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Experts In Cult Deprogramming Step In To Help Believers In Conspiracy Theories

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Northern California, a typical meeting of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors used to run around two or three hours.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is a scamdemic (ph). It's a plandemic (ph), and it's a damndemic (ph). We're sick of it.

SHAPIRO: Now it's sometimes closer to six hours.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's a fraud. The numbers for PCR testing...

SHAPIRO: Shasta County is rural, mostly white and very Republican. People there are angry about the local coronavirus response. Some claim that rules to enforce social distancing could lead to civil war and violent resistance. And many of these beliefs are fueled by false conspiracy theories that people found online.

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LEONARD MOTY: There's no constructive criticism. It's just trying to disrupt the meeting and disrupt county business.

SHAPIRO: County Supervisor Leonard Moty worries that reasonable people won't feel safe coming to meetings, let alone running for public office.

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MOTY: The extremists aren't the majority at this point, so business can still be done. But it's much more difficult.

SHAPIRO: In some parts of the country, the threats against public health workers have gotten so bad that officials are resigning. And the disinformation is not only about the pandemic. It's also about things like voting. In many places, those conspiracy theories are actually leading to some big policy changes.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A controversial election bill clears another hurdle at the state capitol. It would add voting restrictions to upcoming elections.

SHAPIRO: Republicans in Georgia are pushing a new law that would make it harder to vote in a bunch of ways - less early voting, a shorter absentee voting window, a new ID requirement. At least 40 states are considering similar bills. In Georgia, Andra Gillespie of Emory University says the voting bill would disproportionately hurt lower-income voters, people of color and Democrats.

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ANDRA GILLESPIE: What does it mean when you see legislators responding with legislative and policy proposals that would be aimed to address a problem that, in fact, didn't exist in the first place?

SHAPIRO: The point here is that increasingly, disinformation is leaking from the far corners of the Internet into mainstream politics. As part of a special series on disinformation, we are going to spend the next few minutes talking about why it's spreading, and we'll go inside the practice of deprogramming people who believe it.

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SHAPIRO: Disinformation is not new. What's changing now is how fast and how far it can spread.

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JOAN DONOVAN: Social media tends to drive the fringe to the mainstream.

SHAPIRO: Joan Donovan is a researcher at Harvard Kennedy's Shorenstein Center, and she says the truth is often kind of boring and doesn't play well on social media. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand...

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DONOVAN: There are so many conspiracy theories on the Internet. We've come to start to think about it as an attack on the supply chain of information.

SHAPIRO: Former President Trump has led that attack on the truth on an unprecedented scale.

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DONALD TRUMP: This election was rigged, and the Supreme Court and other courts didn't want to do anything about it.

SHAPIRO: Of course, that's false. But an Ipsos poll taken after the attack on January 6 found that only 27% of Republicans believe that Joe Biden legitimately won the presidential election. So the question is, when someone buys into disinformation or conspiracy theories, how do you help them back out? NPR's Tovia Smith took a look inside the practice of deprogramming.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Michelle Queen, a 46-year-old from Texas, is one of a quarter of Americans, according to a recent Ipsos poll, who believe the baseless claim that Trump won the election and President Biden did not.

MICHELLE QUEEN: No way. It was rigged. Everything was rigged.

SMITH: Queen is also among the 20% who believe that those who broke into the Capitol in January were actually undercover members of the left-wing antifa, even though most of those arrested have been affiliated with right-wing groups.

QUEEN: That's who they said they arrested. They didn't tell you all the others. You know, the news ain't going to give you the whole thing.

SMITH: While Queen does not consider herself part of QAnon, she also believes some of its most outlandish tenets - for example, that Satan-worshipping elites in a secret pedophile cabal are killing babies and drinking their blood.

QUEEN: When you are evil, you're evil. It goes deep.

SMITH: The Ipsos poll shows a close correlation between those who believe in conspiracies and those who get most of their news from conservative news sources, social media or apps like Parler and Telegram that have become disinformation superspreaders. Experts see it as a public health emergency, threatening democracy, straining family relationships and now also straining an industry of folks trying to help.

DIANE BENSCOTER: I've probably got almost a hundred requests in my inbox.

SMITH: Diane Benscoter has been helping people untangle from extremist ideologies since the '80s after she was extricated from the Unification Church, commonly known as the Moonies. She recently founded a nonprofit called Antidote to run Al-Anon-style recovery groups for those caught up in disinformation and their loved ones. Anyone can be drawn in, she says, as cultic groups all tend to fill some psychological void.

BENSCOTER: It establishes this camaraderie and this feeling of righteousness and this cause for your life, and that feels very invigorating and almost addictive. You feel like you are fighting the battle for goodness, and all of a sudden, you feel like you are the hero.

