In Our Own Backyard: QAnon, Cults, and Conspirituality (part 3: Among Our Friends)

Burning Bridge, image from SmallBizClub

PART THREE: Among Our Friends

DE:
DARSHAN: The answer to both of those is yes. Alex had already read quite a bit about QAnon before we got introduced to it in person, and he was saying to me that it was something that he would have expected to see locally.
ALEX: Yeah, it being such a right-wing ideology. It seemed like something that evangelicals down in Alabama might adhere to — and being as I said such an absurd thing, from the outside perspective you can’t imagine anybody believing it. I just could not imagine anybody from our community — being something of a liberal alternative community — buying into it. I didn’t understand at that time the appeal that QAnon had for leftists and New Age Wellness Community types! But yes, it is very much here on Cortes. And we encountered it nearly two years ago, listening to friends talking about a narrative — something they were afraid of — that was what I had been reading about this crazy weird QAnon phenomenon.
DARSHAN: That Obama was eating babies, and this kind of thing, is what they were telling us…
ALEX: … that they were afraid that this was true.
DE:
ALEX: Very much so. Yeah. Really good, loving, solid people. So, a jaw-dropping moment. I was left speechless in that moment and went back home quickly and started researching. And I realized that oh my God, this has infiltrated the homes of some very good intelligent folk. And then very shortly after that, I began seeing it popping up in various forms on social media feeds from friends who were on the island — also friends who used to be on the island — just little things that didn’t necessarily say that they were QAnon, but were that very narrative being played out.
DARSHAN: This is what’s particularly insidious about QAnon, is that it’s kind of like — all roads lead to Rome. QAnon is like an umbrella conspiracy or a big-tent conspiracy theory. So it’s able to take all other conspiracies like anti-vaxxers, or 911 — or Covid-is-a-hoax is a really big one that they started pushing, and 5G was another really big one — and they use it all to perpetuate their narrative of this underlying satanic cabal in the Deep State, and why we should follow Trump as our fearless leader.
ALEX: Yeah QAnon was piggybacking on a lot of these other little conspiratorial things — some of which fit in much more with our New Age or Wellness people. Big fears of new things like 5G or the vaccine or…
DARSHAN: … or distrust in the Establishment, distrust of government and the Establishment tropes. Yes, that’s very much how it infiltrates the Wellness Community. I grew up in a family that was very much that way. So I often find that when there is this Wellness perspective, that it’s very polarized; there’s another part of us that is and believing in this big cover-up that’s going on, secrets being kept from us. So I see that in my family of origin there’s this huge spiritual perspective, and again this idea of this Great Awakening that’s coming… when we are going to break through this big cover-up, and all of these secrets that have been kept from us — and free energy, and disclosure about aliens, and all of these kinds of things that a lot of people in that Wellness Community have already been adhering to.
DE:
ALEX: Yeah. Absolutely. I think this is what some interesting about this phenomenon is that it’s played off of our our kind of inherent leftist anti-Establishment tendency. But we’re not used to having the Establishment — like the Trump Administration — promoting anti-Establishment ideas. So it’s kind of got us confused: here are rightwing organizations that usually would be pro-corporate, pro-industrial, and instead they are talking about how we should be afraid of big corporations, we should be afraid of Big Banks, Big Pharma, all of that. It’s really easy for us to latch onto that, because we’d most of us on the left have kind of latched onto it to some degree already. So it just fits right in… but then there’s this strange Evangelical twist that gets thrown in there.
DE:
DARSHAN: This is often the case with cult leaders: the things that they claim to expose, the things that they are supposed to be , are exactly what they’re guilty of. So, what is that quote… “An accusation from a sociopath is actually a confession,” right?
ALEX: Trump’s playbook really for campaigning was to paint himself, or be painted, as a Political Outsider — someone who’s stepping in from the wings from business, not having been sucked into or corrupted by the political system. Therefore not Deep State. It’s a big mind-twist, the President of the United States suddenly being considered as the Anti-Establishment Kingpin.

