A few years ago, QAnon had an obscure internet following organized around a baseless conspiracy theory. It has now become ubiquitous, with regular and disturbing news stories reminding us of its reach.
One way to comprehend the incomprehensible is to recognize the parallels between QAnon and addictive drugs like opioids.
Last week, we learned of a QAnon-related data leak of Colorado voting machine logins. The week before, people around the country struggled to comprehend a gruesome homicide allegedly committed by a QAnon-following father who, according to authorities, told the FBI he killed his two small children because he believed they’d inherited from their mother lizard DNA that would turn them into monsters. Last spring, a mother admitted to killing her three children, saying she wanted to protect them from becoming victims of a sadistic cabal of pedophiles whose existence is widely believed among QAnon adherents.
Why would such outlandish conspiracy theories hold sway over these parents and others around the country? One way to comprehend the incomprehensible is to recognize the parallels between QAnon and addictive drugs like opioids — which are also manipulated by malicious actors to trap vulnerable people in increasingly unhealthy spirals that ultimately result in the destruction of families and even death. Recognizing these similarities is helpful in both accurately diagnosing the QAnon phenomenon and trying to treat it.
For starters, QAnon, like the painkiller abuse epidemic driven by the drug oxycodone, engulfs people who are most vulnerable to its content. An overwhelming proportion of QAnon followers arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection, for instance, have mental health problems, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a University of Maryland analysis. If you believe the world is out to get you, you are probably more likely to embrace QAnon narratives that explain exactly how the world is out to get you.
Their psychological pain may make these people especially vulnerable to QAnon’s content, which often speaks to fears, anxieties and anger. People who worry about contamination, for example, are probably more susceptible to lies about the Covid-19 vaccine carrying a contaminating agent that makes their children gay or transgender.
It is also likely that prolonged exposure to QAnon content exacerbates or even triggers mental illness, as watching video after video about horrific devastation can have a detrimental effect on anyone’s mental health. This then increases the appeal of the remedies QAnon prescribes, such as refusing Covid vaccines, protesting mask mandates or even storming the Capitol in Washington. Though to be sure, most people with mental health problems do not believe in QAnon conspiracy theories, just as a sizable proportion of QAnon followers are not mentally ill.
Moreover, the internet platforms through which most QAnon followers consume content are deliberately structured to sustain user engagement and foster a kind of addiction. In fact, these online QAnon experiences seem to engage the same brain structures responsible for addiction, as solving the “puzzles” revealed by conspiracy theories may prompt pleasure-driving dopamine hits.
After mainstream platforms booted many QAnon followers, other even more addictive platforms filled the void. These channels are echo chambers, so hooked people only see information that confirms what they already believe, pulling them further down the proverbial rabbit hole of conspiracy theories.
Crucially, just like drug hits, QAnon offers a quick “fix” for feelings of loneliness, fear and anger that those in pain want to alleviate. Individuals who seek out online communities often do so because they feel isolated and lonely. It’s no surprise that QAnon’s following grew immensely during Covid-19 lockdowns, when people were limited to socializing online, and QAnon chatrooms in particular offered a chance to vent frustration and outrage. Yet research shows the more time people spend on social media, the more isolated and lonely they feel, repeating an endless loop of trying — and failing — to fulfill social needs.
Because, like a drug of addiction, QAnon content doesn’t actually take the underlying pain away, bigger “highs” are needed to distract from the root causes of despair. Consumers of QAnon content thus experience cravings for new and exciting conspiracies, such as former President Donald Trump’s prophesied return to the White House.
QAnon shares one last parallel with addictive drugs: There is a small but powerful group of individuals who benefit financially and politically from amplifying, spreading and legitimizing QAnon’s conspiracy theories. In the case of drugs, there are also powerful groups with vested interests — the major pharmaceutical companies that presided over a crushing opioid epidemic among some of the very same communities addicted to QAnon now and dealers pushing illicit drugs on the streets.
It is crucial that we curb QAnon’s damage before it reaches the staggering proportions of the opioid drug crisis, and to do so we need a variety of tools to attack the infodemic. These include increased transparency and responsibility from social media platforms, access to mental health assessment and treatment for vulnerable individuals, and critical thinking and media literacy education in our schools.
While it’s easy to see QAnon followers as crazy or evil, the example of the opioid epidemic offers a broader perspective that indicates pain, vulnerability and powerlessness are part of what brought them to their way of thinking. The best approach to help people out of QAnon is to do so with kindness and empathy. As with opioid users, QAnon followers are suffering and in some ways may feel powerless to their addiction.