Tear­ing fam­i­lies apart

Thou­sands of peo­ple who have seen re­la­tion­ships de­stroyed by the ‘move­ment’ swap sto­ries and find sup­port on Red­dit

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY TRAVIS M. AN­DREWS

Thou­sands who have seen bonds wrecked by the Qanon move­ment swap sto­ries and find sup­port.

“That smart, awe­some per­son that I used to know just didn’t ex­ist any­more.” Ja­cob, who says he cut off con­tact with his mother be­cause she “chose Qanon . . . over me.”

Q.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 um­brel

la 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.

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 Qanon­friendly 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 29,000. “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-yearold 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.

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.”

ERIC HANSON FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

LO­GAN CYRUS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: A man wears a Qanon sweat­shirt to a Staten Is­land rally to sup­port Pres­i­dent Trump while he was sick with covid-19. ABOVE: A car with stick­ers rep­re­sent­ing the con­spir­acy-the­ory group is parked out­side a sim­i­lar rally in Mon­roe, N.C. “WWG1WGA” stands for the Qanon slo­gan “Where We Go One We Go All.”

STEPHANIE KEITH/GETTY IMAGES

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