Sep 1, 2020

Can social media help deprogram QAnon believers?

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Social media algorithms are putting QAnon posts in front of millions of users.

QAnon is gaining followers fast. 

The far-right movement is based on the conspiracy theory that liberals, the media and celebrities are part of a satanic global sex-trafficking ring and that they’re the “deep state” that’s working to take down President Donald Trump.

Social media algorithms are putting QAnon posts in front of their users, QAnon is infiltrating GOP politics and, experts say, increasingly QAnon seems less like a fringe conspiracy theory and more like a cult.

Rachel Bernstein is an educator and therapist who is on the advisory board of the International Cultic Studies Association. She says most cult movements take hold in times of trouble. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Rachel Bernstein (Photo courtesy of Bernstein)


Rachel Bernstein: A lot of the things that catch like wildfire are because it’s a perfect storm. When you have people who are dealing with concerns around what’s happening in the world — lack of trust, unrest, they might have lost their jobs, they might have lost loved ones — it is something that I think a lot of people have turned into kind of a religion of sorts. Because [they want] to hold on to something that is taking them out of their existence in the world as it is right now, where things feel really out of balance.

Molly Wood: If it is possible to find and convert and potentially radicalize this many people this quickly online, in your opinion, is it equally possible to deprogram as many people online?

Bernstein: It’s harder to undo it than to do it. They have to be willing to end this kind of good feeling. And also, you need to offer people other choices because you can’t just take something away from someone and say, now you’re fixed. Because you’ve left them with this awful vacuum, this hole. So there needs to be this connection with other groups of people or other things you can do that make you feel special in this world.

Wood: We also know that the algorithms built into tech companies serve up this content and that these algorithms in a lot of cases prioritize what they see as engaging. In your research, do you feel like tech companies can help you out a little bit?

Bernstein: They’re probably going to have to fight fire with fire: with sound bites, with acronyms, with slogans, with memes, with things that are easy to remember and repeat. You need someone who can pair with the tech companies who understands about indoctrination because you need to be prepared for the fact that people are going to be having their blinders on. You want to appeal to people’s intelligence. You want to have them feel like, if they are so smart, then they’re going to want to be open to this. I think you also want to be compassionate because some people are doing this to fight loneliness, and you want to offer them a new community.

Related Links: More insight from Molly Wood

There was nice USA Today piece that also compares QAnon to a cult. Last year, the FBI designated QAnon as a possible domestic terrorist threat, since followers have been accused of both murder and kidnapping, and one of the central tenets of the original cabal theory is that the Great Storm, when all the evildoers are rounded up, ends in their mass execution.

As a reminder, NBC News reported earlier this month on internal Facebook documents that showed QAnon has spread rapidly on Facebook since at least 2017 in private groups and pages that have millions of members. And MIT Tech Review has a long piece about how QAnon is targeting evangelicals for recruitment on Facebook.

Facebook and Twitter have started to take some action against QAnon pages and groups, but journalists commented on Mark Zuckerberg’s claim last week that QAnon was only recently evolving into a group that promoted violence. In fact, violent acts by followers date back to at least 2018.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer