From Pizzagate to Stop the Steal, millions of people have gotten sucked into QAnon, and it's eroding our sense of reality—and exploding our democracy.
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In 2017, an anonymous poster named “Q,” claiming to have top U.S. government clearance, began posting “Q drops” that expanded on the “deep state” conspiracy on the 4chan message board. Q drops are cryptic breadcrumbs that followers (and opportunistic YouTubers) take as clues to decode and interpret a multitude of outlandish conspiracies and far-fetched schemes to purportedly save humanity through the “Great Awakening.” There is some speculation over who really started QAnon and why—whether it was initially intended to be an online game, or even the possibility that it began as a prank. But it has since devolved into is a disturbing, dangerous, convoluted mix of conspiracies pushed by questionable figures who have co-opted it and are rapidly recruiting more people into it—and its real-life consequences are dire.
QAnon claims, among many things, that COVID-19 is a hoax, and that a cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibals and pedophiles comprising celebrities, politicians (usually Democrats) and members of the media are abducting children, torturing them, and drinking blood from their adrenal glands to harvest “adrenochrome”—an imaginary hallucinogenic drug. QAnon also believes President Donald Trump is their savior who will free children kept in “torture camps” (not the cages into which he actually put children) and that the “deep state cabal” is out to get him.
Conspiracy theories, cult movements, and dangerous groupthink have thrived in the past decade—significantly so during Trump’s presidency—creating destabilizing and far-reaching consequences for our democracy, electoral process, and safety. These ludicrous conspiracies run the full gamut, among them: that an elite “deep state”—a clandestine network entrenched inside the government—controls policy and rules the world while elected officials are really just figureheads; that President Barack Obama was not born in America; that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged; and that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats are running a sex-trafficking ring (Pizzagate) out of the basement of a D.C. pizza shop (the pizza shop in question has no basement). Many of these baseless claims paved the way for the explosion of the right-wing QAnon, which is deeply rooted in anti-Semitic tropes and has quickly gained momentum worldwide—particularly in the U.K., Canada and Germany. Even with Trump losing his re-election bid, QAnon is only getting more forceful and outrageous as they invent more baseless election-related conspiracies and some threaten violence.
We have a long history of cults and conspiracy theories in the United States. Recall cult leader Jim Jones, who orchestrated the Jonestown massacre that led to the deaths of over 900 followers—among them, California Rep. Leo Ryan, who tried to help those who wanted to leave. David Koresh led a deadly standoff in Waco, Texas, and Warren Jeffs, the president of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, who is now serving a life sentence plus 20 years for child sexual assault. QAnon may appear different than these notoriously felonious cults which involve rape and murder, but many experts are warning that this right-wing conspiracy is dangerous and is catching on quickly, in part because it is becoming normalized by social media and politicians, making deprogramming this line of thinking critical.
People are drawn to conspiracy theories and cult-like thinking for several reasons: social isolation, uncertainty about the world, feeling distrustful and having limited support. Being a part of conspiracy groups gives followers a sense of belonging to a community, that they possess some “secret knowledge” and they have someone to blame. QAnon, for instance, trafficks in the belief that they are in a top-secret fight, banding together against the “deep state satanic cabals”—often touting their slogan “Where we go one, we go all.”
Conspiracies can also provide people with what they believe are credible explanations for traumatic events (think 9/11, JFK’s assassination). Conspiracies often take a partial truth and then spin a fabricated narrative: Sex trafficking is a horrible crime and abuse cover-ups do happen (e.g., clergy sexual abuse, Jeffrey Epstein).
Regardless of political affiliation, no one is completely immune to the allure of conspiratorial thinking. But what is unprecedented is having an American president like Trump embracing and promoting toxic groupthink and cultivating a brand that harnesses and weaponizes it. He welcomes the lunacy by openly courting the Q constituency, as we saw at a recent town hall. Trump surrogates, like his son Eric Trump and his former national security advisor Michael Flynn, have also publicly supported QAnon by touting their slogans and symbols. QAnon will also be coming to the halls of Congress: Marjorie Taylor-Greene, a Republican who has openly supported Q conspiracies, won her bid for Georgia’s 14th congressional seat.
During this election cycle, 27 congressional candidates (25 Republicans and two Independents) publicly touted Q conspiracies. The overwhelming majority were defeated by their Democratic opponents, but it’s worth noting many of these Q candidates beat their Republican primary challengers, and some, such as Jo Rae Perkins who ran in Oregon, still received hundreds of thousands of votes. In a recent survey, 56 percent of Republicans believe QAnon is “mostly or partly true” and 17 Republicans recently refused, in a House resolution, to condemn QAnon.
