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Former conspiracy theorists need empathy, expert says

People who for years believed in the wide-ranging QAnon conspiracy theory now feel betrayed and confused, according to an expert on extremist beliefs at Cornell University. And many are seeking a way out. 

Ex-adherents of QAnon wrestling with feelings of betrayal, confusion

Ziv Cohen, a forensic psychiatrist and expert on extremist beliefs at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University, says it is important to empathize as former QAnon believers regain their critical thinking skills. (Submitted by Ziv Cohen)

People who for years believed in the wide-ranging QAnon conspiracy theory feel betrayed and confused — since, contrary to predictions, Donald Trump left the White House without exposing a global cabal of child-trafficking Satan worshippers — according to an expert on extremist beliefs at Cornell University. And many are seeking a way out. 

"For them it's a real crisis to think about how did this happen to me? How did I go so deep so far?" Ziv Cohen, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry, said Wednesday on CBC's Canada Tonight.

"They are reassessing relationships, they are reassessing whether they can trust their own mind and their own thoughts. So it's quite a journey they have to take now."

He said the most important thing an individual can do when a former QAnon adherent reaches out, is to empathize and listen to them as they start regaining their thoughts and identity.

"Put your own feelings aside temporarily and validate their experience," Cohen said, adding that maintaining a relationship is a "foothold in reality" for people who are looking to leave groups like QAnon.

"It's important to maintain a relationship with you. Giving up the conspiracy theory is secondary," he said.

Former QAnon believers will feel shame and embarrassment and overloading them with facts or your own feelings could cause negative reactions, he says.

Cohen also recommended focusing the conversation to the person rather than the debate and to remember that you don't need to debunk what they used to believe.

"If you try to counter conspiracy theories with proved fact, that tends to not work. It tends to shut the person down and actually turn them off," he said.

With files from Canada Tonight

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