As more families become fractured as a result of dangerous, right-wing conspiracy theories, one teen's experience struck a chord with Twitter users.

By Maressa Brown
January 15, 2021
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For people whose family members have bought into dangerous, right-wing conspiracy theories and mass QAnon delusion, the last week has been a particularly grueling one. Just ask Helena Duke, an 18-year-old who suspected that her Trump-supporting mom, who she named as Therese Duke, was in Washington, D.C. on January 6. Duke recently retweeted disturbing footage of a physical encounter that occurred that day, identifying her mom and other relatives.

How and Why the Teen Decided to Identify Her Relatives

In the clip, her mother, her aunt, who she named as Annie Lorenz, and her uncle, who she named as Richard Lorenz, were all part of a group of white people confronting a Black woman who had hit Therese in the face after she had tried to grab her, reports BuzzFeed News. The Black woman had tweeted that the group had been harassing her for a long time, attempting to take her belongings from her hands and her pockets.

"My initial reaction was more like, Oh my gosh, I was right. I was actually right about them being there," Helena told the outlet. "It was very surreal because it was an insane video, first of all, and then it was the revelation that, Oh, that's my mother. That's her."

That's when she decided to tweet, "hi mom remember the time you told me I shouldn't go to BLM protests bc they could get violent .... this you?"

She followed up with a photo of her mom to show that it was her, and in another tweet, she identified all of her relatives who were present in D.C. by name, describing herself as "the liberal lesbian of the family" who had been "kicked out" of her family "multiple times" for her views.

Helena told Teen Vogue that her cousin had initially sent her the video of her mom [allegedly] harassing the Black woman and being punched in the face. "I was in disbelief and it felt very surreal that she was actually there and the woman in that viral video was my mother," she explained. "It was very overwhelming."

She told the outlet that she was motivated to identify her mom, because, "During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, I was told by my mother that I wasn't allowed to go because she believed BLM was a violent organization…and the fact that she ended up going to [what became a] violent storming of the Capitol, harassing a woman and getting punched in the face, but when I went to peaceful protests, nothing happened to me."

How Twitter Reacted to the Teen's Story

Helena received positive feedback and compassionate comments from a bevy of people on social media who could relate. "I just want you to know that I'm a liberal lesbian who was disowned by half my family too…20 years ago," wrote Twitter user HRCsupervol01. "My life is so much better without them in it. Deal with these emotions and then disown THEM and rid their toxicity from your life. You'll be glad you did."

Another, tweeting under the handle SarahCherry, wrote, "Helena, you deserve a mom who supports you and doesn't use her vote or rights to hurt you. I'm sorry she has strayed onto this hate path. Peace to you. Thanks for speaking out."

And Kevin Carr O'Leary wrote, "Hey, I'm a gay dad of two. They're your cousins now cause we're family, okay? Great. My husband is awesome—you'll love him. Dinner is at 7 (prolly 8 cause I graze and forget everyone is hungry.) Lemme know about allergies. Queer folks have chosen our family for a long time."

How to Talk to Relatives Who've Gone Down the Rabbit Hole

As Helena's situation is an example of one in which the divide could be too far gone to be salvaged, this incident does raise questions around how and when it might be possible to steer family members away from dangerous, delusional conspiracy theories and general misinformation. A few expert-backed tips:

Offer facts before conspiracies are able to take hold. Karen Douglas, PhD, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the U.K. whose research focus is on beliefs in conspiracy theories and their consequences, recently shared on the American Psychological Association (APA) podcast "Speaking of Psychology" that giving people the facts can work.

"In some of our own research, we've actually found that it's quite effective to provide people with factual information, provide people with the facts," said Douglas. "And this was particularly about vaccines before they're exposed to conspiracy theories, and then the conspiracy theory fails to gain traction. But once the people have been exposed to the conspiracy theory ... the appropriate or correct information afterwards doesn't really work. In other words, you give people either the correct information or some piece of weak misinformation before they're exposed to the worst of it, then that helps them to be able to resist it."

Give them the space to feel heard. "Allow the person who has gone down that rabbit hole to at least talk and explain themselves and why they think the way they do," says Niro Feliciano, LCSW, a psychotherapist and anxiety specialist in Wilton, Connecticut. "People aren't going to hear unless they feel heard."

You can also affirm and validate what there is to affirm, she notes. Try something like, "I can see why you might agree or believe that based on what you just explained to me" or "I can see you have done quite a bit of research so understand why you believe this." "You can affirm and still not agree," says Feliciano.

Encourage them to take time out to reflect. Recent research published in the journal Psychological Science found that it can simply help to encourage people to reflect on the veracity of claims they encounter. When subjects were asked to rate the accuracy of COVID-19 headlines, they shared more accurate news content compared with participants in the control group. Researchers said this is evidence that "people share false claims about COVID-19 partly because they simply fail to think sufficiently about whether or not the content is accurate when deciding what to share."

If possible, try to meet them with compassion. Travis View, a host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, which has tracked the movement since its early days, told the New York Times that it's best to approach conspiracy theorists "with the same pity and compassion you might show someone who chooses to stay in a destructive relationship." He noted that people who have found community and purpose in these movements "really don't see that they're going down the wrong path because they don't understand that there are better options."

Accept that you might need to agree to disagree. "People have 'evidence' and support for whatever they believe these days, so it's hard to convince people to think differently," explains Feliciano. "Find the other qualities that you respect about the person and things you value about the relationship to focus on, because, if not, these issues are powerfully divisive and can end relationships quickly."

And knowing when someone is too deeply consumed by conspiratorial thinking is key, as well. If you're concerned about a loved one's health or safety, it might be time to reach out for professional support. Consider these free mental health care resources for families to find help.

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