The QAnon cult: What it is, how it works, and how to help deprogram your loved ones

Two weeks ago, we watched a pro-Trump mob storm the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the results of a U.S. election and keep Donald Trump in power. And among those insurrectionists were well-known adherents of QAnon, nearly every image of the crowd shows people wearing Q gear or carrying Q flags, and some of the more frightening elements we saw tie directly into QAnon beliefs.

Since hints of it first started showing up in social media comments several years ago, I've been intrigued—and endlessly frustrated—by the phenomenon of QAnon. At first, it was just a few fringey whacko conspiracy theorists I could easily roll my eyes at and ignore, but as I started seeing elements of it show up more and more frequently from more and more people, alarm bells started ringing.

Holy crap, there are a lot of people who actually believe this stuff.

Eventually, it got personal. A QAnon adherent on Twitter kept commenting on my tweets, pushing bizarro Q ideas on many of my posts. The account didn't use a real name, but the profile was classic QAnon, complete with the #WWG1WGA. ("Where we go one, we go all"—a QAnon rallying cry.) I thought it might be a bot, so I blocked them. Later, I discovered that it was actually one of my own extended family members.

Holy crap, I actually know people who actually believe this stuff.


I've written articles about how QAnon's pedophilia-obsessed mythology does real harm to actual anti-child trafficking organizations. After the "Save the Children" hashtag started going viral based on (false) messages and memes about hundreds of thousands of children going missing every year as part of a Democrat-and-celebrity-run pedophile cabal, I interviewed international organizations that truly battle child sex trafficking. I shared their plea to stop pushing QAnon lies.

That brought to my inbox QAnoners accusing me of being a pedophile and part of "the Deep State." And now we've watched some of these folks stage a violent attack on our government.

Holy crap, this stuff actually has serious, real-world consequences.

At this point, it's not overstating to all QAnon a destructive cult. And it's likely that we all know someone who have been sucked into it. I know people who have lost friends and family members to this stuff, as reasoning with them goes nowhere and their constant conspiracy talk becomes unbearable.

That's where deprogramming comes in.

I've followed the QAnon saga for a long time, and it's a little tricky to know where to start if you're trying to make sense of it. (Trying to make sense of something that inherently doesn't make sense is always fun.) This documentary that was recently posted from a YouTuber called Infranaut is the best comprehensive overview of QAnon—and what to do about it on an individual level—that I've seen yet. If you want to understand what QAnon is, how it works, why it draws people in, and how to help loved ones get out, this video covers it all succinctly.

In addition to his own explanations, Infranaut interviews professional cult deprogrammer and founder of the nonprofit Cult Education Institute, Rick A. Ross, who shares steps families can take to help extract their loved ones from the QAnon cult.

I'm going to summarize some of the main points below the video but I highly recommend you go ahead and watch the whole thing. It's well worth it. If you want to skip to specific sections, here's a handy guide the creator shared.

0:00 Introduction

7:21 Part I - Defining "Q"

10:01 Part II - Becoming a Believer

20:39 Compliance Interlude

22:44 Part III - Staying a Believer

36:45 Capitol Interlude

39:14 Part IV - The Future of Q

53:28 Part V - A Way Out

1:05:52 Outro

Q's Going Nowhere: Cults and Conspiracies in the Online Era youtu.be

The video starts by describing a bit about how cult thinking works and giving an example of a doomsday cult from the 1950s called "The Seekers," which serves as a comparative example throughout the video.

Then Infranaut gives a brief definition of what QAnon is:

"QAnon refers to the belief that the United States government, if not the entire world, is secretly run by the "Deep State," a shadowy organization that exists above and behind the current government as we understand it," he says. "While the exact size and goals of the Deep State are ambiguous, it's taken that their ranks include several figures in the public eye, that they are largely pedophiles, and depending on who you ask, also Satanists."

QAnon believes Trump ran for president in 2016 in order to expose and dismantle the Deep State. "Q" is a nameless someone who claims to be a high-ranking ally of Trump, working alongside him to defeat this Deep State, and who posts cryptic messages on anonymous online boards with information about how that fight is going and what's coming next. Many of these messages, or "Q drops" make reference to The Great Awakening or The Storm—the big finale when Trump and his allies will arrest prominent members of the Deep State and expose them in public.

