Conspiracy cults and the mental health pandemic

What do a mosque shooting victim in Christchurch and a Hollywood supermodel have in common? Anke Richter looks at the mental health fallout of cult-like conspiracy movements.

Three weeks ago, I sat in the High Court in Christchurch for the sentencing of the mosque terrorist and listened to 91 victim impact statements over four days. On the first day, opposite the highly secured building, on the other side of the barricades on Lichfield Street where TV cameras would later be set up for live crossings and people would sing and cheer in the sunshine when it was finally over, a small protest had formed.

I glanced over the posters on my way to lunch. One listed the “enemies of the people” with names and photos. They weren’t the Christchurch shooter or Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, but the Windsors, the Rockefellers, the Rothschilds, the Pope. “Bush did 911” and “Wake up!“ were written in felt pen all over the cardboard placards, straight out of a conspiracy 101 manual. Some protesters were holding up United Tribes flags.

What on Earth (given it’s not flat) would bring QAnon-fuelled Covid-19 deniers who believe that Bill Gates is planning to microchip us via vaccines and that Hollywood elites are cannibalising children in underground tunnels to this place, on this day? In the light of the real atrocity of March 15 that was being relived over and over again inside the court room that week, it seemed a bit off-topic. Or just off.

On closer look, the generic Q canon on the posters had a local twist related to the Christchurch massacre. Under the headlines “Cops, Guns and Untruths” and “Lie’s, deceit’s and cover up’s” (sic), prime minister Jacinda Ardern was accused of having orchestrated the mosque terrorist attack to “control and disarm us”.

Yes, just a clever ploy with a shooting rampage to change the gun laws. I was going to digest this revelation over my salad at Riverside Market when one of the half dozen male protesters took a microphone and broke into an angry rap. He saw my media lanyard, stopped his rant and came to talk to me. “Are you ready?” he said with a sly smile, pulled a printed sheet out of his pocket and started reading from it: “Once I discovered the evidence, I knew the entire event was staged and there must be very important people involved.” He went on for minutes, saying that the shooter was only “a guinea pig”, a puppet of the Satanic deep state cabal.

I wouldn’t give this conspiracy rapper and his absurd claims any mention if I hadn’t actually asked him his name. Turns out that he is the son of an elderly Muslim worshipper who was murdered at the Al-Noor mosque. His brother also gave a victim impact statement. “I’m not doing this for my father or for the 50 other deceased people,” the bereaved son told me. “I’m doing this for Christchurch, for the New Zealand people to wake up.”  I don’t know how the trauma of the attack has impacted on this man. He seemed emotional and agitated. But I do know that the bizarre sideshow on the curb outside court highlighted more than just an individual tragedy of confusion.

Ambulances rushing towards the al-Noor mosque in Christchurch on March 15, 2019 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

If even the victim of a white supremacist killer can fall for a conspiracy narrative that is racist and fascist in its core, then there’s no limit to pandemic error red-pilling. It’s time to take this insidious collective brainwash seriously because it affects not just the alternative fringes of our society, but is causing mental health problems across the spectrum.

“Brainwash” sounds like a 70s cult cliché. But anyone who listens to the excellent New York Times podcast “Rabbithole” – which, coincidentally, starts off with the Christchurch terrorist – will understand how even without a power-hungry guru or fanatical political leader, the algorithms of YouTube can do a similar job to internalise extremism and radicalise those seeking answers and belonging.

This online recruitment and transformation process is scary indeed, as March 15 made clear. It’s similar to the mind control and undue influence in new religious movements and so called “high-demand groups”, aka cults. QAnon has recently been described by experts as a “hyper-real religion”, as well as a domestic terror threat by the FBI after several violent Q-related crimes.

After more and more Q signs, hashtags and slogans like “where we go one, we go all” appeared at the recent anti-lockdown and “save our children” rallies worldwide – one right behind Billy TK at Aotea Square last weekend – QAnon has become the conspiratorial glue for those who are “just asking questions”, “waking up”, and “doing their research”. It binds neo-Nazis together with Covid-19 denialists, evangelical Christians, anti-vaxxers and misguided moral panic marchers who swallowed the paedophile adrenochrome myth and hail Donald Trump as their spiritual saviour.

Like the pandemic that reached our shores but could be curbed, this infodemic – enabled by a distrust in media and science – also arrived with a time delay. It’s harder to contain than the virus because of its religious fervour. When I saw a woman live streaming from an Auckland protest on a Facebook page that gives plenty of airtime to Covid-19 scepticism, I challenged her on her pro-Q rhetoric. “QAnon is from God! It comes from the light,” she replied, breathless and angry.

NZ Public Party leader Billy TK at an anti-lockdown protest. (Photo: David Farrier).

My darker moments happened earlier in April and May. There was a close friend who sent me an email with the “Plandemic” video attached and the innocuous standard intro: “your thoughts?” They then refused any debunking of this widely discredited pseudo-documentary.

There was the local teacher who posted false 5G and vaccination information, or the old anarchist and hippie festival buddy who turned from anti-1080 to pro-Trump.

There were the notes appearing on Christchurch lampposts over Easter, comparing the lockdown and Covid-19 measures to the Holocaust.

