Like many moms, Chloe Neilly, 29, spends much of her time on the sidelines of a soccer field or at swim practice for her two children in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. In her free time, she's often scrolling on social media, looking at articles and YouTube videos about QAnon.
Neilly believes in a thoroughly discredited conspiracy theory group known as QAnon, which falsely claims that a secret cabal of powerful people control the world and engage in child trafficking.
Neilly worries about the impact of the "deep state" impact on the country.
"I believe (Q) is a group of several people who were in military intelligence or know a good bit. They will tell you about the dumps. They will tell you about the deep underground military bases," she told NBC News' Kate Snow. “It’s crazy to think about because not everyone really knows.”
QAnon versus the truth
A Pentagon spokesperson told Snow: “While there are a few underground military bases, it is not true that they are ‘everywhere, all over the world,’ nor that people don’t know about them.”
Neilly also believes Democrats, Republicans, judges and police officers are all involved in exploiting children and that President Donald Trump can stop it. "It is about the kids and it's bad," Neilly told Snow. “There’s too many kids that are missing, too many kids that are unaccounted for. It’s too much.” Again, this conspiracy theory has no basis in fact.
Fewer than 1% of child kidnappings are "stereotypical stranger abductions," according to the Polly Klaas Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to finding missing children: Most kidnappers are relatives or family. And while child sexual abuse is a very real problem, 93% of children who are sexually abused know their abuser, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
Neilly is not alone in her beliefs. Moms are following QAnon conspiracies online. A September Rolling Stone article highlighted various mom influencers spreading misinformation about QAnon and #savethechildren. The Reddit forum QAnon Causalities has a thread from people who claim that a loved one learned about QAnon through multilevel marketing schemes on social media. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have banned QAnon accounts, yet the information can still be shared in smaller groups, Snow reported.
“I know nothing about QAnon,” he said. “I do know that they are very much against pedophilia and I agree with that.”
How should you respond to a QAnon follower?
So, what should you do if someone in your mom group starts posting about #savethechildren (a hashtag QAnon followers have co-opted, not associated with the respected Save The Children charity) or if a friend at a soccer match casually brings up Q’s mission to punish pedophiles? Should you provide them with facts to counter their argument? Should you cut off contact?
“Part of it is asking why do you need to confront? Why do you need to deal with it?” Brain Keeley, a professor of philosophy at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and a conspiracy theory expert, told TODAY Parents. “It’s hard to say exactly what to do other than trying to find out why they believe the things they believe and trying to talk through the consequences of it.”
Keeley recommends not telling people their view is wrong, but coming to the conversation with spirit of understanding.
“There’s no accounting for taste. People like what they like and I think one of the things that gets overlooked with conspiracy theories, in general, is they do have this entertaining element to them,” he said. “Academics like me who study it often look for these kind of deep and serious reasons for why people believe what they believe. But for some people it’s how they challenge their minds. Other people play the New York Times crossword.”
For some, ignoring it doesn’t seem to be an option. Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting and reliance expert, says there are a few ways to deal with a QAnon fan.
Parents often join parenting groups because they need a place to vent, want to schedule playdates or find recommendations. When QAnon supporters spread their conspiracy theories that community can feel unwelcoming. That might be the time to report the posts.
“If what you want to do is protect your space — and some of the more vulnerable people in that group — then you have an obligation to be an upstander,” Gilboa told TODAY Parents. “When you see someone putting out there in a group that you're in, something you know to be erroneous and damaging (you should report them).”
When people know the QAnon supporter a little bit better, they might not feel like reporting their behavior is enough. In that case, set ground rules about interacting with them.
“Put boundaries up,” Gilboa said. “If you disagree with them you can put boundaries around what you are willing to basically subject yourself or the people that you love to.”
This means when your once-bestie mentions child trafficking on your post about the best playgrounds, you can tell her that her QAnon meme is inappropriate. It might change her behavior.
“You'll either do this thing you don't want to do, or you'll respect the fact that we're going to do this thing,” Gilboa said.
Lead with empathy and pick your strategy
Trying to get someone to change their views is hard. But it’s not impossible. It just takes a lot of work.
“The better you know, them the more likely you are to choose strategies that might work,” Gilboa said. “There’s never a guarantee that you are going to change beliefs of behaviors. But the first thing to remember is that you will not change their feelings. Facts aren’t feelings.”
That means people need to acknowledge someone’s emotions.
“A lot of people who are reading conspiracy theories, the feelings they’re having are ones of fear, betrayal, anger, hopelessness,” Gilboa said. The first step, she said, “is asking about their feelings and then showing empathy.”
People should avoid quibbling over facts at this point and try to understand the other person's point of view.
Empathy, Gilboa said, is “the first step to have any shot at engaging them in factual conversation."
It takes 19 tries to change someone’s mind
Another way to change someone’s views about QAnon is to connect it to something that is important to the person. For example, if your friend wants to attend your child’s socially distanced birthday party with her family but they refuse to wear masks because they believes COVID-19 is a hoax, you can tell them that they must wear a mask or skip it.
NBC News has found that some QAnon accounts also share false information about COVID-19. Tying a request to something that is a goal of theirs might make more likely to change.
“You can say, ‘Hey, I understand you really strongly believe in this but in our household, if we do things we have to wear a mask. So if you can’t wear a mask you can’t come to the birthday party,’” Gilboa said. “Then you say, ‘So hey, I'm suggesting that you open your mind to be willing to maybe look a little bit more critically at this post, or at this group or at this belief system.'"
Finding someone they respect, such as a celebrity or politician, and showing them their messages about the information might help them see reason.
“The woman in your mom’s group may not believe you … but here are five different people that they might find more credible,” Gilboa said.
Transformation doesn’t come easily.
“It takes most people 19 attempts to change,” Gilboa said. “It’s still worthwhile, but you rarely, if ever, have the satisfaction of knowing you changed someone’s mind.”