On March 25, Barbara Rogers shuffled into the Court of Commons Pleas in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, with her dark hair parted neatly down the middle. She wore a plain cardigan and skirt over stockings with flats. Lowering her head between hunched shoulders, she averted her eyes from the scrum of snapping cameras. The 44-year-old looked more like a dazed child than what she was alleged to be: a doomsday cultist who murdered the love of her life.
The events that brought Rogers to court unfolded two years prior. In the early hours of July 15, 2017, Rogers shot 32-year-old Steven Mineo in the head, at point-blank range, in his Coolbaugh Township home. The wound was fatal. “My boyfriend had a gun,” she told a 911 dispatcher, about 20 minutes later. “He told me to hold it here and press the trigger. Oh my God, he’s dead!”
Later, Rogers told police that the pair had recently been ousted from an online cult, and that Mineo had become so distressed as a result that he lost the will to live. According to reports, Mineo handed Rogers a .45 caliber semi-automatic Glock, sat cross-legged on the floor, and asked her to put a bullet in his skull. The truth of this account remains in dispute—the sole corroborating witness, after all, is dead—and his admitted killer reportedly changed her story several times afterward. None of it was sufficient to convince a jury of Rogers’s innocence. On March 29, she was convicted of murder in the third degree.
What is certain is this: Rogers and Mineo were, at one time, in love. Mineo called Rogers his wife and she referred to herself as “Barbara Mineo,” though the two were never married. Their relationship was bound up with an online community of radical Christian eschatologists, digitally native harbingers of the end times who infused their fire-and-brimstone faith with elements of nearly every contemporary conspiracy theory popularized on the web. The community’s foundational belief is that a race of sentient, devil-worshipping, shape-shifting reptiles from outer space has infiltrated human civilization. Through mind control and body-snatching, these “reptilians” purportedly seek to install totalitarian world government, thereby bringing about rule of the Antichrist.
If that sounds kooky, well, it is. But it’s only slightly less outlandish than the conspiracy theories that have gained sizable followings on the online right, including many of President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. What connects the lizard-headed reptilians and Trump’s army of ghoulish trolls is YouTube, which promulgates this cottage-industry in conspiratorial speculation with little oversight or regulation. Like other internet giants, YouTube has struggled to differentiate between fact and fiction, between legitimate media outlets and manic peddlers of disinformation—and there are few reasons to believe that it will resolve any of these first-order problems of basic online legitimacy any time soon.
The high priestess of Rogers and Mineo’s sect of biblical herpetophobes—the woman who reportedly ordered the couple’s excommunication—was Sherry J. Shriner of Carrollton, Ohio. Through blogs, self-published e-books, Twitter, Facebook, and a prolific YouTube channel, the self-ordained “Messenger of the Most High God” advocated her sci-fi-inflected vision of the apocalypse with wild-eyed zeal. Though Shriner died less than a year after Mineo—by natural causes, according to a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Health—her digital legacy persists.
And the crown jewel of that legacy is the Shriner’s YouTube channel. It contains 243 videos, published as far back as 11 years ago. All are variations on the same format: a few frames of almost-charmingly antiquated graphic design (reflecting a broader Y2K-style paranoid aesthetic) accompanied by rapid-fire voiceover. With a pronounced rasp, Shriner relays an array of feverish plots native to underground conspiracy-theory media, often combined with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of Old Testament scripture. Unflattering photos of celebrities are cited as evidence of the reptilians’ malfunctioning skin suits. Public tragedies, such as mass shootings or a spate of hurricanes, are dismissed as false-flag operations conducted by NATO, the Illuminati, or the Democratic Party—all tools of the Satanic reptilian order.
“We’ve been seeing it on a massive scale,” she says in a June 2016 video, nothing more than a disembodied voice. (Whether out of paranoia or more garden-variety self-consciousness, Shriner never appears on screen in any of her videos and rarely posted photos of herself on Facebook.) “Celebrities, news announcers, even people in commercials. Everybody you see on TV, about 90 percent, is a clone or a synthetic robotoid.”
