses and essential oils and supplements … and your own beliefs and This is what works for me, you should look into it.

Multilevel marketing preys on the fact that the financial situation of the average person in the United States has gotten worse over the past several decades. So does the incentive structure of Instagram. “The influencer system in general is an open response to and a symptom of precarity,” Hund said. Many of the women who follow these influencers make little money with direct selling, and spend their time consuming stories and images created by people who seem to understand something important: You were born with all the potential you’ll ever need to become a millionaire, but the world has been hiding it from you. I’ll help you find it, these women promise. Then they’ll help you find other hidden truths, too. All the while, their livelihoods depend on your continued belief in everything they’re saying.

In one 2000 study of Amway distributors, researchers found that members of the multilevel-marketing company would generally only stay involved in the organization if they came to see it as part of their own identity. (I have not seen any Amway distributors promoting QAnon, but was curious about the emotional dynamics of the multilevel-marketing business structure in general.) They were actively encouraged to seek out mentor relationships and to assign meaning to their work. Crucial to this process was the act of “dream building,” and crucial to the longevity of their identification was that the dreams get bigger and bigger. Over time, the dreams tended to move beyond money, or lifestyle aspirations, or even helping one’s own family. “As these dreams evolved, they became more abstract, more difficult, and took longer to fulfill,” the organizational behavior researcher Michael Pratt wrote. “They also involved helping larger and larger numbers of people, such as ‘saving’ the United States and the world through selling Amway.”

The women who sit at the tops of multilevel-marketing companies’ triangular-shaped structures have all they could reasonably ask for when it comes to money and security; it seems that now they want something more spiritually satisfying. They want to save some children, inspire “free thinkers.” They want to change lives.