The number of Americans in thrall to a sectarian cult is a heck of a lot less than the 74 million who voted for former President Donald Trump in November. Still, devotees of alt-right Trump supporters were organized and numerous enough to storm the U.S. Capitol.
Although believers are drawn to conspiracies by the need to belong, they can break free — but timing is crucial.
A Reddit support forum for families who have lost loved ones to QAnon had nearly 30,000 members in November. Children have seen parents disappear into the dream world of conspiracies and become incapable of communicating about anything but fantasy. Reports show military veterans are particularly at risk for being radicalized online.
Although believers are drawn to conspiracies by the need to belong, they can break free — but timing is crucial. Right now, for instance, we’re seeing reports of disillusioned QAnon followers who have been robbed of the promises of mass arrests of Democrats, exposure of the deep state and another term of Trump in office. This window of doubt could be a rare opportunity to break the spell.
But the line between obnoxious (but protected) speech on the one hand and small groups of people who are one step away from harming others on the other is difficult to envision and even harder to codify into law. Plus, the overwhelming surveillance powers of the U.S. national security state are substantial, so we should be careful and deliberate before we expand them.
Bringing people back to reality is a bottom-up effort, according to experts who have worked directly with adherents to conspiracy ideologies. One is Brandon Blackburn, a former CIA targeting officer who spent a decade working on counterterrorism operations to disrupt terrorist threats against the United States in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Since he left government, Blackburn has consulted extensively with law enforcement and nonprofit organizations to rehabilitate people who have succumbed to extremist ideologies. “There is an opportunity to tailor approaches based on what you know about a person's socio-economic background,” he said, as well as using clues like what someone was exposed to in childhood that could render them “malleable to the point that they could succumb to such extreme viewpoints.”
That’s the easier part, though. “When you really break it down from a psychological standpoint, there's a certain type of wiring where certain people are prone to believe sensationalistic theories or conspiracy theories based on their disillusionment, their disenfranchisement with their place in life. It’s hard to unwire,” Blackburn said.
“You basically are using the same tactics that brought them to commit to such a radical ideology to get them out.”
But what happens when we need to do this at scale? Should we seek out influencers in certain communities and work on deradicalizing them first? No, according to Blackburn.
“The minions of group leaders are most vulnerable to having their allegiances and their ideologies challenged,” he said. “You basically are using the same tactics that brought them to commit to such a radical ideology to get them out.”
The post-9/11 paradigm, wherein the federal government created policies to “counter violent extremism” in Muslim and Arab communities in the U.S., has already shown us what not to do. The U.S. tried to get so-called nonviolent Muslim leaders to model good behavior, which mostly backfired when adherents to an extremist version of the faith simply found new communities where they felt welcome.
When the U.S. fought against ISIS in Iraq, the most successful tactic was information operations: cyber intrusions into jihadi chat rooms, spreading disinformation and confusing adherents — and then deplatforming them by shutting down even closed communication networks, according to a number of people involved.
Deplatforming, though, is a short-term solution to an enduring problem. And it raises significant issues of constitutional ethics when the targets are American citizens.
One thing Blackburn said we should consider is that when the media covers extremist groups and conspiracy theories, it becomes free press. According to him, “You can help spread a movement pretty quickly in a viral way in this day and age, and that's something I don't think a lot of people have an appreciation for.”
Shutting down the biggest sources of intelligence on extremist group activities will make them harder to track.
For another approach, disrupting communication can dampen enthusiasm for people who want to build their own extremist networks. Many of the rioters organized in large group forums on platforms like Facebook, which in turn moved to ban suspect users. But shutting down the biggest sources of intelligence on extremist group activities will make them harder to track.
Blackburn’s template starts with building a community of like-minded former followers and giving them the task of extending empathy to those still involved in extremist groups.
“I have some friends who are former white supremacist neo-Nazis and they've committed their lives to trying to counsel at-risk youth,” Blackburn said, “and they will almost unanimously tell you it wasn't watching some speech by a politician or being shouted down by a counterprotester at a rally. It was some type of day-to-day interaction. … It's on the micro level with the interactions they're having within their community.”
In other words, finding commonality, not looking for difference, is the key.
“I know a white supremacist who we consider reformed and rehabilitated. At the time, he had some tattooing on his hands about his beliefs and ideology, like swastikas,” Blackburn said. “One day, he was checking out at a McDonald's and the cashier was a Black woman.” The woman reportedly saw his tattoos, took his hand and told him she was praying for him. “That really stuck with him. And that’s when the process for him started. It's a series of events, and it's repetitive, it's tedious.”
The end goal is not to stop people from thinking bad things; it’s to prevent people from acting violently on the basis of those beliefs.
It’s an imperfect plan, but Blackburn’s most persuasive tool is one supported by significant evidence. And it needs to be part of a larger strategy as Trump-supporting conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and QAnon devotees go further underground on the internet.
Merely giving people a sense of what their life could look like outside the sectarian circle can be enough to get the conversation started. Then comes the hard part. If the Biden administration is going to prioritize domestic deradicalization, it needs to act swiftly, while extremists and conspiracy theorists are seeing cracks in their ideologies.