One of the indelible images from the January 6 invasion of the US Capitol is of Jacob Chansley dressed in horns, a bearskin headdress, red, white and blue face paint, and carrying a spear. Chansley had been deeply affected by the relentless assertions of former President Donald Trump that the election was stolen. And yet Chansley’s attorney recently announced that he is willing to testify against Trump at the impeachment trial. Chansley reportedly feels betrayed because no pardons were issued to protect him and other QAnon supporters who participated.
QAnon is often referred to in the media and by politicians as a conspiracy theory, but it is more than that. Conspiracy theories are encouraged and promoted, but QAnon is a political cult that recruits and indoctrinates primarily online. At its core, QAnon teaches that dozens of politicians and A-list celebrities work in tandem with governments around the globe to engage in child sex abuse. They also generally believe that the 2020 presidential election was rigged against Trump.
A change of loyalty such as Chansley’s is one response cult members may have when promises made by their leaders are not fulfilled. Others who were not arrested may not face such dissonance. Because QAnon members are messaging constantly, many may continue to believe the conspiracy theories and blindly follow them.
I can personally relate. After a near fatal van crash due to sleep deprivation in 1976, I was deprogrammed from the Moonies (known by many as the Unification Church) and the influence of the movement’s leader, Sun Myung Moon. Waking up from an authoritarian cult has motivated me for the last 45 years to help others understand mind control tactics and to free themselves. I was deceptively recruited and did not understand the systematic social influence processes that had been used on me (and I used on others) until my deprogramming got me to open my mind.
How had I been turned against my family, my religion, my country? How could I give blind allegiance to a malignant narcissist? I would have died on command or killed on command. I slept three to four hours each night and worked seven days a week for no pay.
I went on to study the Chinese Communist brainwashing of the 1950s, which later led me to the work of psychologist Leon Festinger, who identified control of behaviors, thoughts and emotions as the three key elements of successful undue influence and developed what has come to be known as “cognitive dissonance theory.” Further research and personal experience convinced me that there is a fourth critical element — control of information —which lead me to develop the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control.
For hardcore Trump supporters, including QAnon believers, these are especially troubling times. Many were convinced that Trump would win the election by a landslide. But Trump did not win and no mass arrests of QAnon “enemies” occurred, as QAnon believers had thought. Biden was confirmed as having won the election and lawsuits alleging the election had been stolen were dismissed, even by judges who were appointed by Trump.
Some people are becoming disillusioned and distancing themselves from QAnon and Trump. Ex-QAnon believer, Jitarth Jadeja, for example, has been willing to share how extreme he became during his two years in the movement, even recruiting his father into the cult. Now he is speaking out about the delusionary cult and wishing to help others to realize it was a lie.
What can family and friends of QAnon believers (or of any other destructive cult) do?
These troubling times provide an opportunity to intervene and loosen the hold on those who were manipulated into a cult. But strategic interactions can start in simple ways:
If you have cut off contact with someone as a result of their radicalization, reach out to them.
Start with something neutral, such as, “I’ve missed you,” or, “How are you?” If you were judgmental or harsh, try apologizing and ask for a “redo.” Resist the temptation to argue against their beliefs or explain that they have been duped. This approach is more likely to further entrench someone in their beliefs. Be compassionate, understanding that this person might be feeling confused, scared, betrayed or angry. Be non-judgmental.
Validate any reasonable concerns that may be contained within some of the conspiracy theories. For example, child trafficking is a real and serious issue that QAnon believers are very concerned about. If they bring this up in the context of a conspiracy theory, acknowledge it is a terrible thing and offer information on legitimate organizations that are addressing the issue.
Suggest a break from media
Encourage them to take a break from media and online activity, ideally for a week, but even a day is helpful. Suggest they take a walk, engage in activities they used to enjoy or reconnect with old friends. Share with them the music they used to love. When it becomes safe to share any of these activities in person, offer to do so.
Be willing to listen
If they tell you that they no longer believe in QAnon, let them know you are willing to listen if they would like to talk about it. Help them feel empowered that they are thinking for themselves. If they feel a social vacuum by exiting, you can remind them that many others are exiting, too. There are reputable ex-cult members from many different groups. There is also an effort by former members of cults called Project #IGotOut. I was one of the founders of this project.
Most important, remember that the person you knew and cared for before they were influenced by a cult still exists, and with consistent, respectful support they can gain the knowledge and strength to set themselves free.