Here's where it gets tricky, though. The QAnon world contains a mind-bogglingly large and complex set of beliefs, so it's a bit difficult to synopsize. The basic details above are pretty much agreed upon by all, but beyond that, it's an octopus with tentacles all over the place, and some beliefs contradict one other. For example, some believe Mike Pence is helping Trump fight the Deep State; some believe Mike Pence is a part of the Deep State. But no one seems to care about those inconsistencies much.

In fact, these various, inconsistent tentacles are part of what makes QAnon so strong. If you point to one super out-there belief (as if it's not all super out-there, but we'll hold that thought for a minute) there will always be a bunch of people who can say, "That's fake news. We don't believe that. You're just trying to make us look bad." If you get five different QAnon adherents together, you'll get five different explanations of what QAnon is.

That's because it's less of a defined set of beliefs, Infranaut explains, than "an explanation for why the world feels dark, confusing, and wrong."

And there are a dozen doorways to get into it. Some come through classic conspiracy thinking (JFK, Jr. is still alive, for example), some through bigotry (there's anti-Semitism in some core elements of QAnon belief), and some through a righteous desire to rid the world of evil.

The whole child trafficking/pedophilia thing has proven to be a big draw. After all, there is a grain of truth, in that those things actually do exist in the world (just not the way QAnon paints it). And is there anything worse than child sacrifice and sex slavery? No, there's not. Fighting to save children from such a horrific fate is an "inarguable moral good." If you truly believe that Democrats and celebrities are trafficking hundreds of thousands of children for heinous purposes, it would actually be wrong not to be part of a movement against it.

Infranaut and Ross explore a bit about how Christianity has overlapped with QAnon iconography, which Ross says is common in cults as people come up with ways to market the belief system and make it more palatable.

When you just look at one tentacle, you can see how people get pulled in. And then once you're in, the other beliefs become easier to accept.

It would be easy to call people who fall down the rabbit hole stupid because the entire thing sounds so ridiculous, but as Ross explains, it's not that simple. "I've seen people that are highly educated, very sophisticated people. I've done five interventions with medical doctors. One was an orthopedic surgeon, another an anesthesiologist. One woman that I worked with was a clinical psychologist, and she was, in my opinion, totally brainwashed. So very sophisticated, highly educated people can succumb to this kind of manipulation, and it behooves us to understand all the tricks and the methods that can be used to gain undue influence over us. And that's the inoculation. That's the vaccine, if you will."

None of us want to admit that we are vulnerable to such persuasion, but Ross points out that the world of advertising wouldn't exist if we weren't.

One of the tricks of QAnon is the central tenet of the Deep State and also "false flags"—the idea that the Deep State will do things that make QAnon look crazy or throw Q adherents off track. So when facts fly in the face of the belief, or when something that was supposed to happen doesn't, or when something that wasn't supposed to happen does, you can immediately blame the Deep State and dismiss it.

For example, when QAnoners do something violent or dangerous, that's the Deep State planting a false flag. We see a similar narrative in the "Antifa did it!" response to the Capitol riots. It doesn't matter that the FBI or the DOJ say that they don't have evidence of Antifa involvement—that's all part of the Deep State.

Trump hasn't helped any of this, of course. He has never denounced QAnon ideology. In fact, he's said he doesn't know much about it but they seem like people who love America. And his claims of election rigging have been fuel for QAnon belief; that's totally something the Deep State would do.

It doesn't matter that specific Q prophecies don't come true. Adherents just keep saying, "Trust the plan," even though the plan isn't clear. It's a test of faith. They also come up with ways to explain away facts that counter the belief.

This is what's the most bafflingly frustrating thing about trying to reason with a QAnoner. You just can't. It doesn't matter how many facts you bring in or logical inconsistencies you point out. "The lengths to which a true believer will contort the truth or manufacture evidence really can't be overstated," say Infranaut.

Rick Ross explains that people often follow QAnon in a cult-like way, gradually alienating or cutting themselves off from their families and social circles, making the QAnon world their primary community. The cult becomes the social circle, and that's an incredibly powerful pull for people.

