Dr. Joseph Pierre is a health sciences clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and he recently published a guide for people looking to pull their friends or loved ones out of the fast-spreading, bizarre right-wing conspiracy theory QAnon.
Pierre serves in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at medical school, and is acting chief of Mental Health Community Care systems at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System
In his three-part series on rescuing loved ones from QAnon, Pierre refers to it as a “curious modern phenomenon that’s part conspiracy theory, part religious cult and part role-playing game.”
Heavy spoke with Pierre about QAnon and how to deal with people who are deep into it.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Pierre Says That QAnon Can Feed Psychological Needs & Is Likely a Result of a Culture In Which People Fear They Don’t Have the Answers or Don’t Trust Authority Anymore
According to Pierre, QAnon can feed a variety of psychological needs in people, like a cult, but would not accurately be described as a cult. It gives people answers in a world where they seem in short supply and can “make believers feel special, that they’re privy to secrets to which the rest of us ‘sheeple’ are blind.”
He notes that people who are drawn to QAnon might share similar psychological profiles to people who join cults, however. And it leads to compulsive behavior, similar to addiction, due to QAnon’s “role-playing game” aspects — followers continually “decoding” and doing research on the cryptic “Q Drop” posts from which the whole conspiracy theory originated.
Pierre said that belief in QAnon is not a mental illness, but may spring from problems in society. Currently, about half of the U.S. population believes in at least one conspiracy theory, according to Pierre. The degree to which that belief is a clinical problem, though, is a factor of how much time they spend thinking on or researching the theory, especially to the exclusion of other theories.
“Belief in conspiracy theories is arguably more of a ‘symptom’ of societal dysfunction than that of an individual,” Pierre told Heavy. “In that sense, they’re a sign of the times moreso than a kind of psychopathology.”
A Civiqs poll last week indicated that 56% of Republicans polled believe that QAnon is partially or mostly true, compared with 46% last year.
Pierre also pointed to “epistemic mistrust” in authoritative information, with trust in government, media and experts hitting a 50-year low recently. “This mistrust is a key aspect of the populist movement that elected Donald Trump and other populist/nationalist leaders around the world in recent years,” he said.
2. Pierre Said That People in the ‘True Believer’ Stage of QAnon May be Almost Impossible to Reach
Adherents to QAnon often follow a path similar to those who join cults, according to Pierre.
Fence-sitters are people who are looking for answers, according to Pierre. They may still be open to different facts. However, once an adherent becomes a true believer, “presenting counterfactual evidence … doesn’t usually work.”
The reason for this, Pierre said, is that the two parties will fundamentally disagree over the validity of any evidence provided. “Changing people’s minds isn’t likely to happen if we can’t agree that facts exist or how to decide on what’s real or not,” he told Heavy.
Journalist Adrienne LaFrance, who investigated QAnon for the Atlantic magazine, said in an interview with NPR that it’s a largely useless exercise to argue with or present facts to a true Q believer.
“Facts just don’t matter,” she said, noting that she had asked several Q adherents about a 2017 prediction that Hillary Clinton would be arrested. It did not come true. Still, LaFrance said, Q believers would either believe that the arrest simply hadn’t happened yet, or the fact that it hadn’t happened was also a clue to be deciphered.
Further, Pierre noted that once a QAnon follower advances to the true believer stage, they can begin to feel “marginalized and under threat.” Thus, they will even more forcefully shut off contradictory evidence from outside their bubble. They may even take “more drastic and potentially dangerous measures like arming themselves in order to ‘self-investigate’ a child pornography ring at a pizza parlor.”
3. How Do You Reach a Friend or Loved One Who Has Fallen Deep into QAnon, Then?
I don't know what the hell to call QAnon. Is it a cult? A religion? A shared delusion? A political movement? A giant online puzzle? Yes, all of those, not any one.
So I default to the one that causes the least harm to its believers and their loved ones – conspiracy theory.
— Mike Rothschild (@rothschildmd) September 4, 2020
Pierre told Heavy he has spoken with many people who agree with parts of QAnon “at the metaphorical level” — they believe in a liberal “deep state” and that Trump is “leading the charge in a climactic battle between good and evil.”
“That’s arguably the GOP platform at this point,” he said.
He has not worked with QAnon believers in a professional capacity, but offered some suggestions to keep in mind, should a friend or loved one fall deep down the “rabbit hole.” First of all, most probably do not want “help”; QAnon provides them a “form of recreation, a sense of belonging or even a new identity and mission in life.”
According to Pierre, considering the role-playing game aspects of QAnon suggests that “some principles of addiction therapy” could be used.
