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Do you know someone who believes in QAnon? Are you afraid of QAnon? Have you been wondering where it comes from and what it even means?
Join us as today’s guest explains how seemingly normal, intelligent, sane people believe in lizard people, pedophile cabals, and micro-chipped trackers delivered via vaccines.
Sophia Moskalenko is a social and clinical psychologist studying mass identity and conspiracy theories at the Georgia State University’s Evidence-Based Cyber Security group. Dr. Moskalenko’s research on psychology of radicalization and terrorism has been presented in scientific conferences, government briefings, radio broadcasts and international television newscasts. As a research fellow at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (NC-START) she has led research projects commissioned by the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of State. She has written several books, including award-winning “Friction: How conflict radicalizes them and us,” “The Marvel of Martyrdom: The power of self-sacrifice in the selfish world,” and “Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the mind of QAnon.”
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to quickly thank our sponsor, Better Help. You can grab a week free by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Calling in to our show today. We have Sophia Moskalenko. Dr. Moskalenko is a social and clinical psychologist studying mass identity and conspiracy theories at the Georgia State University’s Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Group. She is also the author of Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon. Dr. Moskalenko, welcome to the show.
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: Thank you so much for having me.
Gabe Howard: The QAnon conspiracy is everywhere. We’ve heard it from the Senate floor, from the presidential pulpit, for Pete’s sake. It’s literally been mentioned at the highest levels of government all the way down to seedy social media platform chat rooms. But what exactly is it? What is QAnon?
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: QAnon is a baseless and debunked conspiracy theory, or rather it’s a whole lot of different conspiracy theories under one umbrella, and they range from things like flat earth and lizard people, the idea that there are these lizard human hybrids living among us to the belief that a Satan worshiping cabal of pedophiles has taken over the control of the American government and the media. It, of course, also includes all kinds of beliefs about the COVID virus and the vaccine being either poison or something that can turn your child into LGBTQ or something that carries a micro tracking device. So there are all kinds of different conspiracy theories that all fall under the QAnon umbrella. It’s really like an Amazon of conspiracy theories. There’s something there for everyone.
Gabe Howard: When I first heard about QAnon, I thought it was a group. Is it a structured group? Is there a leadership, a membership? Can you join it or is it literally just a collection of nonsense?
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: Right. There is no leadership to speak of. Initially, QAnon begun with these “Q drops,” these cryptic pieces of information that appeared on Chans, this like lesser used social media sites that people interpreted as though they were puzzles. And there’s a lot of controversy about who the poster was for these original Q drops, who the Q so to speak was, that HBO did a documentary. And at the end, they couldn’t really say definitively, but they thought it probably was more than one person posting. By today, QAnon following counts in tens of millions in the US alone, and it has spread around the world to dozens of countries. It’s a very loose following. It’s not like there are weekly meetings or there are some check points you need to pass in order to get to the QAnon Shangri-La. You too can go online and check out the influencers who spread QAnon content and click by click, you will end up down the rabbit hole, as they call it, where all kinds of theories are formulated and augmented and discussed about how the world really, really works. What are the secret ins and outs of how the economy is controlled and who runs the world government and who are in the cabal and so on.
Gabe Howard: Some people believe that QAnon is a cult. Some people believe that it’s a religion and there’s yet another group of people that are like, no, no, no, it’s just a political movement. I’m having trouble understanding exactly what it is because it’s so fanciful. I mean, lizard people have taken over our government? I don’t understand how this gained any traction, let alone millions of followers. But for the purpose of understanding this phenomenon is QAnon a cult, is it a religion? Is it a political movement? Does it have a name?
