In Our Own Backyard: QAnon, Cults, and Conspirituality (part 2: The Narrative, and Susceptibility)
[This is a five-part series based on a couple of hours of interview for community radio. The aired version will obviously be much shorter, but I thought the content was interesting enough to warrant an unabridged text version. Each part will include an Index (at the end) to the whole series.]
PART TWO: The Narrative, and Susceptibility
DE: Do you think some people are more vulnerable or susceptible than others, to getting sucked into a cult?
DARSHAN: Well, cult experts say that there are two things that really make a person susceptible to getting into a cult. Actually, first of all cult experts say people often ask them “who is susceptible to getting into a cult?” — and usually what they will say is “Well, you’re looking at them; look in a mirror and you’re looking at them.” Which means basically, anyone is susceptible to getting into a cult. There’s an idea that people with lower education, or people who aren’t as savvy or successful or whatever, are the ones who will be more susceptible to it. But the experts say no, there are just two main factors when people get involved in a cult. One is being in a vulnerable place in our lives. Perhaps having just gone through a crisis, or feeling very precarious. And the second is exposure to the cult doctrine. So the first one: people may have a personal experience that makes them more susceptible to QAnon, but in general overall right now… the pandemic I would say created a situation where lots people are vulnerable, and could easily get into into a closed information group such as QAnon. Because it provides a more of a feeling of empowerment, more of a feeling of knowing what’s going on and being a part of some kind of solution. So the pandemic is one factor. I mean, we’re all faced with other factors that are more ongoing: like economic inequality, like climate change. These are huge crises that we’re all faced with. So we have that material of a crisis, feeling vulnerable. And the second one, being introduced to the cult material going by on our Facebook feed over and over and over and over again for all of us. Because of the pandemic, everyone who’s on social media at all is on social media more than ever — and the thing is with sensational claims, like basically all of QAnon’s claims which are pretty sensational — if you saw them just one time out of context you would think “there’s no way I would ever believe this, this is absurd.” But we know many studies that suggest when you see something over and over and and over and over again… our brain just works that way, we start to believe. “Maybe this is true. I saw it on Instagram. I saw it on YouTube. I saw it on Facebook: a friend that I trust shared it.”
DE: And so another question I had which we’re answering by implication is… it seems that social media are very significant in the spread and reach of this phenomenon.
DARSHAN: Yeah, basically entirely social media: QAnon started on the dark web in a very disturbing place —
DE: — it was on 4chan wasn’t it? —
DARSHAN: — yes, 4chan is where it started.
ALEX: 4chan, and then 8kun.
DARSHAN: 4chan is the home of the livestream of the New Zealand shooter —
ALEX: — that was 8kun —
DARSHAN: — oh, you’re right. And the manifestos of all these shooters. This is the kind of ground that this movement is spawned in…so then it moved from 4chan on to Facebook, because it’s more palatable on Facebook: then we got all these — people call them QAmoms — all these like single moms or stay-at-home moms, getting very involved in QAnon. But really where this started from is this very dark place, in the dark web of the internet.
ALEX: Actually a lot of child pornography promotion there.
DE: Child pornography — that’s pretty ironic.
DARSHAN: Well of course the whole thing is ironic!
ALEX: I mean it may not be ironic. It may just be that again that projection outward of what’s inside, blaming others for what you yourself are guilty of, that is so common with cults.
DE: So — mostly when people are indoctrinated into cults, there’s a kind of a powerful charismatic figurehead. There’s a bit of an authority structure. What puzzles me about what you’re describing is, it really sounds to me like people are doing this to themselves. No one’s locking them in a room and keeping them awake 24 hours, playing loud recordings of communist propaganda to brainwash them. They’re actually doing it to themselves. How does this happen?
ALEX: Yeah, it’s very interesting and it’s very true. There seem to be some real emotional hooks in some of the fundamental story line of Q: stuff that gets people excited on some deep level, to the point where they will stay up all night just feeding themselves this information. And we all know when we lose sleep over something, that’s a great way to program yourself, to keep you awake all night and then indoctrinate you when you when you are in that kinda late-night, vulnerable altered state. So yeah, people are indoctrinating themselves. I mean certainly the YouTube promotion system helps with that, you know how that works: if you watch one video about QAnon they will suggest a dozen others… and on you go.
DE: Do you get the impression that the people who are very vulnerable to it are kind of shopping for a package? I mean in terms of a belief system.
