Their Family Members Are QAnon Followers — And They're At A Loss What To Do About It : Consider This from NPR The QAnon conspiracy theory originated in 2017, when an anonymous online figure, "Q" started posting on right-wing message boards. Q claims to have top secret government clearance. Q's stories range from false notions about COVID-19 to a cabal running the U.S. government to the claim there's a secret world of satanic pedophiles. This culminates in the belief that President Trump is a kind of savior figure.

Today, U.S. authorities are increasingly regarding QAnon as a domestic terror threat — especially following last week's insurrection at the Capitol. But the people in the best position to address that threat are the families of Q followers — and they're at a loss about how to do it.

Some of those family members spoke with us about how their family members started following QAnon and how that has affected their relationships.

Travis View researches right-wing conspiracies and hosts the podcast QAnon Anonymous. He explains how the QAnon story is not all that different from digital marketing tactics, and how followers become detached from reality.

Dannagal Young is an associate professor of communications at the University of Delaware and studies why people latch onto political conspiracy theories. She share some ways to help family members who are seemingly lost down one of these conspiracy rabbit holes.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.
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Their Family Members Are QAnon Followers — And They're At A Loss What To Do About It

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Their Family Members Are QAnon Followers — And They're At A Loss What To Do About It

Their Family Members Are QAnon Followers — And They're At A Loss What To Do About It

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The way Tyler (ph) - and we're going to use his first name only for reasons we'll explain in a bit - the way Tyler describes his dad is that he's a guy who, whatever he does, does it 100%.

TYLER: Which is normally a very positive attribute. Usually those things are hobbies or, you know, motorcycles or off-road vehicles. And this time he just went 100% off the deep end for Republican and Trump support.

CORNISH: And that means on January 6, Tyler, like the rest of us, was glued to the television because just days earlier, he had gotten a text from his sister about their father's plans to be in Washington, D.C., for a pro-Trump rally. He read that text to us.

TYLER: Just for your information, Dad is driving and taking the camper to D.C. this week, and he intends to stay in a hotel and has a reservation. And she just told me all his guns are loaded and some are on the floor.

CORNISH: So as the nation watched, as thousands of people began to march towards the Capitol...

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOT)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A.

CORNISH: ...Tyler's head was spinning.

TYLER: Knowing he was there was certainly nerve-wracking and knowing that he would probably be one of those guys who was going to try and get into the Capitol, you know, or try to maybe try to hurt someone. I do know he brought his guns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TYLER: I don't know if they were ever used. But that'll weigh on you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOT)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) We love Trump. We love Trump. We love Trump. We love Trump. We love Trump.

CORNISH: Tyler's dad isn't just partisan. He's a follower of the QAnon conspiracy theory. And we aren't using his last name so Tyler can speak openly about that relationship, one that he says has completely fallen apart as his dad has gotten deeper into Q. His father is back home now, but Tyler is still trying to wrap his head around all of it - how a run-of-the-mill conservative like his dad could sink into a world of conspiracies about the election, could drive across the country armed and prepared to fight against a peaceful transition of power.

CONSIDER THIS - U.S. authorities are increasingly regarding QAnon as a domestic terror threat. But the people in the best position to address that threat, the families of Q followers, are at a loss about how to do it.

From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Friday, January 15.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. A while ago, I stumbled on a Reddit group, a subreddit, rather, called Q Casualties. And it was mostly posts from the family members of people who have gotten wrapped up in political conspiracy theories like QAnon, people who found they could no longer reason with or even talk to those family members anymore.

TYLER: I used to be able to talk about politics with my dad.

CORNISH: We asked if anyone wanted to share their story with us, thinking maybe we'd hear from one or two. Dozens of people replied.

KELLY: She listened. She asked questions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I always looked to my father as one of my best friends.

CORNISH: That was Tyler and Kelly (ph) and one other person who wanted to remain entirely anonymous. For them and others you'll hear from, we agreed to use their first names only so they can speak openly about family members they're still trying to mend relationships with. And we did ask to speak with those family members but were turned down. Now, when it comes to the stories they told, there's a pattern, and it starts like this.

