In Our Own Backyard: QAnon, Cults, and Conspirituality (part 5: Why Worry?)

Capitol Hill Rioter; image from Nature Magazine

[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 FIVE: Why Worry?

DE: So we’re speaking here of cults, and we’re speaking with a sort of a shared understanding that this is not a good thing, and that if friends of ours get sucked into this we feel concerned for them, and we would actually kind of like to rescue them in some way. You know, those kind of feelings are underlying our whole conversation. And so I’m going to ask the somewhat thorny question and say: we live in countries that have freedom of religion and freedom of belief, and aren’t people entitled to believe whatever they want? I mean, millions and millions of people believe in established religions, many of whose fundamental dogmatic points I would take issue with and find unbelievable. So what are the downsides of what you might call proto-religions like QAnon becoming mainstream? And I feel like it’s a terribly obvious question, and yet it has to be a question. We need to resolve, as modern people, where is the borderline between our tolerance of a divergence of spiritual and religious beliefs and then a phenomenon like this which causes us to feel concern.
ALEX: Right — that’s a tricky one and we saw the FBI holding back, and social media holding back, on any kind of clampdown on QAnon until the end result: the January 6th Insurrection, the violence, the attempt to overthrow the government. I think when you’ve reached that point when you recognize that a religion or a sect or a cult is promoting violence, then action needs to be taken on some level. So we saw action suddenly being taken by Twitter and Facebook and the FBI; but when it comes to our friends who probably aren’t necessarily going to be violent, but you can see potentially the quality of their lives diminishing through, you know, an indoctrinated radical belief system… It’s a really tricky one, perhaps you have a friend or a neighbor who suddenly become a born-again Christian and it’s not so much fun anymore to hang out with them. But are you just going to wait for this to pass or do you actually want to say to them: “How is this affecting your life? Is this improving your life? Is this making it worse? Do I, do we, still have enough here to make this friendship work — or has this new religion or new cultic belief system dominated the personality so much that we don’t have a friendship any more?” It’s it’s a really tricky conundrum.
DARSHAN: Look, I just want to add to that that what we’re talking about here is mind control. We’re not talking about something benign. This is an extreme mind control situation. It’s more or less like a kind of terrorist organization, the way it’s radicalizing people. So there’s that line between freedom of speech and — people have so many issues with censorship. And of course all of those things make sense. However, if it wasn’t for social media allowing this group to continue, we wouldn’t have had the insurrection, we wouldn’t have had people dying at the end of the insurrection. And that’s kind of the obvious thing that we can look at and say, this is bad. But what about the hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of people’s lives that have been very severely affected by QAnon? Families being cut off from each other, people going into this extreme mindframe of the world’s about to fall apart, stockpiling guns.
ALEX: This is the most profound damage that I see with this particular cult: the rifts within families and the rifts within friendships. There’s a support group with a Reddit board called QAnon Casualties, where people are dropping in to tell their stories and to be heard in the place of pain that they feel with the rifts that are happening in their families.
DARSHAN: Divorces too, like trying to make sure your children are not exposed to a parent who is spouting this kind of very extremist rhetoric.
ALEX: Yeah, there’s hundreds and hundreds of examples if you read through there. You cannot help but be utterly choked up by the damage that this is doing to people who are not speaking to their parents any more, people who don’t understand how their good, loving mother suddenly has become this raging angry racist.
DARSHAN: We like to think, partly because of the culture of the American Dream … that we are rational free individuals and we can think for ourselves, and we can make our own decisions, and all these kinds of things. But the truth is that we are extremely fragile, susceptible, and malleable — our minds and our ways of thinking about things — so we are extremely easy to influence as human beings.
DE: Well, if we weren’t, there wouldn’t be an advertising industry! but I was going to say, about belief systems. I have personal friends that I have great respect for who have religious beliefs that I don’t share, right, but their religious beliefs tell them to behave in certain ways that I have no problem with. Like to be kind to other people, and try to be honest, and try to do good in the world. I can’t say that I have any friends who have a religious belief that tells them that they should invade the capitol, bludgeon a guard to death, overthrow the results of a democratic election… or that they should hate. And if I had a friend who joined a religious cult whose fundamental premise was hatred… then I would feel disturbed. And I’m thinking that this, to me, is the concern I have with QAnon: so much of its fuel and its core is about exclusion and hatred of various groups of people. There’s the anti-Semitism. There’s the homophobia, there’s the White supremacy. There’s this all these elements that are essentially hate-based. Yes. Does that resonate for you?
ALEX: And all predicated on disinformation. People being lied to as a premise. Obviously there’s a lot of fabrication and myth that gets people drawn into religion, and there are dangerous aspects of a lot of religion. There’s a lot of misogyny and patriarchy and whatnot that’s packed into some of these bigger religions that we accept; and we don’t necessarily confront people who have grown up in those religions, though we may not approve of them. But QAnon is a little different, in that this is a very sudden campaign where you can see the origin, you can identify the intention behind it, recognize the deception and methods that are used to inculcate this — this schism in people’s minds, where they are vulnerable to right-wing, violent, hostile, hateful ideology. And that’s why I think this one is particularly dangerous and some is why we’re taking some steps to try to confront it.

