The US-based online conspiracy cult QAnon played a central role in last month’s violent insurrection at the Capitol. QAnon is a complex, sprawling conspiracy theory about a clique of vampiric paeodophiles who run the world. It sounds as if you’d have to very stupid or completely crazy to believe any of it, yet many thousands do, and it’s worthwhile trying to understand why. This clip from an interview with a former QAnon follower who has now recanted makes for compelling viewing. The woman in question, Ashley Vanderbilt, is intelligent and reflective and likeable, and provides an insight into how people like her get sucked in. The groups she started interacting with online (presumably on Facebook and elsewhere) were not explicitly ‘QAnon’. They were just people discussing some horrible, outrageous practice that needed to be exposed. They didn’t get straight to the “Bill Gates is drinking children’s blood” stuff. They started by discussing something relatively bounded and real: child trafficking. That triggered a powerful curiosity in her: “It piques your interest, because as a mom I want to protect my kid.” So Ashley started asking for information from her online contacts, whom she had grown to trust, and then more, and as she did she fell deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. “Eventually you get to that huge crazy theory, and you believe it. But it didn’t start that way.” Vanderbilt goes on to talk about how her intense absorption in the cult meant that she wasn’t fully present for her 4 year old daughter. I was really moved by her introspection and by her bravery in coming forward to talk about this. Her description of how she was drawn in reminded me of a passage from Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, in which he relates how American prisoners of war were interrogated by Chinese communists during the Korean War. The Chinese sought to persuade the Americans that they had been on the wrong side all along, with the aim of turning them into informers, and they had considerable success. Their approach was systematic and subtle. They didn’t start conversations with the prisoners by telling them America is evil and communism is good. The strategy was rather to “start small and build”. They would get the Americans to assent to statements like “The United States is not perfect”. Later they would ask them to make a list of “problems with America” and put their name to it. And so on, inch by inch, until at least some of the prisoners crossed the line and became true believers. I have no idea if QAnon operates as it does deliberately or if there is some bottom-up process for recruitment that has just evolved but the approach sounds similar. In many less dark situations, this is how good persuasion works anyway. People are hardly ever persuaded to “change their mind” by arguments, in the sense of a 180 degree reversal of their position. But over time, step by step, a mind can be changed.
But the more I see the conspiracies play out in real life, the more concerned I grow. When large numbers of people hold beliefs with religious intensity, those beliefs not only provide them with a sense of enduring purpose, they also help them form enduring bonds of friendship and fellowship. The conspiracy isn’t just a set of intellectual convictions, it’s also a source of community. It’s the world in which they live. […]
Sweeping away a falsehood is of little use unless you can replace the lie with a meaningful and empowering truth. You cannot yank a person from their community and then leave them homeless. Do not pretend we can replace something — no matter how malignant — with nothing. […]
When you fear for the mind and heart of your conspiracy-committed mother or uncle or son, don’t wait. Engage. But don’t engage immediately with argument, but instead with the fellowship and love that makes the heart want to turn towards truth. You become the person who loves them, accepts them, and helps provide that vital sense of virtuous purpose.
The conspiracy theory is often the symptom of an underlying disease — a disease of hate or fear that robs a person of joy. The fierce anger and furious purpose of the conspiracy mindset is a hollow replacement for the peace and faith found not just in truth, but in truth communicated by a loving and empathetic family and friends.