DARSHAN: Yeah, I think so. It’s very all-encompassing —
ALEX: — and it’s very simple. It’s very simple: Good versus Evil. So childlike really, everything is explained for you — which is very very very appealing in this mystifying, mysterious life.
DARSHAN: I mean, it sounds great. I’d love that. If only I could believe in something like that. But yeah, I think my upbringing has made me too cynical to ever buy into something like that…
ALEX: To be able to put your trust in a leader who’s going to look after you would be, actually, a wonderful experience. I’ve never had that experience, so I can see the appeal of that.
DE: To feel that faith in a charismatic leader — the King Thing.
ALEX: Yeah the idea that a parent — like maybe we believed when we were two, three, or four — that your parent was all-knowing and all-loving and all-capable of looking after you on every level. We lose that when we’re seven or eight or something like that; and to have that back again, I could see that being very lovely
DE: And some of us less fortunate of course never have it, because of being betrayed in childhood by those same authority figures.
DARSHAN: And yet even when we have a perpetrator for a parent, the child will choose to still believe that that parent is good. If they have to choose between there being something wrong with my parent who’s abusing me and treating me badly and beating me up, or there’s something wrong with me… The child will always choose “there’s something wrong with me, and if I could change my behavior and be a better girl than Dad wouldn’t beat me up anymore.” So I think that actually ties directly into Trump as the leader of this movement, because he is a perpetrator in all senses of the word. So I think that this also ties into part of the sort of trauma spell that I think has been created here with QAnon how Q — the Mythos of QAnon — speaks to our own personal trauma in believing that someone who is quite blatantly a perpetrator, a sociopathic narcissist, a malignant narcissist, is someone who’s going to save us! And fix all of the Badness in the World and bring us into this Great New Awakening. I mean you couldn’t think of a more unlikely person for the job.
DE: It’s the contradiction of turning the bully into a hero, expecting the bully to be a saviour.
ALEX: Which is exactly what we have to do if we have a parental figure who is cruel, unkind, unloving and cold. This is somebody that we depend upon for our life. So we have to reconfigure that person in our mind, and make that person right — so justifying all those evil behaviors as actually loving, kind behaviors that are going to save us. And I think we all we can translate that onto a leader like Trump —
DE: — and given the sheer amount of family dysfunction and domestic violence and poverty and precarity and all the rest of it, it seems like there’s a very large demographic created with that vulnerability, with that trauma, you know — with that inner pain that just sort of ripe to be used.
DARSHAN: That’s right. To be manipulated for the gain of the alt-right.
DE: So in a sense, one of the best strategies for dealing with this kind of issue is simply to create a kinder society.
DARSHAN: That’s always the case, isn’t it? So much of trauma and poverty and domestic abuse is due to a society that doesn’t have a social safety net in place to support people. So there’s this sense of… if I get hurt, especially in the United States, but in Canada to some degree too, if I get hurt, if something bad happens to me, I’m gonna lose my job. I’m going to lose my house. I’m going to end up on the streets. It’s like this kind of underpinning of constant stress. Fear for my basic well-being creates a tremendous amount of stress in our lives, and leads towards all of those challenging behaviors
DE: And that really sells the fantasy of the Good King who will come and take command of everything and make the world all right.
ALEX: And the lion will lie down with the lamb.
DARSHAN: So often the — this is like the biggest thing about QAnon — how often the thing that the perpetrator claims to be fighting against, is actually the thing that they are creating more of. So people who are more destitute, working-class people, people that just need more help in society, a lot of those people are the ones that are out there voting for Trump. They are a lot of the people who are out there becoming a part of the QAnon movement thinking that this is going to be their salvation… when really it’s digging their own grave.
DE: Mmm, and those contradictions of course can simply be ignored if you’re inside that mindset… like we’re worrying about rescuing kids, but at the same time US border control is putting kids in cages and separating them from their parents; but those aren’t the kids we’re worried about, we’re worried about these other fictional kids who are being kept in basements. Sometimes it feels like you’re in the mirror funhouse at the fair.
DARSHAN: It really feels that way when you try to have a conversation with people in QAnon about that.
DE: And that leads me to ask one more question about mental health in general; because a lot of this QAnon behavior rings a lot of bells for me in terms of various chapters of the DSM. Mostly I mean apophenia, the recognition or rather the imposition of meaning and significance on events that are actually random. When I hear tell of people saying that what tie Trump wears on a certain day is a secret message to his followers… I immediately think Whoa, schizophrenia, you know — the order in which the songs are played on the radio is a Secret Message to Me.