Like many other members of the fringe-theory community, Shriner espouses horrific bigotries. Nearly every reptilian plot is scaffolded by homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, misogyny, or some combination thereof. More than anything, though, the videos reveal Shriner as a vicious anti-Semite who refers to Jews as “Satan’s offspring” and declares Zionism a tentpole project of the reptilian agenda.
“Most conspiracy theories are about others,” says Anna Merlan, author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, “Whether they be Jews, immigrants, Masons. And reptilian conspiracy theories are fundamentally about invaders.”
In a time of emboldened bigotry, buttressed by the White House’s trickle-down chauvinism and political paranoia, Shriner’s message found an exuberant audience online. Together, her videos have garnered more than three million views, and more than 20,000 subscribers. When she was alive, she called this impressive flock her “ministry.”
This ministry often congregated on Shriner’s Facebook page, where she posted multiple times a day. When she died, it was where devotees came to mourn. “I miss her so much already[,] her shows were some of the highlights of my week,“ wrote one. “Sherry Shriner was the Only Mouthpiece and Ambassador on this Earth and the Only one there ever will be,” wrote another. Of course, in true Shrinerite fashion, others were skeptical as to whether she had actually died: “It sounds suspect [...] What did police say!? Where is the death certificate or obituary[?]”
The schism that sundered Shriner and Rogers also had its roots on Facebook. The beef between them was both literal and figurative. In April 2017, Rogers posted to Facebook a seemingly benign appreciation of steak tartare. “This is the best thing ever with cut up minced garlic,” she wrote. Shriner took this to mean Rogers was not human, but a reptilian occultist. “That means she’s into ingesting blood,” she wrote on Facebook in May of that year. “Eating raw hamburger is a symbol that you are part of the vampire/succubus societies ... [Rogers is] a witch, I can confirm that at this point.”
Shriner possibly levied this bizarre accusation against Rogers because, by her own admission, she did not approve of her relationship with Mineo. “Rogers was turning [Mineo] into an animal,” she wrote in a Facebook post published after Mineo’s death. “She pulled him away from those who cared about him.” In early 2019, Mineo had indeed changed. According to his friend Laurie Alexander, he began to question certain points of Shrinerite theology. “He started to question some of the orgone stuff,” she says.
Orgone is a pseudoscientific concept of universal life force, introduced by twentieth-century Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. “Reich claimed that orgone energy is omnipresent and accounts for such things as the color of the sky, gravity, galaxies, the failure of most political revolutions, and a good orgasm,” an entry in The Skeptic’s Dictionary reads. Reich died in 1957 while serving a federal prison sentence for criminal contempt. He refused to obey an injunction against selling “orgone shooters”—quack devices that supposedly dilute orgone energy, the over-saturation of which believers blame for a host of ailments.
Shriner sold her own version of the orgone shooter, available for purchase through one of her websites. She claimed the hunks of what appear to be oven-melted plastic and glitter would repel demons and kill aliens. Standalone orgone “rocks” retailed for $34, plus shipping. Additionally, a now-defunct GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign launched by Shriner in 2014 raised more than $150,000—purportedly to support Shriner’s eschatological investigations. But given the low overhead of most businesses predicated on YouTube content dissemination, it’s likely Shriner retained a tidy profit for herself. “It was all a moneymaker,” Alexander says of Shriner’s ministry.
Alexander believes the raw-meat controversy was pretext for expelling Rogers from the ministry. Shriner perhaps believed that Mineo would return to the fold with Rogers out of the picture. “That was her M.O.,” Alexander says. “When someone went against her even a little, she declared them reptilian.”
If this was Shriner’s plan, it failed. Siding with Rogers, Mineo produced a series of since-deleted videos for his own YouTube channel in which he condemned Shriner as a fraud, according to The Daily Beast. In the final installment, uploaded four days before his death, he declared members of the cult “mentally sick.”
