This has been the year of QAnon, the viral conspiracy theory whose supporters spread false information about things like the 2020 election, Black Lives Matter, sex trafficking, vaccines, and the coronavirus pandemic—and believe that President Donald Trump is the national savior. The movement has gotten so dangerous that the FBI has officially declared it a domestic terror threat and tech giants like Facebook, Etsy, Twitter, and YouTube are now outright banning QAnon content on their platforms. But conspiracy theories have been around since the dawn of time (looking at you, flat-earthers), so what makes QAnon especially threatening, particularly in the months leading up to the election?
To put it simply, our president refuses to condemn the believers because they support him. Trump has applauded the conspiracists for “loving their country,” and in August, when he was asked whether he would disavow the Q conspiracy theory, he said, “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.”
The theory has infiltrated the lives of thousands, if not millions, of Americans, so if your friend has started tagging you in Q-related memes or sending you links that seem alarming, you’re not alone.
Steven Hassan, a licensed mental health professional and cult expert, says that “intelligent, educated, and successful people” are just as susceptible to QAnon as anyone else, which makes it super difficult when a loved one starts espousing Q-related ideas. “People don’t seek out QAnon,” Hassan says. “They may learn about this stuff from a friend or a coworker, or they’re online and something is suggested to them. And they get curious.”
Plus, we’re living in a time when distrust in the media is at an all-time high. “People are being filled with misinformation from social media, so when they do come across somebody from QAnon who speaks with certainty, it’s a very important appeal,” explains Hassan. Below, some best practices from the experts on what to do if someone close to you falls into the QAnon rabbit hole.
According to Hassan, name-calling and screaming is not an effective strategy to help someone out of QAnon. “Nobody likes to feel coerced, minimized, or put down. The minute there’s an attack on the leader, the doctrine, or the group, they go into protector mode. They will exit rather than engage with you,” he says. (In short: Avoid accusations like “you’re being ridiculous.”)
Instead, ask questions, either in real life or on the phone, and take a genuine interest in why they believe these theories are for real. Instead of outright telling them they’re wrong or how crazy QAnon is, try something like, “Why do you think that’s true?” or “Where did you first hear this?” The idea is to legitimize what is true and disprove what isn’t. Which brings us to the next step on how to actually navigate your talk.
Make the convo about them.
It can be easier to believe big, high-level theories when they don’t relate to your daily life. Ask gentle questions that bring their beliefs close to home. One idea, posed by Robert J. Cramer, PhD, in Psychology Today, is to ask someone going off about how hydroxychloroquine can treat COVID-19, “Would you trust a doctor giving this to your partner?” There’s no proof the treatment works, and Trump didn’t even take the experimental drug when he was sick—which, ahem, you can subtly mention—so given those details, your friend might hesitate to suggest it to a loved one.
Rachel Bernstein, a licensed therapist and cult expert, recommends using their own line of logic against them. For example, if they claim the media can’t be trusted, kindly point out they’re also digesting QAnon from media sources (like a blog or video). She also says to ask them about quantifiable ways QAnon has helped alleged victims, like, “Are there fewer prosecuting cases? Are there fewer kids being trafficked because of this? Do you have statistics on that?” (The answer will inevitably be no.)
It’s important to keep the conversation as civil as possible, even if you have to preface your intent ahead of time by telling them (1) you care about them and (2) your objective is not to argue. Bernstein calls this “talking about talking.” Hopefully, this will get them to understand that you are looking out for their best interests.
Ask what they would need to not believe in these theories.
The appeal of why people get sucked in to cults like QAnon is because they offer an answer or explanation to the world’s problems, even if it is false. “They get hooked because they want to feel hope. They want to feel certainty and they want to feel like there’s some future where things are going to be better and not worse.” But if what they believe does not come to fruition, it crumbles the foundation of their theory and they can slowly recognize that their “truth” is not what they thought it was.
Hassan says conspiracy theorists believe the world will unfold in a chain of events only they can predict. So you want to ask them: “What would it take for you to denounce this whole movement?” They may not have an answer, but if they say something like, “Well, maybe if this thing I know is going to happen doesn’t happen…” then you have a better shot of breaking through to them. For example, if QAnon supporters believe someone will get elected or arrested or some other event is set in stone but it doesn’t happen, then it creates a massive hole in their belief.
Remind them of your friendship before all this.
Your connection can sometimes be an asset in bringing someone back from QAnon. “You have to go remind them of the good times where you hung out together and had fun,” says Hassan. The goal is to help them reconnect with their authentic self before they got sucked in to something outside their control.
Hassan suggests taking small steps to regain their trust. Show them old photographs or videos of the “before” days when Q wasn’t a wedge between you two. You can even subtly message them as you would any friend you haven’t seen in awhile: “Remember that time we took a trip to Montana? We had so much fun!” The most important thing is to keep it friendly.
Realize you might not be able to win this one.
One conversation will not change their mind; it’ll take a real commitment to help your loved one. It’s best to interact with them as civilly as possible, if only to remind them that you are not the enemy. But you’ll likely hit a wall that you just can’t budge, and this is not at all your fault.
Bernstein recommends stepping away when your involvement is making the situation worse (e.g., making your friend more defensive or hostile or compromising either of your safety). “They’re not ready to hear what you have to say, but more importantly, they’re not ready to give up something that they think is of utmost importance,” says Bernstein. Still, it’s possible that you may have cast even a shadow of doubt and when they’re ready to walk away, they’ll return to you (a situation that Bernstein has seen happen many times).
Take care of yourself too.
Rehabilitating QAnon supporters isn’t a task that is necessarily meant to be done alone. Hassan stresses that you should find a network of people to lean on, particularly if they’re also going through the same trauma of losing a loved one to this movement. Self-care sounds silly to point out, but it’s necessary. If there were ever a time to practice the whole “you need to put a mask on yourself before assisting someone else with theirs” idea, it’s now.
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