DARSHAN: Yeah, so things like schizophrenia exist on a spectrum… and I think that more of us are on that spectrum than we would like to really think; and of course, it’s very extreme when we see people at the far end of that spectrum, but apophenia is like actually quite quite common. And it is much more common for people to get involved in conspiracy theories who have some degree of apophenia, where they’re seeing patterns in places where there isn’t really anything to be found.
DE: But isn’t that just completely part of being human? because we’re pattern recognition animals. And so to see false patterns is normal — that’s why people see things in Rorschach inkblots —
DARSHAN: — inkblots and clouds, and some people see it way more than others. Like I’ve had this experience multiple times where I look at pictures where you’re supposed to see those double images or whatever — and I’m like, I can’t see it. Like I’m just not wired that way, to see these patterns that other people see; where’s meanwhile other friends that I know can make patterns out of absolutely nothing! And it does seem like that is ripe for exploitability.
DE: And presumably that’s a bit of a connection with the New Age stuff again, the finding of spiritual meaning and spiritual patterns in random things — like throwing a handful of pebbles and saying the pattern in which they land is going to send me a message of some kind. That seems like a pretty benign and harmless face of seeing the secret hand of George Soros and a conspiracy behind everything that happens in the world.
DARSHAN: 100 percent. So that’s exactly what you were saying De. about what primes people in the Wellness Community to be more susceptible to something like QAnon, and it is exactly that kind of thing, magical thinking.
ALEX: Magical thinking like that idea that It’s All Meant To Be: it’s all predetermined, and I can’t take a wrong step — a lot of those belief systems. You’ll hear that in our neighborhood, it’s pretty common. I’ve said all those things myself a number of times.
DE: Well, the random universe is a frightening place to live.
DARSHAN: It sure is.
ALEX: I don’t know what happens when we die. And that’s just absolutely unimaginably terrifying
DE: And we don’t know really why things happen. We try to understand things, but we’re wired for narrative not causation. Causation and narrative are very, very different. In causation, I push a rock and it rolls down a hill; but narrative says that the sound of the Avalanche is the voice of the Thunder God.
DARSHAN: Which is so much more romantic. It’s so much —
DE: — much more beautiful, and it makes sense of the world in a way that is so much more satisfying to us. So I think this —
ALEX: — this hunger —
DE: — yeah this hunger in us for meaning and narrative, and especially heroic narrative. I think is something we just kind of need to be aware of — in the same way that we need to be aware of the addictive qualities of sugar or aware that, you know, alcohol can really get a hold of you.
DARSHAN: Exactly! we need to be thinking about what our vulnerabilities are as human beings. Yes. We got to take that into account when we’re consuming information —
DE: — and these are not cognitive deficits! They’re just part of the inheritance of being human, they’re just something we need to understand about ourselves. Like if we aspire to be civilized, we understand that emotions like jealousy and insecurity and self-pity are hot stuff, and dangerous, and need to be managed… and you know… carefully approached and navigated. So I think aside from media literacy, maybe we need something that you would call Cognitive Literacy. To recognize these mechanisms in our brains.
DARSHAN: Yes, and it’s important to counter the narrative that we are so invulnerable as human beings — which is more tied to this kind of free market American Dream: anyone can be anything. We’re all freethinkers and rational actors and all of this… I think we are programmed to believe this individualistic mythos, but it’s not really the truth at all. We are mammals, we are wired for action and community; it’s very uncomfortable for us to be in disagreement, to be in conflict with other human beings. That cognitive dissonance that it creates, we will forgo any kind of personal value or beliefs in order to get along with our group and the people that we like and respect, and that we really want to respect us. That is our primary way of being wired as human beings. We are influence-able.
DE: Okay. I’m going to take that and ask you to explain to me: Contrarians. We just said that we’re conformers by natures, so from where comes the contrarian impulse the — what in the Science World we call the Galileo fantasy, that simply by disagreeing with all the received opinion you become an heroic genius and think of yourself as the sole proponent of Truth.
DARSHAN: Yeah. Well, we see that very much, that there’s always those people who feel that way — and I think that it’s another way of belonging, in a way. To be the one who’s saying the outsider’s perspective. I don’t know. What do you think, honey? I probably have lots of thoughts around that but I don’t know off the top of my head.
ALEX: Well, I think that it can feed into that narcissistic need to be something superior. Your commonly held ideologies, I’ve got something better than that!
DE: “You may all think that but I know better.”
