Rabbit Holes, Relatives and Friends

The covid era has been a difficult time during which many relationships with family and friends have been wrenched apart over polarised differences of views about what it has all meant and who, or what, is responsible. This polarisation of society has been ramped up by politicians, “experts” and the media. While this polarisation was actively sought by the authorities as a way of maintaining control, it was important for opposing ideas to not become mainstream and those who rejected the official narrative were therefore targeted and cast as conspiracy theorists, covid deniers and anti-vaxxers.

Techniques employed governments, social media platforms, and mainstream media outlets against dissidents and dissident ideas included:

  1. Censorship: Governments and social media platforms implemented policies and practices aimed at removing content that was deemed to be false or misleading. While these efforts were largely intended to combat misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19, they also had the effect of limiting the spread of dissenting views and alternative perspectives.
  2. Dismissal: Some mainstream media outlets and public figures dismissed or downplayed dissenting views about COVID-19, characterizing them as conspiratorial or anti-science. This framing may have contributed to a stigmatisation of dissenting viewpoints and a reluctance among some individuals to express or engage with alternative perspectives.
  3. Harassment: Individuals who expressed dissenting views about COVID-19, including scientists, healthcare professionals, and members of the public, faced harassment and attacks online and in person. This harassment had a chilling effect on the expression of alternative perspectives and created a hostile environment for dissenters.
  4. Polarisation: The COVID-19 pandemic has been a highly polarising issue, with individuals and communities divided along political, ideological, and cultural lines. This polarisation may have made it more difficult for dissenting views to be heard and engaged with, as individuals were more likely to dismiss or ignore perspectives that were seen as belonging to an opposing camp.

Throughout the covid period, mainstream media articles appeared on a fairly regular basis that were aimed at mostly younger people concerning the seemingly offbeat opinions and beliefs of often older parents, uncles or whacko friends. While these articles purported to offer sympathy and advice to distraught relatives of people caught up in conspiracy and misinformation rabbit holes, close examination reveals them to be propaganda vehicles designed to discredit nonconforming views and provide advice to mainstream friends and relatives on how to deal with and (hopefully) de-programme them.

The tendency to posit psychological defects for differences of opinion refers to the belief that individuals who hold different beliefs or opinions must have some underlying psychological issue or pathology. This can take various forms, including the assumption that people who hold opposing views are irrational, delusional, or mentally unstable. This tendency can be problematic because it can lead to a failure to engage in constructive dialogue and debate, and can reinforce negative stereotypes and stigmas surrounding mental health issues. It can also be used as a way to dismiss or silence opposing viewpoints without engaging with their substance or considering their validity.

On a personal note, having been vocal early covid non-believers, my wife and I have been deeply hurt at being subject to these techniques and strategies. For instance, a friend of my wife for over over 30 years cut her off completely without explanation or discussion and neither of our two children (aged 33 and 38) have spoken to or made contact with us in over 18 months.

The Sad Tale of Grant’s Deluded Parents

Radio New Zealand (RNZ) Senior Journalist, Susan Strongman’s article called “When a relative falls down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole” published on 21 August 2020, is somewhat typical of this genre of de-programming pieces.

The RNZ article relates the story of Grant (not real name) whose parents became deeply immersed in conspiracy theories related to COVID-19; they reportedly became increasingly isolated from friends and family, refused to wear masks or practice social distancing, and began to express extreme views about the pandemic and the government’s response to it. Grant outlines his concerns about his parents mental health and safety, as well as their potential influence on others. As constructed, the article purports to highlight the challenges faced by people who have loved ones who become deeply immersed in conspiracy theories and the ways in which these beliefs can strain relationships and create difficult ethical dilemmas.

From the start we are told that Grant is so desperate about his parents obsession with sharing “false information” about things like “Bill Gates, vaccinations, microchips and Agenda 2030—the United Nations’ sustainable development goals—to 5G, ‘Big Pharma’, and far-right theories about Trump and hydroxychloroquine” and, in spite of his attempts at reasoning with them, they won’t stop believing conspiracy theories so that he is actually considering cutting off their Internet connection.

“How does it feel to watch your parents become obsessed with false information about Bill Gates, microchips and 5G – and is there anything you can do to pull them out of the conspiracy theory rabbit hole?

Grant* is considering secretly cutting off his parents’ internet connection, which may sound dramatic, but he is desperate.

He’s tried talking to them privately about the videos and articles they share on social media – the ones that make false, often conflicting claims about almost everything – from Bill Gates, vaccinations, microchips and Agenda 2030 – the United Nations’ sustainable development goals – to 5G, ‘Big Pharma’, and far-right theories about Trump and hydroxychloroquine. But he’s had no success – they won’t listen to him. They won’t stop believing conspiracy theories.”