DE: And yet, I think it’s important to to try to hang on to tolerance as a core value. Even when you’re really triggered by the language people are using — and I know what you mean — I don’t want to become contemptuous. I don’t want to become dismissive of other people; and and yet especially with this last few years of QAnon it’s been kind of hard sometimes, to stay polite. Oh that reminded me of something that you just said, a good thought. We were talking about how tragic it feels when you no longer have common ground. Yes, when you no longer have any ground you can meet somebody on — even to disagree with them! Because disagree kind of implies that I’m looking at the horse, and you’re looking at the horse, and we’re saying, “That’s a horse. Should we go for a ride or not, or is the horse hungry or not? Should we feed it? or maybe we should open the gate and let the horse out?” But if we’re both standing here, and I’m looking at the horse and you’re saying “Nope, it’s a giraffe,” then we have great difficulty talking to each other, or coming to any decisions about anything
DARSHAN: — that’s it. We can’t move forward.
DE: Then how do we work as a democracy? If we have a chunk of our electorate that maybe doesn’t even believe in horses, period. And that’s one that for me is very troubling. I mean right now I think the QAnon, the anti maskers, the anti-vaxxers are loud but they are a pretty small minority…?
DARSHAN: Yes.
DE: But given the viral nature of conspirituality and conspiracy theories and QAnon and so forth, is it possible that percentage could grow to the point where it becomes very difficult to make decisions? and we have a lot of urgent things that we need to make decisions about as a society — a lot of things we need to discuss, a lot of things we need to figure out.
DARSHAN: But I think regardless of the actual number of people who are involved in QAnon, its belief system is being given a platform that is very large right now. So we have members of Congress that are QAnon followers, for example, Marjorie Taylor Green. It looked like they might get rid of her — or at least not give her such a place to speak from. But the Republican party has realized that they need every scrap of support that they can possibly get, so they are unwilling to discredit QAnon. So they will pander to the QAnon beliefs, regardless of whether it’s a small percentage of people who believe it. And I actually think it isn’t really that small, when we start looking at the statistics, the amount of people who believe some of the QAnon tropes within the Republican party. So there’s like a platform for QAnon rhetoric to be spread right now — actually through the government.
DE: Through people who ironically have higher trust and credibility levels because of being in government, even though QAnon people say “Don’t ever trust the government.”
DARSHAN: Yes, of course, it’s a matter of convenience. And it’s the same with the media. So, for Q of course the Lamestream Media or the MSM is always to be demonized — except for when they print something that agrees with what they believe, and then it’s like the biggest thing to hit the news.
ALEX: I think media is actually one of the biggest launch points that amplifies fringe belief systems. If it’s true as you say, that just a small percentage of the North American population is anti-vaxxer, covid-is-a-hoax believers, what not, still… in the media generally there’s this idea that if you can express one point, you also have to print the counterpoint. So it may be that the vast majority of us are still, you know, standing on the same rug, but they’re going to put a contrarian on an equal news footing expressing, you know, the Giraffe versus the Horse. Basically equal status, that this might be a giraffe.
DARSHAN: And it doesn’t matter if a thousand people are standing there and saying it’s a horse, and one just person saying it’s a giraffe.
ALEX: So it changes that Overton window, it swings the entire community towards this giraffe/horse hybrid reality —
DARSHAN: — that shouldn’t even really be a discussion.
DE: Although it’s very selective. It’s super selective when you read an article about, say, something that happened on the space station. They don’t put a paragraph at the end that says “Of course, there are people who believe that the entire space program is a hoax, and here is Mr X to represent that view.” They don’t feel the need to do that.
DARSHAN: Yeah it’s just these minor little issues that don’t really matter, you know — 99.9 percent of scientists agree that climate change is caused by humans and we really need to do something about it, and point one percent think that we don’t. And yet that point one percent gets represented with 10 minutes of air time and the 99.9% gets represented with 10 minutes of airtime. And so there you go. It seems that is being fair and balanced.
DE: I hear you. I don’t think, though, that the media are yet to the point where they report on the Democratic National Convention, and then in the last two paragraphs interview someone who says “But what about all those children in the basement having their blood removed?” Yeah, they’re not quite there, to where the complete kooks are are being given equal air time
ALEX: — although don’t forget about OANN or Newsmax or Fox —
DE: — or Alex Jones. But those are the kooks.
DARSHAN: But don’t you see, those are the only news sources that people in QAnon are allowed to follow.

