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The most effective ways to support a loved one who believes in QAnon

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Sometimes a conspiracy theory is a far-fetched explanation for events we can’t understand. We might turn to it when the official story seems suspect or unbelievable, or when politicians and media personalities (think President Trump and Alex Jones) insist on a version disproved by facts and experts. 

Yet a conspiracy theory can also become a way of life, providing the believer with a sense of belonging and personal fulfillment. Efforts to persuade them to give up their newfound identity will only backfire. 

This is the most effective way to describe a collection of far-right conspiracy theories commonly known as QAnon. The origins of QAnon go back to an anonymously posted message on 4chan, in 2017, that wrongly predicted the arrest of Hillary Clinton and subsequent public riots. The poster dubbed themselves Q, a shorthand for their purported access to military intelligence. 

Since then, QAnon has amassed a vast network of followers, perhaps numbering in the millions, who believe they are engaged in an apocalyptic battle with the so-called Deep State to stop a ring of prominent Democrats and Hollywood liberals who abuse and exploit children. This summer, QAnon gained new followers by hijacking the #SaveTheChildren hashtag, which began as a legitimate fundraising and awareness campaign for a nonprofit humanitarian organization. Experts see the rapid growth of QAnon, and its effect on believers’ personal lives, as something more than an engaging conspiracy theory.  

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that QAnon can wreak havoc on relationships, driving a wedge between people that sometimes results in an inability to stay together or maintain a connection,” Dr. Joseph Pierre, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in an email.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that QAnon can wreak havoc on relationships”

Dr. Pierre, whose recent research has focused on “delusion-like beliefs,” said that the dogma of cults revolves around the need for members to disconnect from society, which is typically cast as unenlightened or even an existential threat to the cult’s identity. 

“With a conspiracy theory belief system like QAnon, it’s much the same way,” he wrote. “And so, the biggest pitfall is that by opposing someone’s belief system, you can easily be labeled as the ‘enemy.'”

Losing a relationship is painful no matter when the breakdown happens. But watching a cherished connection deteriorate at a time when relationships help ease the anguish of a pandemic, the effects of climate change, and tragedy born of racial injustice can make the loss even more traumatic. While some may accept that loss and move on, others may want to maintain or try to repair the relationship. 

If you’re looking for effective tactics, here are two key strategies to keep in mind when talking to someone who believes in QAnon: 

1. Understand the psychological rewards QAnon offers.

First, it’s important to remember that there are proven conspiracies, whether conducted by the government or powerful private actors, that ultimately surface thanks to acts of transparency like investigative reporting, whistleblowing, or the declassification of documents. 

That reality can make it harder to talk to a QAnon believer about the community’s many assertions of shadowy figures who control the world’s levers of power. After all, they might argue that it won’t be long before these secrets are made public, just like past conspiracies. 

Instead of arguing this point, try to better understand what satisfaction your loved one gets from believing in Q’s prophecies. In general, research suggests that conspiracy theories offer “broad, internally consistent explanations” that allow people preserve their beliefs.  

Conspiracy theories appear to thrive at times of great uncertainty, which may help explain why your friend or family member has devoted much of their time and energy to QAnon in recent months. Research has also helped illuminate other characteristics common to conspiracy believers, including: a “quasi-religious” mentality, wanting to feel unique, and feeling alienated from politics. Prejudice toward certain groups can also be associated with conspiracy theorizing.

With its emphasis on a coming profound political and social reckoning, a promise to help people discover hidden truths that explain how the world works, and a mysterious leader who drops clues so followers can solve riddles, QAnon offers a potent mix of psychological rewards. 

Dr. Pierre has called the movement “a curious modern phenomenon that’s part conspiracy theory, part religious cult, and part role-playing game.” He said that this combination means people can stumble across QAnon in several different ways. A church-going grandparent might see it posted on Facebook by a friend. A mom who doesn’t believing in vaccines and is already suspicious of corporations finding ways to profit off of children could be drawn into the #SaveheChildren hashtag on Instagram. A gamer could see a Q “drop” on an internet message board and spend hours trying to decode it. 

Once down the rabbit hole, people will feel empowered to play a key role in a larger socio-political narrative.

“Any attempts to ‘rescue’ someone from QAnon have to be understood in these terms,” said Dr. Pierre. “Those who have found meaning in QAnon don’t want to be rescued — they’ve finally found something that’s bigger than themselves. That’s not going to be easily relinquished.” 

2. Be curious. 

Steven Hassan is a licensed mental health counselor and former member of the Moon organization, a religious movement once led by a messianic figure named Rev. Sun Myung Moon. He is also the author of The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control. Hassan considers himself a cult survivor and has long studied how to support and remain in contact with loved ones who join a group that uses controlling techniques and dogma to entrap its acolytes. 

Hassan says friends and family typically react with anger or judgment, questioning the believer’s intelligence and suggesting they’ve been brainwashed. This response, Hassan says, is the worst thing you can do: “It propels the person not to trust you and deeper into the cult.”

Instead of criticizing a loved one, Hassan recommends being curious about their beliefs. This is no easy feat given that many QAnon adherents sincerely believe that corrupt leaders who oppose President Trump traffic, abuse, and kill children. Many in the QAnon community also think the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax. While it may be painful to entertain these false, offensive ideas, Hassan says it’s essential. 

“The single most important technique to help someone out of a cult is asking a good question and giving long silence to think about it, and then asking a follow up,” says Hassan 

Your posture can be curious yet concerned. The point is to treat your loved one with respect by inviting them to share how and why they’ve arrived at this point. This doesn’t mean you’re obligated to review all of the information they’ve compiled. If you can’t watch a long YouTube video they’ve asked you to view, explain why and ask them to share something that’s shorter. 

“[S]omeone who is aligned with QAnon is probably getting a totally different newsfeed than we are.” 

It’s possible to quickly reach an impasse on discussing the merits of QAnon. One of the group’s mantra’s — “do your own research” — creates the perception that anyone can discover concealed truths with enough internet sleuthing. In fact, it often feels as though QAnon has created an alternate reality where there’s little common ground once you’re a full-fledged believer. 

Dr. Pierre said that when people mistrust authoritative information, they’re vulnerable to misinformation and deliberate disinformation. This effect becomes even more intense when people get their information on the internet. 

“[S]omeone who is aligned with QAnon is probably getting a totally different newsfeed than we are,” said Dr. Pierre. 

Hassan recommends being honest in a nonjudgmental way about such divergences and agreeing when the facts make it possible. You can say, for example, that there is a lot of corruption in politics or that you dislike the reality of backroom deals between government and business figures. The goal of these conversations is to prompt reflection about how your loved one came to adopt their views. 

Dr. Pierre agrees that it’s crucial to avoid being seen as attacking a friend or family member. 

“Just like in psychotherapy, it’s really about listening, understanding, and empathizing,” he said. “Invest in the relationship and maintain a level of respect, compassion, and trust. Having that foundation is essential if we ever hope to get people to consider other perspectives and loosen the grip on their own.”

If a loved one rejects your overtures, or your attempts to talk about their interest in QAnon fail, Hassan recommends staying present in their life, if at all possible. 

Hassan says a simple message to a friend or family member who insists they can’t speak to you — “I like to hope in the future you’ll reach out again, and know that I accept you and love you” — might be the caring gesture that ultimately convinces them it’s possible to return from the depths of QAnon.  

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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