For followers of QAnon, Inauguration Day was never supposed to happen. There was going to be an uprising, assassinations, and Donald Trump was supposed to remain in office, victorious. On January 20, as Joe Biden was being sworn in as the 46th president, Shannon Foley Martinez sat down to make a video that spoke directly to followers of Q as the transfer of power peacefully occurred. “Many of you are grappling with a sense of confusion, betrayal, shame, embarrassment, and anger. That you’ve been led astray and lied to,” she says in a calm, patient voice. “I want to urge you to stay alive.”
Martinez is a former white supremacist who helps empower individuals to leave violence-based lifestyles and ideologies. Over the past year, QAnon has become one of the most powerful conspiracy theories in the county, fueled by people trapped at home, scared and uncertain, with a troll-in-chief fanning the flames of disinformation.
Seyward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, recently spoke with Martinez about what can be done in this disorienting, transitional moment to reach out to followers of QAnon and begin the long, tenuous process of drawing loved ones away from conspiracy theories.
Seyward Darby: I recently watched your video addressing QAnon followers on Inauguration Day as well as one where you spoke to the loved ones of Q believers. I’d been thinking about how to approach people who are deep inside of extremist beliefs about the January 6 insurrection and the transfer of power to the Biden administration. And then, lo and behold, there were your videos. Why did you make them?
Shannon Foley Martinez: I was part of the violent white supremacy movement from the time I was 15 until the time I was 20. (I’m 46 now.) My entire adulthood has been centered around the idea of trying to understand how I embraced those ideas. How did it even happen?
What connections do you see between believers in QAnon and white supremacists?
The faces we saw on January 6 were not exclusively white, and QAnon is not made up of exclusively white people. (Though it’s probably a large majority in the U.S.) But on its foundational level, QAnon uses the same overarching anti-Semitic language and a view of the world that is connective. Whenever the word “globalist” is thrown around, that’s an anti-Semitic trope for the Jews. QAnon has embraced the rhetoric that came out of the Trump White House, which included figures like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, people who have been propagating white supremacist thought for a long time.
We’re also in a historical moment where white supremacy is being challenged. We saw this profoundly over the summer of 2020 during the Black Lives Matter protests. And part of what we’re seeing with QAnon is a backlash to this. White supremacy defends and perpetuates itself. When white supremacy is challenged, it creates a fear that many white people can’t express, a fear they probably can’t even identify.
Rather than communicate that fear, white America is susceptible to messaging that blames others. This is one of the things that has been very pervasive in terms of Trumpism. He was able to tap into those unspoken fears and rally his base effectively.
What did QAnon followers need to hear after the inauguration?
There was initial disappointment and confusion among QAnon groups when Trump posted the video on the afternoon of the 6th, telling the rioters to go home. Some thought it was a deep fake; others felt like he disavowed them. I was watching in real-time some Q groups starting to juggle with what this meant for them, what their future held.
For followers of Q, there was supposed to be a huge event on Inauguration Day. Biden was never supposed to be inaugurated, there were supposed to be widespread assassinations, and Trump was supposed to reaffirm his power — none of which, of course, came to pass.
If you look at cults, especially death cults, when big prophecies don’t come to pass, there is often confusion. People begin to have doubts, and they wonder, “Maybe none of this was real.” This is also a time when followers might choose to die by suicide rather than face the shame of having given themselves to a cult or conspiracy theory.
I mentor people leaving far-right and violence-based ideologies. At the beginning of this process, there’s a cognitive opening that allows people to shift. It’s an opportunity to examine whether or not the worldview they’ve been entrenched in is worth continuing on with.
This can be a really crucial time because two things can happen. People can decide “I don’t want to invest myself in this anymore” and begin the process of walking away, or they can double down. They might think “I’ve invested so much of myself in this, I have to make this work.” So rather than walking away, they entrench even further.
When nothing happened on Inauguration Day, there was a lot of mocking of Q followers online. I found this troubling because I kept thinking this means they’re vulnerable. In the video you did for Q believers, it’s striking how empathetic and patient you are. Why is this tone important?