DE: There’s a strong historical continuity here, at least in American politics, with the John Birch Society back in the 1920s, 30s. I’d have to check the reference… but they were putting out propaganda telling people that the polio vaccine was based on serum derived from monkeys, and if you allowed it to be injected into your children then your children would be infected with Monkey DNA… which was probably some kind of racist dog whistle
ALEX: — yeah at the time absolutely —
DE: — so they’re similar, the idea of polluting your racial line. So there’s this long, strong tradition of an extreme right-wing and white supremacist politics somehow being intertwined with an anti-vaccination panic agenda and I find it remarkable that that should be so durable. Do you have any thoughts about the antivax obsession?
DARSHAN: Antivirus protection? I think it speaks to what is just right below the surface for so many people, even people who claim to think that they are not racist. It’s like this is the same trope that is being used with the current vaccine: all of these people that I know that are against the current vaccine have this idea that it’s going to change our DNA. So I think it very much speaks to that unconscious racism that’s going on just right under the surface for so many people, this idea that our DNA is going to be changed — which is of course not what’s happening with this vaccine at all. And when I ask people to elaborate on what they mean by that, specifically, they can’t. So there’s this idea that it’s going to change our DNA, and also that it’s going to create some kind of Mark of the Beast on us and that we’re going to be tracked for ever more when we get this vaccine.
DE: You mean they think there’s like a nano RFID built into it and the government will be able to track your movements after you’re injected?
DARSHAN: Yes.
DE: That’s very sci-fi. I mean RFIDs are pretty small these days, but not that small. Wow.
DARSHAN: Yeah. Wow.
DE: That’s an interesting confluence of surveillance paranoia with the old Taint metaphor — that your bloodline can be tainted — except it’s dressed up in a partially understood scientific language of DNA markers. Okay. So it’s like adopting some of the language of modern science, but using it to dress up a very very ancient obsession.

