Now that the midterms ended without a red tsunami pollsters predicted or The Storm that QAnon prophesied, terrorism experts think there's a chance for pro-democracy Americans to help QAnon believers ready to flee the conspiracy-driven movement.
Dublin City University's James Fitzgerald is an assistant professor of terrorism studies at the School of Law and Government. He has studied QAnon extensively. He suggests the path to victory over Q hysteria may be "empathetic engagement with conspiracy adherent."
And he detects a new vulnerability in QAnon-ers, opening an opportunity for Democrats and moderates to give empathy a try.
"As President Biden was sworn in and Donald Trump exited the stage with no mass arrests, nor any hint at the Storm, QAnon believers were left reeling and strangely unanchored," Fitzgerald writes. "In one Telegram channel with over 18,400 members, doubts began to mount; one user wrote: “It’s obvious now we’ve been had. No plan, no Q, nothing”. In the months since, more and more expressions of doubt have appeared on 8kun and other dedicated spaces, as a façade normally defined by total conviction begins to crack."
After the 2020 presidential election, disenchanted QAnon followers who believed right-wing religious "prophecies" of landslide Trump victories launched Reddit message boards QAnonCasualties and ReQovery. About 200,000 Reddit users shared tips on how to release their Q beliefs that had become their addiction.
But some Q followers will need professional counseling before they can attend a town hall hosted by Democrats or moderate Republicans to discuss rationally how to improve public schools or end child trafficking. Social psychologist Sophia Moskalenko and security analyst Mia Bloom documented mental illness stats within QAnon's ranks in their book, Pastels and Pedophiles, published last year by Stanford University Press. Among those arrested for insurrection and rioting in the U.S. Capitol, 68 percent reported mental health diagnoses including "post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, and Munchausen syndrome by proxy– a psychological disorder that causes one to invent or inflict health problems on a loved one, usually a child, to gain attention." By contrast, only 19 percent of Americans have similar mental health diagnoses.
Their research found QAnon followers reported high rates of depression and lack of control over events in their lives. It's easy to imagine how someone who felt his life was pointless and unimportant would be drawn to complex, wild conspiracies that suddenly enchant the world with bizarre dangers and stealth monsters only he has the power to see and fight. This summer, Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research completed an in-depth study called Depressive Symptoms and Conspiracy Beliefs. It found depression makes a person far more likely to embrace conspiracy theories.
Like Fitzgerald, those scholars concluded an effective way to help someone addicted to fake conspiracies was empathy from family and friends who were not QAnon followers (and professional therapy). Having a sane, supportive circle of colleagues or friends can help a person who wants to leave QAnon finally break free.
"Perhaps not surprisingly, the most consistent positive type of social support is having people with whom to talk when sad or depressed, while the least impactful is having people who can lend money," the Northwestern scholars report.
There are some issues that these scholars don't tackle, like whether it's safe to be empathetic with a heavily armed QAnon follower gripped by a crisis of belief. But as the 2024 election hurtles toward us, they all express hope that people of goodwill can find a way to help those who want to leave Q's cult sooner rather than later.
As Fitzgerald concludes, whatever replaces QAnon could be worse: When QAnon ‘dies’ — as it surely will — it will be replaced by a similar antagonism that reflects anew the politics and anxieties of our time. We will not be able to explain it away by pointing at ‘the algorithm,’ nor will we erase its presence by obliterating online footprints as they take shape.