Former President Trump’s exit from office marks a new period for QAnon, and a new opportunity for those interested in stifling it.
Many of the conspiracy theory’s followers were disillusioned Wednesday when President Biden was sworn in without incident.
QAnon forums, chat rooms and message boards briefly went into disarray, as influential figures within the community had been pushing the story that Trump would interrupt the inauguration to imprison and execute his political opponents in the “Great Awakening.”
Although the prediction was by no means the first to miss the mark, some QAnon supporters were notably thrown by the news and began questioning whether they have been tricked.
This presents a window to get some members out of the community and reconnect them with their family and friends, according to experts on conspiracy theory groups.
Steven Hassan, an expert on drawing people away from cults, told The Hill that the best way to reach out to people lost to QAnon is to start simple, emphasizing empathy and kindness.
“Reach out to family and friends who have been in the Trump world, including QAnon, and start by just saying ‘Hi, how are you, I miss you,’ ” he said. “Try to manage your own reactions so you don’t get triggered and get angry and say hurtful things.”
Quashing the unsubstantiated theory, which posits that Trump is working to expose a shadowy group of Democratic elites that run vast child trafficking rings, will take a lot of effort, experts told The Hill.
And experts warn that the conspiracy theory is unlikely to just disappear. In fact, such theories often have staying power. And in a worrying development, some influencers in the movements had already begun this week to spin Biden’s inauguration into a success.
Many online spaces erupted with posts claiming the inauguration was all part of the plan, with explanations ranging from Biden’s oath being fake to the United States not being a real country anymore.
QAnon groups on more fringe platforms like Telegram have grown since the inauguration, Rolling Stone reported Friday, raising concerns among extremism researchers that the community is being targeted by more dangerous far-right groups.
QAnon has isolated thousands of Americans. On one subreddit, r/QAnonCasualties, family members have shared hundreds of painful stories about how the conspiracy theory has destroyed their relationships with those who have been sucked into it.
Followers of the conspiracy frequently say it has cost them personal ties and emotional damage.
Experts recommend that those trying to reach out to people who believe in the conspiracy theory stay away from controversial issues, and instead try to focus on things that connect you or that they care about unrelated to QAnon.
“It’s clear that any kind of judgment, sarcasm or insults … is only going to fuel the fire and push them farther away,” Dannagal Young, associate professor of communications at the University of Delaware, told The Hill.
Remaining supporters appear to be leaning more heavily on the anti-democracy and anti-institutional elements of QAnon, especially since the poster after which the theory is named has been relatively quiet since the election.
“I don’t think QAnon has had much to do with the Q drops for quite some time now,” Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, told The Hill.
That emphasis could see the QAnon community shifting its focus away from Trump and toward things like coronavirus vaccines, which could pose a roadblock to reaching herd immunity.
It could also make it more likely to stick around, according to Zuckerman.
“Even without Trump at the front of it, even without Q drops, [a] religion based on institutional mistrust has lots of room to run,” he said.
The impulse to double down when your belief system is challenged is not unusual in conspiracy theories, Young said.
“It comes from a place of sort of ego protection, because they have invested time and energy, and they have sacrificed relationships for these beliefs and for this group,” she explained. “If they acknowledge that it’s not going to pass, that means all that time and all that sacrifice was wasted.”
For people still deep in the community, family and friends should carefully weigh when to try reaching out.
Hassan, the cult expert, told The Hill that exposing true believers to people who have successfully exited other conspiracies can be helpful.
Crushing QAnon and reuniting families will likely take more than interpersonal work though.
Sources that amplified themes that QAnon latched onto, like mass vote fraud or the coronavirus pandemic being exaggerated, need to be held accountable, experts told The Hill.
“I think what we’re going to need to see are some real consequences for those platforms or media outlets that give voice to amplify these kinds of claims,” Young said.
The hundreds of Republican officials who challenged Biden’s legitimate election win also represents a problem.
“As long as you have a majority of elected Republicans supporting ‘Stop the Steal,’ you’re legitimating this movement,” Zuckerman said.
The social media companies that have served as key pipelines for spreading QAnon from obscure message boards to mainstream America have taken steps to remove the content from their platforms, albeit too late in the eyes of many observers.
In the long term, movement toward a less centralized online ecosystem could improve content moderation and help break off QAnon support, Young and Zuckerman both argued.
The next few weeks could be a crucial time for pulling people out of QAnon as wide swathes of backers remain momentarily skeptical and social media deplatforming has left many adherents disconnected from the community.
“We want to get back as many people as possible as quickly as possible because the information control lines have been cut,” Hassan said.
Some are hopeful that a turning point is in reach.
“If this is an opportunity to reclaim our loved ones, then it has to be done with love and open arms,” Young said. “I see this as a real opportunity.”