“Often the best intervention is to simply maintain contact, express concern and let people know you’re there for them if they need you,” he wrote. “That’s a great strategy for the friends and family of QAnon conspiracy theory believers who aren’t looking for help.”
Hey there, if you have lost a family member/friend/loved one down the QAnon rabbit hole, I'd love to talk with you for a story. DMs open. Signal in bio.
— Brandy Zadrozny (@BrandyZadrozny) September 8, 2020
Pierre also suggested the psychotherapy technique of “motivational interviewing” as a non-confrontational method of getting adherents to wonder whether their obsession is harming their daily life, and “whether it might be worth trying to unplug.”
He also suggested being a “North Star” for the loved one and trying to engage them on topics other than QAnon when possible — and when impossible, to listen and make it clear that you’re trying to understand.
Ridiculing the conspiracy theory, according to Pierre, will do nothing for a true believer, but could have an effect if someone is still in the fence-sitting stage.
Qanon Headlining the SundayNews… pic.twitter.com/iRPzfjhIZ2
— My Dog Friday (@My_Dog_Friday) September 6, 2020
He also suggested the Reddit forum R/QAnonCasualties, in which people recount destroyed relationships and careers as a result of disappearing down the rabbit hole.
However, arguing with or trying to convince a believer over social media, or framing the discussion as a straight debunking, could be counterproductive, according to Pierre.
“All too often, factual debates amount to a fight over about who’s right rather than a meaningful dialogue aimed at understanding different perspectives,” he told Heavy. “That’s almost doomed to fail, especially on social media where so many of these so-called debates occur. And when beliefs become deeply enmeshed with identity, people are usually very, very resistant to giving them up.”
4. What Responsibility Do Social Media Companies Have for the People That Fall Down the QAnon ‘Rabbit Hole’ On Their Platforms?
In July, Twitter began to take action as QAnon rose in prominence, removing some of the higher-profile accounts and posts that linked to sites on the conspiracy theory, Heavy reported. Facebook took similar action in August, according to the BBC.
Still, a basic search for the term on either Twitter or Facebook will yield thousands of pages and accounts dedicated to QAnon. Some of the major figures in popularizing the conspiracy theory on Twitter, including Praying Medic, inthematrixxx and Jordan Sather still post religiously and boast hundreds of thousands of followers.
Pierre acknowledged that social media policies and the issue of censorship are outside his professional purview, but said that questions of the platforms’ responsibilities when it comes to dangerous conspiracy theories also raised questions about the room within capitalism for products and services that offer a “social good.”
“We live in a country where freedom of speech is a 1st Amendment right,” Pierre told Heavy. “The hope of the internet and its ‘democratization of knowledge’ was that the truth would rise to the top within a kind of free market of ideas, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, the internet has contributed to a fracturing of the very idea of truth, leaving us in a so-called ‘post-truth’ world.”
And, when misinformation is retracted or removed from platforms like Twitter and Facebook, conspiracy theorists don’t see it as a “necessary social good,” according to Pierre. Rather, to them, it confirms what they thought: That it was dangerous because it was true.
Also, “unfortunately, incentivizing social media companies to remove misinformation when it’s profitable is a tough sell,” he said.
Lawsuits against Infowars host and Sandy Hook “truther” Alex Jones could bode well for disincentivizing people who push fake news and misinformation, he added. “In that sense, disincentivizing misinformation may come to be more impactful than incentivizing accurate information online.”
5. QAnon Has Spread Globally & President Trump May Have Encouraged U.S. Followers in a News Conference When He Said They ‘Love Our Country’
The spread of QAnon has apparently not been slowed at all by Twitter and Facebook’s actions. And the conspiracy theory got a perhaps inadvertent, high-profile boost at an August 14 White House news conference when President Trump was asked directly about QAnon.
Trump on Qanon: I heard these are people who love our country pic.twitter.com/PphJQHJ0Am
— Acyn Torabi (@Acyn) August 19, 2020
A reporter rattled off some of the more bizarre tenets of QAnon, including that Trump is saving the world from a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles, and Trump said, in part, “If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it,” Heavy reported.
“I heard that these are people who love our country,” he added.
QAnon banners and clothing have been seen prominently displayed at far-right rallies outside the United States as well, including Germany, Haaretz reported. On August 30, the flag was seen among some far-right extremists attempting to “storm” the parliamentary building in Berlin.
Followers have also sprouted up in Brazil and the United Kingdom, Voice of America reported.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican Congressional candidate from Georgia who is expected to be elected, has made videos in support of the conspiracy theory. In August, likely in response to Greene’s primary win, Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger made news by explicitly asking lawmakers to disavow QAnon, calling it a “fabrication” and declaring that there is “no place in Congress” for it.