It all starts with a viral social media post acting as a breadcrumb—a small hint that there may be more to the story than meets the eye. Few examples of social media disinformation have culminated into a complicated web of political manipulation quite like QAnon has in 2020, but the impact that the conspiracy theory has on interpersonal relationships is easily just as devastating.
QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory that has circulated the news cycle heavily in the last couple of months, is no stranger to divisiveness. Like any brand of cult, QAnon’s ability to infect and isolate the minds of its followers is exactly what gives it so much power, though the fact that it’s a baseless conspiracy theory is not necessarily a valid argument against it. “First of all, about half the population believes in at least one conspiracy theory, so conspiracy theory beliefs are ‘normal,’” says Dr. Joseph M. Pierre, MD, a Health Sciences Clinical Professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “That said, psychology research has shown greater degrees of certain cognitive quirks among those who believe in conspiracy theories—like need for uniqueness; needs for certainty, closure, and control; and lack of analytical thinking,” says Dr. Pierre.
Followers of the theory are often drawn in by one of its many claims—either that a politician or Hollywood celebrity is secretly a pedophile, or that President Trump is secretly working to expose a ring of elite pedophiles and return thousands of missing children back to their parents. The moral panic of pedophilia and human trafficking is and has long been a point of interest—just look at the popularity of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit compared to any other spinoff in the franchise.
Most people can agree that pedophilia and kidnapping are abhorrent crimes against humanity, making QAnon’s claims that much more enticing and believable since it’s also understandable that someone would go to great lengths to hide such a crime from the greater public. There is also no question that people in power tend to abuse it. Stories like Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged suicide, Ghislaine Maxwell’s arrest and even the #MeToo movement that outed dozens of Hollywood stars have only added fuel to the QAnon fire, sending conspirators into a frenzy that their long-awaited “storm” is about to come to light. Conspirators often attack those that bring the theory into question, accusing those that are against the ‘movement’ of supporting—or worse, being—pedophiles themselves.
To everyday, hard working American people, the problems that QAnon attempts to answer to can feel monumental and infuriating. Trusting the news sources that have so often worked alongside the very people that QAnon aims to defraud only leads to greater distrust when those same institutions begin dismissing QAnon as a farce. “…the best predictor of conspiracy theory belief may be mistrust, and more specifically, mistrust of authoritative sources of information,” says Dr. Pierre. “Which means that those most likely to become a QAnon believer is someone who mistrusts mainstream sources of information, spends a lot of time on the internet and social media looking for alternative answers, and being a devotee of President Trump,” says Dr. Pierre. Though the final note is not necessarily a prerequisite, there is no question that much of QAnon’s following tends to follow a right-wing political ideology.
For believers, the very act of a mainstream news source dismissing QAnon’s claims only serves as a reassurance that they’re on the right path to the truth. “Conspiracy theories are more likely to resonate with people who: exist in post-war nations, or in the case of the United States—continual war nations, are disenchanted with the government, and feel a sense of alienation from group identity and cultural myths,” says Duncan Stewart, a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah that has studied conspiracy theories like QAnon at-length. “For example, a strong believer in the American Dream who remains poor even though they work hard may feel a sense of alienation. Though, these folk would rather believe a cabal is eroding their access to this dream than recognizing or coming to terms with a structural failure of the nation,” Stewart says.
While certain elements of QAnon may be sprinkled with half-truths, that is precisely why it feels so hard to communicate with people that have entrenched themselves in its community. What starts as a single viral social media post often sends curious minds down a labyrinth of carefully picked out “clues.” Each clue or “drop” from Q—the anonymous leader of QAnon—supports a wider claim that QAnon is a legitimate movement aimed at exposing the elite and saving millions of missing children that may not be missing in the first place. “QAnon also includes other facets that are appealing to some that can serve as ‘hooks’ that lure people into the world of QAnon,” says Dr. Pierre. “There’s obviously a central pro-Trump/anti-liberal component, but there’s also considerable overlap with evangelical Christianity and its looming apocalyptic battle between good and evil. And now there’s overlap with people who are concerned about child sex trafficking with QAnon hijacking #SaveTheChildren,” Dr. Pierre says.
The very nature of QAnon belief, specifically, aims to incite distrust in any institution that could be involved in the cabal or is participating in its “satanic” rituals. “This causes a collapse of trust in anything ‘institutional,’ meaning news and political information can’t be taken at face value, especially governmental information. If the conspiracy theorists are right then there is a secret cabal controlling most everything—and because we can’t identify to what extent, we must assume that everything is controlled,” Stewart says. “This is dangerous because due to the representative characteristic of democracies, their efficacy relies on individual trust. When people distrust those who were elected and/or appointed by elected officials to run their government, norms, rules, and the ability to govern recedes, undermining institutional legitimacy. This is why many Americans won’t listen to the CDC advice on COVID-19,” Stewart says.