While not all of Trump’s supporters are QAnon followers, many of his hard-core followers, who staunchly believe he is the “chosen one” will rebuff any critique of their die-hard support, claiming those who are critical of Trump are just gripped by “Trump derangement syndrome,” rationalizing their unwavering loyalty as patriotism.
Janja Lalich, Ph.D., a former cult member, emerita professor of sociology at California State University, Chico, and co-author of Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships, says she recognizes that sense of blind, cult-like followship of some Trump supporters. “From the start of his campaign there was this frenzy that mirrored the same blind loyalty given to cult leaders,” she says. “Many of his supporters are in this bubble where Trump says, ‘Don’t listen to the news, only believe what I tell you,’ even when it poses a danger to them. There is this cognitive dissonance that exists, and when reality comes up against their beliefs, they stay with what they know and are already invested in.”
These political stances unfortunately reflect a new reality for many Americans. Bryan Murillo, an electrical engineer from the Chicago suburbs, says that after the 2016 election, things got considerably worse with some of his ardent Trump-supporting family members.
“I have close family members who completely believe QAnon conspiracy theories. They are obsessed. Anyone who dares to question the truth is a monster to them,” he says. “Even with no facts to support any of this, they still believe it completely. They are on Facebook all day sharing inflammatory memes. It got to the point where you couldn’t even have a conversation about anything else. It always led back to this stuff.”
Murillo’s story illustrates how the 2016 election intensified dangerous groupthink. Lalich says that this is the time when political cults are really recruiting. “We are living in uncertain times, and people are looking even more for something to hold on to. And when we see politicians embrace QAnon, it can validate this conspiracy theory and encourage others to follow them.”
The pandemic has also compounded people’s vulnerabilities to conspiracies and cults. Increased stress amplified by excessive online use played a key role in QAnon Facebook groups membership rising by 120 percent in March 2020, when many lockdowns began, and engagement rates increased by 91 percent. For some, the pandemic also solidified the idea that “anything is possible.” If an unprecedented crisis like a pandemic can happen, then other “out there” things might also be real, the thinking goes. “Context can fall away and can make outlandish things seem more possible,” reports Sarah Gundle, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City. “The large online community that QAnon, especially during a quarantine, brings into someone’s life can feel intoxicating, especially in uncertain times.”
Gundle says that people who are taken in by dangerous groupthink often do not consistently seek the truth, but rather favor the seductive, collective narrative. And conspiracies, like Q, also lead their followers to believe they are thinking independently when they decode Q drops. “Q drops are not succinct questioning of the government or authority—they are inflammatory posts that entice people into thinking that they are somehow going deeper into challenging the status quo,” says Gundle.
QAnon’s focus on sex trafficking, for example, can also cause people to unwittingly end up being sympathetic to Q conspiracy content. Alexandra Stein, Ph.D., a cult expert and the author of the book Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems, says that QAnon looks “increasingly cultic” and the focus on child abuse is the benign “entry point”—a common tactic cults use to draw people in by finding common ground. QAnon has been quickly gaining popularity by promulgating the false notion that they are fighting to protect children and seized on the credible movement working to stop sex trafficking and abuse.
QAnon taps into the rage felt by most people who are incensed by these heinous crimes and floods the internet with their campaigns, hashtags, and distorted statistics—which harms credible organizations and takes resources away from legitimate anti-trafficking/abuse efforts. Save the Children, a 101-year-old humanitarian organization, for instance, became a popular QAnon hashtag—prompting the organization to release a statement disavowing any affiliation with Q campaigns. Facebook reports that it had to temporarily block the use of the #SavetheChildren hashtag because of the saturation of QAnon posts using it. When people share these images, thinking they are raising awareness on trafficking, they are unintentionally boosting Q.
Q is quickly gaining ground worldwide. Their Facebook groups have millions of followers. And these conspiracies have also instigated violence and harassment in the real world. QAnonner Anthony Comello murdered mobster Frank Cali because he believed Cali was part of the “deep state” and his murder was “sanctioned” by Trump. Cynthia Abcug, another QAnonner, was arrested on felony kidnapping charges after she and other Q conspirators plotted to carry out a “kidnapping raid.” Violence, arson, child abduction, criminal possession of a weapon, vandalism, making terrorist threats, felony burglary, assault, stalking, harassing health care workers, starting wildfires, and parents threatening to kill their children have all been reportedly linked to Q conspiracies. This violence prompted the FBI to categorize QAnon as a domestic terror threat.
Some social media companies have begun a long-overdue crackdown on overt QAnon pages, but many of these attempted efforts are coming only after they allowed Q to run rampant for years and are not comprehensive enough. QAnon often finds ways to avoid being removed, and Facebook’s algorithms also help QAnon recruit.
