As QAnon has seen its influence grow amid the coronavirus pandemic, another, quieter, group has also seen its ranks increase: friends and family members left to watch helplessly as their loved ones get “sucked in” to the conspiracy theory.
The r/QAnonCasualties subreddit, is filled with desperate posts from people who have watched their friends, family and significant others fall deeper into the conspiracy. According to its moderators, the Reddit community of more than 19,000 members meant to provide “emotional support and a place to vent,” has seen an influx of users looking for help since the start of the pandemic.
“We have all these people joining up just freaking out…’what happened to my mother, someone tell me how I can get her back,’” says Mike, one of the subreddit’s moderators, who asked to use his first name only.
While Mike and other conspiracy theory experts agree that there is no easy way to “get someone back” from the group, which is often compared to a cult, there are ways to better your odds at getting through to someone.
Don’t judge (but be curious)
QAnon might seem ridiculous to you, and impossible to take seriously, but that’s clearly not the case for everyone And as distressing as it is for their loved ones, people who are sucked into conspiracy theories often describe it as a positive experience, notes Mick West, a conspiracy theory researcher and author of Escaping the Rabbit Hole.
“People who are interested in QAnon, they feel like they are true patriots who are fighting against the evil deep state or an evil band of satanic pedophiles,” West says. “They feel like they’re doing a good thing.”
That’s why West, and other experts emphasized that the way you approach people is just as important as what you say. For starters, try to have an offline conversation whenever possible. If you have to use social media, use a private message rather than responding to a post publicly.
Then, instead of bombarding someone with fact-checks, try asking them questions. West, whose book explores how to debunk conspiracy theories, suggests opening with a little curiosity.
“If you actually ask someone to explain how they got into conspiracy theories, and why they continue to believe them, they will talk about them,” West says. “But if you start out with this adversarial thing by saying something is ridiculous. It doesn’t work out.”
Similarly, Katie Byron, who heads up Poynter’s MediaWise project, which teaches media literacy on social media, also says it can be helpful to start with curiosity. She suggests asking people the source of their information and offering to compare notes. “You want it to be a collaborative process and steer away from any kind of combative situation, because we all know that can escalate really quickly,” she says.
The eventual goal is to expose the other person different sources of information than what they’re currently getting. But it’s a gradual process, and it won’t work if you’re not willing to listen.
“You can’t just simply dismiss their ideas,” West says. “You’ve got to be able to, at the very least, show that you understand what the person is talking about, which means that you do actually have to listen to them for a while, and try to figure out why they believe what they believe, and then talk about why.”
Find common ground
Another tactic West suggests is to look for areas of agreement. Rather than focusing on whatever inflammatory and misleading meme your friend just shared, it might be more helpful to find something you both can agree on.
“Find something that’s kind of related to conspiracies that you both believe — what real conspiracies are there in the world, and what actual corruption is there in government,” West explains.
“And obviously, we know lots of examples of congressmen who have been arrested for taking bribes… shady deals where big businesses, essentially sponsored legislation, which is favorable to big business. So you can probably agree about those things, and then kind of move forward to the more extreme things. Not too quickly, but one step at a time and find out what you disagree upon.”
The goal, West says, isn’t to give credence to their beliefs, but to maintain communication. By gradually ramping up to the idea you disagree on, you can keep things conversational instead of alienating the other person by dismissing them. “You’ve got to provide them with some kind of context outside of the belief system, and you’ve got to supply them with useful information,” West says.
For example, if they fixate on child trafficking, a cause that has been hijacked by QAnon and twisted to fit their own narrative, you could instead try to open up a larger conversation about the issue. The most viral statistics and charts of supposed human trafficking victims and arrests are extremely exaggerated and misleading, according to fact checkers. And more outlandish conspiracies, like the baseless theory that Wayfair was using overpriced industrial cabinets as a front to sell children, have hampered efforts to help actual victims.
But for people who do care about trafficking, there are legitimate ways to help. The r/QAnonCasualties subreddit has a helpful list of ways to support actual anti-trafficking organizations and policies that doesn’t involve sharing memes with misleading statistics or attending dubious “rallies.” Pointing to some of these could help keep the conversation focused on a real issue rather than a QAnon fallacy — and expose them to more legitimate sources of information in the process.
Don’t expect immediate results
Most importantly, though, you should be prepared for it to be a long process. Don’t expect you’ll be able to change minds immediately with just a few conversations, says West.
“Often it can take like weeks or months, or, in many cases, there are people who are down there for years,” he says. “And you’ve just got to kind of help them along their path, you’re not going to pull them out. It’s not like you can kind of get in there and do some kind of intervention and then lay out all the facts for them — that’s not going to work.”
Mike, who as a moderator of r/QAnonCasualties sees people struggling with these types of conversation every day, also emphasized that it’s a long, and not always successful, process. “QAnon gives them respect and compassion and friendship,” he says. “And they feel empowered by learning through this. They’re not going to give all of that up, just because you’re telling them the truth and QAnon is lying to them.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. With QAnon, the nature of the conspiracy theory, which constantly evolves into new unfounded prophecies that never come true, could ultimately make it easier to debunk, says West.
“Some people who were into QAnon in the early days, they were given predictions like two years ago that Hillary Clinton was going to be arrested, or were told that she had been arrested,” he says. “But it turned out none of that was true so some people lost their faith in QAnon.”
“I think over time is going to be coming increasingly obvious to more and more people that there’s really nothing to it.”
Prevention and early intervention can ultimately be one of the most successful tactics, Mike says. He suggests that people proactively reach out to people in their lives they suspect may be susceptible to QAnon or other conspiracy theories.
“The most important thing I would say is being proactive and engaging beforehand, and giving people a heads up about conspiracy theories and that kind of thing,” Mike says. “Telling people what QAnon actually is about and how it manipulates you.”
Media literacy can also go a long way. One technique employed by journalists at MediaWise, teaches people to “read laterally,” as Byron describes it. That means instead of evaluating a piece of information solely based on what’s on the page, to open a new tab or a new app and learn more about the source of that information. These skills, she says, can help people learn the skills they need to evaluate not just a single piece of information but how to gauge a source’s credibility.
Finally, online communities on Reddit and elsewhere can also offer support to former believers and people trying to pull friends and family members out. The r/QAnonCasualties subreddit has a long list of resources geared toward “Qult recovery.” Other Reddit communities, like r/ReQovery, offer tips straight from the former QAnon faithful.
And while there’s no surefire way to change someone’s beliefs, just offering support can make a difference. “It’s very important to tell that person that you’re going to love them and that you’re going to support them,” Mike says. “It’s very important for someone in a group like this to know that there are people waiting for them on the other side.”
In collaboration with Karissa Bell