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: Is QAnon a cult? To the best of my knowledge, of what a cult is, it usually is a pretty tight-knit face-to-face group with a very specific leadership and very specific rules for belonging and for leading. QAnon is not face-to-face, people interact with other QAnon followers through the Internet. They usually don’t know them. They are not compelled to exchange their addresses and names and phone numbers and so on. There is no central leadership. We’re hard pressed to even find out who the original Q drops came from. And it’s a really broad group. It doesn’t really seem to satisfy the definition of a cult, in my opinion. Is it a religion? I am a little rusty on what defines religion, but it seems to me there has to be a central tenet or belief. And as I mentioned, QAnon is such a broad set of beliefs. And a lot of people who are QAnon followers believe some, but not others, often kind of squabble with each other online. There are these QAnon followers who sneer at those who believe in lizard people, and there are those who believe the space lasers and maybe some other QAnon followers don’t. It doesn’t seem like it’s like a religion either, because there’s no central tenet as far as their beliefs are concerned.
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: So what really is it? How should we think about it? In my work on case studies that I’ve analyzed for the book, really in-depth analysis of dozens of QAnon followers’ social media output, their own writings, their posts of videos and interviews they gave, and also looking at some of the research data that my colleagues are now putting out. It seems to me, this is my professional but personal opinion, that QAnon is kind of a zeitgeist. It’s a refuge for people who feel like the society is leaving them behind. They share a number of grievances about the government, about how our country is run, the institutions that are in charge of their lives. They share a deep mistrust about science that permeates their daily lives from the food they eat, that has pesticides and hormones and all of that. And the medicines they take and the computers they use, all of the science in their lives, is giving them a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. And the most general thing that we can say about QAnon, I believe, is that it’s an escape route for those among us who don’t feel comfortable or respected or welcomed in the society as it is right now.
Gabe Howard: But they’ve turned violent. It’s my understanding that the majority of the rioters at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 were QAnon believers. Isn’t that concerning? I mean, tens of millions of people that are defending their beliefs with violence. It’s frightening.
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: It would be frightening if it were true. The majority of people who stormed the Capitol Hill building on January 6, in fact, were not QAnon follower. How many were QAnon followers? Well, as of about a month ago, I believe the number was 61 people indicted for participation in the January 6 riot were indeed QAnon followers. Sixty-one is a very small proportion of everyone who was at the January 6 event in the Capitol Hill. So why is there this pretty widespread perception that QAnon was the driving force of that riot? I think one answer is that they just really stood out. That “shaman,” with the horns and the naked tattoo-covered torso. Some people who wore really bright clothing that featured large letter Q on it, some people with flags. And also the fact that the two women who were killed at the event, Ashli Babbitt, who was shot when she tried to climb a barricade that led to the door behind which the lawmakers escaped, and another woman who was trampled to death on the stairs were both QAnon supporters. So it’s kind of a availability heuristic that we’re using when we’re trying to imagine the crowd on January 6. Because the most visible, the most widely reported as far as the two women who were dead were indeed QAnon followers.
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: But in fact, they were a minority at that event. There is indeed a number of QAnon followers who did engage in ideologically motivated crime, including storming the Capitol Hill building. But relative to their population of tens of millions, it’s a tiny proportion. So QAnon is a set of shared radical beliefs. But as far as radical action is concerned, we probably shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about them engaging in it. They are dangerous, though, in a different way.
Gabe Howard: I’m very glad to hear that they’re not dangerous in the sense of they’re not trying to overthrow the government. They’re not participating in violence. But you said they are dangerous. What? How are they dangerous if they’re not dangerous?
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: Well, they’re not dangerous in a terrorist threat kind of way, but think for a second how big a section of our society believes in QAnon conspiracy theories. Right? This is the same subset of our population who don’t believe in our institutions and our government’s authority. They don’t follow government recommendations. So we already are carrying the costs of this behavior in, for example, rates of vaccination, which we know are correlated with QAnon beliefs. So people who believe QAnon conspiracy theories are a lot less likely to become vaccinated or ever intend to do so. And of course, therefore, their chances of getting sick with COVID and then ending up in a hospital seriously ill and putting pressure on our health care system are a lot higher. They may not participate in elections at the same rate, or they may participate in elections in a way that undermines them, preventing people from voting or intimidating people or discouraging them in other ways.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that I think about is that this is America. We’re free to believe whatever we want, you know, freedom, of course, is the right to be wrong. Now, you’ve listed a lot of reasons why we should, in fact, worry about them. But where do we draw the line on this? It gets really messy quickly, right? We can’t stop people from believing incorrect things. That’s not the way America works. But you’ve described real damage. What’s the path forward?
