True believers

How QAnon wins converts, how people behave in air crashes, and one of the craziest scientific papers ever published.

Those who have escaped the grip of a cult or extreme ideology speak with a special authority. They know what it’s like on the other side of the wormhole and they have found the mental wherewithal to get away from it and reflect on how it happened. The US-based online conspiracy cult QAnon played a central role in last month’s violent insurrection at the Capitol. QAnon is a complex, sprawling conspiracy theory about a clique of vampiric paeodophiles who run the world. It sounds as if you’d have to very stupid or completely crazy to believe any of it, yet many thousands do, and it’s worthwhile trying to understand why. This clip from an interview with a former QAnon follower who has now recanted makes for compelling viewing. The woman in question, Ashley Vanderbilt, is intelligent and reflective and likeable, and provides an insight into how people like her get sucked in. The groups she started interacting with online (presumably on Facebook and elsewhere) were not explicitly ‘QAnon’. They were just people discussing some horrible, outrageous practice that needed to be exposed. They didn’t get straight to the “Bill Gates is drinking children’s blood” stuff. They started by discussing something relatively bounded and real: child trafficking. That triggered a powerful curiosity in her: “It piques your interest, because as a mom I want to protect my kid.” So Ashley started asking for information from her online contacts, whom she had grown to trust, and then more, and as she did she fell deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. “Eventually you get to that huge crazy theory, and you believe it. But it didn’t start that way.” Vanderbilt goes on to talk about how her intense absorption in the cult meant that she wasn’t fully present for her 4 year old daughter. I was really moved by her introspection and by her bravery in coming forward to talk about this. Her description of how she was drawn in reminded me of a passage from Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, in which he relates how American prisoners of war were interrogated by Chinese communists during the Korean War. The Chinese sought to persuade the Americans that they had been on the wrong side all along, with the aim of turning them into informers, and they had considerable success. Their approach was systematic and subtle. They didn’t start conversations with the prisoners by telling them America is evil and communism is good. The strategy was rather to “start small and build”. They would get the Americans to assent to statements like “The United States is not perfect”. Later they would ask them to make a list of “problems with America” and put their name to it. And so on, inch by inch, until at least some of the prisoners crossed the line and became true believers. I have no idea if QAnon operates as it does deliberately or if there is some bottom-up process for recruitment that has just evolved but the approach sounds similar. In many less dark situations, this is how good persuasion works anyway. People are hardly ever persuaded to “change their mind” by arguments, in the sense of a 180 degree reversal of their position. But over time, step by step, a mind can be changed.


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…is out in the wild! Thursday was publication day and it couldn’t have been sweeter. On the same day, CONFLICTED was featured in a brilliant column in The Times by Iain Martin. If you'd like to get a flavour of the book then you can read this adapted extract in the Guardian, which ran on Tuesday. I’m happy that CONFLICTED had its debut in The Guardian’s Long Read section, because that’s where it started: the seed of it was sown by a piece I did on the science of interrogation. Listening to expert interrogators, it dawned upon that they know a whole lot about human nature and in particular how to communicate under conditions of conflict. CONFLICTED has also had lovely reviews in the Financial Times and The Times, both from excellent writers (both paywalled, sorry). Tuesday is US publication day. So, Americans, you still have a few days left to do me a massive favour/favor and pre-order CONFLICTED. British readers, you can merely order now - yes, I insist there is a difference. Thank you to all of you who have already ordered and to those of you who have RTd and posted pics of the book, it all helps!


  • The good news on Covid-19 continues with real world evidence that Oxford/AZ has a massive effect on transmission, and new trial evidence that it blocks all serious disease. New study finds that the vaccine works better when there’s a longer gap between doses. Real world data suggests that one shot of Pfizer gives 85% protection after 12 weeks (remember when the UK announced its dosing regime at the end of the year, Pfizer said there was ‘no evidence’ that one dose provided strong protection, which was both true and misleading). In Britain cases are dropping steadily with early signs of a vaccination effect playing its part. (One question, posed by my trusted sources Sam and Oliver, is why the government doesn’t relax the rules on meeting outside, right away.) Just to prove I don’t do only good news, the rate of decline in hospital admissions has slowed, for no clear reason - could be a blip, we’ll see. The US is on a similar trajectory, with the epidemic in steady decline. It’s unclear how and whether the ‘UK variant’ will affect that trajectory.

  • I like hearing from people who work in very specialised forms of communication and you don’t get much more niche that a firm that makes airline safety cards - you know, those graphic stories about how to deal with your imminent demise. That’s quite a communication challenge. In this podcast we hear from Trisha Ferguson, CEO of a company that makes those cards for almost the entire industry, tailoring each design for each airline. Ferguson is an entertaining interviewee. Along the way she remarks that, according to pretty much all the first-hand accounts of plane crashes she’s read over the years, passengers do not behave as you might imagine in a crisis situation. Instead of screaming and going wild with panic they become calm and focused - this was true, for example, of the Miracle on the Hudson incident. She’s not sure why. Maybe some ancient instinct for mental focus kicks in when we know that clear thinking is our only hope of survival.

  • In 1984 a gay New York psychoanalyst called Casper Schmidt published a paper arguing that AIDS was a psychosomatic disease triggered by the rise of the Evangelical right in America (he used graphs and everything). This short piece (which seems to use ‘remarkable’ as a synonym for ‘silly’ but is otherwise good) speculates on why Schmidt arrived at such a bonkers theory.

  • A new (video) interview with David Shor, the best political analyst around. It’s just come out so I haven’t watched but I can confidently recommend it.

Hey wait I don’t know if I already said this but I’d really love you to order (or pre-order in you’re in the US) CONFLICTED