DARSHAN: There’s this great podcast called Losing Relatives to Fox News by these podcasters. Actually the podcast is called You’re Wrong About, and they do an episode called Losing Relatives to Fox News; and they talk about all these studies that show that people who are 65 and over are more susceptible to disinformation campaigns. They’re more apt to share news that is false, and they’re less able to tell the difference between, say, sponsored ads and a real article. So I think that is not because people are not as smart or something when they’re over 65, but they never acquired this skill set, never even think that something that they are reading or seeing on the internet might not be true.
ALEX
: Because when they grew up, there was the Fairness Act in the United States — the FCC rules and whatnot. Most of what they were seeing back then was verified and verifiable. If a news source printed something that proved to be wrong, they would have to print a retraction. That’s all very different now, and it’s a little bit harder for older people to realize that anybody could print something that’s complete hogwash, and make it look like it’s real, and not have a disclaimer on it. So it’s confusing for the older generation.
DARSHAN: What we’re seeing right now is the fallout of the removal of the Fairness Act and those laws that got repealed by Reagan in the 80s. So there used to be accountability — if you printed something that was false there would have to be a printed retraction afterwards. Now we don’t have that anymore, and disinformation is allowed to run rampant. A really great example of this right now is all those “Stop the Steal” claims of election fraud. Like blaming Dominion’s voting machines, saying the machines were rigged. They were saying this on the news, then what happens is Dominion decides, “You know what, we’re going to sue you guys because this is blatantly untrue and damaging to our brand.” And then all of a sudden they retract it, and they say this is not our opinion anymore. We’re not saying that that’s true anymore. So that is the kind of accountability we have today. We can’t have these kind of “alternative facts” floating around everywhere. If we live in a society where people believe that truth is subjective, which is I think the agenda that’s being pushed very successfully… I have a lot of left-leaning friends that now kind of believe this, that say, “Well, I don’t really like to think of myself on the right or the left. I don’t even like that language, you know, who knows what’s true anymore? How can we even know what’s true?” A society where people don’t have any bedrock or a foundation of truth that we can all count on is a very scary place to live; and this is the kind of doubt that gets sold in all civilizations right before there is a fascist regime — that regime that takes over — it’s done very intentionally.
DE: That connects to so many things. your description of positive, more hopeful ways to interact with people who have got sucked into a cult reminds me very much of what has been learned about how to offer support to women in abusive relationships; that directly criticizing their partner’s behavior or saying “Hey don’t you see what’s going on?” is not necessarily helpful, it often leads to closing the doors, can actually be net negative, can achieve the opposite of what you’d hoped for. And reconnecting on shared ground and being a steady support is is far more effective. And the thought that this spurred in me was that it’s a heck of a lot easier and cheaper not to get into an abusive relationship in the first place, than it is to escape from it once you’re in one. So your comments on media literacy and so forth make me ask, what tools can we use, and what tools can we assist other people in acquiring, that would help us and them not to slide down the rabbit hole in the first place. Are there early interventions? Since this is such a phenomenon, are there people thinking about this?
DARSHAN: I think media literacy needs to be taught in schools. And I know I have some clients that are teachers, and they are doing some teaching of it in schools now, so that’s good. But I think that media literacy on its own… it’s another one of those kind of “put the onus on the individual” sort of situations. So really like media literacy is going to be good for people who are already interested in media literacy, but for people who aren’t interested in media literacy, why would they want to learn about that? They already have their convictions and beliefs, and they don’t believe that they’re being brainwashed, and they don’t believe that they’re being programmed to become part of a fascist regime regime… so really there also has to be an accountability level where there are repercussions for printing things that are quote unquote alternative facts.
DE: Well, there always has to be some room for disagreement in any cultural or media environment, but I have to agree with you that I think blatant disinformation is something that has got to have consequences. Mostly because it is so much cheaper and faster to manufacture bullshit than it is to do fact-checking and real research. So if there isn’t some kind of counterbalance than the people who manufacture the bullshit have it all their own way, because they move so much faster.
DARSHAN: That’s right. Something fake is like seven times more likely to be shared than something real — and what’s that quote about like truth tying up the shoelaces or — ?
DE: — a lie can go around the world while the truth is still tying its boots on, or something like that
DARSHAN: Very much what we’re seeing with QAnon right now.
ALEX: And we may see a lot more of it! Because how we put the brakes on social media, on the internet, is a mystery to me at this point. I don’t know how we’re going to achieve that.
DE: That is a thorny one and kind of wanders out of the scope I think, of what we can do in one show. But say you’re talking to younger people, talking to people about their kids, are there any kind of good media hygiene habits that people could encourage in those over whom they do have a bit of influence.
DARSHAN: The easiest one would just be check your sources. I mean, that’s it — just a really easy way to put it. So if you’re sharing something online, who’s saying it, and what have they said before, and what are they representing? And what organization are they representing? And is this a real organization? or is this some kind of like false authority that makes them look better than they are? We tend to see a lot of people on Facebook sharing something from a very nefarious news source; and when it’s pointed out they’ll say things like “Yeah, but you have to take each individual article on its own merit,” and we’re like, “You know what? I don’t think so. No.”
ALEX: Yeah. It’s a tricky one. A lot of the anti-vaxxer stuff that I’ve been receiving lately, if you look at the other articles that are on there, you’re getting into some very weird Evangelical alien conspiracy stuff right up there at the same level of importance as the article that was sent to me. And it makes me wonder if the individual who sent that, spent even one moment looking at the source of it.
DE: Whereas if you’re a journalist, which I have been part-time on and off, it’s the first thing you do. When a story crosses your desk you go to the source, you check the source. Is it verifiable? Who are they, who do they work for, who funds them, who pays their bills? What are they affiliated with, what are their affiliate organizations? If it’s a website, look up the registry — who owns the domain? Who is it licensed to? I mean this is reflex for people who have worked in in research and media; but I think you’re right that especially for a lot of people of my generation who did not work in media it’s unknown territory. They don’t look under the hood.
ALEX: Right. And there are sources, online institutions that do that research for you, that look very legitimate to me. Of course, anyone on the other side of that will say “Well, they’re obviously they’re funded by Soros or something and can’t be trusted either.” So like I said, it’s a self-sealing social system. You can’t get through it. You can’t get around it. But yeah, you hope that people will will do their research — like they’re always asking us to do! — that would be helpful.
DE: Is it a productive question, the question that we always ask in science when someone puts forward a proposal: “what evidence would be sufficient for you to abandon this position?”
ALEX: Uh-huh. I like that question.
DARSHAN: That’s a good question. But because again, it’s a question instead of — what I’ve noticed myself saying to some people, out of frustration. Like “How many failed prophecies do there need to be, before you wake up?” But I like the way that you framed it a lot better, and I feel like it would be a lot more effective.
DE: Well, it’s an interesting question because if they answer honestly, “There is absolutely no evidence which would cause me to abandon my position, because my position is absolute,” then you know — you know and they know — that you’re dealing with a position of faith and not a fact-based position. So that changes the discourse a little bit.
ALEX: Yeah, and I’ve seen that in quite a few QAnon adherent posts saying “there is nothing that will make me change my mind, I’m in this till the end.”

