Everyday people get sucked into conspiracy theories and violent movements all the time, although the process happens slowly. It starts small. YouTube’s algorithm might offer up an edgy, offensive video, which leads to more edgy, offensive videos. From there, someone can move to unsettling Reddit posts, Facebook groups, and accounts on more niche services, like Telegram. Conspiracy theories and violent movements thrive because they’re community-based, and those communities survive by bringing in new members.
But what if your significant other is one of those new members? How can you help? Can you help? And what can you do to keep yourself rooted in reality as your loved one goes deeper and deeper into a world you don’t understand?
How to know if your partner is falling for conspiracies
Stay alert and pay close attention to your loved one so you don’t miss any signs that they’re getting consumed by online movements. Are they displaying anti-social behaviour or making drastic lifestyle changes? Are they getting more argumentative or suddenly talking in a way you’ve never heard them speak before about demographic groups, such as minorities or followers of a certain religion or political party?
All of these are signs your loved one might be flirting with extremism, said Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, which is part of the Atlantic Council. He heads up their work on domestic extremism and how it uses the Internet, so he’s “up to speed with all the latest and greatest conspiracy theories and misinformation that’s certainly now in the ether, because those kinds of things are the gasoline for extremist movements and understanding the playing field and the framework that they are working from is pretty crucial.”
He pointed out that most Americans believe in some kind of conspiracy theory, whether it’s related to the killing of former president John F. Kennedy or the moon landing. Not all of these conspiracy theories or threads of misinformation are harmful and violent, though. You need to be attuned to your partner, their interests, and their online — and real-life — activity to the best of your ability, then use your judgement to determine if they’re getting too far into something that is actually dangerous.
Do research on the theories your loved one is showing interest in. Read up on Qanon, for instance, and online extremism in general. If you’re not familiar with these topics, the ideas behind them can seem far-fetched, but don’t be dismissive. They’re meaningful to adherents and if you are disdainful when you discuss them, you risk alienating your partner — and pushing them deeper into a community where they feel understood.
“Where I think it would be particularly concerning is when it gets kind of paired with a call to action, whether that is something a little bit more neutral like getting involved with electoral politics or, on the most radical, extreme part of the scale, engaging in violence, I also think it’s concerning if a loved one were to get into conspiracy theories that are endorsements of hate or that are politically-motivated violence. I think those would be immediate causes for concern because those are very dark rabbit holes to fall down and when somebody starts getting that far, it gets exponentially harder to pull them out,” Holt said.
Counter hate with love… and patience
Holt was clear he’s not an expert on deradicalization, but that intervention — the move to “pull them out” — is possible; it’s just “a very complex process.”
“What a lot of people who are experts in the deradicalization space will tell you is that interventions on the personal level from close loved ones, close friends, family members — particularly when those interventions happen earlier in the course of radicalisation — tend to be among the most effective ways of getting somebody out,” he explained.
Intervention, like anything, has to be approached case-by-case. Your loved one is unique. They’re searching for meaning or purpose in their own life by exploring these movements. You can’t try a standard, blanket approach, but Holt said empathy, persistence, and patience are the cornerstones of a successful intervention for anyone.
Again, do not be dismissive or mean. Show your partner that you love them. Sit down with them and express, calmly, that their interest in these topics is concerning to you and you’re worried about them. Introduce them to the works of people who’ve come back from the brink. CNN regularly features former white supremacists and reformed neo-Nazis, for instance. Show these interviews to your loved one in a judgement-free manner, and have an open conversation about them.
“Because getting somebody back from the brink is such an intensive process a lot of the time, depending on the relationship and depending on your commitment to it, that is something you just have to size up. I think it’s important not to underestimate the amount of work that it can take in many cases and to really consider that end when you’re trying to decide whether or not you want to try to salvage things,” said Holt, who added that third parties like friends or counselors can also be called upon to help if the situation gets worse.
Know when to walk away
Yes, you love your partner. No, it’s not your responsibility to save them from themselves if they reject all of your help. Sometimes, you have to walk away, for your own good. That’s OK.
“Ultimately, that’s a personal decision on the part of the person who’s being negatively affected. I would say as a baseline, if the descent into that rabbit hole starts to get into more of a violent ideology, absolutely, you should strongly consider your safety continuing to be around that person,” Holt advised.
Your love for someone else should never cause you to put yourself in a situation that is scary or unstable. You have to love yourself, too.
Don’t blame yourself
You are not the cause of your partner’s interest in conspiracies or extremism. Don’t blame yourself for their descent or your inability to pull them back. You’re just one person, and if this were an easy fix, no one would be sucked up in these communities or movements.
“Deradicalization is a pretty monumental task. We’re not talking about getting somebody to quit smoking, for example,” Holt said. “We’re talking about something that has psychological, political, self-identity type of implications with the people who end up believing in them and even among some of the top experts who are looking at these issues and trying to find ways to help people get their friends and loved ones and family members back from conspiracy land or hate movement land, even they will tell you it’s not a perfect science. There are things that will work more often than others, but it is not as if there is an easy prescription to this issue and that the negatively affected person just screwed it up somehow or failed somehow. The best anybody can do is make their best effort and if it doesn’t work, there is only a certain degree that you can control the actions and ideas of other people.”