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Opinion: How to talk to insurrectionists and conspiracy theorists

I’m a cognitive scientist who has been studying the drivers of political violence for the better part of a decade. My work has involved interviews, social network analysis, psychology experiments, and surveys of jihadists, white nationalists, and conspiracists. My colleagues and I also conducted the first-ever brain scan studies on jihadist supporters. Our findings point to one thing that ordinary people can do if they feel that someone they know might be getting radicalized: Stay connected.

Jan. 6 insurrectionists, QAnon adherents, and other fringe actors are not the same as jihadists, but some findings on the latter are instructive.

We found through one of our neuroscience studies of jihadist supporters that when extremists feel that their peers—not necessarily other jihadists, just other members of their ethnic group — did not support violence, the jihadists themselves toned down their own violent intentions. Not only that, it reactivated areas of the brain associated with deliberation and self-reflection which had previously been offline. Again, these peers were not fellow extremists but rather just other local members of their ethnic group.

To me, that clearly shows that if we want to lower the violent intentions of political extremists of any kind, we have to make them realize that the broader non-extremist community, including people similar to them, disapproves. This means everyday Americans have the power to reduce insurrectionist violence of the kind we saw on Jan. 6, simply by condemning it.

The caveat, however, is that in order for peer influence to work, extremists need to see themselves as part of the community who are condemning their violence. Otherwise they don’t see those people as “peers,” and their opinions will hold little sway. That’s a major reason why staying connected is so powerful, when a friend or relative seems to have fallen into a political-extremism rabbit hole.

A big part of what extremists do is create a wedge between their adherents and the broader society. They want their supporters to be solely surrounded by fellow extremists. This means being married to extremists, having friends and family who are extremists, only getting information from their sanctioned news sources, and spending time on messaging app groups and social media apps where fellow extremists make up their network. This part of extremists’ recruitment strategy leads to new adherents being cut off from the outside world and its norms.

This means the onus is on all of us to not allow this social severing to take place. If we fail to do this, the consequences can be disastrous. In another brain scan study we conducted on jihadist sympathizers, we found that social exclusion is a key driver of extremism.

In a virtual ball-tossing game, we found that when jihadists were excluded — i.e., when participants stopped tossing them the ball — they became more committed to their values and more willing to use violence to support their cause.

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In other words, making people feel socially excluded only pushes them toward extremism. So while it may be distasteful, we need to make those tilting toward political extremism — those who support the Jan. 6 insurrection, espouse violence in support of their political beliefs, or adhere to conspiracy theories — feel included and not excluded, if we want to pull them back from the edge of violence.

What this means is that all of us have to engage with our friends and family who start showing sympathy for insurrectionist violence and ideas. It’s tempting to attack them in comments sections of their online posts, to unfollow or unfriend them, to block their numbers, or to stop inviting them to dinner parties. But our findings suggest that these actions may do more harm than good. Instead, try to engage them by using the following guidelines from psychological research.

First, talk to them one-on-one either through messaging, voice or video calls, or best yet, face-to-face. Research shows that people not only form more positive attitudes toward those they interact with face-to-face rather than digitally, but they are also more likely to agree with someone they’re talking to in real life.
Second, instead of telling them what you think, listen to what they think. Research on asymmetric conflict (where one group is materially stronger than another) shows that asking those on the weaker side to take the perspective of the dominant side often backfires. But if a member of the dominant side lets a member of the weaker side give their perspective, this ultimately lowers their guard and makes them more open to discussion.
While the number of people who support insurrectionists is worrisome, they are nonetheless still a fringe group and thus the weaker side of the conflict. So, let them give you their take and try to listen sincerely.
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That will also help with the third and most important lesson from research on radicalization: People join these groups because they offer a solution to some problem in their lives. These problems could be financial, mental health related, a lack of belonging or purpose, or many other things. Extremist groups offer potential members a pathway to a better life. The belief in the ideology is the cost of entry to that new life.
I’ve interviewed dozens of members of jihadist and white nationalist groups but more recently I’ve been interviewing adherents of QAnon. One Anon (as some adherents to the QAnon conspiracy theory refer to themselves) told me that he always needs a plan because uncertainty gives him anxiety. The real world is complicated and unpredictable, so it seems he’d rather believe in a conspiratorial one because at least he feels he understands it. This gives him peace of mind.

Another Anon suffered from severe mental health issues. For her, believing in conspiracies allowed her to focus outside of herself. She could displace her anger, fear, and depression onto the imagined conspiratorial system. This helped her in her recovery. Another Anon felt alienated from his family and friends. He was deeply alone. Then he got a girlfriend who’s an Anon; he moved in with her, and she taught him about the movement. The more fervent he became in his beliefs, the closer their relationship became. Their beliefs are now the glue of their romantic bond.

These stories are similar to the dozens of members and supporters of jihadist groups I’ve interviewed over the years. The common theme is that the jihadists and QAnon adherents were all suffering in some way, whether materially or emotionally, and the extremist groups offered them a solution. The extremist groups gave them money, a community, emotional support, or a sense of purpose. In order to steer someone away from these kinds of movements, you need to understand the deeper reasons for why someone might join. Simply arguing with them about their beliefs won’t work.

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This is also why some deradicalization and reintegration programs for extremists fail. Many programs send former extremists right back into the very environments in which they initially radicalized. This can lead to recidivism, since their life conditions still make them ripe for wanting to rejoin the group they’ve left.

What if the person is currently very happy in their extremist movement?

I’ll be honest with you: If that’s the case, you’re going to have a hard time getting them out. If they get a sense of belonging, purpose, peace of mind, or other benefits from being in the extremist group, then they’re probably not going to leave it all behind, at least not soon. In such a situation, all you can do is be there for the person, ready to serve as a bridge back into society — and wait.

There may come a moment when the person grows disaffected with extremism. If they have a friend who’s standing by, ready not only to help them leave the group but also to help establish a satisfying life — to improve on the unsatisfactory conditions that made them vulnerable to extremism in the first place — that’s when all those weeks, months, or years of contact will have paid off.

Disengagement and deradicalization is not an easy or predictable process. But it works much better when the extremist still has a lifeline into the normal world. That’s not something governments or social media companies can provide. That’s where you hold the power. Stay connected, listen, and be there for them when they’re ready to rejoin the rest of society.
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