Inherent in this description of the issue is Grant’s (and therefore the writer’s) underlying assumption that on all of these named issues his parents have blindly and unreasoningly adopted a false belief based merely on the material they have been watching and reading on the Internet. There is no discussion of the opinions his parents may have about these topics and the reader is left to assume their stance on them, which has already been presumed to be “false”, seemingly irrational given the asserted “conflicting claims”, wide-ranging as in “almost everything” and unhinged through reference to “far-right theories about Trump”. This constructs his parents as having no real agency of their own and there is no room for his parents to have taken a reasoned position based on their own much longer life experience, research and conclusions about the truth of these matters. Moreover, a large part of Grant’s problem is that they not only won’t be persuaded by his own beliefs on these issues, but that they dare to promulgate their aberrant views on social media.

“Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, New Zealand, along with many other countries, has seen a spike in the number of conspiracy theories being shared online. Ideas that were once fringe are becoming more mainstream. New Zealand-based Facebook groups promoting far-right QAnon theories that allege, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping paedophiles who are plotting against President Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring, have garnered tens of thousands of followers.”

Grant’s problem is then linked to a wider context where the covid pandemic is linked to a pandemic of fringe conspiracy theories across the world, which have been gaining traction and purportedly becoming mainstream. In doing so, these theories are further linked to ideas that, based on dominant political narratives of covid era, many would consider preposterous and to President Donald Trump, who at that time was a subject of some ridicule for ostensibly political reasons. Several different, although not inherently mutually exclusive, popular conspiracy theories—a cabal, Satan-worshiping, pedophiles, plots against President Trump, global child sex-trafficking rings—are joined together to create a more preposterous effect. The strawman style sum of these is unequivocally categorised as false without any consideration of the truth or merits of any of the components from which it is constructed.

“But Grant says his parents are just ageing lefty hippies, who have some alternative views about health and wellbeing. They don’t know what QAnon is. So how did they get here?

It started this year, when they became enamoured with Billy Te Kahika. The charismatic Christian and blues musician-turned-politician expresses his ideas online, in long-winded Facebook live videos that are often shared thousands of times – by people like Grant’s parents. The policies of his political party – formed off the back of his new-found Facebook fame – read like a smorgasbord catering to the conservative and conspiracy-minded; topics covered include 1080, 5G, the Communist Party of China, abortion, fluoridation, Pharmac, and the UN’s Agenda 2030.

The account then positions Grant’s parents as aging hippies with apparently odd but harmless alternate views on health and well being. Apparently, in spite of being quite active on the Internet and social media they also live under a stone and have no idea what QAnon is. This sense of oblivious innocence leads them fall under the spell of Billy Te Kahika, the charismatic Christian and blues musician-turned-politician, and his smogasbord of conservative and conspiracy-minded policies—all of which can be assumed to be either wacky or false, though we are provided with no obvious evidence of this.

“In June, Te Kahika was interviewed by Australian celebrity chef Pete Evans, a key player in the not-so-unprecedented fusion of the wellness movement with the conspiracy theories of the alt-right. Evans posts his theories on his social media platforms, which have millions of followers – including Grant’s parents. In the interview, which has racked up almost 30,000 views on YouTube, Te Kahika calls the United Nations’ Agenda 2030 goals, “a mechanism to destroy happiness and freedom across the planet” (the goals actually aim to end poverty and inequality, amongst other things). In the video he also calls the lockdown a “scamdemic” and says Covid-19 is a bioweapon.

This paragraph expands on the idea that people who look for alternative views are prone to gullibly falling for a bait and switch operation where their simpleminded interest in wellness is taken advantage of to substitute warped conspiracy theories of the evil “alt-right”. The hyperlinks reference an article on “‘Evil forces’: how Covid-19 paranoia united the wellness industry and rightwing conspiracy theorists” and another on “Vitamin dosing via bluetooth? Physicist warns don’t waste your money on Healy”. Criticisms of Agenda 2030 are then cast as being likewise preposterous given the self advertised propaganda of the UN’s sustainable development goals—notwithstanding the existence of a great deal of academic and business criticism available of the goals, their motivations and the pecuniary conflicts of interest involved in their formulation and implementation. Te Kahika’s descriptions of the lockdowns as a “scamdemic” and Covid-19 a bioweapon are left with out further comment—presumably, being plainly preposterous without further explanation necessary.

“Some time in May, as New Zealand’s lockdown restrictions began to loosen, Grant’s parents came across Plandemic – a slick-looking ‘documentary’ which claims a secret society of billionaires is plotting to gain global domination by controlling people through a Covid-19 vaccine. It went viral and Grant’s parents, who were already against vaccination, shared it on Facebook, believing it was true.”

What saddens Grant about all this, is that though his mum and dad are sharing misinformation, adding to an already raging infodemic during a global crisis, they’re not bad people. They believe what they’re sharing is true. “They have good hearts. They’re coming from a good place. They’re not trying to hurt anyone. They think they’re helping people,” he says.