ANNIE: We used to sit and argue about stuff, like, in good faith, have good conversations with each other.

CORNISH: Annie (ph) says it wasn't that long ago that she could talk politics with her mom without things getting heated. But when the pandemic started, she says, their conversations were peppered with conspiracies. Others, like Andy (ph), agreed.

ANDY: It kind of seems normal at first. And then all of a sudden, something will just be out of the blue that just seems so far from anything that could be true.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: You know, she slowly crept into it during the Trump administration, but especially with lockdown.

CORNISH: Their parents, stuck at home, with a lot of time on their hands, Web surfing deeper into QAnon specifically.

TYLER: He gets home from work, and he puts his earbuds in, and he watches these videos on his iPad until it's time to go to bed.

KELLY: She's spending 16 to 18 hours a day consuming this.

CORNISH: And the result of all this is a detachment from the facts.

ANNIE: It just very quickly became clear that she, like, did not think that Joe Biden won the election.

CORNISH: QAnon originated back in 2017, when an anonymous online figure, Q, started posting on right-wing message boards. Q claims to have top secret government clearance. Q's stories range from false notions about COVID, to a cabal running the U.S. government, to the claim there's a secret world of satanic pedophiles. But what's relevant here is that this culminates in the belief that President Trump is a kind of savior figure, which leads to the next phase for these families. A breakdown.

TYLER: When Joe Biden was confirmed president, I texted him. And I was intending to be good natured, but I texted him, you're not going to be a little crybaby snowflake, are you (laughter)? And he just texted me back, [expletive] off. And, like, he's never said that to me before.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You know, my father's calling me a stupid liberal [expletive] and telling me I can't be trusted.

KELLY: She hits us with the, I used to think you all were smart.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I am embarrassed about where my father's mental state is. But I also am devastated because I feel like I've lost him.

ANNIE: And when I am arguing with my mother about it, it feels like I've lost my parent.

CORNISH: And the people we talked to, they're at a loss.

KELLY: I've tried. I've really tried, but there's just such a level of disconnect there.

ANDY: You know, you think family would come first, but I think QAnon comes first.

ANNIE: I will probably just continue to have conversations and try to steer away from politics and, like, hope to God it doesn't get crazier, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRAVIS VIEW: I have been hearing stories like this for years.

CORNISH: Travis View researches right-wing conspiracies and hosts a podcast called "QAnon Anonymous."

VIEW: They have become so convinced that they sort of see how the world actually works and sort of this vision of the world becomes part of their identity. It becomes more important than anything, including family.

CORNISH: View's background is actually in digital marketing. And he says that in a way, QAnon is not all that different, except the product he sees being sold is a, quote, "utopia and apocalyptic destruction of their enemies." Violence and destruction is, in effect, part of the story, a story Travis View says President Trump fails over and over to refute.

VIEW: When he still had his Twitter account, he quote tweeted or retweeted QAnon accounts over 200 times. And in fact, when - you know, when directly asked about QAnon, he only praised the QAnon community and did nothing to distance himself from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...Right now?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I don't know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.

VIEW: In QAnon world, I mean, Trump is not just, you know, a good president or something like that. He's viewed as the savior of humanity, as someone who rescued the entire world and the country from unimaginable darkness and misery.

CORNISH: Without Trump, does Q fizzle?

VIEW: (Laughter) No, I don't see why that should be the case. I mean, without L. Ron Hubbard, does Scientology fizzle? I mean, once a movement like this grows to a certain size and once the believers in it become dedicated enough, it becomes self-sustaining, and it doesn't need its founder or leader anymore.

CORNISH: Especially for many people of color, you think that the Venn diagram between QAnon and racism, it might be a circle and that you actually might have fears about the kind of actions that people who believe in this ideology will take, especially after what we saw on January 6. Is that a founded fear?