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: Right. We can’t stop people from believing things, but at the same time, we can make sure that information on which they base their beliefs is at least somewhat balanced. We can make sure that the social media, which are the new public squares basically, they are the new media. A lot of people get their news completely from the social media. They can be fair players in this game and become more transparent about what’s happening on their platforms, become a little more diligent about malicious players, whether those are domestic or foreign. We know for a fact that Russia was from the onset very much playing into spreading QAnon, multiplying QAnon content through trolls and bots and Kremlin backed media, because it is in their geopolitical interest to sow this division among the American public, which then results in the kinds of events like the January 6 storming of Capitol Hill. We need regulations for that. And we need legislation that will help to identify malicious players and those who spread harmful content so that people can make decisions based on facts than just what the algorithms of Facebook or YouTube or Twitter put in front of their eyes.
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Gabe Howard: Let’s talk about turning loved ones away from QAnon. Is there any way to get through to them and bring them back to reality? Because just saying, hey, you’re wrong. Here are the facts, doesn’t seem to be working.
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: Yeah, in fact, it’s exactly the wrong thing to say, because we know from research that trying to argue with somebody about their beliefs is likely to make them even more entrenched in them. People become defensive and, in their head, even after you have finished talking with them, they will keep coming up with reasons for why they were right and you were wrong. And so a few days later, if you ask them about their beliefs, they’re going to be even more convinced of them than they were before you tried showing them the light, so to speak. So definitely don’t argue with QAnon followers about facts. So what can we do? One thing that we can do that is not easy but really important is to not cut these people out of our lives and of our social circles. A really big reason why people joined QAnon or stayed with it was the social connection, especially during the COVID lockdown. The rates of QAnon following just skyrocketed because people were so lonely and so isolated in their homes, they were looking to share their emotions and their fears and QAnon offered that to them. If they could relate to people outside of QAnon not on the basis of their beliefs, but just on the basis of emotional connection. If it’s family, then you probably have some shared past or common loved ones, that will go a long way toward driving a wedge between them and this crazy online world.
Gabe Howard: There’s this part of me that just thinks that anybody that believes this has to be not intelligent, they have to be just extraordinarily naive or they have to be mentally ill. Is there a link there? Are intelligent people falling for this?
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: You’re not alone in that assumption or suspicion, people have expressed that a lot, even people in Washington suggested that. My own research doesn’t show that intelligence is a correlate of QAnon beliefs. In other words, it doesn’t seem to matter how intelligent a person is if you want to predict whether or not they will follow QAnon. So, among the QAnon followers that I researched, there were Harvard graduates, attorneys, physicians, successful small business owners, as well as high school dropouts, people of all ages, different economic backgrounds. We may get better data later, but at least for now, that’s what it looks like. Mental illness, on the other hand, does seem to be much more prevalent among QAnon followers than it is in the general population.
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: It’s hard to tell whether mental health problems are the cause of following QAnon, so people who are mentally unwell are more likely to seek out QAnon, or maybe following QAnon exacerbates dormant mental health problems. Or maybe there’s something else that is driving both, but there is definitely a connection between the two. I am currently collecting data from, as you say, people who are sitting at home in front of their computers and asking them also about their history of mental health issues. So I will have an answer to that in a couple of months, I hope.
Gabe Howard: I love that the research is continuing on this. It really seems like QAnon took off when the former president started espousing the beliefs, so it gave it some legitimacy. Do you think that we will see this sort of die down as more polarizing political figures are in our rear view?
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: I wish the more polarizing political figures were in our rear view, but we have two congresswomen who are avid QAnon supporters and disseminators, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert. And we have dozens of political candidates running in the primary who are also unabashedly QAnon supporters. And it seems like it’s not costing them any votes or any sponsors’ money. In fact, it seems like it helps them get elected. So unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to see QAnon kind of dying out of President Trump is, as you say, in our rear view mirror. Unfortunately, I think President Trump is not entirely in our rear view mirror.