So, how do we begin to deprogram and effectively respond to dangerous groupthink and cults?
Historically, deprogramming someone immersed in a cult often entailed “rescuing” them by physically removing them from their surroundings (this practice did raise some ethical concerns) or doing “exit counseling.” But deprogramming can be especially challenging now given that a lot of dangerous groupthink surrounding Trumpism and conspiracies happens online, and it is nearly impossible to stop someone from using the internet.
Many experts recommend taking a reasoned approach, not calling people “brainwashed” and asking pointed questions to lay the seeds that they are being manipulated, even if they reject facts.
Steven Hassan, cult expert and author of The Cult of Trump, says that Trump acts like “a stereotypical cult leader” (malignant narcissistic characteristics, pathological lying, lacks empathy, never takes responsibility) and recommends that, when engaging with fanatical Trump supporters, to go through the components of other groups and the ways that they indoctrinate, such as through information control, to try to illustrate the similarities between those cults and Trump. His frequent messaging to only listen to him, to immediately disqualify any criticism, his frequent touting of “fake news,” and the fear-mongering that if you don’t stick with him horrible things will happen are examples of this kind of information control.
Deprogramming also involves recognizing someone’s underlying concerns. Gundle recommends you “validate the concern, but not the conspiracy” and acknowledge any concerns about child abuse. “QAnon traffics in raising emotion. Try not to match that heightened emotion, stick with reasoned questions, point out inconsistencies to lay the seeds of doubt and try to re- engage their critical thinking skills,” she says.
Gundle suggests asking “if this, then that” type of questions. “If thousands of children are being abducted and held in satanic torture camps, then wouldn’t their parents, teachers, coaches report them missing and be trying to find them—wouldn’t they be on the news talking about their missing children?” Or: “If these regular abductions were happening, then wouldn’t there be continuous Amber alerts.”
You can also ask questions about things Q claimed will happen, but never did. For example, on 11/1/17, Q predicted 25,000 sealed indictments against the “cabal” would be revealed. This fictitious claim never happened, and the failure of these kinds of predictions to materialize can sometimes create cracks in followers’ beliefs.
Jitarth Jadeja reports that he was involved with QAnon for over two years, but began to slowly see inconsistencies. The pivotal moment of realization came when a follower asked “Q” to have Trump say the term “tippy top” to prove “Q” was real. During a 2018 speech, Trump used this phrase, and QAnon celebrated. But after Jadeja looked into it more, he discovered Trump had already used this phrase several times. “That’s when I realized this was all a very slick con,” Jadeja says.
Dangerous groupthink thrives on secrecy and wants its members disconnected from non-believers. If they have no connection to anyone outside, they move further away from reality. “It can be intensely frustrating to engage over fictitious things that QAnon believes, but if you can stay in touch, it can potentially keep the person from being totally absorbed in this QAnon echo chamber. If they do ever stop following QAnon, they will have no one to turn to if they have been totally cut off by everyone.” says Stein.
Stein adds that while it may feel “futile to engage online with conspiracy theorists”— sometimes it can make a difference, even if they respond defensively. “It can still get in their brain. They may not admit it, but later on when they see certain things they may recall what you said.”
Progress can also be made with others indirectly. Commenting online on “Save the Children” type posts can seem pointless, but sometimes people interested in conspiracies don’t engage publicly on threads, but do read the comments, and any credible information provided online could potentially sink in. Another tactic Gundle suggests is redirecting to credible information. Refer people to legitimate groups with a demonstrated record of helping abused children.
There are times, however, when it can become unhealthy to maintain contact with conspirators. “Oftentimes there is a tipping point where you have to prioritize your own mental health,” says Gundle. Reading other peoples experiences can also have an impact. Refer QAnonners to stories of people who left QAnon and realized how dangerous it is. QAnon Casualties and ReQovery also share personal accounts of how QAnon impacted friendships and families.
Addressing cults and dangerous groupthink also necessitates that their online content is identified and reported (despite social media companies’ slow response) to diminish the spread of conspiracies. Media literacy and further education around cults and conspiracies is also needed.
“Groupthink thrives on paranoia, emotional provocation, and changes how people go about collecting data,” says Gundle. “Engaging in groupthink in the age of Trumpism and QAnon paves the way for sound judgment and reality testing to be deprioritized. This inattention can be damaging at all levels, particularly when the stakes are as high as they are today.”
The need for the global community to recognize the threat Q poses has never been greater. Dangerous groupthink is spreading worldwide, and it is imperative that we identify it, educate our communities about it, and work to deprogram this type of destructive thinking before it leads to even more violence and disruption.
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