These Canadians lost their loved ones to Qanon. Is there any hope of getting them back?
MONTREAL -- As Joe Biden was sworn in as America's 46th president on Wednesday, not everyone was celebrating.
Countless followers of the Qanon conspiracy theory gathered in their online echo chambers. Some mourned. Others insisted that the reality unfolding on their television screens and social media newsfeeds was not, in fact, real. A few wondered if they had been had all along.
For almost four years, they had been promised world-shattering revelations. That Donald Trump would not only win re-election, but would expose corrupt politicians on both sides of the aisle. That he would prove victorious in the secret war he was waging against a powerful pedophile cabal who controlled not just the United States, but the world. That even as the results of the 2020 election were certified, it was all an elaborate ploy by their leader. A 4D chess game that would end in a mass arrest of Joe Biden and countless others, all broadcast for the world to see. But it didn’t happen.
Banned from most major social media outlets, they have found their people on encrypted apps like Telegram and on extremist message boards. Qanon has become a truly international movement – some of the sites founded to host the lost herds cater specifically to adherents in countries outside the United States, including Canadians. Experts estimate though the conspiracy theory has spread to over 80 countries, Canada has one of the five largest populations of Qanon supporters in the world.
But even as these people have found their kindred spirits online, they have left heartbreak out in the real world. Family members have founded their own online communities, where they commiserate and share advice on how to talk to fathers, mothers, wife and husbands who they feel they no longer know.
One of the most popular is a Reddit forum called QanonCasualties, which has attracted its share of Canadians whose family members have become acolytes. Some are angry, others bewildered. Some talk about family members who had always been prone to conspiracies; others say that until recently, they had been on the opposite end of the political spectrum, moderate or completely politically disengaged. Some use dark humour to cope with the major personality shifts they've witnessed.
It's a forum that has brought Jackie some solace, as her father's obsession with Q “killed our relationship,” she says. Where once her father was “a man's man,” who was into fixing cars and carpentry and had very little interest in politics outside a passing admiration for former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, now the only thing he wants to talk about is Q.
“There is no telling a Q follower anything,” Jackie, who asked to remain anonymous, told CTV News. “Everything not related to Trump or Q's ideals is garbage to them. It’s irrelevant. I may as well be speaking a different language when I speak to him. What I say, whether it’s political or not, doesn’t compute. Everything is a distraction from Q, even personal successes. Q has all the words, ideas, ideals, opinions, and information that matters.”
She said the descent began in February of 2019 as her father began consuming YouTube videos dedicated to Qanon. One night, while eating out at a restaurant, his family noticed he wasn't acting like himself.
“He was completely preoccupied with the Qanon content he had watched earlier that day,” said Jackie. “Someone asked him what was wrong because he looked so down. He said he doesn’t find excitement in much of anything anymore and later told the table 'If you knew what I know, you would never smile.'”
The details are always different, but the end result is usually the same. Mike's father also leaned conservative, but had a streak of the conspiratorial: he bought into the conspiracy theory, for instance, that the shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School that claimed the lives of 26 people, mostly small children, had been faked as an excuse for the government to take Americans' guns.
He had interests outside politics, though those have mostly fallen by the wayside; once a big hockey fan, he turned on the NHL after the league embraced the Black Lives Matter movement. Though Mike says they were never that close, he and his father did share a passion for NASCAR racing. But now, all his father wants to talk about is Q.
“I just remember my dad being a lot less outraged, a lot less angry,” says Mike. “Even if he still had seen some of the same tendencies, they just weren't on the same extreme scale. I think that was the big thing. You were able to kind of have a normal conversation with him just about in about whatever, without it spilling into, into anything else even.”
That anger has consequences. Mike, too, asked to remain anonymous. The economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic led him to move back in with his parents and he fears what could happen if he goes against his father's beliefs too strongly.
As Mike's father got into Qanon, so did much of his family – they would share their latest discoveries on Facebook. (Facebook and Twitter have both announced crackdowns on Qanon content).
“It's really hard to kind of grapple with honestly, because you witness people that you've lived with for years, and known for years and are people that you trust," he said.
"For them to just start saying things like, 'Oh, well, they're sucking blood out of babies to get extra youth,' as much as it dumbfounds you, you wonder... how did they come to the conclusion this was even remotely true?”
Despite the all-ecompassing obsession described by Jackie and Mike, Steven Hassan believes there is hope for Q followers. An expert in cults and author of the books "The Cult of Trump" and "Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs," Hassan has spent much of the past few years studying Qanon and explaining how he believes followers can be pulled back from the brink.
Hassan himself is a former member of the Moonies, the religious movement that has been accused of brainwashing its followers.
While other experts have stressed to CTV News the importance of media literacy and widely available mental health resources in combatting conspiracy theories, Hassan said that loved ones displaying empathy is vital in fighting the spread of cults like Qanon one-on-one.
“There is a whole protocol of what I recommend, but it always starts with building rapport and trust and taking a position with the person of 'Hey, you're an intelligent person. If you if you take this seriously, then I want to take it seriously. But please convince me, show me what is so important to you, that convinced you to take this seriously,' rather than 'How can you believe this crap?'" Hassan said.
"If you take that frame, you're not going to get anywhere.”
With Trump out of the Oval Office and facing a trial in the Senate after being impeached a second time, as well as several criminal investigations, Hassan said he believes there will come a time when the cult of Q will fade away.
But north of the border, and in places across the globe, thousands of people are left to try and pick up the pieces of their relationships, or abandon them all together. Trump may have lost the election, but some people will hold on to their fantasies, no matter how outlandish. Jackie says she has no hope of ever getting the father she once knew back.
“Q is something bigger at this point,” she says. “Q is symbolic of protecting children, defeating Satan, ending wars, and exponential growth in the number of people who can be saved and go to Heaven for eternal paradise. How can you reject that?”