Gabe Howard: I think that you’re absolutely correct. This is dominating the news cycle. I mean, it’s a popular enough theory that a mental health podcast is covering it from a mental health perspective. This is not some small fringe thing. Do you think something that’s giving it legs is the fact that it’s constantly being discussed in the media?
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: Are you proposing a conspiracy theory, Gabe?
Gabe Howard: I, it’s I struggle with this so much because I just I honestly believe that if you walked up to any QAnon follower and you said to them, I’m a reptilian and I live under the flat earth, they would immediately call you a liar. Yet they believe that it’s out there. It’s a dichotomy that confuses me completely, understanding that I am not a mental health professional. I am not a researcher. I am just a gentleman with bipolar who hosts a podcast and gets to talk to great researchers and doctors like you. But the, it fascinates me. And I just don’t have the words to describe how anybody can fall for this.
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: I think it’s fair to assume that there is a number of QAnon followers who don’t believe much or any of it. And for them, engaging in QAnon talk online or in-person is just a collective narrative making to vent their frustrations, to relate to people of similar political leanings. And if you put them against the wall and, you know, really interrogated them, they would say they didn’t really believe any of it. For them, it’s just a kind of posturing. And then there’s some for whom it’s really true. And those people, unfortunately, are probably deeply unwell. And we need to be thinking about how to provide them with mental health services that they’re not getting at the moment. And then there are a lot of people in the middle who are, like you said, you know, if you told them that you were a lizard hybrid, they would probably laugh in your face. But at the same time, they have to deal with so much on a daily basis that they have no way of ascertaining. And so they just have to take somebody’s word on it. I’m buying processed food at a store, and I just have to trust the manufacturing company to actually put food into it that they say they did, and occasionally turns out that they didn’t do that. Same with medicine I buy for my children. You know, I just have to trust the scientist who put out research about it to be truthful instead of greedy. And occasionally it turns out they were not truthful. So people often develop this deep skepticism and suspicions of the most fundamental daily things that come from science, that come from government, and that are critically important in their lives. And so they treat everything with the same skepticism and allow for the possibility that there’s poison in the food and drugs that will make you into a drug addict, even though they’re supposed to help you. And doctors who will push those drugs on you in order to get rich and that there are lizard people living out there.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Moskalenko, I can only imagine what your research is like. It had to be both fascinating and scary because I’m equal parts fascinated and terrified. Do you have any final words on this phenomenon? Is this the first time that something like this to this scale has gripped America? Are we in uncharted waters here or is this just more of the same?
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: Conspiracy theories are definitely not new. In fact, most of QAnon folklore is a reiteration of some old conspiracy theory. Like, for example, the Protocols of Zion, which came out of Czarist Russia in the 18th century and claimed that a cabal of Jews were kidnapping children and worshiping Satan and drinking their blood and torturing them. So that part is not really new or surprising. What is new, though, is how far-reaching it’s gotten with the help of social media. We’re so intimately connected through our devices all the time now. Before it would take some time and effort to get some pamphlets somewhere and read it. And the scarcity of paper and the expense of printing would make the spread of these stories much less. Now it’s just spreading like wildfire.
Gabe Howard: It’s hard enough to move forward when everybody is using actual data, because even in science, we see different interpretations of facts. But when you’re not bound by truth, everything is game. And it’s utterly terrifying to think that there are tens of millions of people that believe some of these things. So thank you so much for your research and your book, “Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon.” Where can folks find that?
Gabe Howard: Well, thank you so much for being here.
Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D.: Thank you for having me.
Gabe Howard: And thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” And I’m also a nationally recognized public speaker. And I would love to be at your next event. You can grab a signed copy of my book with free swag or learn more about me just by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please follow or subscribe. It’s absolutely free. And you won’t miss a thing. Also, take a moment and review the show. And I’ll see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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