It appears that one of Grant’s complaints against is parents is that they agree with the contents of the Plandemic documentary. The description of Plandemic is described as “slick looking” (in other words, professionally produced) which makes “claims” of a secret society of billionaries which is linked to a similar debunking article on the CQ magazine lifestyle website. However, neither the RNZ nor the CQ article provide any substantive refutation of the truth of these claims and Grant’s complaint is that his parents, who obviously agreed with the content matter, shared a link to it on Facebook. The lack of bias (sarc) in the CQ article is evidenced in statements like “With better production than your run-of-the-mill YouTube crank video, it racked up millions of views online before Facebook and YouTube took it down. It paints a pretty dramatic narrative:… It’s not quite our current reality, though—it’s some well-spun facts and some pretty flagrant misrepresentations.”

No reference is made to how Grant reached his own conclusion that the Plandemic documentary or any of the other material his parents posted was indeed misinformation. However, he believes his parents to have good motivations and that they think they are helping people. The qualifier “…they are not bad people” provides a loving son’s out for his parents (don’t we feel for him in his trial in having to deal with this shameful situation?), who are just good people deluded into doing something bad. Nevertheless, in spite of their good intentions, they stand accused of committing an serious offense by adding to the “raging” misinformation pandemic during a dire event of “global” significance.

“”And yet, they are cutting off ties with family members who don’t agree with them, or who stand up to them. They are actually pushing them away. They’re putting conspiracy theories ahead of their relationships with family members and friends.”

When Grant tried to speak to them, he was stonewalled. “I never publicly argued against them on their page, because I knew that was not going to result in solving anything. So in emails, I tried to share alternate points of view, or the correct point of view, correct information. But it never worked.

“It was shocking. There was nothing I could say, or any information that I could point them to, that was taking them off their path or bringing them around to another perspective.””

Having established what amounts to some form of unwitting criminality, Grant’s account constructs his parents as having isolated themselves from others who don’t share their understanding and beliefs. While the word cult is not mentioned, the implication being formed here is of cult-like behaviour based on firmly intransigent beliefs that take precedence over established relationships—very much like the social isolation characteristic of cult members.

This intransigence is further developed in the next paragraph where Grant recounts how his efforts to convince them of his view were “stonewalled” and his view that it would be futile to challenge them in public. Although, the first sentence mentions that he tried to speak to them, the examples provided specifically mention only their “page” (possibly Facebook page) and “in emails”. In the latter case, Grant sets himself up as an arbiter of truth who “tried to share alternate points of view, or the correct point of view, correct information” and apparently he was “shocked” when this failed to produce his desired results—which we assume to be a conversion of his parents beliefs and understandings back to what he regards as the correct way of thinking. Notably, there is no reflection on the possible validity of his parent’s views on the matters Grant disagrees with, and there is no attempt on his part, nor the author’s, to provide their side of the matter.

“Grant believes it was his parents’ frustration at not being able to access things like their local health food store during lockdown, while corporate-owned supermarkets remained open, combined with time spent on Facebook and YouTube, that propelled them down the rabbit hole.”

This part of the article is rounded out rather weakly with a curiously trivial attribution for his parents going off the rails in this way due to their “frustration at not being able to access things like their local health food store during lockdown” and spending too much time on social media. However, the apparent ease with which Grant’s parents have fallen down this rabbit hole stands as a warning to others that in these days of social isolation and pandemic of social media misinformation, anyone’s parents, or uncle, or friend may stand at risk of being lost to the right minded community. Vigilance and understanding are therefore called for!

The next section of the article is prefaced by blue sky image with high clouds crisscrossed by trails that have obviously been left by jet aircraft. The caption reads: “Research has found people who are seasonally affected by adverse weather events are more likely to believe conspiracy theories, such as those about chemtrails, during bad weather”.

Otago University PhD graduate Ana Stojanov’s research focuses on what it is that makes people vulnerable to conspiracy thinking in the first place. She says there is no doubt that conspiracy thinking and feeling a loss of personal control – being told by the government to stay at home for weeks on end, for example – are correlated.

During a global pandemic, some may struggle to believe a tiny virus that’s invisible to the naked eye could wreak so much havoc, Stojanov says. Instead, people look for alternative explanations – like the false idea that Covid-19 is a bioweapon – and are drawn to others who support similar theories.

Stojanov says research suggests an attraction to conspiracy thinking can be influenced by a person’s level of education or their socio-economic status. When it comes to personality variables, a lack of trust can be a factor, as can a belief that human nature is evil. Some research suggests schizotypy, proneness to boredom, and narcissism can also lead people to conspiracy thinking.

Research published this week by Stojanov was unable to prove the theory that a loss of personal control caused people to believe conspiracy theories.