SMITH: In other cases, the draw is what Benscoter calls easy answers to life's hard questions. That's what got 32-year-old Jay Gilley, a pizza delivery guy from Alabama who spent three years caught up in QAnon. It started when he questioned the Black Lives Matter movement and got criticized online. One click led to another, and he wound up deep into dark conspiracies and hate speech dressed up as dogma, which to Gilley felt like validation.

JAY GILLEY: Just having someone tell you you're right and don't listen to people - it just leads you down that path so fast. You want to be right so bad. You didn't want to be drawn back to that confusion.

SMITH: Eventually, thanks to a patient friend, Gilley came to understand how he, a left-leaning Obama supporter, allowed himself, as he puts it, to fall down a far-right rabbit hole.

GILLEY: Looking back at it now, it's terrifying. Like, this is, like, a war on thought. Like, are we just going to start fighting for just thought control?

SMITH: For all the psy-ops used to suck people into a cultic group, experts say it takes just as much savvy and precision to help them out. Pat Ryan, another former cult member-turned-deprogrammer or exit counselor, says when a family hires him to meet with a loved one, his first step is to do a kind of intervention on the family. He implores them to change their tone, to be less adversarial or less mocking. It's not only because that's counterproductive, Ryan says, but also, if he gets the family to back off a bit, he scores instant points with the loved one he's ultimately trying to reach.

PAT RYAN: It's strategic. Oh, absolutely. We're talking strategy because if I can get a family to do something meaningful, then I have credibility. And so then we have a path to go on.

SMITH: Of course, it's much easier said than done. Many are adamant, like Michelle Queen, that no one could change their mind. But Queen was willing to sit down with Benscoter just to hear her out.

BENSCOTER: Hi, Michelle.

QUEEN: Hello.

SMITH: Benscoter begins gently, asking how Queen's faring in the aftermath of last month's Texas snowstorm.

BENSCOTER: Are you OK as far as electricity and - or anything like that?

QUEEN: Right now we're good.

BENSCOTER: Oh, good.

SMITH: Then Benscoter walks a fine line, being totally upfront that she wants Queen to consider that she's caught in a web of disinformation while insisting that she's not trying to turn Queen into a Democrat, for example.

BENSCOTER: That is not what I'm about even a little.

SMITH: And then Benscoter carefully starts making the case that anyone can be duped, offering up herself as Exhibit A and explaining how she, as a Moonie, thought she was following the Messiah.

BENSCOTER: You know, that sounds outrageous, but, you know, I wasn't stupid. And one thing led to another, and it kind of fed into some fears I had. And it just...

SMITH: And Queen listens quietly as Benscoter continues explaining how the indoctrination tactics worked on her.

BENSCOTER: I started believing that all information from regular news sources is just wrong, and they became, like, the enemy.

SMITH: But a few minutes in, Queen starts to push back.

QUEEN: And I pray on everything. I'm not in a cult.

SMITH: It'd be the first of many times that Benscoter would back off and pivot in search of even the tiniest patch of common ground.

BENSCOTER: Yeah. Well, one thing that I think is so sad right now is that the country has been so divided. And people almost are, like, spitting at each other. And that's just not what this country should be, I don't think.

QUEEN: Right. That's right.

SMITH: Before long, they find more they can agree on - that January's violence at the U.S. Capitol was wrong, and so is hurting children, even though they disagree on what's actually happening.

BENSCOTER: Some of the things that are being spread about, you know, babies being eaten and things - I don't think those things are true personally.

QUEEN: I do.

BENSCOTER: I know you do. And I think we need to get to the bottom of that, though. And I think...

QUEEN: How would we do that?

BENSCOTER: Well...

SMITH: Benscoter talks about the reputable nonprofits fighting human trafficking and suggests Queen get involved. It's all about planting seeds of doubt and building rapport.

BENSCOTER: I think now is the time to start building bridges.

QUEEN: That's right - and sturdy bridges, not nothing that's going to fall apart.

BENSCOTER: Yes, I'm with you there.

SMITH: By the end, they agree to keep talking - just what Benscoter was hoping for.

BENSCOTER: It may seem like you're being tricky or crafty, but really, what you're doing is respecting the fact that this is not going to be an easy process for them to get out of this with their dignity.

SMITH: It's a tedious and time-intensive process, too, that can't keep up with disinformation spreading virally online. Benscoter says the only viable strategy is prevention, and she's helping develop a public awareness campaign to keep people from falling down the rabbit hole in the first place.

BENSCOTER: I think it's really important to try to help people inoculate, to try to create herd immunity to psychological manipulation and to hit that tipping point in society where more people understand how these tactics work. And those who try to use them will be less successful using them because they're easily spotted now.

SMITH: Other experts liken the threat of disinformation to secondhand smoke. We used to think smokers were only harming themselves. When we started to know better, we started doing more to combat it. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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SHAPIRO: NPR's Tovia Smith, with some additional reporting from NPR's Joel Rose and Sarah McCammon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.