Believers in QAnon and other conspiracy theories reveal how they got out of the rabbit hole
For two years, Jitarth Jadeja spent most of his time in the darkest corners of the web reading about conspiracy theories.
Mr Jadeja, 33, was a staunch follower of QAnon – a groundless far-right theory that began by alleging then-US President Donald Trump was fighting a secret group of elites who ruled a global network of child sex trafficking.
For hours every day, Mr. Jadeja devoured cryptic predictions shared by an anonymous online poster called Q on the imageboard 4chan website.
Mr. Jadeja hung on to the dark figure updates until he started to notice that Q was wrong – a lot.
In early 2018, for example, an anonymous poster on 8chan (now known as 8kun) asked Q to ask Mr. Trump to say “tip top tippy top” as a thank you to the QAnon community.
Four months after the post, Mr. Trump mentioned this phrase in his White House Easter Egg Roll speech.
The coincidence was almost enough to allay Mr. Jadeja’s doubts, but if Q had really told Mr. Trump to say the phrase, why did it take him four months to mention it?
“I thought if that could be debunked, then that’s it,” says Mr Jadeja, who lives in Sydney.
It only took a quick Google search to find a YouTube video showing clips of Mr. Trump saying the phrase on several other occasions.
Within minutes, Mr. Jadeja realized that he had spent two years being led into a rabbit hole containing false information.
Out of the rabbit hole
Mr Jadeja is among a growing number of people who have given up their beliefs in conspiracy theories.
Although not much is known about these “exiters”, online forums suggest he is not alone.
QAnonCasualties – a Reddit community for those affected by QAnon and former believers – has grown to include 158,000 members since its inception in July 2019.
And ReQovery – another Reddit support group for former QAnon followers – has attracted nearly 9,300 members in less than a year.
Like Mr. Jadeja, 19-year-old Leila Hay knew it was time to break up with Q when she realized that none of their predictions had come true.
“I knew a lot of the predictions never came true, but I didn’t know how many of them didn’t,” says Hay, who lives in the north of England.
“I was quite embarrassed.”
While working from home during the pandemic last year, Ms Hay ended up spending all of her summer engrossed in all things QAnon.
Although she spent less time following the conspiracy theory than others, Hay says shedding her beliefs has been a difficult process.
After believing that celebrities were sending her subliminal messages through the media, she still couldn’t bring herself to watch movies or listen to music months after severing ties to conspiracy theory.
Ms Hay says she also had times where she wondered if Q was right after all, which triggered her fear and anxiety.
Why is it so hard to let go of false beliefs?
We are all inclined to embrace the bizarre conspiracy theory, especially during times of upheaval and uncertainty like the COVID-19 pandemic, says Jolanda Jetten, a social psychologist at the University of Queensland.
Indeed, conspiracy theories seem to offer meaningful explanations that help us make sense of our chaotic and random world – at least for a while.
“Conspiracy theories at least temporarily hold the promise that everything is explainable,” says Professor Jetten, who is currently exploring how people are made to believe disinformation.
“It’s a totally absorbing identity, which makes getting out even more difficult.”
Another reason why it’s so hard to stray from conspiracy theories is the sense of community they provide, she adds.
For many believers, online communities are an important part of their daily lives, providing a place where they can talk with like-minded people who validate their beliefs and protect them from ridicule and judgment from the outside world.
When former conspiracy theorists step out of these communities, they lose a support network that gave them a sense of validation, leaving them feeling isolated and alone.
“In that sense, it’s no different from [leaving] a cult, ”says Professor Jetten.
The right medium is hard to find
Fear of judgment and stigma can prevent conspiracy theorists from getting help, but the lack of one-on-one support can also make it difficult to find the right kind of help, says Anke Richter.
“There aren’t many counselors or mental health professionals who really understand [QAnon]Said Ms Richter, New Zealand-based co-founder of Rabbit Hole Resistance, a Facebook support group for people who have been affected by conspiracy theories.
“It will be a long and difficult road for people who have fallen into this situation to come back and find the right help.”
After visiting several advisers, Mrs. Hay knows this feeling all too well.
When she opened up to the first counselor she saw about her “toxic relationship” with QAnon, they said they had never heard of it.
“I was like, ‘How am I going to get out of this? ”, Says Mrs. Hay.
And while Mr. Jadeja says he has found online communities useful, he wishes there were more in-person groups that could provide regular recordings and encourage members to explore in depth why they are. drawn to conspiracy theories in the first place.
Family and friends can help
One thing that can help keep old conspiracy theorists from falling back into the rabbit hole is surrounding themselves with people who don’t share their past beliefs, says Steven Hassan, a US-based mental health counselor who specializes in helping people leaving destructive cults.
Friends and family members of former conspiracy theorists can help by sitting down and trying to get to the bottom of what persuaded the person to believe false information, Dr Hassan says.
But, he says, it’s important to frame the conversation in a respectful way so that the person can find their own answers.
Finding support from people outside of conspiracy theories can also help former believers build a new identity that is free from their past opinions, Professor Jetten says.
“The availability of alternatives is extremely important to get out of this scene.”
It can also be helpful to find common ground with those who find a way out of their conspiratorial beliefs and understand that their attraction to disproved theories often comes from good intentions, Richter adds.
“Most end up with these beliefs because they genuinely care about the world or the health of their children,” she says.
Tackle conspiracy theories with kindness
It took a kind and patient friend to convince Tanya *, 42, to give up her conspiracy beliefs for good.
Tanya began to delve into ideas related to QAnon and vaccine conspiracy theories while she was locked out in Auckland last year.
After posting her opinions on Facebook, Tanya got a message from a worried friend, who had a background in science.
During several Zoom calls, Tanya’s friend spoke about how science works and how she separates fact from fiction in her research, such as finding reliable sources of information in a sea of content on the web and look for good journal articles.
After chatting with her friend, Tanya realized that the way she gathered information online to support conspiracy theories she believed in was driven more by fear than logic.
More importantly, it was her friend’s compassionate approach that helped her see the misinformation she was consuming for who it was.
“She took the time to explain a lot to me, giving me appropriate forms of research, rather than what I was doing,” Tanya says.
“It relieved a lot of my fear. The world isn’t that bad, it’s okay.”
The kindness of others was also key to Mr. Jadeja’s recovery from QAnon.
Shortly after giving up his beliefs, he wrote a Reddit post about how he had been misled and the guilt he felt for dragging his father down the rabbit hole with him.
While he expected users to “tear me up”, he received waves of favorable comments from the online community.
“It was as if they had given me permission to maintain some semblance of self-esteem and dignity,” Jadeja says.
* A name has been changed for privacy and security reasons.