The Insidious Cyclone of QAnon

Imagine a cyclone approaching. On its outer edges, it seems to be rotating slowly and you don't feel like you're being pulled in — but you are. As you spin further into the cyclone, things start moving faster. You can still see life outside, but it's becoming hazier as the world whips by. Soon you're in the eye . . . and there, everything is still. Your feet hit the ground and you suppose that you have a clear-eyed perspective. But really, your worldview has dramatically narrowed, and you're now at the mercy of the storm.

My desire to come up with a compelling analogy outweighs my understanding of weather phenomena, so this one may not be perfect — but that's how I imagine QAnon: a dangerous ideological cyclone that entangles people who are looking for answers, and gives them a new, twisted reality away from the world the rest of us know.

A quick background on QAnon, in case you need it, courtesy of Wikipedia: 

"...a disproven and discredited far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against US president Donald Trump, who is fighting the cabal. QAnon also commonly asserts that Trump is planning a day of reckoning known as the "Storm", when thousands of members of the cabal will be arrested."

Keep in mind that this summary is just that — a summary — and doesn’t touch on many other QAnon beliefs, like the whole JFK Jr.-is-alive-and-he's-a-MAGA-loyalist-and-is-gonna-reveal-himself-soon thing. (Yeah.)

Sounds crazy, right? That's because this is inner-cyclone, eye-of-the-storm stuff. For the true believers. Less crazy sounding are the Q-related ideas that tug people in from the outer rim of the cyclone: anti-vaccination sentiment, child-trafficking panic, and various political conspiracies (like the idea that the election was stolen from President Trump), for example. In fact, those stories can be downright compelling when they're presented, say, as well-edited YouTube videos or pastel-colored Instagram posts, and served up to you by those platforms’ algorithms.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that this content is often stripped of any Q-related branding. Why? Well, QAnon leaders know that their brand is toxic — and that without Q references, they have a better chance at hooking people who would otherwise never give their posts a second look. (And, of course, this camouflaging makes it tougher for social media platforms to flag and remove their content, too.) That means that many “mid-cyclone” people wouldn’t be able to draw a line from their beliefs to QAnon — but it’s there.

That's the content that should worry us the most, because it makes the reprehensible palatable. What we saw last week at the Capitol was a real-world manifestation of a movement that's been raging online for some time now, and it's indoctrinating too many of our family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Oftentimes smart, well-meaning people. Even some members of Congress have, at one time or another, subscribed to QAnon beliefs. It's a pervasive problem, and social media is ground zero. While YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and others have taken some steps to stop the flow of dangerous disinformation (like blocking the #qanon hashtag on Instagram, for example), those efforts have come woefully late, and their networks played an indispensable role in QAnon's rise. 

Even setting the tech angle aside, this was a perfect cultural moment for something like QAnon to take hold in the United States. Consider these ideal conditions: a desire for understanding in an increasingly complex world, a love of conspiracy theories, a mistrust in our institutions, a poor information diet, and perhaps most importantly, a black swan figure in Donald Trump.

President Trump has bounced between playing dumb ("I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,") and courting QAnon, delighting believers, and sending people who are already predisposed to look for coded messages (even — or especially —in places where there aren't any) into a frenzy. A master of media and armed with an uncanny, firsthand understanding of our nation's worst impulses, Trump knows exactly what buttons he's pushing. 

Is the dog wagging its tail or is the tail wagging the dog? "Yes," is the only answer. QAnon has engaged the political and apolitical alike, become a sizable, unignorable faction of the conservative movement, and is influencing the GOP, from Fox News to Capitol Hill.

You would think that QAnon would've lost steam by this point, considering all the erroneous predictions and lapsed deadlines (when this person was going to be arrested or that person was going to reveal themselves), but that hasn't happened. If anything, it’s grown in potency — and we need to do our best to pull our loved ones who are under the spell back from the brink.

A few things to consider before talking to someone who’s mixed up with QAnon, whether they self-identify accordingly or not:

  1. Their beliefs are built almost exclusively on self-sealing logic.

  2. They encourage you to "do your own research," then wave away any counter arguments you cite.

  3. They see clues that confirm their worldview everywhere.

  4. Failed predictions are quickly forgotten, because shiny new ones arrive in their place.

  5. The end — The Storm, the grand finale, the reckoning — is always just around the corner.

Needless to say, this makes finding mutual understanding with QAnon believers very difficult. There's a subreddit called r/QAnonCasualties for people whose loved ones have been consumed by the ideology. There are nearly 66,000 members. The posts are heartbreaking. Families are splitting, and the echo chambers that replace that contact only serve to further radicalize.

We must continue to engage with loved ones who are spinning somewhere in the QAnon cyclone. Shame doesn't work. Neither does fact-checking, since they don't trust the institutions whose data you'd readily point to. Instead, experts suggest asking questions. Seize opportunities to point out clear inconsistencies. Point to those precious few places where you can identify common ground — bits of truth amidst the many conspiracy theories. Don't overextend yourself (if you don’t have the bandwidth to reach out, or the person is too far gone), but remember that most of these people are lost in some way, and you may have more influence than you realize.

QAnon devotees cling to a belief that "The Storm is coming." Ironically, QAnon is the storm — and we need to do everything we can to keep our loved ones out. Otherwise, as our shared understanding of reality continues to fracture, the long-term consequences on both personal and national levels could be grave.