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QAnon: How should we respond?

THIS DIGITAL POSTER has been circulating among far-right social media circles in the past few days. On Monday the FBI warned law enforcement agencies around the country that armed protests might occur at the capitols in all 50 states, as well as at the U.S. Capitol in

MIDDLEBURY — The best thing local communities can do to reduce the prevalence and potential threat of conspiracy movements like QAnon is to educate people.
That advice comes from Alex Newhouse, who monitors QAnon and other extremist groups for the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
The baseless but dangerous narratives pushed by such movements tend to appeal most strongly to the isolated and socially alienated, Newhouse told the Independent.
“My hunch is that one of the best things we can do is to promote recreation centers, teen centers, youth programs, programs for the elderly, and get people together to prevent social isolation,” he said.
This is, of course, challenging at the moment, in the middle of a pandemic, but there are other things that can help.
“We should be advocating for digital literacy programs, not just in schools but also for older people, especially those living in isolation,” he said.
Newhouse, a 2017 graduate of Middlebury College, offered his perspective on the presence of movements like QAnon in the Green Mountain State.
“Vermont’s case is in some ways unique,” he said. “Much of it is rural and more intrinsically isolated, which can make people more susceptible to radicalization.”
At the same time, he said, Vermont has the advantage of being a small state where it’s easier to forge and build the sorts of connections that help keep people from feeling alienated from one another.
From a bird’s-eye view, however, Newhouse is concerned about how far such movements have advanced from the fringes of society into mainstream.
President Trump has tweeted more than 200 pro-QAnon messages, according to Business Insider magazine, and several new members of Congress have publicly aligned with the discredited movement.
Newhouse is hopeful that “big tech” companies cracking down on social media accounts that promote QAnon and allied extremists will make it harder for those groups to recruit new members.
Even if they’re successful, however, the central issues behind QAnon will remain.
Psychology Today offered some insights into those issues when it published a three-part series on QAnon last summer:
•  QAnon is an unusual modern phenomenon that’s part conspiracy theory, part religious cult, and part role-playing game.
•  A need for certainty, closure and control, as well as a desire to feel unique or “chosen,” tend to drive belief in conspiracy theories; these become amplified in times of crisis.
•  QAnon also offers members the chance to play an “absorbing alternate-reality game,” where players solve cryptic puzzles and get rewards in a process that, like online gaming or gambling, poses the risk of addiction.
•  From the perspective of people who lack healthy real-life relationships, work and recreational pastimes, going down the QAnon “rabbit hole” can look pretty good.
•  Conspiracy theory researcher Dr. Bradley Franks has proposed that there are five stages of conspiracy theory belief (see box).
•  It’s important to understand that QAnon believers don’t want to be “saved.”
•  “More than anything, what a QAnon-obsessed loved one probably needs is support and to stay connected to something tangible and meaningful in the real world.”
•  If you’re trying to help someone who’s obsessed with QAnon you should also get help yourself.
To read the full article, visit tinyurl.com/y2cwxmyb.
One thing Newhouse says is not helpful is to tell QAnon adherents they’re crazy, or to point to their conspiracy theories and laugh, no matter how absurd they are. Most experts agree this will just make believers more adamant about their beliefs.
Above all, Newhouse says, people need to understand that QAnon is “violent and antisemitic, it wrecks families, it causes fear in the community, and it’s a mounting threat.”
For more information about Newhouse and his work at CTEC, visit tinyurl.com/y5wj369q.

Five stages of conspiracy theory belief
1. Feeling as if something isn’t right
2. Developing a skepticism about official explanations and seeking out alternative sources of information
3. Mistrusting or disbelieving authoritative sources of information and engaging with like-minded people
4. Completely rejecting “mainstream” sources of information in favor of “enlightened” conspiracy theories
5. Embracing not only improbable but supernatural explanations, at which point believers may become delusional
 
— Conspiracy theory researcher Dr. Bradley Franks

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