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When Tom and his 27-year-old brother go back to their parents’ home in the Midwest for Thanksgiving and Christmas now, all they do is fight about QAnon.
Tom’s brother, who was his high school’s valedictorian, experienced a specific incident at his liberal arts college that sent him down the rabbit hole. The president of a social justice club apparently spray-painted a swastika on campus to generate controversy—and thus, more funding to his group.
Suddenly, everything became a conspiracy.
“That event seemed to resonate with him, and I didn't really think much of it at the time, but in retrospect it was probably the beginning of his descent into the alt-right and conspiracy theories,” Tom, 25, who didn’t want to give his last name, told VICE News.
At first, Tom says, his brother became obsessed with 9/11 conspiracy theories. Then, he embraced PizzaGate, a theory that emerged in late 2016 linking Hillary Clinton to a child trafficking ring headquartered at a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, despite having voted for her. Finally, Tom’s brother pledged his allegiance to Q.
“Unfortunately, through all this argument and debate, I've probably done more harm than good,” Tom said. “He's deeper than ever now, and it's strained our relationship. My brother, and I suspect all terminally Q-brained people, are 100% impervious to logic and reasoning.”
As the 2020 holiday season approaches, the number of people sitting down to dinner with family and friends who are believers in QAnon has increased dramatically over previous years. QAnon has thrived during the global pandemic, boosted by delayed action from internet companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The conspiracy movement has also managed to insinuate itself into others—like 5G and anti-vaxx—as well as piggyback on real campaigns such as Save the Children.
“Unfortunately, through all this argument and debate, I've probably done more harm than good.”
The result is that millions of Americans now believe Donald Trump is fighting a secret war against the deep state to uncover a cannibalistic child sex trafficking network run by the Democrats and Hollywood elite. It’s a conspiracy pushed by Q, an anonymous poster on the fringe website 8kun who claims to be a government insider with top secret clearance.
While some like Tom may believe it’s “futile” to try to confront QAnon believers, experts say the holidays present the perfect opportunity for family and friends to intervene.
“People who are into QAnon, they're often very deep down the rabbit hole, and they have withdrawn away from conventional sources of information like the mainstream media and even other people, so this almost-forced interaction with you might be the only chance that they have to get out in this particular timeframe, so you want to nurture that,” Mick West, a conspiracy-theory debunker and author of “Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect”, told VICE News.
Most importantly, he says, take your time and don’t rush into a conversation without having at least a basic understanding of what QAnon is all about.
“It's very, very easy to say the wrong thing, or to take the wrong tack, and they're just gonna shut down and get angry with you,” West said. “So, you’ve got to do it with kid gloves and proceed carefully.”
QAnon is just the latest in a litany of conspiracy theories and cults that have taken over and ruined people’s lives, but the movement has a unique quality that creates a complex and ever-changing narrative, which is much harder to counter than traditional conspiracies, whose foundational beliefs rarely change. That also allows QAnon to spread much faster because followers can pick and choose the aspects of the conspiracy that resonate with them, allowing them to avoid much of the hardcore beliefs, such as the existence of a group of elites running a Satanic, global, cannibalistic sex trafficking ring.
“What is really, categorically different is that I was recruited in 1974 by women flirting with me in person, and what we're seeing with QAnon is an online recruitment and indoctrination regime,” Steve Hassan, a cult deprogrammer who has dedicated his life to freeing people from cults after joining the Moonies in the ’70s, a religious movement that brainwashed adherents to abandon their families and give over their lives and money to the church.
The online indoctrination process has been supercharged by social media algorithms designed to prioritize engagement, a technique that leads to increased radicalization, on platforms like YouTube in particular.
Tom says his brother’s rapid descent into conspiracy theories was aided by a litany of familiar right-wing names on YouTube, including Alex Jones, Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, the Corbett Report, and Tim Pool. While these figures don’t necessarily support QAnon, they have proven to be gateways to more extreme content pushed by YouTube’s algorithm.
But putting an exact figure on how many people follow QAnon is difficult, especially as many people identify with only the more acceptable aspects of the cult, such as saving children from pedophiles. An internal Facebook investigation in August, reported by NBC, found that QAnon groups on the platform had millions of members, while a survey by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue conducted in September found that as much as 10% of the U.S. population believed in at least some aspects of the conspiracy.
