The most effective ways to support a loved one who believes in QAnon
Sometimes a conspiracy theory is a far-fetched explanation for events we can’t understand. We might turn to it when the official story seems suspect or unbelievable, or when politicians and media personalities (think President Trump and Alex Jones) insist on a version disproved by facts and experts.
Yet a conspiracy theory can also become a way of life, providing the believer with a sense of belonging and personal fulfillment. Efforts to persuade them to give up their newfound identity will only backfire.
This is the most effective way to describe a collection of far-right conspiracy theories commonly known as QAnon. The origins of QAnon go back to an anonymously posted message on 4chan, in 2017, that wrongly predicted the arrest of Hillary Clinton and subsequent public riots. The poster dubbed themselves Q, a shorthand for their purported access to military intelligence.
Since then, QAnon has amassed a vast network of followers, perhaps numbering in the millions, who believe they are engaged in an apocalyptic battle with the so-called Deep State to stop a ring of prominent Democrats and Hollywood liberals who abuse and exploit children. This summer, QAnon gained new followers by hijacking the #SaveTheChildren hashtag, which began as a legitimate fundraising and awareness campaign for a nonprofit humanitarian organization. Experts see the rapid growth of QAnon, and its effect on believers’ personal lives, as something more than an engaging conspiracy theory.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that QAnon can wreak havoc on relationships, driving a wedge between people that sometimes results in an inability to stay together or maintain a connection,” Dr. Joseph Pierre, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in an email.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that QAnon can wreak havoc on relationships”
Dr. Pierre, whose recent research has focused on “delusion-like beliefs,” said that the dogma of cults revolves around the need for members to disconnect from society, which is typically cast as unenlightened or even an existential threat to the cult’s identity.
“With a conspiracy theory belief system like QAnon, it’s much the same way,” he wrote. “And so, the biggest pitfall is that by opposing someone’s belief system, you can easily be labeled as the ‘enemy.'”
Losing a relationship is painful no matter when the breakdown happens. But watching a cherished connection deteriorate at a time when relationships help ease the anguish of a pandemic, the effects of climate change, and tragedy born of racial injustice can make the loss even more traumatic. While some may accept that loss and move on, others may want to maintain or try to repair the relationship.
If you’re looking for effective tactics, here are two key strategies to keep in mind when talking to someone who believes in QAnon:
1. Understand the psychological rewards QAnon offers.
First, it’s important to remember that there are proven conspiracies, whether conducted by the government or powerful private actors, that ultimately surface thanks to acts of transparency like investigative reporting, whistleblowing, or the declassification of documents.
That reality can make it harder to talk to a QAnon believer about the community’s many assertions of shadowy figures who control the world’s levers of power. After all, they might argue that it won’t be long before these secrets are made public, just like past conspiracies.
Instead of arguing this point, try to better understand what satisfaction your loved one gets from believing in Q’s prophecies. In general, research suggests that conspiracy theories offer “broad, internally consistent explanations” that allow people preserve their beliefs.
Conspiracy theories appear to thrive at times of great uncertainty, which may help explain why your friend or family member has devoted much of their time and energy to QAnon in recent months. Research has also helped illuminate other characteristics common to conspiracy believers, including: a “quasi-religious” mentality, wanting to feel unique, and feeling alienated from politics. Prejudice toward certain groups can also be associated with conspiracy theorizing.
With its emphasis on a coming profound political and social reckoning, a promise to help people discover hidden truths that explain how the world works, and a mysterious leader who drops clues so followers can solve riddles, QAnon offers a potent mix of psychological rewards.
Dr. Pierre has called the movement “a curious modern phenomenon that’s part conspiracy theory, part religious cult, and part role-playing game.” He said that this combination means people can stumble across QAnon in several different ways. A church-going grandparent might see it posted on Facebook by a friend. A mom who doesn’t believing in vaccines and is already suspicious of corporations finding ways to profit off of children could be drawn into the #SaveheChildren hashtag on Instagram. A gamer could see a Q “drop” on an internet message board and spend hours trying to decode it.
Once down the rabbit hole, people will feel empowered to play a key role in a larger socio-political narrative.
“Any attempts to ‘rescue’ someone from QAnon have to be understood in these terms,” said Dr. Pierre. “Those who have found meaning in QAnon don’t want to be rescued — they’ve finally found something that’s bigger than themselves. That’s not going to be easily relinquished.”
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2. Be curious.
Steven Hassan is a licensed mental health counselor and former member of the Moon organization, a religious movement once led by a messianic figure named Rev. Sun Myung Moon. He is also the author of The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control. Hassan considers himself a cult survivor and has long studied how to support and remain in contact with loved ones who join a group that uses controlling techniques and dogma to entrap its acolytes.
Hassan says friends and family typically react with anger or judgment, questioning the believer’s intelligence and suggesting they’ve been brainwashed. This response, Hassan says, is the worst thing you can do: “It propels the person not to trust you and deeper into the cult.”
Instead of criticizing a loved one, Hassan recommends being curious about their beliefs. This is no easy feat given that many QAnon adherents sincerely believe that corrupt leaders who oppose President Trump traffic, abuse, and kill children. Many in the QAnon community also think the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax. While it may be painful to entertain these false, offensive ideas, Hassan says it’s essential.
“The single most important technique to help someone out of a cult is asking a good question and giving long silence to think about it, and then asking a follow up,” says Hassan
Your posture can be curious yet concerned. The point is to treat your loved one with respect by inviting them to share how and why they’ve arrived at this point. This doesn’t mean you’re obligated to review all of the information they’ve compiled. If you can’t watch a long YouTube video they’ve asked you to view, explain why and ask them to share something that’s shorter.
“[S]omeone who is aligned with QAnon is probably getting a totally different newsfeed than we are.”
It’s possible to quickly reach an impasse on discussing the merits of QAnon. One of the group’s mantra’s — “do your own research” — creates the perception that anyone can discover concealed truths with enough internet sleuthing. In fact, it often feels as though QAnon has created an alternate reality where there’s little common ground once you’re a full-fledged believer.
Dr. Pierre said that when people mistrust authoritative information, they’re vulnerable to misinformation and deliberate disinformation. This effect becomes even more intense when people get their information on the internet.
“[S]omeone who is aligned with QAnon is probably getting a totally different newsfeed than we are,” said Dr. Pierre.
Hassan recommends being honest in a nonjudgmental way about such divergences and agreeing when the facts make it possible. You can say, for example, that there is a lot of corruption in politics or that you dislike the reality of backroom deals between government and business figures. The goal of these conversations is to prompt reflection about how your loved one came to adopt their views.
Dr. Pierre agrees that it’s crucial to avoid being seen as attacking a friend or family member.
“Just like in psychotherapy, it’s really about listening, understanding, and empathizing,” he said. “Invest in the relationship and maintain a level of respect, compassion, and trust. Having that foundation is essential if we ever hope to get people to consider other perspectives and loosen the grip on their own.”
If a loved one rejects your overtures, or your attempts to talk about their interest in QAnon fail, Hassan recommends staying present in their life, if at all possible.
Hassan says a simple message to a friend or family member who insists they can’t speak to you — “I like to hope in the future you’ll reach out again, and know that I accept you and love you” — might be the caring gesture that ultimately convinces them it’s possible to return from the depths of QAnon.