After last year’s lockdown, Thanksgiving is back. For too many, this brings the promise of strained familial conversations about politics, especially with those who have flirted with the QAnon phenomenon. Engaging with die hard QAnon believers is easier for some than others—but behavioral science can offer some advice on how to talk to family members about these beliefs without anyone ending up covered in cranberry sauce.
Four years ago, an internet meme around Hillary Clinton went viral, and QAnon was born. Now, the group has ballooned into a vast social movement with millions of members across the world. That’s despite the fact that a range of its espoused theories—from the prediction that Donald Trump would remain in office on Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day this past January, to conspiracies stoking fear about vaccines, to the predicted “great storm”—proved unfounded.
The focus on Q to date has been on how ordinary people—perhaps even the relatives around your Thanksgiving table—fall into the Q rabbit hole. But there’s less attention paid to how people can come out on the other side, what facts might plant seeds of doubt with Q believers, and how to help them avoid ending up in adjacent rabbit holes.
QAnon believers come in many forms—and recognizing them can help facilitate their exit from the movement. Rejoining fact-based reality is a challenge that requires support along the way, and behavioral science can provide a framework for those conversations. Two of us work for strategy consultancy ReD Associates and and one of us for Jigsaw, a unit within Google that explores threats to open societies. Recently, we teamed up to conduct an ethnographic study of former QAnon supporters to more deeply understand the demand side of Q—or the need it is filling for those consuming Q content—and to explore how people ultimately leave.
We spoke with dozens of Q “formers”—that is, former believers in or members of the Q movement. What we found counters much of the narrative of the cultlike, brainwashed victims of psychological manipulation, as portrayed in the popular media. The behavioral science insights we gleaned can help you navigate conversations with family members this holiday season—not by debunking their theories over turkey, but by better understanding what drew them to Q, what could potentially get them out, and how to plant seeds for future conversations.
First, identify what kind of Q member they are.
Speaking with former Q members, we observed that they fell roughly into two types: more casual followers and truly committed supporters. The truly committed supporters are the “researchers” who analyze Q “drops” and make connections between Q and every conspiracy theory under the sun. They include the superspreaders who actively amplified QAnon, sharing that “research” not just to friends and family but widely through online communities. For the committed supporters, the explanations provided by Q conspiracies can feel electrifying and prophetic, empowering them with the “answers” to complex phenomena.
But the majority of former Anons, we found, are more casual “followers” who stumble down the QAnon rabbit hole in search of a community. Many told us they felt overwhelmed by the pandemic or disenfranchised by the 2020 presidential election. Some enlisted as part of an existential fight for good versus evil, or a sense of adventure. Others joined because Q signaled to them a defense of conservatism, exposing the alleged fraud of a Deep State. With multiple causes and grievances serving as an entry point, followers found a movement of people just like them on social media, filling a need for a community of validation, relatability, and hope. For many, this was their first foray into conspiracies and their first time on Telegram’s misinformation channels or sites like 8kun.
Leaving the Q community can be tough because it may provide a deeper sense of “family” than the one that will gather around the table this coming Thursday. If someone at the Thanksgiving table identifies with Q, first try to figure out how they got there. This can help guide your conversation and how you can help guide them to a path out.
Next, ask yourself: How might I help them find an offramp?
Committed supporters rarely leave QAnon because they stop believing. Instead, those we spoke with left when they reached a point of personal crisis or hit rock bottom. They became aware that their habit of consuming and sharing QAnon content had become an all-consuming addiction beyond their control. And so for them, their commitment to the movement can be approached as an addiction, rather than a collection of false beliefs to be debunked. Alice, a former Anon, told us that every night, when her family fell asleep, she would spend long sleepless hours clicking away on what she called “research” or, simply, “the news.” From one hyperlink to the next, her research soon turned to compulsion, and her compulsion soon turned to addiction and then depression.
Deeply committed supporters also tend to resist every attempt to debunk, educate, or fact-check because, like Alice, some tenets of Q become a core part of their identity. An attempt to undermine Q becomes a personal attack.
Dot, a former Anon we met in Florida, has a difficult relationship with her son, who she feels is overly focused on proving her wrong. She wishes he were more open to new perspectives and she gets furious when his first reaction when she shares an article with him is to pull up a fact-checking site. The lesson? Don’t immediately fact-check people at the Thanksgiving table.
Alice’s husband was ultimately able to help her emerge out of Q by helping her recognize it as an addiction: “You’re spending more time on social media and these Q videos than time with me.” Now she spends only 15 minutes a day on social media and no longer considers herself a member of the group.
Yet for the majority of QAnon followers, addiction is not the problem. Many of the more casual followers of QAnon backed away when they observed hypocrisy in its content. We met people who were turned off when they saw that Q leaders were profiting from selling merch. Because Q is a social movement, seeing other Anons “exposed” as profiteers, frauds, or hypocrites undermined followers’ sense of connection to other members.
To get friends and family to this point of self-reflection, however, the process is key. Our research suggests exposing hypocrisy is most effective when QAnon followers feel in control. As one member told us, “The idea behind the ‘research’ is that you are more likely to believe a source if you stumble upon it yourself versus if I tell you to go watch this video.” In other words, instead of endless debates about there being only one right or wrong at the Thanksgiving table, expand the boundaries around the conversation. Ask: Where did you read that? What other topics does this person write about? This may ultimately lead them to a new source of information all on their own.
Be mindful of other perils on the journey out.
Some of the people we met left because they felt certain aspects of Q were just too far out. Take Angela, a middle-aged lawyer from Alabama. She was driven to QAnon out of a sense of disillusionment with her job and politics. A friend shared a documentary alleging Hollywood is run by Satanists and pedophiles, and from then on, she was emotionally hooked. “The child porno stuff—that really made me just angry,” she told us.
She emerged from the Q rabbit hole when she saw its content get too bizarre, referring to theories of secret celebrity human trafficking rings hiding in plain sight on home goods websites. “When it starts getting too just wackadoodle … you’ve lost all credibility with me,” she recounted.
But what trips people up as they try to leave Q? Most common is that they slip into an adjacent set of conspiracies, which feel sufficiently legitimate and different—such as anti-vaccination groups. Ultimately these people are seeking community or some kind of new identity, and the anti-vaccine movement is well established and actively recruiting. But these adjacent conspiracy theories function as barriers to fully disengaging from QAnon.
One potential way to redirect casual supporters is to suggest alternative healthier communities for them to join. The most successful former members in our study shifted their attention from global and national issues to personal causes or hobbies that gave them a sense of agency and camaraderie. The new hobbies or communities we observed were quite varied: Former Anons hosted digital meet-and-greets for local politicians, began researching and advocating for other local communities or affinity groups, or found new hobbies with vibrant online communities, like the world of energy crystals.
It’s easy to rush to judgment when people close to us become persuaded and even radicalized by misinformation. Debating and debunking them will boost tension at Thanksgiving dinners for some families across the country. But we have insights for how to bring a more nuanced understanding to those conversations. We can do more to investigate what need Q is filling for its believers—and then to help our relatives or friends who are committed supporters and more casual followers of the movement, to get unstuck on their journey out of the rabbit hole.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.