QAnon is also constructed like a game, with Q repeating the mantra “research for yourself” dozens of times in his cryptic updates. That structure leads followers to find their own interpretations, a technique experts say reinforces whatever conclusions they draw—and makes it difficult to reason with them.
Instead, experts recommend empathy and engaging on a personal level with believers, as a way to rebuild trust and restart communication. By focusing on how QAnon began and the person’s personal relationship to the cult, rather than trying to unpack the latest twist and turn of the conspiracy theory, family members can begin to engage with their relations and ensure they feel heard and understood.
“The key here is to get them to listen to you and not just assume that you don't know anything about what's going on, so you can show them that you do know something. Then that gives you a much better foundation for actually moving forward,” West said.
The game-like nature also brings a community aspect to the conspiracy. Everyone works together to try to solve the latest cryptic message left by Q on the fringe website 8kun. The structure allows hardcore followers to bond over a shared passion, with the solutions then presented to a wider audience through mainstream channels like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
“Puzzle-solving is a special way to learn, and it encodes information into the brain in a different way than other learning,” Reed Berkowitz, a game designer, wrote recently in an analysis of QAnon’s game-like structure.
And putting the onus on followers to come to their own conclusions “instills a natural distrust for society and the competency of others.”
While trying to keep up with the ever-changing narrative of QAnon is virtually impossible, understanding the core beliefs of the movement and the main figures is vital, so that you can ask informed questions that won’t trigger an angry reaction.
“[Ask] how they first learned about it, what made sense to them, and also what didn't make sense to them, and ask them questions about how their beliefs have shifted, especially if they've been involved over time, because QAnon keeps morphing,” West said.
But sometimes, the only way people know how to intervene is to take dramatic action to help their loved ones.
“A hop, skip, and jump”
Eight years ago, George Fincher’s stepdad retired from the Marines and moved to a tiny, rural village in North Devon in the U.K. to become a farmer. He also started to get into conspiracy theories.
When Fincher, 25, and his family dismissed his theories, the 63-year-old turned to Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson, before stumbling across 4chan and opening an account.
“Then it was a hop, skip, and jump away until he was a full-blown Qultist and Donald Trump was the Second Coming of the messiah,” Fincher told VICE News. “He really became an angry bastard after that.”
Fincher confronted his stepdad about the conspiracies he was spreading, arguments that descended into shouting matches and name-calling. Fincher even studied message boards like 4chan and 8kun to try to show how the so-called “evidence” was being manipulated.
But none of this worked. So Fincher and his mum did the only thing they could think of.
“It got to the point where my mum just turned the internet off and said that if he turns it back on again and starts looking at his conspiracies, then she'd leave him and he'd be left on his own,” Fincher said.
But turning off the internet isn’t a cure-all—nor a solution that would work for most families.
Fincher’s stepfather continued to talk about QAnon even after the internet was cut off, and during the coronavirus lockdown in the U.K. earlier this year, he continued to spiral.
“He got incredibly aggressive. It never led to violence, but when you have an angry old man, who has been trained to kill, get aggressive, then that's not exactly a friendly home environment.”
It’s simply impossible to stop people speaking about their beliefs, so if the QAnon believer in your family brings up the subject, experts recommend hearing them out.
“If the believer starts wanting to proselytize, be polite and listen, and ask questions in a nonconfrontational, non-judgmental way,” Hassan said, pointing out that the way QAnon followers are portrayed in the media has made it harder for them to be deprogrammed.
“The media keeps saying how crazy it is, how stupid it is, and they are encouraging this narrative that people believe in QAnon are crazy or stupid, and I think that's a big part of the problem.”
But maybe the most important thing to remember is that any effort made this holiday season is the beginning of a process that will take a long time to succeed. And throughout it all, family and friends need to remember that the person they knew is still in there, just hiding behind the QAnon personality.
“It's not a one-time interaction process; it has to be incremental over time,” Hasan said. “That's why family members and friends are the best agents to effect change over time, because they can also say, ‘Hey, I grew up with you, we used to play basketball together. Do you remember?’ That brings up warm feelings and your real self, not your cult self.”