Over the past few years, many Americans have watched friends and family members immerse themselves ever deeper into the world of QAnon, a system of beliefs based on interwoven, overlapping conspiracy theories, driven through intense dis- and misinformation sharing via social media sites and messaging apps. In the wake of the storming of the Capitol on January 6, the concern many Americans have felt for their loved ones has rocketed to urgency. Many people realized for the first time that QAnon isn’t just a set of obsessive ideas one posts about online, but can yield to real, offline acts of violence.
Getting accurate numbers reflecting just how many QAnon believers are out there is impossible, but some estimates put the number of people who believe at least some of the core tenets of QAnon to be true in the tens of millions. At least a hundred emails from people desperately seeking guidance have flooded my inbox over the past three weeks. I’ve received messages such as these:
- “My sister who has gone deeply into QAnon and other far right platforms to the point we are worried about her.”
- “[My sister]speaks in q anon code and has cut off all of her former friends and family to be part of the q anon cult. We are very scared and have been scared for a while. Nobody can seem to help us.”
- “I have a family member who believes and is very deep into in [sic] Q anon and need some advice as to how to get them back into reality.”
Based on my own years as part of the white nationalism movement over 25 years ago, I have supported family members of people entrenched in and mentored people leaving targeted identity violence, hate-based worldviews, and destructive cultic belief systems for many years. There is currently no way for me to respond to every email I am receiving from people looking for guidance, so I will offer this summary of what I counsel and advise those who have friends, family members, and loved ones immersed in QAnon and Q-Adjacent belief systems.
1. Clearly communicate and enforce your boundaries. Decide what words, phrases, and topics of discussion are off the table for you and the consequences of breaching those boundaries. “I don’t want to talk about politics at all with you. If you bring up politics, the deep state, Trump, child trafficking, or anything like that, I’m going to end our conversation.”
2. Don’t try to argue. Arguing and debating is ineffective. Many conspiracy theorists and far-right adherents have ready-made templates and scripts available online for them to easily refute any arguments you make. It’s okay to say “I disagree,” or “I don’t believe that,” but arguing generally creates a wedge of defensiveness that actually makes it harder to reach someone.
3. Reach out regularly to connect and check in. Try to focus on non-Q-related topics. “How are things?” “I just saw this movie, and I swear the main character laughs just like you!” “Can you believe how big these kids of mine are getting!?”
4. Invite them to engage in activities outside of their echo chamber. Suggest going for walks or hikes, playing golf, fishing, working in the garden, playing video games, or taking on community service projects. Don’t forget to enforce the boundaries you’ve set. Regular, meaningful connection outside of the world they’ve existed in is absolutely critical.
5. Listen more than you speak. Focus on feelings. One of the things necessary for people to effectively disengage is to begin to feel all of the feelings they have. Holding space and creating a sense of safety for them to process their feelings helps create an environment more favorable for them to begin to undertake this work.
6. Remember that their beliefs have been helping them meet their needs. These belief systems may be offering them at least the illusion of having their needs met or may be functioning as a means of coping with not having their needs met effectively. People who immerse themselves inside these destructive worlds and belief systems often have felt unseen, unheard, and disconnected from something meaningful or greater than themselves, and they lack access to things that allow them to feel empowered.
7. Examine your own relationship with this person. There may be unresolved issues or hurts which you both need to address so everyone can heal.
Ultimately, you must remember that disengagement with a belief system such as QAnon is a process, often a very lengthy one. There is no magic short-term fix or solution. This is a long-haul commitment.
And above all, don’t lose hope. Fundamental transformation is possible.
Shannon Foley Martinez, a former violent white supremacist, has two decades of experience in developing community resource platforms aimed at inoculating individuals against violence-based lifestyles and ideologies.