Column: What do we do with QAnon folks?

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There are no shortages of QAnon casualties.

There are parents who’ve excommunicated their children because the kids wouldn’t follow them down the rabbit hole of far-right conspiracy. There are couples who’ve gotten divorces because one spouse became all-consumed by QAnon. There was even a mother who accused her daughter of being a Democrat who takes her children to the park to advertise them to child molesters.

Those are just a few examples from a Reddit support group.

And, of course, there was that thing on Jan. 6, where Trump supporters and QAnon believers, among them a San Diego woman, mounted a siege on the U.S. Capitol. The San Diego woman was shot and killed.

QAnon may have been a movement that originally existed largely on the fringes of our society, but now it’s something all of us are being forced to reckon with.

Whether you’re someone who has lost a family member or friend to QAnon or you’re someone concerned about movements to overthrow our government, QAnon has become inescapable.

And in the coming months we’re all going to have to make some choices about what to do with these Q believers?

Originating in 2017 when the anonymous figure “Q” — a self-proclaimed Trump administration insider — began posting on the notorious 4chan message board, QAnon is essentially a set of sprawling, false internet conspiracy theories that hail Trump as a hero who is secretly waging war against a cabal of child-eating Satanists who operate a global child sex-trafficking ring and control Washington, Hollywood and the world.

Q predicted this battle would come to a head with “The Storm,” when Trump would unmask the cabal and punish them for their crimes through mass arrests, military tribunals and executions.

Obviously none of that happened. President Joe Biden was sworn in on Jan. 20, and Trump departed Washington before delivering “The Storm.”

This didn’t end QAnon. There are people within the group who are moving goal posts and deadlines, claiming Trump and the military are lying in wait.

However, this does leave the movement in a precarious state.

QAnon researcher Mike Rothschild, author of the upcoming book “The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy,” said the state of QAnon is up in the air and essentially leaderless.

“You have a lot of people who are really desperate for answers and desperate for ways they can interpret the events of the last few weeks as being positive for them, when in reality what has happened is their defeat,” Rothschild said.

“You keep coming up with reasons to believe because you want to stave off that disillusionment, you want to stave off the feeling that you’ve been not just wrong, but taken advantage of. People can admit they were wrong about something, but it’s a lot harder to admit they’ve been scammed.”

Rothschild and other researchers believe there may be a window opening for some rank-and-file QAnon supporters to walk away from the movement. Although Rothschild also suspects QAnon may transform somehow over the next year.

It’s not exactly clear how many people subscribe to QAnon, but an NBC News report last August found millions of people were members of QAnon groups on Facebook. So it behooves all of us to take advantage of this opportunity to pull folks back to reality.

QAnon researcher Mike Rains, host of the “Adventures in HellwQrld” podcast, is seeing more questioning from some Q believers. On social media posts by some QAnon promoters and “celebrities,” Rains noted a quarter to a half of comments were from people pushing back, calling the promoters scammers, where dissent previously was scarce.

All sorts of people can be drawn into QAnon — most have dabbled in other conspiracy theories previously — and when it happens their conversion can be rapid, researchers say. The movement, which some describe as cultish, was bolstered by its play on some mainstream Republican ideas as well as people’s isolation in the pandemic.

It may sound ridiculous, Rains said, but part of QAnon’s pull is that it’s a hope-based movement, promising believers that justice will be served and the monsters will be defeated. QAnon is also a “welcoming and interactive community” to fellow believers and can make outcasts in society feel accepted and loved, Rains said.

All of which means being confrontational to a Q believer is not necessarily the best way to pull them back.

“The main thing you can do is let them know you will accept them back,” Rains said. “If they ever start doubting this, you’ll be there to talk to them. If they ever want to leave, you’ll be there to help them.”

“You personally don’t have to torture yourself that way for every single person, but when it comes down to the people in your personal life, the people you care about, those are the people that if you can do it, you need to hold a hand out for.”

Rothschild echoed a similar point, and I think both he and Rains are right.

Rothschild echoed a similar point saying that reconciliation is a two-way street and “a Q believer has to want to come back to the family unit and admit their mistakes and you have to want them back and accept their apology.”

“If you are really looking to bring someone out, you have to get an indication they are ready: monitor their social media, ask them broad open-ended questions with no political answer,” Rothschild said.

“If they say they are having a hard time, then you can start talking about how you still care about them, that they matter more to you than the conspiracy theory matters to them. People want to know that they are loved, people want to know they are important, and Q is good about providing that. So if you can provide that to someone and let them know they’re safe and you care about them, that can start that process.”

Ultimately, each of us will have to make a personal decision about how to navigate our interactions with Q believers. I know engaging them or being sympathetic to them is going to be hard for a lot of us, especially after everything that’s happened.

If we don’t try now, though, we may miss our window. There are already plenty of reports out there that Neo-Nazis, White supremacists and other frightening ideologies are eager to jump in instead if we’re absent.

I also would say with this issue it’s worth keeping in mind one of my favorite quotes from the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Let’s exercise a little grace and try to keep that in mind.

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