The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

QAnon is tearing families apart

Eric Hanson (For The Washington Post)


There was a time not long ago when the letter held no special meaning for Jacob, a 24-year-old in Croatia. The 17th letter of the alphabet, usually followed by “u” in English words. What else was there to know? He certainly never expected it to end the tightknit relationship he shared with his mother.

But Jacob, who grew up in the United States, told The Washington Post that he has cut all contact with his mother now that she’s become an ardent believer of the QAnon conspiracy theories.

Though they long held different political beliefs, they had “a really, really strong relationship,” he said. “We were inseparable.” He had no reason to think anything had changed. But during the holidays in 2019, “our relationship just completely tanked.”

QAnon can be traced back to a series of 2017 posts on 4chan, the online message board known for its mixture of trolls and alt-right followers. The poster was someone named “Q,” who claimed to be a government insider with Q security clearance, the highest level in the Department of Energy. QAnon’s origin matters less than what it’s become, an umbrella term for a loose set of conspiracy theories ranging from the false claim that vaccines cause illness and are a method of controlling the masses to the bogus assertion that many pop stars and Democratic leaders are pedophiles.

QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory, is fueled by right-wing outrage online and in the real world. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

The choose-your-own-adventure nature of QAnon makes it compelling to vulnerable people desperate for a sense of security and difficult for Twitter and Facebook to control, despite their efforts. It’s becoming increasingly mainstreamed as several QAnon-friendly candidates won congressional primaries. And the FBI has warned that it could “very likely motivate some domestic extremists to commit criminal, sometimes violent activity.”

As QAnon has crept into the news, it’s become a testament to our age of political disinformation, not to mention easy online comedic currency. But what’s often forgotten in stories and jokes are the people behind the scenes who are baffled at a loved one’s embrace of the “movement,” and who struggle to keep it from tearing their families apart.

According to Jacob’s recollection, his mother spent her days browsing these various theories on YouTube and Twitter. “I told her, ‘I came here to visit you,” he recalled. But she refused to stay offline.

“I finally got her to turn [her phone] off once, and it was unreal. She treated it like a chore,” he said. “It’s like she’s addicted. It feels like she’s been swallowed up by a cult."

“Finally, I realized that my relationship with her had brought me nothing but stress and unhappiness for, at that point, really years,” he said. “That smart, awesome person that I used to know just didn’t exist anymore. So I decided to cut my losses and cauterize the wound.”

Jacob hasn’t spoken to her since February, but she continues posting conspiracy theories multiple times a day to Facebook. She declined a request for comment, and to protect her privacy, The Post is using only Jacob’s first name.

“It’s devastating,” he said. “It really, really does feel like my mother abandoned me. She implicitly chose QAnon … over me.”

Jacob is one of many who have turned to makeshift online support groups, the most prominent of which is the subreddit r/qanoncasualties. “Do you have a loved one who’s been taken in by the QAnon conspiracy theory? Look here for emotional support and a place to vent,” reads the group’s description.

It had fewer than 3,500 members at the beginning of June, the earliest iteration captured by the online archival website the Way Back Machine. It now has more than 28,000. “I have been completely isolated from other friends and family members because of this cult,” one user posted recently. “You guys have definitely been a lifeline, reminding me that sanity does still exist in this world. Thank you guys, very much.”

The loneliness of losing loved ones to QAnon is something Kerry, of Oklahoma City, knows well. “QAnon” meant nothing to him, he recalled, when he found a stockpile of water and food in his house, which his then-wife told him was “because she believed Trump was going to be declaring martial law any day in order to effectuate a mass arrest of Democrats,” something known to QAnon believers as “the storm.” (His ex-wife declined to comment, and to protect her privacy, The Post is only using Kerry’s first name.)

Kerry dug deeper, trying to understand his wife’s beliefs. They would debate. Eventually they started avoiding it “to keep peace in the house,” but she eventually grew more assertive and “what was once a taboo topic became something we were arguing about all the time.”

Still, he empathized.

“She was getting frustrated that nobody in her immediate family was buying in and supporting her,” Kerry said. “She felt like she was alone in this crusade. … And I know this was extremely frustrating and hurtful for her.”

