Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
At present, a lot of people in the United States feel driven to do something good, something that makes a difference in a world that feels especially dire. We are (in case anyone hasn’t noticed!) at the convergence of an election that’s shaping up to be a shitshow; an ongoing national uprising in response to racism and police brutality; uncontrollable wildfires on the West Coast; high unemployment rates and looming eviction crises; and a still-uncontrolled pandemic. It’s natural to feel bad right now, and to want to do something about all of… this, and fighting against an obvious evil like child trafficking can feel like a way—maybe even a politically neutral way, for those who would prefer that—to make the world a better place.
Child trafficking is a hot topic right now. But not, as social media might have you believe, because it’s on the rise (it’s not), or because the mainstream press is turning a blind eye to a growing problem (we aren’t). Instead, a moral panic around child trafficking—exacerbated by the recent rise of the social justice Instagram aesthetic and by ultra-viral (and totally false) rumors that furniture company Wayfair sells kids via marked-up cabinets on its website—is blooming.
While the movement to raise awareness of and stop child trafficking did not originate with QAnon, according to an NBC News report, the recent spike in chatter around it came from QAnon-related Instagram accounts and Facebook groups. Some of the content that falls into this category, dubbed “Pastel QAnon” by researcher Marc-André Argentino, is specifically designed to make the panic palatable, so more people stumble across their material and self-recruit.
If someone you’re close to has been posting about media cover-ups of child sex trafficking rings, sharing eyebrow-raising statistics, or suddenly expressing disproportionate outrage over the kids in Netflix programming, you might want to step in and say something. But because belief in this kind of misinformation isn’t rooted in reality, how you approach this conversation—or, in actuality, this series of conversations—is key. VICE spoke to two experts in cult deprogramming (who both agreed that QAnon fits the ‘cult’ bill) about when and how to intervene when a loved one is taking up the banner for a troubling new cause.
Know that bombarding them with facts isn’t worth it.
It’s very hard to resist the impulse to fight fantasy with reality. After all, there’s ample reporting out there about why trafficking statistics are iffy at best, why the Wayfair scandal was completely fake, and how all of this has warped into a QAnon pipeline. But both of the experts VICE spoke to were completely against the idea of trying to confront or argue with someone by espousing beliefs to the contrary.
“Most people try to persuade the person that their beliefs are wrong,” Steven Hassan, a mental health professional, author of The Cult of Trump, and founder of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center, told VICE. “A lot of people want to go for the home run, and do the knockout punch without building rapport and trust, and showing curiosity and hearing the person’s story.” But Hassan said without a foundation of mutual respect, that “knockout punch” could end the conversation entirely.
Rick Ross, a cult deprogrammer, founder of the Cult Education Institute, and author of Cults Inside Out, echoed Hassan’s concerns about pushing people away through argumentation. “If they’re part of an online community, they’re communicating with others in this kind of alternate universe that has been created online with groups like QAnon,” Ross said. “They reinforce each other and discuss their individual situations with their families and friends. Whatever you say to someone who’s involved with something like this very likely can be repeated to other people, and then the person that you’re concerned about is very likely going to be coached and encouraged to cut you off.”
Losing access to the person you care about could mean losing the opportunity in the future to intervene if their beliefs get even more misguided and outrageous.
So, arguing doesn’t really work, but that doesn’t mean broaching the subject is out of bounds. Instead, Hassan and Ross both touted the power of asking open-ended, non-judgmental questions and genuinely listening to what the other person has to say. (Novel concept, right?)
Hassan said engagement, and the bedrock of respect that it will create, is critical in making any progress further down the line. “The number one technique is asking a good question with respect and curiosity, then being patient and waiting for an answer,” he said. “Ask, ‘Tell me how you came to the beliefs that you have right now. Go back in time, when did you first hear of it? What did you first think of it?’ That process alone is a very therapeutic thing.”
Ross suggested asking your loved one for links to the things they’re consuming online: podcasts, YouTube videos, Twitter and Instagram accounts they follow, Facebook groups they participate in. While poring over this material, according to Ross, you should be “taking copious notes to create a foundation of research and material about the group so you can better understand it, and how it might affect your loved one moving forward. It gives you a better sense of, What am I going to do?”
Leave them with food for thought—and the space to do their own thinking.
Instead of telling the person that they are getting sucked into a cult, Hassan suggested bringing up a different group that spreads misinformation and utilizes mind control techniques. “The one that I like lately is NXIVM,” Hassan said. “Say something like, ‘What do you think of NXIVM and Keith Raniere? How do bright, talented, educated people, billionaires, actresses allow themselves to be estranged from loved ones, do these things?’ You get their alliance with you, that this is really a cult, and this is really devastating people.”
From there, Hassan said it should be easier to launch conversations about how cults and other toxic, harmful groups function, and how regular, smart, healthy people can still be indoctrinated by them. It’s also vital to let these comparisons breathe: Don’t immediately pivot to telling the person you’re talking with that they are also in a cult, or what they need to do next. Instead, let them draw their own conclusions, knowing that you’re a safe, non-judgmental person to discuss their concerns with.
Is your friend or loved one the kind of person who goes through two-week phases with new interests that they tend to forget about quickly? Have they shared an “off” meme or two, but haven’t mentioned anything in the Zoom happy hour or the group chat? In that case, Ross suggested monitoring the situation, but holding off on escalating to more extreme measures. “It may be annoying and unsettling to hear someone you care about talk in conspiracy gibberish that describes a fantasy world that you can’t relate to,” Ross said. “But it may not actually be hurting that person’s life.”
He also stressed the importance of examining how your loved one’s new community functions to the best of your online sleuthing extent. “I would caution people: just because a group has weird beliefs that you think are bizarre, don’t judge them,” he said. “Look more objectively at the group structure, its dynamics and behavior. It’s not what the group believes, it’s how it behaves that matters.” (Ross and Hassan both have warning signs for destructive authoritarian groups listed through their organizations’ websites.)
While this might not be what anyone wants to hear, undoing the influence from internet misinformation, and the communities that spring up around it, takes serious time and energy.
Don’t rush in with some kind of set timeline in mind. Instead, focus on remaining in contact and in conversation as long as it takes to identify what your person believes, where they’re getting their information from, and who they’re communicating with that reinforces their new, noxious worldview. From there, you’ll be able to better determine what kind of action is appropriate, and how best to move toward the goal of getting the person you’re trying to reach back to reality.
Ross noted that his direct intervention process alone usually requires three or four days of eight-hour sessions with the intervention’s subject. “You can’t just do a kind of drive-by where you say, ‘Well, that story is fake, and look at this article instead,’” Ross said. “It takes a lot of time to unravel all of these things on multiple levels.”
Hassan agreed that time is a critical factor in empowering the person you care about to think critically about their own beliefs. “Very few people convert in a minute and dive down the rabbit hole; it’s usually an incremental thing,” he said. “People get influenced through a process, and they break out through a process.”
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