DARSHAN: Should we just send you a list of a few resources to mention? Or should we mention a few of them now?
DE: You can mention them, sure, ones that are pretty easy to access without super long URLs that are hard to read on the air. And then you can send me a more detailed list that we can do in writing. Yeah. Let’s do some resources.
DARSHAN: So one of the really important ones and it’s very amazing to just look at is “QAnon Casualties” which is a Reddit board. So you can just Google “QAnon Casualties,” and this is a kind of support group for people who have family members or friends or a spouse for example, that is involved in QAnon. So that’s a really powerful one. QAnon Anonymous is a podcast that we really like to listen to — they’ve been going for years now — where they just cover what’s happening with QAnon these days; and it’s very entertaining, there’s a lot of kind of back and forth between these three guys and one girl.
ALEX: Yeah, they’ve been examining QAnon in incredible depth with two podcasts a week for over two years now — so if you have the time to listen to all of that, you would have everything you would ever need to know about QAnon —
DARSHAN: — if you’re a big geek on it like we are, it’s very fun to listen to, to start to understand about the process of radicalization. I like to recommend also a YouTube series called The Alt-Right Playbook. This talks a lot about how people get funneled into the alt-right, and specifically a lot about how young white men get funneled into white supremacy. So I think that’s a very powerful, and very easy and palatable, way of starting to understand how this phenomenon is happening. And then like I said, Losing Relatives to Fox News is also a really good podcast and explores how the disinformation phenomenon is happening —
ALEX: — no, that was one episode of a podcast called You’re Wrong About
DARSHAN: — right, the podcast is called You’re Wrong About and that one specific episode is called Losing Relatives to Fox News. There’s a good documentary called The Brainwashing of My Dad that talks about this one woman’s experience with her dad; he was kind of a Democrat, then he started listening to Rush Limbaugh, and he sort of got brainwashed into this extreme. alt-right perspective. And then when he stopped listening to the radio, he kind of slid right back into his old self again. So that’s an interesting phenomenon; and I’ll just share one more which is it’s not specifically about QAnon, but it’s a really good illustration of cults, and it’s very entertaining and interesting to watch and guaranteed to make you think — and that is The Vow. It’s a series of nine one-hour episodes about NXIVM — about Keith Ranieri. So it’s a really good illustration of that traumatic, narcissist, personality type, and how people get coerced into doing things that from the outside would seem so extreme, but it just happens in this step-by-step way. We have lots of things I could share! But I’ll just share those —
DE: — if we took our two link connections and stuck them together. I think we’d have
ALEX: — pages and pages —
DE: — of links for people, but we’ll have to exercise some self-control.

Index

Part One: What is QAnon? — cult? political movement? fad?
Part Two: The Narrative, and Susceptibility what draws people in, and are some people more likely candidates than others?
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?

Links

Articles by Darshan and Alex

Articles by De Clarke:
* Clickbait: the Copernicus Law, the Boots of Truth, and Malignant Memanomas
* Occam, Copernicus, and QAnon

Various References and Links for Further Reading

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