No one knows what's going to become of QAnon after Trump is out of office, but there's very little chance of it going away. Most cults die out when a leader dies or goes to jail (though there are always believers who maintain loyalty no matter what). But barring those things happening to Trump, the QAnon movement will continue in ways we probably can't even imagine at this point.

So how do we get people out? The key hurdle is people's inability to accept and admit that they were wrong. Infranaut calls "the beating heart" of the QAnon movement is the idea of "I didn't get duped." No one wants to believe they voted for a conman, or that they supported a sexual predator, or that they are still waiting around for him to save the world.

Ross offers some hope for families, though. If done effectively, a deprogramming intervention process can extract around 70% of people who have been taken by a cult. For some who aren't as deep into the movement, it might not be as hard as for the long-timers, but the key to both is having the intervention come from people they are close to.

Unfortunately, it also entails a bit of what will feel like coddling. Some of us just want to confront them with the truth, to somehow shake them out of their brainwashed stupor, to scream, "How can you believe something so outrageously stupid!" But Ross says not to be confrontational or judgmental, but to keep the line of communication going to see how deep they are into the brainwashing.

Ross says if a family decides to stage an official intervention, it takes three or four days of dialogue in which loved ones supply support and love as they go step by step through the process.

Those basic steps of dialogue look like this:

1. How do you define a destructive cult? (Walk them through a different cult. Ross uses Scientology as an example.)

2. How does that cult gain influence over a person? (General methodology for brainwashing and manipulation the cult uses.)

3. What problems are you not aware of related to your group? (How those methods are used in your group, even if you don't think it's a cult.)

4. Why is your family so worried about you? (There's obviously a reason for this intervention. Each person explains what their concerns are, hoping the person will stay and listen because they care about the people intervening.)

Ross offers more details about how to go about that process on the Cult Education Institute website and he also recommended some books to read, which you can find around the 1:03:45 mark.

I wish I could say that QAnon will just fade away, but it does not appear likely that it will. It's endlessly annoying and clearly dangerous, but it's where we are. Hopefully, people can help their loved ones climb back out of the rabbit hole and rejoin us in reality.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
True

When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

What you look like in a selfie camera isn't really what you look like in real life.

We've all done it: You snap a selfie, look at it, say, "OMG is my nose swollen?" then try again from a different angle. "Wait, now my forehead looks weird. And what's up with my chin?" You keep trying various angles and distances, trying to get a picture that looks like how you remember yourself looking. Whether you finally land on one or not, you walk away from the experience wondering which photo actually looks like the "real" you.

I do this, even as a 40-something-year-old who is quite comfortable with the face I see in the mirror. So, it makes me cringe imagining a tween or teen, who likely take a lot more selfies than I do, questioning their facial features based on those snapshots. When I'm wondering why my facial features look weird in selfies it's because I know my face well enough to know that's not what it looks like. However, when a young person whose face is changing rapidly sees their facial features distorted in a photo, they may come to all kinds of wrong conclusions about what they actually look like.

Keep Reading Show less
Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
True

The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

Dan Fischer takes people's lost loved ones out surfing for "one last wave."

Dan Fischer understands grief. He also has some idea of how to cope with it—and how to help others through it as well.

Fischer has experienced tremendous loss in the past few years, losing both his father and his best friend. As a surfer, he's a believer in what he calls "the transformative power of the ocean." Originally from Montreal, Canada, Fischer has found healing riding the waves off Newport, Rhode Island, where he's lived for the past seven years.

Now he wants to share that healing power of the waves with others.

Keep Reading Show less
More

The airplane graveyard that 3 families call home is the subject of a stunning photo series.

From the skies to the ground, these airplanes continue to serve a purpose.

This article originally appeared on 09.18.15


What happens to airplanes after they're no longer fit to roam the skies?


An abandoned 747 rests in a Bangkok lot. Photo by Taylor Weidman/Getty Images.

Decommissioned planes are often stripped and sold for parts, with the remains finding a new home in what is sometimes referred to as an "airplane boneyard" or "graveyard." Around the world, these graveyards exist; they're made up of large, empty lots and tons of scrap metal.

Keep Reading Show less