One could easily argue that President Trump is part of this secret cabal because he is an elected official and holds great power. But the very nature of his Presidency enables followers of QAnon to argue that he is the outsider chosen by the people to rid the world of wealthy pedophiles. His 2016 campaign, after all, spoke directly to the working class and promised to “drain the swamp” of political corruptness. “Notably this is different with Donald Trump as he is the supposed savior from the deep state—so his speech has some degree of credibility to conspiracy theorists,” says Stewart.
To unravel the misdirected beliefs of QAnon’s followers is complicated and akin to unraveling a delicate chain necklace with just your bare hands (for those who know the horror of this, they know it well). But while QAnon existed largely in the shadows of the internet up until 2020, conversing with a believer may have been easily avoidable before it went mainstream—and before it landed itself into everyday political conversation. Now, you’re likely going to encounter a QAnon believer at Thanksgiving dinner this year in the same way you’re likely to argue with a distant relative over who they voted for. It might be tempting to try and dissuade your cousin, sibling or parent from being a QAnon follower, but you’re probably not going to get anywhere by accosting them at the dinner table.
Believing in a conspiracy theory like QAnon requires a certain level of volatility, and the movement often helps the believer feel empowered in their research and critical thinking skills—especially if they’ve never before felt that type of confidence or intellectual empowerment anywhere else. “Before you try, think about what your goals are. Are you just trying to make small talk over Thanksgiving dinner? Are you really trying to understand what they believe and why? Or are you trying to change their minds?” says Dr. Pierre on whether you should attempt to speak with a loved one about the theory in the first place. “Depending on the circumstances, it might be best not to bring up QAnon at all. If you are going to ask about it, try to start by listening in an effort to understand. See if there’s any common ground. Understand that belief in QAnon requires a rejection of mainstream sources of information, so bringing those up isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. If you are hoping to challenge their beliefs, read up on QAnon—arguing from a place of ignorance isn’t likely to get you very far. Neither is ridicule, if your loved one is a ‘true believer,’” Dr. Pierre says.
Dissuading a QAnon belief is not likely to happen if your only goal is to dissuade them for your own feeling of intellectual superiority. QAnon’s baseless accusations might seem outlandish to an outsider, but to someone that has spent hours “researching” the topic at hand, it can feel very discouraging to be told your research is not research at all—especially for someone unaware of the difference between fact checking and conspiratorial investigating. “Fact checking relies on peer review, or experts reviewing the work of experts to confirm or deny the reality of a situation,” Stewart says. “Whereas the conspiratorial frame doubts experts in anti-intellectualism tradition. However, conspiracy theorists are often citation obsessed—shaping their writing to mirror that of an academic study. Many conspiracy theorists prefer to be called ‘conspiracy researcher,’” says Stewart.
“In order to maintain fringe beliefs, it’s often necessary to turn away from the mainstream, including any family and friends who disagree with you,” says Dr. Pierre.
Many followers of QAnon often begin to naturally gravitate away from loved ones that they think will likely disapprove of their research or affiliation with the movement. “In ‘falling down the rabbit hole,’ QAnon followers have often found a new world, and to some extent a new ‘family’ of like-minded believers that makes previous relationships less rewarding and more fraught, similar to differences in political beliefs these days, arguments about QAnon can definitely break up marriages or cause significant strain on other relationships,” Dr. Pierre says.
Understand, though, that someone that believes in QAnon is likely far deeper into its inner-workings than you are. “Immersing oneself into the internet world of QAnon can also resemble a behavioral addiction to pursuits like video games or gambling,” Dr. Pierre says. Often, believers are a step ahead of any argument against the theory because they’ve encountered so much skepticism and criticism online already. Before you open up the can of worms that is challenging a loved one’s belief in the theory, realize that they may already be skeptical of your opinion of them. “QAnon is a complex world of interrelated conspiracy theories—it takes significant effort to follow. And so, devotees often end up spending more and more time on it, at the expense of in-person relationships, work, or more traditional recreational activities,” says Dr. Pierre.
“This is a difficult question that I am still developing an answer to,” Stewart says of how to speak with a loved one that devoutly holds QAnon. “For now I would say start where you agree, especially if that belief revolves around a commonly held value like a religious faith. Point out contradictions in an endorsement of QAnon and that belief. For example, myself and my Q-believing friend both agree that pedophilia is a violent affront to everything moral and good, that it operates in secret, and that elites have engaged in this crime against humanity. Where we disagree is that Donald Trump will save the children, especially when he locks them in cages near the border and is credibly accused of multiple sex crimes himself. Create this cognitive dissonance,” Stewart says. “Perhaps the shared belief is in the constitution and rule of law, point out that the end result of Q, or the storm, is an absolute suspension of the constitution and arrests without trial. Ask what should be valued more—norms or the possibility the conspiracy is true? Perhaps your loved one is a Christian—how does the plans of Q compare to that of someone who should live a Christ-like life? You must engage conspiracy theorists on the premise of value, not fact– because no fact can be believed as it is always potentially part of the conspiracy, a fabrication,” Stewart says.