August 14, 2020


Before I went to medical school, I became close friends with a fellow student while taking pre-med classes at the University of Texas at Austin. He was also applying to med school and was older, like me. His story was really interesting. He had been a “Moonie”. For those you who don’t know, it was considered a cult back in the 80’s, led by the Reverend Moon, hence the name Moonie. They were known for their mass weddings and for selling flowers. He became one by trying to get his best friend out of the cult when they were living California. His friend had joined and disappeared, so my friend pretended to join, hoping to find him and talk him out of there. Ultimately he became indoctrinated himself.

He stayed in for several years until his parents essentially kidnapped him and had him “de-programmed”. I met him a couple years after the de-programming. He described the experience of becoming part of the cult thusly: “They separate you from your friends and family, keep you sleep deprived, give you bad food, then tell you that you are really special. It worked.” After our first couple years of med school, we would half-jokingly say that med school was a cult too, because that is what happens while you are in school.

I thought of that story today while reading this tale of a women diving deep into the QAnon world of anti-maskers. She describes the social isolation at the beginning of the epidemic and how insidiously she was lured, deeper and deeper into conspiracy theories on Facebook and Instagram and other social media. The scenario is the same as what my friend experienced: separate you from friends and family during the shutdown, cause sleep deprivation, feed you information constantly that you don’t have time to question, because the algorithm sends you deeper into the hole. And then they start telling you how special you are. They keep you ‘doom scrolling’ and before you know it, you are a believer.

I have been wondering why so many people have been willing to make scenes and risk arrest, not to mention alienating friends and family. We hear stories all over of people erupting with anger and accusations that aren’t true, as well as attacking well-meaning workers. I didn’t really understand how manipulated so many people are. The outbursts now seem planned and encouraged. The insidious nature of brainwashing works, slowly at first, until you are in too deep to extract yourself. Scary stuff.

It is hard enough that we are fighting a pandemic, but knowing that we are being attacked and manipulated by trolls and forces that want to divide us, makes everything harder. These forces want to increase our separation and keep us from working together. This story helps explain that some are so far down the rabbit hole that they think they are helping, rather than harming. Many, sadly, are easy targets because of loneliness and isolation, magnified by the pandemic. Due to this manipulation, we are having a much harder time controlling the spread, causing more deaths, disability, and suffering. It has other tolls too, especially on essential workers, attacked for asking people to consider others. Sadly, many public health workers are leaving their jobs because of this craziness. I don’t blame them. Illinois just made it a felony to attack workers enforcing face masks. Good for them.

But what are we to do? Rolling Stone has an eye opening and truthful article about how America is unraveling. Our leaders have failed us and we know we are being attacked and divided from outside. The tale of this woman makes that clear. This sounds pretty depressing. It will be hard to come back from this. It is too easy to just get angry and blame the individuals. We need to recognize that most everyone wants to help, their intentions are good, even those believing QAnon with claims that seem crazy to us. Understanding that particular idea (that they are trying to help) is difficult, if not impossible, when we see the harms being done.

So for now, we as a society can start the hard process of de-programming those believers. Somehow we need to find a way to help the nation heal. Not an easy task and not everyone is able to do it. Harder still with trolls and bots and others with ill intent, who continue to lure with their ideas and seductive messaging. Worse that Facebook and other social media make it too easy for them. We may not know people affected but if you know loved ones it may be possible to help. My ex-Moonie friend told me that initially the deprograming failed. He protested and denied what he was being told during those sessions. What finally made sense to him after several days and helped him return to his family and outside life was meeting with a rabbi who treated him with compassion, made a connection, did not deny his feelings, and helped him see love in the world again. Which is what really makes the difference, after all.

Wash your hands, cover your nose, keep safe six. Be that rabbi...treat others with compassion, make a connection, don't deny their feelings, and show them that love is in the world.

And finally, my caveat is that this is my experience and my opinions, which are subject to change as more information is available, and not related to the organization I work for. Thanks for reading. And thank you, Catherine, for the link.