VIEW: Yes, there actually is, I think, a legitimate concern that - of the sort of the overlap between QAnon followers and more violent, more dangerous white nationalist ideologies. Generally, I think that the danger is like what happens when QAnon followers perhaps - you know, they become disillusioned with QAnon, they won't necessarily go to healthier ideology. They may become more radicalized and fall into white nationalism. I think that's something worth watching out for.

CORNISH: What does that mean for people who have family members who are very involved in it?

VIEW: Yeah. What it means is that it's very difficult to get someone out once they're sort of trapped in this loop, especially when they are you know, they've spent, you know, years of their life and sometimes made sacrifices for the sake of the QAnon community.

CORNISH: Wait. Wait. Sacrifices in what way?

VIEW: Oh, you know, professional sacrifices, sacrifices in terms of, you know, their, you know, their personal relationships, sacrifices in terms of spending time on QAnon instead of something else like their personal hobbies that they may have loved in their previous life. You know, once you've devoted that much to QAnon, it's very, very difficult to get out. Now, it's not impossible. There are many stories of people who realize that they have been bamboozled by QAnon and decide to go on a healthier path, but it is very difficult.

CORNISH: That's Travis View, host of the podcast "QAnon Anonymous."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: So what can be done when a family member is seemingly lost on one of these conspiracy rabbit holes?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DANNAGAL YOUNG: Because these belief systems are not about the information within them, but about the identity and the emotions that are appealed to through them, the only thing that can actually combat them effectively are loving, trusting, emotional connections.

CORNISH: Dr. Dannagal Young is an associate professor of communications at the University of Delaware. One of the things she studies is why people latch on to political conspiracy theories and how to help them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

YOUNG: If you think about somebody who either is addicted to heroin or they think about someone who has fallen into a religious cult, or you think about someone who has fallen to QAnon, they all are creating boundaries that divide them from their families. They're all engaging in dysfunctional behaviors and holding dysfunctional attitudes that make their participation in regular life more difficult. And they all tend to need a similar kind of psychological pipeline and outreach to bring them back.

CORNISH: So I asked Dr. Young about the do's and don'ts when talking with someone who believes in these theories.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

YOUNG: Do not mock. Do not use snark. All of the, you know, Twitter posts where people make fun of the crazy QAnon supporters, all that does is further reinforce their sense that they are disrespected and maligned. No. 2, using scientific evidence, argumentation, et cetera, that comes through the very institutions that they have been told not to trust, that is going to backfire because now they think that you are the dupe because you trust these institutions, et cetera.

CORNISH: Young says It's smart to acknowledge that the world does feel pretty crazy right now and all of us are a little confused. And her main do is pretty straightforward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

YOUNG: Come at them with unconditional love, as hard as that is, reminding them of the preexisting bonds that you have. If it's a brother or sister, how about talking about old stories and just just texting them and saying, oh, my gosh, I remembered that fishing trip that we had back when we were 5 and you fell in the lake, right? Because now you're asking them to tap into an identity that they haven't tapped into in a while, and that is their identity as a brother or sister.

CORNISH: Is there any place for accountability in this kind of conversation, meaning when people have taken these kinds of actions, you know, you do have a sense of, well, wait a second, it's not my fault that you've done X, Y and Z, right? Like, it's not my fault or the fault of all of these other people.

YOUNG: Yeah. I think that folks might disagree with me on this, but my sense is that if your goal is to bring them back in and to reconnect, that accountability is something that should be put aside for a while until much later. From my standpoint, the accountability question is something that we need to bring to our president, politicians, media personalities, pundits and platforms. For me, I mean, those are entities who have exploited this moment, have exploited some of these underlying psychological traits, and they've done so with the interest of power and profit and that those are the ones who - where I do not recommend any of the loving processes and approaches that I've talked about here. For them, I am far more punitive in my approach.

CORNISH: Dr. Dannagal Young. She's an associate professor of communications. She's at the University of Delaware. You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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