DE:
ALEX: Yeah, wonderful word.
DE:
ALEX: Well it’s an incremental advancement towards that — and often starting with this idea of, right? This is what all open-hearted, good, kind people would want to do — I would want to do — if there are children in distress, if there are children being sexually exploited, trafficked, whatnot, who would want to participate in a movement to save those children? And this is the original thing that gets people in. It’s all of the other stuff that gets thrown in alongside, the little bits of information, right wing tropes, and what not. Just the idea that oh, it’s George Soros, it’s these Jewish Bankers that a have long history of doing this… that starts putting that idea in your mind that maybe these certain people of certain ethnicities or whatnot might be the Bad People; and then this idea that oh, it’s all the Democrats. It’s all these people that we used to think were looking out for us. So it’s all these Hollywood people, these movie stars and whatnot, that I used to respect. They can’t be trusted either. So can I trust any more? But maybe I can now trust these people that I didn’t trust before this, authoritarian figures, because they are not involved in this trafficking. In fact, they’re the ones who are doing the good thing, trying to rescue these children. Little by little, little by little, you can turn somebody’s mind around to where there is still kindness and love, but the outrage of what’s happening to these children, or how satanically evil these Jewish people are, is so profound… that it instills this rage even in this kind heart, to the point where they’re willing and able to do some drastically hateful things in the name of God and Country, in the name of saving the children, in the Name of Love.
DARSHAN: And also the groundwork, the foundation, has already been laid for people to start believing in some of the QAnon content; because a lot of this kind of New Age culture already believed things like chemtrails, or “911 is an inside job.”
DE:
DARSHAN: Chemtrails, and you can’t trust the media. You can’t trust the government. You can’t really even trust science.
ALEX: Certainly not the pharmaceutical companies —
DARSHAN: — yeah you can’t trust this pharmaceutical industry — and of course there’s a grain of truth in a lot of these things! And so QAnon things get packaged with some of that stuff that has already been accepted for a lot of these people, within this culture, and then it’s like it’s just adding on a little bit more about about Save the Children. So it’s like, you already know vaccination is bad, right? And so this other stuff about the children must be true too. Oh and it’s the Democrats — well I don’t know about that, but maybe… like another few memes later. It’s like it just becomes a little bit more palatable and more palatable until you’re fully in.
DE:
ALEX: A drift towards where hatred becomes justified.
DE:
DARSHAN: — it’s energizing, it’s more powerful.
DE:
ALEX: — secret knowledge —
DE:

DE:
ALEX: Yeah… witnessing some dramatic changes in certain people at one time. I counted 14 people that I knew, both here on the island and social media friends who had a relation to the island to some degree, who at one point or another were sharing or espousing QAnon views.
DE:
ALEX: It is a lot. And most of these individuals have backed off from mainstream QAnon but are still clinging to some of the the side-shoot stuff that’s promoted by QAnon: the anti-vaccine fears, the 5G fears. So yeah a pretty large number for such a small community.
DE:
DARSHAN: Well, the people that we know — they are going to be people who are in that sort of hippie alternative New Age Wellness circle. Those are going to be the people that we know that we saw get into QAnon; so that is I would say the common denominator for the people that we know. QAnon
DE:
DARSHAN: Yeah people I would say, who have the privilege of being somewhat apolitical — who think they have a lot, or they do, or they , have a lot of more liberal left-leaning values, but maybe didn’t really understand what it truly means to be Progressive, what it truly means to fight for human rights. Or how history works, or maybe how politics work to some degree… but are just kind of living their life, good people who didn’t grow up with necessarily an extreme conservative ideology, but are just influenceable. Because they don’t have that grounding in… history?
DE: Political history, that kind of thing?
ALEX: That’s a possibility.
DARSHAN: I think that often this kind of movement grabs people who consider themselves to be political people. Like “I don’t really want to be political,” or whatever, but then they don’t realize that they have become political by promoting this movement.
ALEX: Not recognizing that it’s so political. But I see another commonality in the individuals that I’ve seen — a very small sample obviously — a tendency towards strong New Age spirituality. These are individuals who tend to believe in a Transformation of Humanity, towards something like the Great Awakening.
DARSHAN: That was probably already in them to some degree: spiritual bypassing tendencies.
DE:
DARSHAN: Oh you know, that belief that ? Spiritual bypassing is this term that a lot of therapists use about individuals who will say things like It’s all good, or it’s all for the best, or the Universe only gives you what you can handle, or it’s all a dream anyways —
DE:
DARSHAN: — and so a lot of trauma is just explained away. Yes. Yes. I grew up in a very New Agey family, but after a lot of disillusionment I’ve come to start thinking that this sort of New Age spirituality is really no different than ordinary religiosity.
ALEX: With bypassing comes this idea that I don’t really have to examine the broken parts of myself, the trauma —
DARSHAN: — the broken parts of society —
ALEX: — and how I might be right now responsible for some of that. Because we’re all going to be released from that anyway. There’s usually a polarity to that: if you’re believing that there’s a force of good in the world, there’s generally always a polarity part of the theory, maybe not so conscious, but a belief in Evil. So QAnon can really play into that idea, because of this whole Satanic Deep State element.
DE:

