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How QAnon-Like Conspiracy Theories Tear Families Apart

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A while ago, I stumbled on a Reddit group, or a subreddit. It was called QAnon Casualties. And what I found were stories, mostly from family members of people who have gotten wrapped up in political conspiracy theories like QAnon. And many are adult children who say they can't really have a civil conversation with their parents anymore and that it wasn't always this way. We asked if anyone wanted to share their story with us. Dozens and dozens of people responded.

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

KELLY: I always looked to my father as one of my best friends.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: She listened. She asked questions.

CORNISH: That was Tyler and Kelly 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 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, 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)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 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 a 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.

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

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: She hits us with the - I used to think you all were smart.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: I'm 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.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 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.

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

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.

YOUNG: If you think about somebody who either is addicted to heroin or you think about someone who has fallen into a religious cult or you think about someone who has fallen into 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.

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, etc., 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, etc.

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.

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 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 a 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 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: Your message to the people we heard today struggling with, you know, their parents?

YOUNG: Do the cost-benefit analysis, as hard as it is, to understand whether or not it is worth it to you to take this road because it will not be easy. And if you're willing to put in the time and effort, I guarantee there will be movement. It will take time, but there will be movement.

CORNISH: Dr. Dannagal Young - she's an associate professor of communications. She's at the University of Delaware.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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