Though Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th president of the United States happened weeks ago on live TV, some Americans are still convinced Trump is their leader and a day of reckoning is imminent. These moms, dads, kids, siblings, and other family members have been pulled down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole of QAnon. The cult followers believe a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats, from politicians like Hillary Clinton to celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, are baby-blood-drinkers running a child-trafficking ring and controlling everything from the media to cellular phone signals.
Let’s be clear: These are lies. Family and friends try to convince their loved ones of the truth that QAnon is a cult preying on their fears, anger, and pain, but those conversations often do more harm than good. It’s ruining families, who find themselves living in such completely different universes from their loved ones, they can’t find a common ground. But that isn’t stopping moms and kids from fighting back against the evil conspiracy theory that has stolen their family members from them.
Minnesota mom of four Sharon McMahon, a teacher with a decade teaching government and law, is one of those who has taken to social media to try to set the facts straight, via Instagram. Horrified by the amount of “straight misinformation” that was filling her feed in the months leading up to the November election, McMahon knew she had to do something, she told CNN.
“It was just shockingly wrong. Like not even a little bit right,” she said.
So, she began posting Instagram videos in which she dispelled some of the myths and gave nonpartisan lessons on basic government, such as how bills are passed in Congress and how the Electoral College works. She never reveals her political leanings, isn’t beholden to ratings, and isn’t trying to make money. “I swear no allegiance, except fact, reason and human decency,” she said.
Her approach seems to be working. McMahon only had 14,000 followers when she began her friendly and humorous-yet-factual “lessons” in late October. By January, she had heard from 10 people who used to believe some of the QAnon conspiracies until they saw her posts. Today, she has almost 500,000 Instagram followers.
“I understand that I can’t reach everybody,” she told CNN. “But those 10 people are not going to be out there spreading misinformation anymore.”
While it’s difficult to know exactly how many people believe the QAnon conspiracy theories, a December poll by NPR/Ispsos found that 40 percent of respondents said they believe the coronavirus was made in a lab in China, even though there is no evidence for this. And one-third of Americans believe voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election, despite the fact that courts, election officials, and the Justice Department have found no evidence of widespread fraud that could have changed the outcome.
One of the reasons QAnon continues to be such a force — despite no proof that any of its claims are true and the fact that many of its predictions fail to materialize — is the hold it has taken on moms in particular. As mothers stuck at home with their kids during the pandemic started spending more time in mom groups on social media, they started getting pulled into more bizarre theories about what was going on in the world.
According to an article on SFGate, U.K.-based researcher Annie Kelly began joining parenting Facebook groups to study the pandemic’s effect on conspiracy thought. She watched as one group, already rife with stranger-danger warnings and anti-lockdown talking points, got weird quickly.
“On week two they started posting about blood libel,” Kelly told SFGate. “They were all these perfectly ordinary-looking women discussing incredibly casually that Jewish people sacrifice children to McDonald’s to make burgers with.”
Moms (and dads) are obviously going to be very triggered by stories of child trafficking and pedophiles, and among parenting groups where this fear was already common, Kelly explained, “soft” QAnon conspiracies shared under the guise of #savethechildren quickly gained traction. Who wouldn’t want to save the children, especially worried moms?!
“QAnon believers only had to tweak that content very, very slightly,” she said. Of course, this was just the tip of the QAnon rabbit hole, and slowly moms get led further down into more and more bizarre conspiracy theories.
That’s what happened to the mom of Sam, a 19-year-old college student, who spoke with Huffington Post along with many other children of QAnon believers who are trying to deradicalize their parents. Sam said his mom, who had always been a worrier, suddenly became gravely concerned about things like pedophilia and spending all her time, even late into the night, on Facebook and then Parler. She insisted Biden stole the election, that she was in danger of violence from the Black Lives Matters movement, and that the COVID-19 vaccine contains a secret location-tracking microchip. Sam, whose father has passed away, has tried to talk her out of her delusions, but they just end up arguing without any conclusion. He is determined not to give up on her, though.
“I’m going to keep trying. I have to,” he told HuffPo. “I don’t want to have no parents.”
Kids like Sam and others with family and friends lost to QAnon are finding support online, an ironic twist, given that the digital world stole their loved ones. HuffPo also talked to Sabrina, a 19-year-old whose mom and dad both began reciting QAnon conspiracy theories last spring. Sabrina tried to debunk their misinformation, but the arguments became vicious and by June, her parents had kicked her out of their house and cut off all contact with her.
Sabrina has since found support on r/QAnonCasualities, a Reddit community where friends, spouses and relatives of QAnon believers vent and share. Created in July 2019, the few hundred subscribers at the start of the pandemic have ballooned to more than 128,000 today. Most are heartbroken over what the cult has done to their families. As one member wrote: “I’m just … tired. QAnon has successfully destroyed my family, and I need a break.”
Deprogramming someone who has been indoctrinated into a cult’s beliefs is an exceptionally challenging task. But there is hope for QAnon believers, according to Steven Hassan, a former Moonie-turned-cult expert and author of The Cult of Trump. In a conversation with Vanity Fair, Hassan said the most important thing is for estranged family and friends to start building bridges back to their QAnon-believing loved ones.
“Just say, ‘I miss you, you’re my brother,’ or ‘I miss you, you’re my uncle. Can’t we just be in each other’s lives?’ At least at the beginning to restore the memories of the good times before they even knew of Trump,” he said. “The idea is to create alliances, to be respectful, to not be condescending, arrogant, judgmental, and join with them. … it’s a matter of, on a very human basis, joining together in a pursuit of what’s real and what’s going to help. Family and friends are the most powerful agents if they understand what works and what doesn’t work, what to do and what not to do.”
Moms, kids, and other family members can also found helpful tips on Psychology Today from Joseph M. Pierre, M.D., Health Sciences Clinical Professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Chief of the Hospital Psychiatry Division for the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare Center. In his article addressing “4 Keys to Help Someone Climb Out of the QAnon Rabbit Hole,” Dr. Pierre reiterates Hassan’s message that “more than anything, what a QAnon-obsessed loved one probably needs is support and to stay connected to something tangible and meaningful in the real world.” That can be their relationship with you. Dr. Pierre also helps explain the psychological needs that QAnon feeds and how to figure out how far down the QAnon rabbit hole your loved one fell to help you figure out how best to reach them.
While the process of reconnecting with your loved one and helping them break free of QAnon may not be easy, there is hope. As South Carolina mom Ashley Vanderbilt watched Biden be sworn in as president, she was stunned; it was not the prophecy her QAnon world had told her to expect.
“I was devastated,” Vanderbilt told CNN. “Instantly, I went into panic mode.” She called her mom, and told her she thought they we all going to die, thinking she might have to pull her 4-year-old daughter Emmerson out of school “because they’re going to take her.”