Did Steven Mineo ultimately succumb to Shriner’s manipulative pressure, asking Barbara Rogers to shoot him? Or did Rogers murder her boyfriend in cold blood? The verdict—third-degree homicide—does not denote an intentional killing, but requires some showing of malice, or extreme disregard for human life, on the killer’s part. It indicates that the jury struggled to understand precisely what occurred. Over the course of a nine-hour deliberation, they peppered the judge with questions—about the meaning of intent, first- versus third-degree murder, and guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Such confusion is understandable, considering the bizarre nature of the crime. When a killer blames her act on a cult of YouTube addicts, who believe a race of aliens are psychically subjugating humanity, questions of criminal capacity and soundness of mind inevitably rise.
Joe Pierre, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, says mental-health practitioners have struggled to understand what fuels belief in conspiracy theories. One way to define a delusion is an individually held, falsifiable belief. To classify belief in the reptilian insurgency as delusional, because it is shared by multitudes, would necessarily capture other shared-belief systems, like major religions.
Therefore, “beliefs that seem delusional based on content, but are shared, are often referred to using a kind of wastebasket term called ‘delusion-like beliefs,’” Pierre says. Delusion-like beliefs often spread out of a need for what he calls “cognitive closure”—a compulsion to explain traumatic cultural events lacking discernible cause. The seemingly senseless deaths of iconic figures, like Princess Diana of Wales, can be triggers, Pierre says. (Sure enough, Shriner was a Diana conspiracy theorist. “You know, they killed Diana,” Shriner says in an October 2013 episode of her self-produced internet-radio talk show. “To shut her up because she was exposing them. She told her friends ... the royals weren’t human. ... They were lizards.”)
Delusion-like beliefs can also grow out of what Pierre calls “epistemic mistrust”—a systemic lack of faith in expertise and institutions. “This, in my view, is the starting point for many ‘truthers’ who end up down the rabbit hole,” he says. Epistemic mistrust can sometimes stem from people’s legitimate disillusionment with institutional bias and corruption. The anti-vaccination movement began this way—a credentialed physician published fraudulent research in a respected medical journal. Although the study was eventually retracted, and the physician in question stripped of his license to practice, trust in the medical establishment eroded, fueling the spread of anti-vaxxer belief.
And epistemic mistrust, of course, is a hallmark of our establishment-suspicious times, supplying one of the most powerful sources of Trump’s popularity. In January 2019, a 26-year-old Seattle man brutally slew his younger brother with a sword. “Kill me, kill me, I can’t live in this reality,” he told a 911 dispatcher, after confessing to the act. “God told me he was a lizard.” Prosecutors allege the killer was active in the online conspiracy-theory space, adhering not only to the intergalactic reptilian mythos, but also QAnon. QAnon theory posits that Trump is engaged in a shadow war with a cabal of globalist pedophiles entrenched in the Democratic Party. The movement was formed entirely on the internet, sporing like black mold from the darkest corners of Twitter, Reddit, 4Chan, and YouTube.
There is no question that social media sites like YouTube, in particular, are a breeding ground for some of the most unmoored, bellicose conspiracy theorizing. “There’s all this evidence that YouTube’s algorithm rewards extremist content,” says Anna Merlan. “I have really pale skin, and I watch makeup tutorials. Out of nowhere, I started getting recommendations for British white nationalist videos.”
Research compiled by Guillaume Chaslot, a former software engineer for YouTube, confirms the onrush of delusional-cum-conspiratorial content into even the slightest algorithmic opening on the site. Shocking, extreme, and potentially radicalizing content is compelling, even if it is void of fact. Because the platform’s underlying artificial intelligence is designed to maximize the amount of time a user stays engaged with content, it has learned to prioritize extreme fabulisms, and create recommendation streams that send viewers progressively deeper down propagandist wormholes. “YouTube’s A.I. learns these videos increase user engagement, and increases recommendations for [them],” Chaslot wrote as he summarized his findings. “We are facing a vicious circle.”
The vicious circle enjoys significant interplay with cultic brainwashing tactics, says Steven Hassan, the founding director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center in Newton, Massachusetts, which provides consulting services to victims of cult indoctrination, their families, and loved ones. YouTube is an especially powerful tool for contemporary cult recruitment, Hassan says, but exploits traditional methods. Online devotees of figures like Sherry Shriner are especially susceptible to activating “trance state”—a kind of mental foundation on which undue influence can be built. “It could be someone sitting in front of a computer for hours, watching YouTube videos,” he says. “It’s especially easy if they’re zoning out into confusing or disorienting content, and they don’t turn it off because they’re trying to make sense of it all.”