ALEX: Right, I can draw a following because I’m more special than 99% of these scientists, because I believe in hydrochloroquine or whatever it is. Yeah, there may be that narcissistic element in the contrarian wanting the attention —
DARSHAN: And still, even for contrarians, at this point in the internet age you can find another huge group of people to share your belief in your ideology — regardless of how obscure or crazy it is. And then feel like you’re the special ones who really know the truth.
ALEX: Darshan wrote an article about it recently, about the appeal that the QAnon narrative has with this idea of “rescuing tortured children.”
DE: OK, let’s dig into that a bit.
ALEX: So, this is one of the premises of the cult. QAnon and Trump are going to win, the Great Awakening happens, and they liberate thousands — millions, who knows? — of children who are being held captive and tortured, and having their adrenals tapped for adrenochrome, the drug that the Democrats need to empower them. It’s just this crazy legend, but there’s this core idea that tortured children need to be rescued. And I think it’s interesting because it kind of plays into a part of us, the wounded child within us.
DE: And some people’s inner children are more wounded than others…
ALEX: Yeah but this idea that you can — without necessarily addressing your own pain, your own trauma, your own abuse — you can watch and participate in the rescue of these abstract external children.
DARSHAN: It’s like you’re pointing the finger outside because in a lot of ways it feels a lot safer to parts of us than it would be to actually look inside. And it’s a lot easier, especially because we can Other the perpetrators and we can Other what’s happening to these other children rather than… perhaps face painful facts, like maybe “I was a victim myself,” and perhaps “The perpetrator was a person that was close to me and my family,” or whatever. And that’s not safe to look at, so it’s much easier for us to look outside rather than in.
DE: So the suggestion that you’re making is that trauma — a burden of lifetime trauma — can make someone more vulnerable to these heroic external narratives of Redemption and resolution of all conflicts. And is there any statistical data from, say, ex cult members that feeds into that?
ALEX: Our research is not scientific. It’s just what we’ve been witnessing. Totally anecdotal over over the last couple of years, but seeing that commonality very prevalent. So that does lead us towards theorizing that there’s a link here.
DE: Is this something that therapists are seeing. I mean on a national level are therapist seeing commonality in certain kinds of clients who may be getting drawn into QAnon?
DARSHAN: I would really like to do some research around that and and find out. I do know that it has been problematic for clients who have therapists who get involved in QAnon; that’s the only thing that I have personal testimony about. Say a person has been seeing a therapist for years, and has felt incredible trust with that person, therapy has helped them change their life — then if that therapist gets involved in QAnon it can kind of shatter all of the trust that has been built up, and it can be extremely devastating for clients. I’ve seen numerous testimonials around that… but I just wanted to say that when we have trauma within us, if we’re not directly looking at it, it can feel very vague and unresolvable. So when we’re thinking about something in the external world and this kind of deus ex machina or this heroic figure is coming in — like Trump — to Save all of the Children, there can a sense that it’s finally going to be resolved. In general we’re talking about archetypes here, and we’re talking about the Shadow. So like it’s this perfect language, it’s this perfect setup: these blind mole children that get bred underground and never see the light of day? This is perfect archetypal-speak for how it feels on the inside, for a person constantly suffering trauma. These ever-suffering children that are never relieved, and they’re so innocent. And there’s going to be this big salvation! So I think it speaks to these very archetypal parts of us — whether we carry trauma or not. It’s a great story, it’s a great narrative, and what do humans love more than a great narrative to latch onto? Another thing about this movement is I think… for people who are looking at the world more in shades of gray and a realistic perspective about life — life being kinda boring and strange, not full of a real sense of Justice — that they might not get as sucked into the QAnon narrative, because the QAnon narrative is all about black-and-white thinking, Good versus Evil. It’s very much like a Hollywood movie, everything that happens is going to look like a Hollywood movie. So one of the bakes that happened at the inauguration was that Joe Biden was about to get inaugurated, and then Trump was going to shake his hand, and then he would shout “You’re Fired!” and the helicopters were going to surround them, people were going to drop from the helicopters and all the Democrats, all the Evil Pedophiles, were going to get arrested. Like everything is framed in this way, like a Hollywood movie. I suppose that there’s something of a relief around thinking about reality like that. But I tend to think that reality is actually nothing like that, really, pretty messy and inconclusive —
DE: — very inconclusive, because History doesn’t end. It just keeps going. There isn’t this boss-fight and everything is fixed, end of story, roll the credits.
DE: They say cult membership can really change people, in profound ways. Would you say that’s true of QAnon?
