Van Badham's new book 'QAnon and On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults' delves into this century's most dangerous and far-fetched internet cult

Van Badham's book 'QAnon and On' is the story of the modern internet, the farscape of political belief and a disinformation pipeline built between the two that poses an ongoing threat to democracy itself.
Van Badham's book 'QAnon and On' is the story of the modern internet, the farscape of political belief and a disinformation pipeline built between the two that poses an ongoing threat to democracy itself.

Nick comes from a big, suburban Australian migrant family, where the cousins are all close, the politics are traditionally progressive and the bonds are very deep. He was at a wedding when he learned a cousin was "knee-deep in QAnon".

The shock weighed on him. Nick couldn't help himself and texted the cousin: I heard you believe this bullshit. Is it true?

The messages Nick got back blew him away. His cousin had even adopted the language: I'm receiving information from patriots abroad about what's going on in the US. Something big's going down on January 6. Nick replied: I bet you everything I have in my bank account on January 6 there might be trouble, but Joe Biden is going to be sworn in on January 20. "And", says Nick, "this person took the bet".

When Nick won, he didn't cash it in. He did revisit the subject, though, at a family dinner - when his cousin started to argue the coronavirus vaccines had been "compromised". Nick accused his cousin of believing Russian disinformation, "because I'm guessing that's what it is, this QAnon thing". When his cousin's eyes glazed over, Nick decided he wouldn't bring it up again. "To be honest, I can't cope with it", he says, 'not in someone who's so close to me.'

Yet he soon learned his cousin was still bringing it up, and in the most hurtful of ways. Nick isn't just a guy from a big family: he's a member of a parliament and has been part of a government, and he heard second-hand from relatives that his cousin had claimed Nick challenging QAnon beliefs just affirmed Nick supported "the cabal".

"He says I'm aware of the truth that there's a paedophile cabal and satanic cult running the country, but I choose to do nothing," says Nick, "and that's the part that bothers me the most: that people I love, and that I'm related to, believe that I ... I would allow that to occur. I mean, I just don't know ... I just don't know what to do. And I've ... I've tried to offer reason. Doesn't work. I've tried just arguing back, and debunking things that they've said, but none of it works. None of it works".

Dr Richard Wise is a Melbourne-based clinical psychologist who sees in the behaviour exhibited by internet conspiracy cult adherents recognisable personality phenomena widely understood by psychologists.

"We know that people are more prone to identifying with conspiracies when threatened, or sensing themselves as vulnerable or powerless," Wise explains. What psychologists have learned, he says, is that conspiracy theories can be seized at by humans to inform an "internally consistent pattern and systems of causation" that "reduces uncertainty and bewilderment when the world is confusing and frightening".

The beliefs formed by these internal decisions are so valuable to people as a stabilising force that they are defended from challenge with psychological ferocity. Parliamentarian Nick's QAnon cousin is a good example: he's seized on a belief system that is providing him so much psychological reassurance that he is willing to bypass his critical thinking, discount evidence and destroy the reputation of someone close to him to maintain it.

Those grasping at conspiracy theories might also do so to reduce the input of confusing or contradicting information into simple binaries. Wise explains that dual categories are much easier for people in distress to comprehend, as well as to choose alignments within.

It is obvious to a casual observer how much within the Q posts appeals to this simplicity. There are white hats and black hats. Good and evil. Patriots or the cabal.

Psychology researchers from the University of Kent who study conspiracy theories make the point that "conspiracy belief is also predicted by collective narcissism - a belief in the in-group's greatness paired with a belief that other people do not appreciate it enough".

In social media spaces, it's an observable theme. A user's unmet "frens" often encourage them to shun their families, leave their partners and walk away from lifelong friendships with those "sheep" - like Nick - who challenge the conspiratorial world view.

The Kent researchers suggest the "love" that many claim they've experienced in movements like QAnon is actually a collective valorisation of the self and their in-group. It appeals to people whose positive image of either has been threatened in some way.

Problem is, writes psychology researcher Jan-Willem van Prooijen, that participation in conspiracy communities does little to reduce the negative feelings that drive individuals to them in the first place. When believers form groups where social activity is organised around engaging conspiracy beliefs, they mutually reinforce one another's preoccupations with what is distressing them, and "exacerbate [their] feelings of anxiety".

Simply, people join conspiracy communities because they are frightened, and they remain frightened as long as they stay in conspiracy communities.

But presenting a preferable social alternative to fear is how loved ones can recover friends and family members from the "rabbit hole" of conspiracy cults. Dr Wise recommends against challenging conspiratorial beliefs with the evidence and truth.

"The more you come across as threatening to the internal consistency' of what has been a quite comforting explanation", the more easily you're recruited into a binary role as the oppositional "other" and a villain, entrenching those beliefs, he says.

Cult participation might start with a psychological provocation but it has a sociological solution.

This is an extract from writer and activist Van Badham's new book 'QAnon and On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults' - out now through Hardie Grant Publishing.

This story Delving into the dark corners of internet conspiracy cults first appeared on The Canberra Times.