YouTube’s executives are aware of the problem. A spokesperson provided an internally produced white paper, outlining how the content-recommendation system has been modified to promote responsible consumption. Moderators have been instructed to elevate “authoritative content” from “trusted sources.” Controversial videos are supplemented with “information panels” containing “additional contextual information and links to authoritative third-party sites.”
And in the case of successful, market-tested merchants of disinformation like Shriner, who amassed significant followings in times of more permissive content moderation, the damage is done. With or without a friendly content-recommendation regime in place, Shrinerites can continue to share links to their leader’s video opus. In fact, some view it as a commandment of their faith.
“I thought we could pray for the Pope and all the eminent of the churches to shapeshift in public,” a member of the ministry posted to Shriner’s Facebook page in May, responding to a video alleging reptilian infiltration of the Vatican. “It could lead people to Sherry Shriner’s website.”
Moreover, the definition of what constitutes “authoritative content” is drenched in subjectivity. To some, Fox News and conservative websites like The Daily Caller are legitimate sources of news and analysis. To others, they are simply better-funded versions of Sherry Shriner’s YouTube account.
And some overlap between credentialed conservative media and the conspiracy-theorist demimonde plainly exists. A May 2017 Fox News report suggested federal investigators had evidence that former Democratic Party staffer Seth Rich leaked Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails to WikiLeaks prior to his death in 2016. The theory that Rich leaked these emails, and that Clinton ordered his assassination in revenge, is utterly baseless, yet extremely popular with the QAnon set—as well as among the more ardent defenders of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
How will YouTube’s new and improved content-moderation policies address disinformation sown from within the ranks of the media establishment? Or the political establishment, for that matter? “If we’re going to modify these platforms in some way, where spreading conspiracy theories is harder, sooner or later, that’s going to encompass Donald Trump,” says Anna Merlan.
Trump indeed has a long history of spreading conspiracy theories and legitimizing their practitioners. On May 4, he retweeted the laments of far-right media personality Paul Joseph Watson over his recent ban from Facebook and Instagram. Watson has promoted a number of conspiracy theories, including the idea that the September 11 attacks were orchestrated by the U.S. government. “I am continuing to monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms,” the president tweeted that previous day. (Watson is British.) “This is the United States of America—and we have what’s known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH!”
This invocation of the First Amendment has no application to the content-moderation practices of platforms like Facebook and YouTube. As non-governmental services, these companies have no constitutional obligations to protect speech. But any state regulation of such platforms—in the interest of combating disinformation, say—would be subject to constitutional constraints.
“If you try and regulate platforms like YouTube through law, the approach has to be content neutral,” says Gabe Rottman of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Antitrust is a more content-neutral way of addressing issues like the gatekeeper role that large platforms play,” he added in a follow-up email. Currently, YouTube dominates the social-video space, and the break-up of large online-service providers, like Google, which owns YouTube, could result in better, more responsible social media services. But, Rottman cautions, antitrust can be weaponized: “Politicized antitrust enforcement against any technology or media platform, particularly if its prompted by news coverage or other content perceived as critical of government officials, is a profound First Amendment concern.”
In the meantime, Barbara Rogers will return to court for sentencing in June. The typical sentence for third-degree homicide in Pennsylvania falls between ten and twenty years imprisonment.
As Rogers sits in state custody, Sherry Shriner’s Facebook page remains a bustling marketplace of fringe ideas. Shriner’s GoFundMe page was functional until March, too. GoFundMe failed to respond to requests for information on where the cash flowed after Shriner died. But one of her affiliated websites offers a clue. “Donate now to SherryShriner.com, it’s the best financial investment you can make,” it reads. Below, a call for donations to help people “wake up to what’s going on around us” and “get spiritually free from Satan” directs money orders to a P.O. box in Carrollton.
The registrant is Melanie Shriner, age 22. “Her family is still here keeping her websites up,” the page reads, “and fighting the forces of darkness as the Lord leads them.”