DARSHAN: I would just echo what you said De, about how disturbing it was for you to realize that these really good natured hippie folks seem to be moving more towards this kind of far-right ideology. And I would say that it’s in my experience very — it’s been very disturbing for me this entire phenomenon. I mean, it’s been disturbing for me since as far back as I can remember, that everyone isn’t up in arms trying to do something about human rights causes, about climate change — it’s never made sense to me that this isn’t what we’re all focusing on! But for me to see that my good-hearted friends are now supporting a fascist agenda, and not really seeming to care enough to learn about what they’re doing… It’s been very painful for me when I first found out about my friends getting involved with QAnon. I kind of had this panic disorder where I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started not being able to sleep. I would have all this adrenaline rushing through me; so it’s created a lot of personal problems in my life, to have this happen to people that I know. It’s very challenging for me and created a lot of grief, a sense of like how could this happen? How could this be happening?
ALEX: It’s very disorienting to have communication with people that you have a long history of communicating solidly with, heart-to-heart, a profound connection — and to realize that you something has interfered with that channel, that there’s no longer an ability to understand one another. Very disorienting, very disturbing. And right now —
DARSHAN: — it is really frightening. It’s really, really frightening. It’s almost like I feel like we’re living in an alternate universe; and I feel like probably a lot of people throughout history have felt that way, when they’ve seen fascist uprisings in their community and people going along with it — their neighbors, their friends, going along with it or turning a blind eye — and that’s what it feels like, that’s what it feels like is happening for me. It doesn’t feel like it’s just some silly thing that people are doing on social media and it’s not really a big deal. Right from the get-go I felt like this is a big deal, and other people would be kind of like “What’s the harm? You know, they just want to save the children. Yeah, the statistics they are talking about aren’t real, but what’s the big deal?” But no, this is a very big deal and bad things are going to come of this, and are coming from this right now.
DE:
ALEX: I went through a personal trauma of my elder brother becoming schizophrenic before my eyes — the trauma of not being able to understand or communicate or to help bring this person back to my perspective… very very upsetting at a core level. And I think a lot of this QAnon phenomenon, especially when it’s infected friends, really plays into and reenacts that drama for me, that loss of an ability to have any common ground in what is real. What is and is not real, in our communication, in our dialogue, in our relationship. And Darshan has grown up with some of this in her family, and it certainly plays into that.
DE:
DARSHAN: Well MLM history, but also just like using spirituality and spiritual bypassing as a way to explain away all of the problems in personal life, or any of the problems with society or in the world. And I had a parent that was like tha, and it took me a hell of a number of years… I mean this was also a very very good parent in a lot of ways, and I really sided with this parent who was kind of my ally, and I adopted their belief system around all of this. So it was a huge disillusionment process for me to come to terms with realizing that my parent is also just a human being, and has all kinds of flaws, and is actually using a lot of this spiritual language and ideology in order to get away from their own trauma. And they’re trying to make sense of the universe by using this framework of spirituality. And it was quite a huge process and still something I’m working through, to really leave that and have to come to terms with… who I am as an individual, and maybe I don’t believe that stuff anymore. You know, maybe I’ve gone too far on the other side of the spectrum as kind of a reaction to that, like I feel allergic to a lot of kind of spiritual talk and spiritual sort of spiritual-washing. Like we use the term green-washing, I think about spiritual-washing.

