James's mum went 'down the rabbit hole' of QAnon — and took the family with her

James’s mum went ‘down the rabbit hole’ of QAnon — and took the family with her

Print with images and other media Print text only Print Cancel Paul* and Antony* have known each other for more than a decade, when they first met serving together in the military. But over the past six months during Victoria’s various stages of lockdown, Paul has been receiving increasingly strange content from his friend over WhatsApp. Antony, a former intelligence analyst, has been sending memes and YouTube videos all connected to a rapidly evolving conspiracy theory called QAnon. “We’ll get to a point where it will get ridiculous and we may not speak for a few days,” Paul said. “There’s that genuine concern and passion, even though he thinks I’m just a sheep.” “It’s not ignorance or stupidity, but a[n] … esoteric fantasy that only them and a handful of others really know the truth.” What is QAnon? QAnon’s followers broadly believe that US President Donald Trump is waging a secret war against corrupt and child-abusing elites, including parts of government (dubbed the “deep state”) and A-list celebrities. One supporter, a newly nominated Republican candidate, is reported to have called the enemy in this war a “worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping paedophiles “. And QAnon theorists follow an anonymous figure called “Q”, who leaves cryptic clues in internet forums about Trump’s next moves in the “war”. The internet-driven conspiracy theory is becoming harder to ignore amid the fear and economic disruption caused by the pandemic. QAnon’s reach extends beyond the US, with a growing number of Australians being pulled into QAnon’s orbit — leaving friends and family wondering why their loved ones find this vision of the world so comforting and persuasive. Supporters wearing shirts with the QAnon logo, ahead of US President Donald Trump taking the stage at a rally in 2018. (Reuters: Leah Millis) It’s difficult to measure the strength of belief in QAnon in Australia. Analysis from misinformation tracking organisation First Draft suggests related Facebook groups, including one group with more than 12,000 members, have been active here since at least 2018. But QAnon posts can be found seeded throughout a number of Australia’s online conspiratorial communities, including large anti-lockdown Facebook groups as well as anti-vaccination pages. Of course, social media offers Australians access to any one of hundreds of international QAnon accounts on Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. A recent Facebook investigation, reported by NBC , found that members and followers of top related groups and pages numbered more than 3 million, although there could be some overlap. And on the internet, a devotee and a mere gawker can be indistinguishable. In recent weeks the company has banned around 900 QAnon pages and groups. Many of us will engage with conspiratorial thinking at one time or other, but for people like Paul, this moment is different. Like so many others, he’s left wondering if his friend will ever emerge from QAnon’s elaborate and all-encompassing belief system. Why did QAnon make it to Australia? At first glance, QAnon would seem to have little to do with Australia. Centred on Donald Trump — who has appeared to tacitly embrace the conspiracy theory — its anxiety about the reach of government has a deeply American flavour. But the conspiracy is astonishingly malleable. All kinds of local networks, including anti-vaccination and sovereign citizen groups , have been quickly folded into its hierarchy. Some of the most active Australian supporters of conspiracy theories, once ignored by all but a committed few, have opportunistically jumped on the QAnon trend, becoming stars off the back of Facebook Live broadcasts in which they assert COVID-19 is a hoax and pronounce their faith in a coming intervention by Mr Trump. “A whole lot of the various conspiracy spot fires have all joined up into one massive fire front,” said Kaz Ross, a lecturer in humanities at the University of Tasmania, who monitors online extremism. In Australia, the QAnon conspiracy theory has melded with an existing anti-vaccination movement. (ABC News: Scott Mitchell) That rings true for NSW Central Coast resident James* who noticed his mother’s growing interest in QAnon around April this year, just as the COVID-19 lockdown went into effect. Since then James says his mother and parts of his extended family have “gone down the rabbit hole,” and this has driven a wedge between him and them, as well as putting strain on his own mental health. His mother has had a long interest in alternative medicine and spiritual healing, as well as financial content on YouTube such as how to invest in cryptocurrencies. James thinks the video platform may have led her to this more extreme content, but the “exact catalyst” for her new views remains unclear. “My mother is also the type of person who influences the people around her … which is why a lot of immediate family members share her beliefs,” he said. If someone believes in a conspiracy theory, they do tend to entertain more than one, according to Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. “These sorts of beliefs can start to fit together,” she said. “You probably feel like you’re piecing together parts of a puzzle.” Marc-André Argentino, a QAnon researcher at Concordia University in Canada, said Australia could be considered part of a “five eyes” of QAnon — a reference to the intelligence sharing network between Australia, the UK, US, Canada and New Zealand. All five countries are majority English-speaking, allowing messages to flow easily online. All share a similar political vocabulary, and all are experiencing the turmoil of a global pandemic. And by its very nature, QAnon is participatory, Mr Argentino suggested, taking clues from pop culture and news clips of Mr Trump. Anyone can offer input and play the game, no matter where they’re based or what language they speak. Meanwhile, Paul believes the sheer spectacle of the US in Australia’s news cycle plays a role. “It’s entertaining, it’s theatrical. Can you imagine an Australian politician carrying on like Donald Trump? It’s probably the only place you can see a show like that,” he said. Can people be talked out of QAnon? James has discussed QAnon with his family but said he can’t convince them to give it up. He’s now contemplating a move out of home for his own mental health. “I can’t refute them on anything as they usually claim anything I say that isn’t from their conspiratorial sources, aka the “mainstream media,” is false, and any peer-reviewed scientific documents are false,” he said. “I don’t want to entrench their beliefs by trying to refute them.” Likewise, Paul doesn’t want to lose his friend Antony and has turned to works by Mick West, a science writer who has written about how to debunk conspiracy theories, for clues about how to be there for his friend. “To prioritise the relationship above all else and not end up in a squabble that is going to degenerate,” he said. “You can’t reason with fact. They’ll take it personally as a challenge.”

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