For almost as long as he can remember, Mathieu’s father had been a provocateur, with a penchant for inappropriate jokes and borderline remarks. But when he started dipping his toes into conspiracy theories, things quickly got out of hand.
“When he told me to ‘look out for the FBI report’ proving Hillary Clinton tortured babies and drank their blood to live forever, I knew with 200 percent certainty that I had lost him,” Mathieu* recalled. “It was finished. I would never again see the person he was before.”
As is often the case, the father’s cross over to “the other side” occurred at a particularly vulnerable moment in his life: his finances had collapsed, he had lost his home and, as a final kick in the stomach, he was diagnosed with a serious, and often terminal, illness. It didn’t help that he was retired and didn’t have many friends.
“I feel kind of responsible because a lot of people fall into these situations when they are isolated,” said Mathieu, who has turned into somewhat of an expert on conspiracy theories since his father began embracing the QAnon movement, whose members believe the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles.
“I feel guilty in almost the same way you do when you hear that someone close to you has committed suicide, you feel like you should have been there more,” Mathieu said.
The transformation happened fast, starting with the sharing of a few QAnon-related links on Facebook. “Then he started sending me links via private message too, saying that climate change was a hoax and stuff.”
Then, his public posts grew both cruder and more violent. “Really hardcore. He was posting pictures of politicians with a rope around their neck and really defaming people, saying Michelle Obama was a transsexual, etc.”
In March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, Mathieu fell ill with what he was “99 percent certain” was Covid-19. When he later complained to his father about his many lingering symptoms, he was shocked at his father’s reaction: “Oh, you’re talking about that ‘flu’ you had?”
At that point, Mathieu’s father had become a QAnon “super spreader”, furiously pushing out conspiracy theories and sharing misinformation related to Covid-19, face masks and vaccines.
That’s when Mathieu finally decided to unfriend his father on Facebook. “I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Mathieu still speaks to his father, but keeps the communication to a minimum, and makes sure to steer clear of any topic even remotely related to his father’s conspiracy theory beliefs. “We’re still in contact because he is sick you know, but it’s probably just a matter of time before I’ll never speak to him again. I feel like I’ve lost him.”
“Lost” is a term often used by friends and family members whose loved ones disappear in the murky waters of conspiracy theories.
“Not long ago, a mother told me she was ‘in mourning’ over her son, even though he is still alive. It’s so sad,” said Pascale Duval, the spokeswoman for French support group UNADFI, which helps the victims of sects and conspiracy theories as well as their families.
“The families go through enormous pain and they are the first to suffer when someone falls into conspiracy theories,” she said, noting they currently represent 70 percent of the people reaching out to UNADFI.
“It’s parents, children, spouses, siblings, friends, you name it. When they contact us, they say things like, ‘I don’t know what to do anymore’, ‘He’s broken off contact with me’, ‘We can’t communicate anymore’, ‘It’s not the same person anymore’. They’re really desperate for help.”
One recent example of the type of complaints UNADFI receives was from a woman whose sister and mother had begun watching unhealthy quantities of anti-vaccine videos on social media. “She’s going to get married soon, and now her mother and sister refuse to come to the wedding,” Duval said.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of people contacting UNADFI has skyrocketed. “Last year, we received 4,323 requests for help, 12 percent more than the year before.”
For Duval, conspiracy theories are clearly to blame for this steep increase.
“We’ve always seen a rise in these kinds of beliefs when there’s any kind of large-scale catastrophe,” she said, referring to other conspiracy theory-prone issues such as climate change and terrorist attacks. This is because people are scared or frustrated and have a hard time accepting reality, Duval said. So they look for alternative – or more “credible” – ways to explain the catastrophe or someone to blame it on.
Once a person begins visiting conspiracy sites and pages, she said, the beliefs often multiply, as the person’s openness to the irrational, coupled with Internet algorithms, will keep feeding them more resources and theories. “It’s like a snowball effect.”
Duval also said conspiracy theories were no different from sects in the way they isolate, manipulate and ultimately control their victims.
“What we always see in these situations, whether it’s a sectarian movement or a conspiracy theory, is this breaking off of contact. It’s constant and systematic and completely tears these families apart.”
Extremely difficult to reach
The European Commission recently set up a platform dedicated to identifying, debunking and countering the conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19. “The coronavirus pandemic has seen a rise in harmful and misleading conspiracy theories, mostly spreading online,” it states on its website. The site also offers advice for people on how to deal with friends or family members who have bought into these theories. But, it warns, “people who firmly believe in conspiracy theories are extremely difficult to reach”.
Last month Mike Kropveld, the founder and director of the Montreal-based non-profit organisation Info-Secte and who once helped rescue a friend from a religious sect, launched a new support group for people with friends, spouses or family members who have become extreme proponents of conspiracy theories and other fringe beliefs or groups.
“Emotionally and psychologically, these situations can be very draining for a family member and they need to talk with people who are in similar situations,” he said. “The pandemic just increased the need because we got more and more calls.”
The support group includes volunteer psychologists and other healthcare professionals. Their aim is to help families and friends deal with what they often feel is a “hopeless” situation.
“Bringing someone back to how they were before is a long process, if at all possible,” Kropveld said, noting the conspiracy theorists are so “emotionally tied” to their beliefs that any attempt to try to prove them wrong is likely to backfire and may instead aggravate the situation.
“Let’s say you have a new boyfriend that you have fallen in love with and I come and tell you he is out to manipulate you and exploit you [...]. It is highly unlikely you are going to say, 'Thanks, I didn't know that' and say, 'I am going to dump him and get a new boyfriend'. It is more likely you are going to close off to me instead,” he explained. “It is important to recall the expression, 'Love is blind'."
Duval agreed: “It’s very rare for someone to ‘wake up’ because of what someone on the outside says or does. It has to come from them.”
Early warning signs
Kropveld said that although there was no “one-size-fits-all” profile for potential conspiracy theorists, there are some traits and behaviours to look out for.
“In some cases, they already have a level of distrust in the political system, and may already believe in ideas that are outside of the mainstream,” he said, adding that a difficult life situation can then add fuel to the fire.
“Obviously if someone is feeling isolated and alone, and may have lost their job, it could be a potential indicator that the person might be more open to look for solutions or simple answers to what's going on.”
Kropveld said that the best thing a person can do in this situation is to remain non-confrontational and keep a constant and open line of communication with them. “Because if the outside is no longer there if they decide to come back, they're basically locked [into] the environment they're in, and it´s obviously going to be much harder to leave.”
Although Mathieu no longer harbours much hope to win his father back from QAnon, he said he would never again miss the early warning signs of someone slipping into conspiracy theories.
“As soon as someone posts something [conspiratorial] saying: ‘I don’t agree with everything he says, but…’, that’s a sign that it’s almost already too late.”
*The name has been changed to protect the person’s identity