He and their then-18-year-old son held an intervention. It failed. “We were together a very long time. We managed to get past a lot of things I’ve seen end other marriages,” he said. “But this was the thing we couldn’t get past.”

Their 20-year marriage ended.

His is one of a flood of stories. There’s the South Carolina doctor whose mother blocked him on Facebook and no longer trusts his medical knowledge. The Florida woman who thought her mother — a physician in Canada who refuses to wear masks when not seeing a patient and tried to persuade her daughter not to vaccinate her grandchild — was senile when she began hawking QAnon theories. The woman whose unemployed aunt is quarantining alone and suddenly began diving into QAnon because it “gives her life meaning.”

“I love my mother, but she sucks the life out of me with her conspiracy theories,” said one Florida woman via email. (Many interviewees spoke on the condition of anonymity, which they requested for a variety of reasons, including fear of violence from QAnon followers, pending legal action and the worry that speaking would hinder their attempts to repair relationships.)

This is not strictly a U.S. phenomenon. Users from Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, New Zealand and the Netherlands all shared similar stories.

One recurring theme is how often people who fall into QAnon aren’t digital natives. A 30-year-old Sacramento resident said his stepmother of 20 years “has always been not really an Internet person,” until the 2016 election. She soon stumbled upon radical aspects of online politics on outlets such as 4chan, “going from a zero to a 10.” Soon enough, she was seeking “Q drops” (supposedly when Q reveals new “information”), telling others how “there are children in bunkers under Central Park who are being trafficked” and telling her stepson he was “brainwashed because you went to college.”

When this person spoke to The Post last month, his mother hadn’t left the house in 16 weeks because she refused to wear a mask after watching the viral “Plandemic” conspiracy video, which made the false claim that billionaires aided in the spread of the coronavirus to further the usage of vaccines and made the baseless and dangerous assertion that wearing masks is harmful.

“This same person who told me not to believe strangers online, her entire worldview is informed by strangers online,” he said.

Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, said often people’s point of entry into a conspiracy narrative is the fear of something specific, such as illness or violent crime. Maybe they seek out answers on the Internet, only to find conspiratorial ones.

“If you have someone in your family in this mode of inquisitiveness, who is trying to figure something out, then rather than coming at them judgmentally or accusingly, there is a window of opportunity to reorient their thinking to understand why they perceive something in a certain way,” Donovan said.

That window might eventually close, though, as they find community among other online conspiracy theorists, many of whom create massive amounts of text, memes, videos — you name it — to sift through. “It’s not necessary that you convince your friends or family to join, because you have a whole separate set of friends … It’s the kind of community where you could be lost in it for hours and hours a day and still not see everything,” Donovan said.

How to talk — and ask — about QAnon

When someone goes too far down the rabbit hole, it’s unlikely that anyone will convince them otherwise. “My main advice is not to get into a debate about, say, how many politicians are secret satanists,” Donovan said. Instead, she suggests trying to help someone “see how much of their life they’re missing out on and how much it’s impacting your relationship. … And if they can’t have a conversation about someone else, a conversation that’s mutually beneficial and interesting, then there’s a different kind of problem going on.”

“The one-on-one approach of trying to understand where someone is coming from and where their fears are … works,” Donovan said. If someone is “willing to take on the burden of trying to get one of their family members to change their mind, I hope they approach them with passion and concern.”

The situation can become increasingly difficult when a child is involved. A Florida firefighter said his ex-wife fell hard for every QAnon theory in the book, from a complicated plot connecting UFOs and the Illuminati to the (false) idea that prominent celebrities, entrepreneurs and politicians are lizard people disguised in human skin. Her obsession with conspiracy theories helped lead to their divorce.

“Her intentions are to do good, but it’s just not real,” he said. “It’s like living in a fantasy world. It’s a need to believe in something.”

Her beliefs wouldn’t matter to him much at this point if they weren’t co-parenting a son. He found out that his ex-wife told the son to avoid banks because the Federal Reserve would put microchips in him.

His father said that he and his ex “do a pretty good job of trying to raise him,” but added, “I couldn’t imagine trying to raise a child to be a functional adult while living so far outside reality.”

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