If your friends or family have fallen for an internet conspiracy cult, here’s what you should do

How do you rescue someone you love from the clutches of an internet conspiracy cult?

Do you maybe tell them that the operator of the “most prominent” website devoted to the unhinged, fact-free QAnon conspiracy theory was recently rumbled as a senior vice-president at Citibank?

According to reports, Jason Gelinas was a “longtime Wall Street IT expert” with a noteworthy professional interest in data mining. He perhaps knew better than most how susceptible people are to advertising when they’re angry and they’re frightened; reports claim he was earning $US3,000 a month from Q-adherents on his Patreon site, and suspected of compiling data on 10 million site visitors willing to believe – without evidence – that a network of Hollywood satanists run vast underground camps where raped children are milked for blood. It’s an unquestioning credulity that would have any marketer salivating.

Alas, the truth has done little to dissuade QAnon believers from the fictions of their conspiracy mythology. Unsurprisingly, the “Pizzagate” conspiracy that was QAnon’s forerunner should have fallen apart when an adherent wielded an assault rifle in a Washington pizzeria because he believed Hillary Clinton and her associates were running a child sex ring in its basement. The gunman found no Clinton, no children and no basement – and yet the themes of the conspiracy endure, and internationally. Yes, we have a QAnon problem in Australia now, too.

The conspiracy is finding ready purchase because those themes are already culturally familiar, sourced from millennia of antisemitic tropes that falsely accuse Jews of drinking the blood of Christian children; it’s no coincidence Jewish identities like George Soros and the Rothschilds are referenced in attacks. The present amplification coincides with the pandemic’s ratcheting up of individual anxiety at the same time it’s obliged people into finding longed-for socialisation on the internet. Here, poor social media literacy meets political naiveté with devastating consequences. But how is your poor elderly uncle to know?

And what do you do about it?

Any journalists, academics and community leaders who attempt to point at an objective reality that contradicts the conspiracy are just accused of being in on it. Q – like any cult leader – has expansive, agile plasticity. The texts – the “Q drops” – are worded in such an ambiguous way that they may be infinitely reinterpreted by believers to buffer the intrusion of any fact, or any prediction that fails to come to pass.

The zealotry is frustrating for professional fact-checkers, but it is devastating for families. The Guardian reported recently on the phenomenon of “QAnon orphans” – the loved ones estranged by family members who’ve become subsumed in Q-ism. Reddit communities have sprung up as support groups for this very modern phenomenon.

But within the despair of those communities are also hopeful stories of reconnection from those who’ve left the cult, with experiences that affirm the best advice of experts in disinformation, deradicalisation and deprogramming. For those concerned by the creep of conspiracy-thinking into their friends and their world, there are things you can do.

1. Disinformation experts recommend an “information hygiene” routine to prevent unwittingly spreading cult propaganda. People often share incendiary material with the intention of mocking or challenging its assertions – but platforms like Facebook regularly shear off contextualising comments. If you must mock, mock in your own words or memes; don’t ever republish the original to a wider audience.

2. Remember, people reach out to social media when they’re seeking human contact; one of the most powerful lures of a cult is the socialisation it offers when individuals are in distress. With everyone in distress from coronavirus, maintaining meaningful spoken communication with loved ones through phone calls and – where safe – visits are more important than ever. Steer the conversation towards shared experiences and memories.

3. Don’t take the bait to have brawls on the internet about the cults. Arguing the facts of an issue can have the effect of entrenching conspiracy attitudes in peers who may dig in to save face and defend their public social status.

4. Instead, delete public comments and engage gentle private dialogue not to argue facts, but to encourage doubts. Believers in these things inherently have doubts – even if they’re buried deep – because verifiable proof doesn’t exist to support the cult’s claims. Try questioning responses such as: “There seem to be a lot of holes in this theory, don’t you think?”, “I’m not sure we should really trust an anonymous source, are you?”, “Don’t you think there’d be more evidence out there if this were true?”

5. Experts recommend affirming to the “higher selves” of believers. It’s actually lovely to think your cousin is stirred to rescue children from the clutches of blood-drinking paedophiles, even if they don’t actually exist. Verbally acknowledging this is an important way of steering someone’s good emotional values into a logical rejection of the cult.

6. Don’t expect an immediate deconversion from the person you’re trying to help. People who’ve left QAnon described to Rolling Stone their doubts like an accumulation of “cracks”, not a sudden revelation. Work in a group with other concerned friends and family members to reach out.

Most of all, be kind. Unscrupulous figures data-mining these websites are the reason why so many have lost their trust in moral leadership. That’s what has driven them towards the good-versus-evil simple idylls of conspiracy thinking.

QAnon believers are not always the enemy. They are often victims too.

All Rights Reserved for Van Badham

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