DE:
ALEX: We’ve certainly witnessed firsthand and attempted something that doesn’t work, and that is to confront cult members on what they believe, to try to discredit their myths or to show alternative ideas. It just does not work, people double down. Yeah, no matter how well you can show that their belief systems are not founded in reality, that method does not work at all and we’ve certainly seen that with QAnon as well. It doesn’t work because if someone is not agreeing with the QAnon believer, it means they are part of the enemy forces. They are part of the Deep State. They are possibly even Satanic Pedophiles themselves, not to be trusted, really — from what we understand. We haven’t had a great deal of experience of helping anybody out of this yet. But what we understand is: the best tactic is to speak to the part of that individual that is not in the cult. So the essential self — have a relationship with that part of the individual, avoid the subject of belief systems or politics or religion entirely, reconnect on the levels that you do connect on. Help them to remember what your relationship to you and yours to them actually is, and the fundamental love and support that is there. Because that there’s a Schism there, you know, if their cult mind is thinking this person is not to be trusted, this person is evil, this person is whatever… that doesn’t fit with the fact that you are just there and you care about them, and you’re reminding them of all the wonderful things that you used to do together. As I understand it, that that is the best method to help bring people back.
DARSHAN: That’s kind of like speaking on an emotional level. I think that is the best method, and there are a number of things that you can do on a more practical level as well. So what I’ve been practicing with people who I feel are involved in disinformation campaigns and getting unravelled due to disinformation is, I’ll make an agreement with them. So I’ll say to them, I can see that you really want to know what’s true. And I really want to know what’s true too. So can we find out together about what’s true? So it feels like we’re doing things together instead of against each other. Steven Hassan who’s a cult expert has a whole program around how to help people who are in cults. One of the things that he says is, make an agreement with them to share one article a week or something like that, and they do the same to you. And then you get together, and you talk about it. And you say, I read this article you sent me, and this is what I think it’s saying, and I’m imagining these are what your concerns are. Am I getting it right? So it’s like you’re doing this kind of repeating back, and then you ask them to do the same with the things that you are saying. So it’s like you’re stepping into their shoes, and invite them to step into yours. So you’re saying this is what I’m seeing that you care about, this is what I’m imagining your experience is, am I getting it right? Then they feel respected. Their defense has come down. Again, it’s that thing of dissonance; you’re trying to get them to think for themselves that there might be something incongruent here. So asking little questions. Like. how did you come to believe that? Oh, that’s really interesting that you believe that. can you explain to me step-by-step how you came to that conclusion? And oftentimes when you ask people that, you can see them thinking How I come to this conclusion? and then they’ll start telling you, but oftentimes they’ll kind of stumble over their words… because those synapses are starting to fire, they’re starting to actually about how did I come to believe this? And that’s what you really want people to start doing — is thinking for themselves and starting to see the incongruencies for themselves.
ALEX: Yeah, and maybe because their authentic self is present in the conversation at that point. So they’ve got sort of both personalities operating at the same time rather than just the cult personality fully dominating. And in that moment, then the communication has to happen between the authentic self and the cult self and that’s where these suddenly there’s cracks and fissures. Or doubt creeps in… theoretically…
DARSHAN: It really is about planting seeds. The thing is about cults in general is that oftentimes people say, you know, it took me four years to get out of this cult, but I’ll never forget that time when I was talking to you and you said that one thing, or you asked me that question, and it just kind of niggled at me. So even if you’re just planting seeds with people — and I find that that’s very true with people that I know who have gotten really caught up in disinformation campaigns and have sort of been starting to turn the corner — they say, you know, this person that I really trusted asked me this question, and it made me think. So it’s like these little fissures, like Alex was saying. One more approach that I’ve been taking… say someone sends you — I think all of us have had this experience in the last six months to a year, where family members or friends will send you videos or articles or things to listen to that are just absolutely filled with disinformation, and they’re like, You’ve got to watch this, you know, you find out the truth! And I’m like, oh man, how many hours in a day do I have to watch all this crap? But anyways, if I like I can watch stuff like that. It tends to really make me upset watching stuff like that. That’s why I have to really limit it. But I could watch it and take notes and point out all of the factual errors; and if I sent that info to the person who sent me the video, it would have like zero effect in my experience. So I tend to not argue the of what the person is sending. Instead I’ll say things like Yeah, I can understand, if what this person is saying in this video was true, that it really would be cause for concern. And then I’ll say things like, I really want to know if what they’re saying is true; and maybe they say yeah, I want to know if that’s true as well. And I’m like, how can we find out if something is true or not? And usually the person agrees, like “I want to know how to find out if something is true or not as well.” So it’s kind of like this teaching about — about how to understand media, about how to check sources and and find out whether something is verifiable or not. Because a lot of people .