To be honest, that’s just how I am. I just wanted to speak from my heart. I really empathize with what you’re saying about people saying, “Well, you’re just an idiot” or “Look at these stupid people.”
Being stupid is not part of my story. That’s not how I ended up in the white nationalist movement. I was in gifted classes, and I was a championship athlete. Being a white supremacist was incredibly harmful and hurtful — I’m not trying to mitigate this in any way — but blowing me off as an ignorant redneck misses the mark.
One of the things about people like me and people who are entrenched in QAnon right now is that we’re people who have a broken and twisted set of needs. I see all human beings wanting to feel truly heard and truly seen, needing to be able to give love and be loved. We need to have a meaningful connection with something greater than ourselves.
I was struck by the empathic quality of your response, treating this disappointment as serious and personal.
I’ve found you can’t argue people out of their deeply entrenched worldview; they just entrench further. It’s not a matter of convincing somebody they need to walk away from QAnon. Rather, if they want to, I can share some of the first steps you can take.
You also emphasized the individual’s agency to make decisions about their lives and to take small steps to change. You say: “Take a walk. Go work out. Do something that reconnects you in a way, however small, with the world.” How do you show people they have agency in their lives?
A lot of stories we hear about white supremacy and QAnon is people falling down rabbit holes. This language strips agency from a person — it’s all the algorithm’s fault.
I think this an enormous mistake because I know I had agency in what I was doing. I made hundreds, thousands of choices along the way, continuing to give my assent. Each person that is part of QAnon, they have made a choice again and again to consume this material and to give their assent.
I was also building a physical echo chamber — this was before the internet was widespread — and I spent more and more time with people that held these views and consumed music and books and magazines and stuff only containing this content. I began to filter every experience that I had through this white nationalistic lens.
But QAnon followers may not have awareness of this echo chamber. I’ve come to understand this is a response to trauma. We’re looking for a reason the world feels like a dangerous place. We need an explanation as to why things feel inherently threatening. Our brain, for whatever reason, has difficulty identifying threats and categorizing them.
To break this kind of thinking, I needed to immerse myself in nondestructive things. Having physical activities as part of my life was really important, bicycling or yoga or even fishing or hunting, activities where you exist really in your body.
So much of the world QAnon believers are in is separate from their body — following Q is very much an in-the-brain activity. Having something where you have to be present in your body can be anchoring. You have to forge those synapses and create and entrench new neural pathways. That’s why disengagement is a process and not an event.
If you are a parent, sibling, or friend of someone who’s involved in QAnon, how do you talk about boundaries? When do you engage, and when do you walk away?
Setting, communicating, and enforcing interpersonal boundaries is one of the cornerstones of a healthy emotional life. If there are words or subjects you don’t want to engage in, then you should make that clear. If you don’t want to hear overtly racist language, then say, “I do not want to hear overtly racist things, and if you say them, then I’ll walk away from this conversation.”
You can also frame your conversation: “When you do X, I feel Y. I would like to request you do Z.” Here’s an example: “When you say, ‘Everyone knows the election was stolen,’ I feel upset because that’s not my experience. In the future, could you please frame this as ‘I believe the election was stolen.’” Tell them to frame things as something they believe rather than something they assume everyone knows. It’s not compassionate to not have boundaries.
If you are the loved one of someone who is entrenched in Q and you initiate a conversation, set boundaries, and do everything you suggest — what do you do if the person just completely blows you off? What’s your best advice for getting a no?
There’s follow-through for the boundaries you’ve set, right? Now, if you live with this person, I think it’s really important to continue to offer experiences outside of the echo chamber, whether that means sitting down and playing a video game together, taking a walk, volunteering in the community, or building something together.
De-radicalization is not a short-term experience. This is a very, very long process. I don’t even know if there’s any research about the average length of the time people spend entrenched in these places. Depending on their level of commitment, we’re probably talking about at least a few years of their life.
If your loved one decides not to accept your rules of engagement and you decide to not spend time with them, I would still check in on them from a distance. You can still send a photo of a beautiful sunset. You can still offer dispatches from the outside. You can still connect.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.