DARSHAN: Yeah, I feel like overall the QAnon movement takes people who may have been — obviously there are lots of followers who are already very rightwing — but also it takes people who are more centrist or even left of center, and it’s kind of dragging them like the Overton Window, further and further and further to the right politically. So you might see, on some of these support groups for family members of people who get into QAnon, someone saying “I don’t recognize my mother anymore. She never used to be racist, now she’s like horribly racist. She’s horribly homophobic.” So it’s kind of dragging people who maybe wouldn’t necessarily have been into that kind of philosophy or racism or whatever, and pulling them further and further into this more extreme ideology.
ALEX: Overall it seems to be an effective recruitment process to right wing beliefs. This information or this fear-mongering is helping to drag people further and further towards rightwing and then ultimately, almost a Neo Nazi or fascist belief system.
DARSHAN: Yeah, so for example, I remember the winter that Trump got elected. It was so shocking to me and I went through a winter of depression but I felt like all of my friends were on side with me; it was so shocking it was so appalling to think of Trump becoming president. And I had no idea that, within a few years, a lot of those same friends would start to become more sympathetic to Trump as a leader, and to the Trump agenda specifically.
DE: So that pretty much addresses what would have been my second question, which was why would QAnon concern us more than other eccentric belief systems. I mean, we’ve always had Flat Earthers and people who think the moon landing never happened, and people who insist that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Francis Bacon. The list is long, the list is infinite, of these funny little eccentric beliefs that people have. So I think you’ve just been explaining to me why QAnon is more worrying to us than than other kinds of kooky contrarian belief systems.
ALEX: Yeah, a lot of those conspiracy theories have been around for a very long time. But most of them did not result in the kind of violence that we saw on January 6. This is a very much a radicalization project, taking people towards a willingness to do things that are very much opposed to their inherent moral system, in order to defend their leader. And we really saw that play out in a big way at the Congressional buildings.
DARSHAN: It was a few years ago that the FBI was labeling QAnon as a domestic terror threat and I was thinking well, yeah, obviously — like we started becoming very interested in QAnon a few years ago, before it exploded at the time of the pandemic and everyone started hearing about it. But when the insurrection happened at the Capitol, I think a lot of people were very shocked about that. But for Alex and me and other people who have studied this phenomenon, it was like, “Well, I’m glad it wasn’t worse than that.” Like we saw this coming a long way off, and it’s shocking to us that more hasn’t been done about it before now.
DE: I share those concerns with you, because I was watching it growing over the same time period and was very concerned about the — what you might call the eschatological elements of the doctrine — that there is a doomsday scenario. There is an Armageddon mythology. There’s this Boogaloo thing: a day will come when the faithful will arise… and I thought, uh-oh.
DARSHAN: Yeah, it’s a call to arms really, like it’s a very religious sort of feeling. We were talking about how it pulls people further and further to the right with politics, but it also seems to be recruiting people into this sort of Evangelical Christian ideology as well. We’ve noticed that even people who were atheists before, it’s like they move towards all of these more extremist perspectives, including religiosity — because it does function as a religion in itself, but also it’s very ruled by the Christian Right.
ALEX: There is this idea of a Great Awakening that Humanity will arrive at, once the Prophecies of Q are played out. So whatever it takes to bring about the Great Awakening is valid, and if that result of that is violence against the state or violence against your neighbors, whatever it is — the idea is that you’re moving Humanity towards this noble beautiful place of Peace on Earth.
DARSHAN: It’s like… we have to, you know, hang Mike Pence at the Capitol; or we have to grab Hillary Clinton and bring her to Gitmo and string her up without a trial; like this is just part of the process, to get to this Great Awakening.
DE: In the same way I guess that some right-wing Evangelicals in the States explained away President Trump’s character defects as a Christian by saying “Well, he may not be a good man, but he is God’s appointed leader who was put in place at this time to lead us in the right direction. It doesn’t matter whether he’s a good man or not.”
DARSHAN: That’s right. He’s the chosen one. He’s the anointed one. They use that language a lot, about him being anointed one and sitting at the right hand of God.
DE: Interesting God.
Part One: What is QAnon? — cult? political movement? fad?
Part Three: Among Our Friends — when it gets up close and personal; the grief of losing friends to madness; conspirituality; right-wing hippies? once down the rabbit hole, how hard is it to get out again?
Part Four: Theatre, Grift, or Passionate Belief? how seriously does QAnon take itself? how is it like or unlike other grifts, scams, and cults? Is it a new religion?
Part Five: Why Worry? — why should we care any more about QAnon than any other eccentric contrarian belief cluster? (includes Resources for further reading)