DE
DARSHAN: I don’t actually have empirical evidence around this, but I tend to think that when that bubble gets shattered for people it can have a very profound effect, and make them question a lot of the things that were part and parcel of that ideology. So all of the sort of rightwing talking points that went along with their belief in QAnon also start to get questioned. I have seen that happen on message boards. I haven’t seen it happen in person. But a number of times I’ve seen on message boards people saying I got out of QAnon, I used to believe this, and this, and this… and now I don’t any more. But of course that might be like a specialized group that’s willing to admit it. So it’s hard to say.
ALEX: Yeah, I would hope so but as we’ve seen with a lot of cults when people pop out of one cult, they tend to go right into another one. A real common phenomenon —
DE:
ALEX: I think there’s a safety in having an ideology to guide you and especially if you’ve been in a cult for a long time and then leave, you are just blowing in the wind for a while there not knowing what to hang on to… and there’s an easy attraction to another authoritarian. That’s really common and so I think that’s why we’ve seen a lot of the QAnon people suddenly grabbing onto an anti-vaccine, anti-mask, more of these pro-Trump ideologies that are being pushed by the same elements really. But I have not yet witnessed anyone getting out of QAnon who was in seriously, in a big way, so I don’t really know where that’s going to go. But I yeah unless there’s a real re-education process, that happens. I have a feeling that a lot of these people will be vulnerable to the little side shoots and offshoots and evolutions of QAnon.
DARSHAN: It leaves a really big void. And that sunk cost fallacy that I was talking about before, if people have cut off relationships, if they’ve lost sort of respect from people in their community. if they have lost their jobs in many cases because they start being racist or whatever… huge sunk costs. So if they do have enough wherewithal to get out of QAnon even with all that sunk cost, they’re going to feel a tremendous void and be susceptible to some other system. Something that will tell them what’s true, and what to think, and what’s right, and what’s wrong… and that’s why it’s so important that we have something set up for people when they come out of QAnon, something that’s compassionate, a kind of landing place. A place where people can go and be with other ex-members of QAnon, so they can have that shared sense of people who really They talked about this with Scientologists, when ex-Scientologists get together there’s almost like a shared language that they know, that only other Scientologists would know, and it gives them the sense of homecoming, of being in this familiar place. So something like that needs to be set up for people who are in QAnon so that they have a place to land instead of just searching for something that could be just as nefarious, that could replace it.
ALEX: People in Cults have a strong sense of with other cult believers; and that’s very true of QAnon even though it’s just an online family. It’s a connection, rewarding one another for their belief system.
DARSHAN: They get very love-bombed when they join QAnon.
ALEX: So if you’re out of it, you’ve just lost —
DE:
ALEX: — you have, and you’re drifting so yeah, you really need to find family and support again or you’re going to be vulnerable to something else.
DE:
DARSHAN: And the extremeness of like, what happened with Trump not getting inaugurated. It wasn’t the breaking point for a lot of QAnon believers, but it was for some And I saw on a couple of occasions people were talking about a family member that right after Biden got inaugurated, they committed suicide: I mean that family member who was involved in QAnon committed suicide. So it’s really… this is real stuff here. This is a real cult, with very real repercussions, and destroying families and even leading to suicide.
DE: Where people’s investment is so complete that they can refuse to live in the world that is not the world that they wanted to believe in. That’s well, that’s humans. It’s a strange thing about us, but that is something very, very human. I’m looking back at our question list here, and we’ve done quite a bit… I guess I’d like to get a few references to resources.
DARSHAN: We have links and stuff to share: those aren’t very useful in radio, but they would be nice to put at the bottom of the article for further reading and also for support because some people may have a family member who’s gone down the rabbit hole and they’re scared for them.

Index

Part One: What is QAnon? Part Two: The Narrative, and Susceptibility
Part Four: Theatre, Grift, or Passionate Belief?
Part Five: Why Worry?

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.