While my husband watched worldwide case numbers rise and prepared for the worst at the public hospital where he’s a doctor, I watched conscious communities, spiritual circles and self-development groups from Berlin to Byron Bay turn into breeding grounds for misinformation and “alternative facts”.

In the early days of Covid-19, I received videos about the Illuminati ruling the world or the “Wuhan virus” being a hoax, often with the same comment attached: “How can you call yourself a journalist and ignore this????” These were sent to me by middle-of-the-road Kiwis who, a month earlier, probably still thought that the “New World Order” was an online supermarket shopping option. What had happened, who were they listening to, and why was there suddenly such a fundamental gap between my geopolitical views and theirs? I wondered if my alienation and grief was similar to that of many Germans in 1933 when they watched their lovely neighbours turn into fanatic brownshirts.

Since it’s 2020 and not 1933, it was time to clean up my social media friend list; to block or unfollow. While the online debates decreased thanks to my curated feed, desperate direct messages poured in: requests for links and support after someone’s sister, mother or best friend had fallen down the conspiracy rabbit hole. They were at their wit’s end, not knowing how to handle the division in their whānau. Neither did I. But being openly alarmist about this topic at an early stage had put me in a position where people now shared their distress with me, hoping someone could help them.

In a couple of cases, the obsession with a constructed belief system that could explain anything from JFK’s murder to evil Big Pharma had pushed their mentally fragile loved ones over the edge.

I learned about a psychotic woman who ended up in the psychiatric unit at Hillmorton Hospital after being hopelessly lost in the QAnon echo chamber, and of someone on the autism spectrum threatening physical violence behind the scenes after being publicly berated for his controversial views.

I wish I could have referred these friends to a therapist working with an organisation that specialises in cult education and exit counselling – like the Human Rights commission or START for sexual abuse victims. But unlike Australia and many European countries, we don’t have such a government-funded cult watch institution.

How much it is lacking became apparent to me over the last years after reporting about the current and historic abuse at Gloriavale, Centrepoint, Agama Yoga and other cultic communities. Former Gloriavale members who struggle after leaving told me that they don’t have go-to professionals who really understand indoctrination. Two Auckland therapists are the only ones offering support, via a Facebook group for “Former Fundamentalists and Ex-Cult members”, most of them former Centrepoint children.

Since the rise of Covid-19 and Q my niche focus on cults, which once seemed quirky or obscure, now ties in with a much wider problem. In a residential cultic group like Gloriavale or Centrepoint, unless it has a reach on the internet, a few hundred people are being harmed and instrumentalised. With the mega-cult of QAnon, there are millions. A third of Republicans in the US now believe that the adrenochrome paedophile cannibalism conspiracy is mostly true.

“With our easygoing, naïve and passive attitude in New Zealand towards this growing global problem we are actually colluding with this insidious manipulation,” says Christchurch-based counsellor Honalee Hunter. “Very vulnerable people are being taken advantage of by opportunists.” She adds that existing mental health conditions like severe anxiety, especially when there are already issues around trust, safety and autonomy, can be hugely accelerated and exacerbated.

In 2019 I attended the annual International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conference in Manchester. I was putting my feelers out for experts who were willing to come to New Zealand to run workshops for our judiciary because there had been an apparent lack of cult understanding in some of the recent trials against Gloriavale sex offenders. At the conference, I also met a former male model and Princeton graduate who, at the height of his Hollywood career, had been completely lost in a destructive doomsday cult that almost broke him, financially and mentally. A smart, successful, attractive guy could be sucked in by extra-terrestrials?!

My takeaway from our interview was that as long as we think that only the dumb and the weak are susceptible to undue influence, we’re not only wrong, but negligent and naïve – thus making it easier for dangerous ideologies to spread. “Everyone has an Achilles heel,” was this cult survivor’s message. Or as investigative yoga journalist and Conspirituality podcast host Matthew Remski puts it: “No-one willingly joins a cult – people delay leaving a group that lied to them. The hook usually happens during an individual temporary situational vulnerability, like a divorce or health crisis.”

Because the pandemic is a collective temporary situational crisis with uncertainty, isolation and fear, it has exposed more Achilles heels than we ever thought we had. Last week I met an old friend again who I had lost contact with for years. He had sent me an inflammatory conspiracy video months ago. Now he apologised for it and said he wasn’t serious about it but just going crazy on his own in lockdown. Not seeing another human for weeks affected him badly. He is also bipolar.

I would like to hear from others who were spouting conspiracies at the height of the pandemic panic and have since come to their senses. Just like in ICSA, which is mainly made up of cult survivors, we need to hear the voices of ex-Q followers to understand better what’s happening and why.

I still have hope for the Christchurch rapper, but the day after my lunch time stop there was an another cameo appearance outside the court building. The conspiracy protesters were joined by convicted former neo-Nazi Kyle Chapman, who is now organising campaign talks for Advance NZ and Billy TK’s NZ Public Party.

New Zealand might come out tops in battling Covid-19, but it doesn’t have herd immunity to an infodemic that is continuously causing mental harm.

Anke Richter had been selected as a speaker at the ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association) conference in Montreal this year which was cancelled due to Covid-19. Its online events are at www.icsahome.com  



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