For years, it festered as just one of countless internet-fueled conspiracy theories. But in 2020, a loosely organized right-wing group called QAnon gained major headlines as it attracted an ever-larger audience in America and around the world.
QAnon purports that satanic pedophiles operate a worldwide child sex-trafficking ring, and also labor to usurp their hero, Donald Trump, who is leading the fight against them, according to The Wall Street Journal. They believe that elitist Democrats (especially Hillary Clinton and Hollywood stars) are among the worst offenders, and that they might be lizard people disguised in human costumes. The group eagerly anticipates "The Storm," their code word for the day that Trump will initiate mass arrests of anyone involved in the cabal.
To be clear, there is absolutely no truth to any of these claims. Yet, increasingly more people are falling down the QAnon rabbit hole, eagerly awaiting online "Q drops" (information leaks) on Twitter from "Q," the person who says that he or she has inside information regarding this secret war.
Some QAnon followers get so wrapped up in the conspiracy theories that they exhibit signs of addiction – neglecting personal and professional responsibilities as they obsess about the fate of fictional abused children. Many are certain that they're privy to complex, classified information that only a few select people – like them — really understand.
Why QAnon? Why Now?
QAnon has dug itself so deeply into some peoples' psyches that some say it's more like a cult. "People in the QAnon community revere Trump, almost on a spiritual level," said Travis View, the host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, according to The Millennial Source. He added that he didn't know anyone "deeply into QAnon" who had come out of it.
According to at least one poll, more than half of Republicans think QAnon is at least partly true. Why would anyone believe such outlandish claims from an anonymous poster on the internet? It doesn't help that some congressional candidates and even President Trump have embraced the group. But there's more to it than that.
"People can be drawn to conspiracy theories for a number of reasons," emails Christopher Dwyer, a researcher and lecturer in the School of Psychology at the National University of Ireland, Galway. "I think the broadest reason that's worth mentioning is that people like their 'world' to make sense; however, sometimes things don't make sense and that's problematic for the thinker."
QAnon is not the first conspiracy theory that has drawn people together. There are folks who believe the Earth is flat; the moon landings were faked; that the U.S. government knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance. People of all races, genders and political beliefs can hold conspiracy theories, albeit differing ones. Spending time sifting through internet posts and pictures and talking to like-minded folks on social media can provide camaraderie and a sense of purpose. And certain types of people are more susceptible to such presentations.
"There's a long list of 'cognitive quirks' associated with belief in conspiracy theories that includes needs for closure, control, certainty, need for uniqueness, 'bulls—- receptivity' and lack of analytical thinking, teleological bias (the need to attribute events to a higher purpose) and other 'attributional' biases, and even paranoia," says Joseph M. Pierre, M.D., psychiatry professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, in an email interview.
We all have these quirks, he says, but they're more obvious in those who immerse themselves in conspiracy theories.
"And just which of these quirks, or combinations of quirks, might best explain a particular individual's belief in a particular conspiracy probably varies on a case by case basis," he says. "For example, needs for control, certainty, and closure may be particularly relevant to 'crisis events' such as the deaths of JFK or 9/11."
It's easy for many people to scoff at unfounded 4chan fodder like QAnon. But Pierre is quick to point out that about half the U.S. population believes in at least one conspiracy theory. We need to understand that society plays a role in this problem.
"Another more generalizing way of viewing belief in conspiracy theories is that it is based on (1) mistrust in authoritative sources of information which leads to (2) vulnerability to misinformation in the form of conspiracy theories that present a direct counter-narrative to official accounts," he says.
Conspiracy Theories and 'Laziness'
There's also another possible reason.
"To understand why this happens, one needs to understand that humans are cognitively lazy," says Dwyer. "Our brains have evolved to conserve energy; so, they don't very much like expending too much when a decision can be made that's 'good enough.' We like things simple and wrapped up in nice, neat, little packages.
"Another way of looking at it is through considering the foundational reason for why someone might want to believe a conspiracy theory, as it might explain away negative events, failures or uncertainties they've experienced – essentially serving as a coping mechanism that provides reassurance for those who might feel they lack the 'control' they desire in their lives and, perhaps giving them a scapegoat!"
Pierre adds that mentally healthy people hold their beliefs with a good measure of "cognitive flexibility," understanding that humans simply can't be certain of the many complex events happening around them. Cognitive rigidity, on the other hand, can cause issues.
"We tend to get into trouble in our social relationships when we hold beliefs – especially those that require faith as opposed to evidence to support conviction – with rigidity, not acknowledging that we might be wrong or that others with opposing views might be correct," he says.
Getting Help for Conspiracy Theory Addiction
If someone is trapped inside conspiratorial thinking, what can be done? The first thing to know is simply believing a conspiracy theory doesn't mean you're in need of psychological help.
"I'm sure everyone has at least one belief that isn't supported by evidence, yet we progress along in life as though it's fact," says Dwyer.
"Conspiracy theories aren't the same as delusions and there's really no good evidence that they represent mental illness per se," says Pierre. "Delusions that are symptoms of mental illness are generally unshared beliefs that are based on subjective experience, whereas conspiracy theories are shared beliefs based on information that’s 'out there.'"
But he adds that if we think of conspiracy theory belief as a problem of excessive conviction or preoccupation, we can borrow from the treatment of behavioral addictions that help people step away and unplug. That process, though, requires some willingness and motivation to do so.
"We might decrease conspiracy belief by teaching analytic thinking and helping people become better consumers of information, especially online," he says. "But we also have to take steps as a society and as institutions of authority to regain trust and to combat misinformation within online spaces. Right now, we're losing the misinformation war."
One of the problems with trying to help someone with an addiction to conspiracy theories is that trying to argue them out of a belief (or worse, applying ridicule to it) only serves to deepen commitment to those beliefs.
One 2019 study did find that one way to decrease belief in a conspiracy theory was to focus on someone's personal agency. (So for instance, in the middle of a health crisis, giving out steps on how individuals could stay healthy should ideally foster less interest in a conspiracy theory for how the disease spread, versus a government saying, "Not to worry; we've got this covered.")
Taking that to a personal level, someone addicted to conspiracy theories may find that working with a counselor on personal goals, thus increasing their personal empowerment, could help them become less interested in conspiracy theories, according to the Addiction Center, a referral service for treating various addictions.
Pierre notes that conspiracy theories are longstanding tools of political propaganda, used to obscure facts and shift responsibility onto other scapegoated groups of people. "That's especially relevant in the U.S. and the rest of the world today where populist movements are increasingly turning away from 'elites' as a source of knowledge and informational authority. We see that played out now within political debates over scientific issues like climate change or COVID," he says.