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After QAnon, How Do Families Mend Relationships?

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AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

A person dressed as Lady Liberty wears a shirt with the letter Q, referring to QAnon, as protesters take part in a protest, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.

QAnon said Donald Trump was to become president last Thursday.

That didn’t happen.

QAnon has ensnared millions of people around the globe with a laundry list of conspiracies around former President Donald Trump, top Democrats, and Hollywood elites.

A Las Vegas woman, who we'll call Jane, told KNPR's State of Nevada that she has lost a friendship because of the conspiracy theory. 

Jane said she and her close friend used to be able to talk about anything, but as her friend got deeper into QAnon conspiracy, they drifted apart.

Jane said her friend started using language and phrases she didn't understand and kept telling Jane, 'I did my research,' but the research was always social media posts and YouTube videos.

With the pandemic, Jane's friend withdrew even more. Jane said her friend was in Washington, D.C. on the day of insurrection. She told Jane it was 'the most beautiful day of my life,' Jane said. 

The woman was unhappy that the media was showing the insurrection and riot instead of the flag-waving and patriotism of the crowd. After that, Jane stopped speaking to her friend.

"I'm so sad," Jane said, "I wonder about how she's doing or what kind of people she could possibly get involved in. I hope that she's doing well. Obviously, I would like to see her again, but it makes me really sad. I'm really worried about her."

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Jason Blazakis is a professor in practice and the director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

He explained that the whole movement started when an anonymous person posted a cryptic note on the website 4Chan in 2017. The person became known as 'Q,' and the information that person posted became known as 'Q drops' 

Blazakis said 'Q' has held themselves out as a high-level member of the government with security clearance. 'Q' touts themself as an insider with knowledge of top-secret information.

From there, other people who are considered to be influential in the conspiracy theory started adding to and interpreting Q drops, which became QAnon -- because 'Q' is anonymous.

Blazakis said the theory took off from there.

"Over time, 'Q' got larger because it latched onto Donald J. Trump," he said, "In Q's messages, those 'Q' drops, Donald J. Trump became much more influential of a figure, a prominent figure within those 'Q' drops."

The basic underlying idea is that former President Trump is fighting a global cabal of Democrats and Hollywood elites who are satanic pedophiles running a child sex trafficking ring.

In a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Blazakis argued that QAnon goes beyond just a conspiracy theory and is now a cult.

"Individuals within the QAnon movement, as I have observed them, they have dismissed their own individuality, and in doing that... they have walked away from simple family and friends, and it is heartbreaking to see how many people have broken away from their family and friends, leaving broken homes behind them."

Blazaski also notes that QAnon is a movement steeped in slogans and symbols. He said the slogan 'Where we go one, we go all' is an indication of people giving up their individuality for a larger movement.

He also said that Q and their believers have said certain things were going to happen like the arrest of Hillary Clinton, which didn't happen, and that Donald Trump was going to be inaugurated again on Jan. 20, which didn't happen. 

But when those events didn't happen, the believers just found a new way to believe, he said.

"Despite that disconfirmation of missing those big events, you've seen a doubling down," Blazaski said, "I saw doubling down with cults before when key dates have passed."

There are plenty of examples of people claiming to know when the second coming of Jesus Christ or the end of the world is going to be, only to change the date when it doesn't happen. 

The thing that is different about QAnon is there isn't one leader who directs followers, Blazaski said. 

"But, I would argue that this doesn't matter as much," he said, "QAnon adherents have essentially adopted Donald Trump as the leader of their cult. And individuals, unfortunately, in a lot of cases, are following him blindly." 

The coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty that came with it have only allowed the online conspiracy theory to grow and blossom as vulnerable people search for answers, Blazaski said.

Diane Benscoter understands exactly how someone in a vulnerable state can be drawn into a cult. She was part of the Unification Church, otherwise known as the Moonies. 

Now, she works to help people in authoritarian cults get out. She recently launched a website, Antidote.ngo, to help people understand how people are drawn into cults and how to reach them. 

Benscoter said the first thing people have to understand is that being drawn to something like a cult is part of being human.

"As human beings, we have psychological needs at times, especially when the world is confusing or when things don't feel fair or when we feel like we don't really fit in somehow and feel lonely or lost those are just part of being human," she said.

She said when the right tactics are used to psychologically manipulate those human characteristics people can get drawn into a conspiracy theory or a cult. Benscoter said the same tactics are used to draw people into terrorist organizations.

For those people who have family members who believe in QAnon, Benscoter said the best way to counteract the theories is to focus not on the doctrine but the person.

"The goal is ultimately to help them get to the point where they might question the possibility that maybe they've been lied to, maybe they've been taken advantage of on some level," she said, "That's hard because people's pride is involved."

She said it is vital to be careful about how we talk to loved ones about QAnon. Benscoter said it's important that people realize their loved one has been tricked and arguing with them will just push them away and deeper into the lies.

Benscoter said people with loved ones who believe QAnon should remember that their family or friends are not stupid people, but people who have been taken advantage of.

Steven Hassan is a mental health counselor, who also was a Moonie in the 70s. He now works to get people out of cults. 

He said one of the best ways to approach a discussion with a family member or loved one who has been manipulated into believing a conspiracy theory is to start by building rapport and trust.

Hassan suggests talking to them about positive past experiences and common ground. 

Then, he said to start asking questions in a non-judgmental, non-confrontational way, approaching the subject as a way for both of you to find truth together.

"You have to adopt a frame of curiosity and, 'Hey, you're an intelligent person. I respect you. We've known each other for x-number of years. If this is true, then that means I need to believe it too, but honestly, I need evidence to be convinced. And if you are so serious about this, share with me one piece, whether it's a video or something, let's then agree to discuss it, and then, it will be my turn to share something.'"

Hassan said people should try to get into a reciprocity situation with their loved one, and when they do, it will take the 'winner and loser' dynamic out of the discussion.

What people should aim to get to is dissonance, which is when people hold contradictory ideas and beliefs, Hassan said.

"That's the piece that helps wake people up is dissonance between their cult identity and their real identity," he said, "But what works is focusing on a pursuit of truth."

He also believes that QAnon is a cult and not a conspiracy theory.

 

Guests

Jason Blazakis, Director, Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at Middlebury Institute of International Studies; Diane Benscoter, author of Shoes of a Servant – My Unconditional Devotion to a Lie; Steven Hassan, mental health counselor and author of The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control; Anonymous, Las Vegas woman experienced with QAnon

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