But some of her work did point in that direction. One study found that within a group of people seasonally affected by adverse weather events, participants were more likely to believe conspiracy theories during that bad weather season than they were three months later, once it was finished. Interestingly, they were more likely to believe weather-related conspiracy theories, Stojanov says. “So things like, ‘The government possesses a weapon that can manipulate weather’, or, ‘The aeroplanes spray chemtrails, which are poisoning us’, and things like that, but not, for example, the conspiracy that 9/11 was caused by the US government, or that JFK was was murdered as a result of a conspiracy, not a lone gunman.”

In a Covid-19 context, this could mean conspiracy theories that tie in to the pandemic – like the false idea that coronavirus is spread via radio waves from 5G transmitters, or is part of a sinister global plot to control the population – could gain traction. Stojanov notes that the fact that people are currently talking more about conspiracy theories does not necessarily mean they believe them.

For someone like Grant, though, this is little comfort – his parents don’t believe scientists, or medical doctors now, and they say the mainstream media is “fake news”. He feels completely helpless.

Source: Department of Psychology, University of Otago, Facebook page

What debunking article would be complete without academic to provide a gloss of scientific rigor? In this case, we have Ana Stojanov, who is not referred in the article to as Dr Stojanov, having only just defended her PhD dissertation two months prior to the 21 August 2020 publication date of the article and had presumably not yet officially graduated.

It seems that Ms Stojamov’s PhD research was focused on what makes people vulnerable to conspiracy thinking. She speculates that disbelief that a virus could be the cause of the “havoc” could make “people look for alternative explanations – like the false idea that Covid-19 is a bioweapon – and are drawn to others who support similar theories.” The tendency to search for alternate accounts of what is happening is then linked to education level or socioeconomic status, although we are not told how or in what direction. This tendency is then linked to a clinical term “schizotypy” which is hyperlinked to a Mayo Clinic website page where the Symptoms and causes of the condition are outlined and described as a “personality disorder typically is diagnosed in early adulthood and is likely to endure across the lifespan, though treatment, such as medications and therapy, can improve symptoms.”

However, in spite of Ms Stojanoy’s lack of doubt that conspiracy thinking and feeling a loss of personal control are correlated and some un-cited research she mentions that suggests an attraction to conspiracy thinking can be influenced by a person’s level of education or their socio-economic status, it appears that her research was unable to prove the theory that a loss of personal control caused people to believe conspiracy theories.

Notwithstanding this lack of support for her theory, links in her research are drawn to other research into seasonally affected people (another pathological sounding condition) being more likely to believe weather-related conspiracy theories (such as about aeroplanes spraying chemtrails or weather manipulation—Remember here the photo of “chemtrails” that introduced and primed the reader for this part of the discussion) during bad weather than three months later when presumably the weather was better. Apparently, this un-cited research found that this seasonal effect did not affect theories about conspiracies such as those concerning the cause of 9/11 or the JFK murder. No consideration here that people may be more inclined to think about the weather during bad weather and conjecture on possible causes than during good weather, mainly due to it’s immediate and unreliable affect on their daily lives?

The next paragraph attempts a leap of logic to link Ms Stojanov’s research to two supposedly wacky conspiracy theories about the covid pandemic—specifically, that coronavirus is “spread via radio waves from 5G transmitters” or that it was “a sinister plot to control the population”, although none of her research, as reported, seems to support such a link or point to a cause for an unjustified belief in such. A let out here is provided in that talking about conspiracies does not necessarily imply belief.

This section is rounded off by a link back to poor old Grant, for whom appeals to expert opinion are no use and even the authority of the news has little credibility for his obviously unrepentant deluded parents. Although talking about conspiracies does not necessarily imply belief, his cry expresses the worry of a loving, if despairing, son that they are a lost cause “He feels completely helpless”.

Overall, this part of the article serves to anchor the narrative being constructed in a rather simplistic “expert” opinion—in fact, that of a nearly graduated PhD student. While the text discusses a couple of psychological and societal factors that may lead to conspiracy thinking, it does not necessarily account for the unique experiences and circumstances of individuals who hold these beliefs and it fails to address the truth status of any of them (being out of scope and by definition all are assumed false by implication). Additionally, the text focuses primarily on the psychological basis for belief in conspiracy theories while ignoring other possible factors such as life experience, political ideology, social influences, media consumption, and government or industry propaganda.

Grant’s sense of helplessness, as expressed in the paragraph above, leads into the account of Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou), whose account brings a racial and colonialisation aspect to the discussion about “the spread of false information”.

It’s something that researcher and environmentalist Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou) has thought about a lot in her work combating the spread of false information – particularly relating to the use of 1080 in pest control.

“Everybody has the line in the sand that they need to draw, that they won’t cross in relation to the people who are spreading it,” Ngata says.

“If it’s somebody very close to me, especially if they share it with me on a private message, not on my news feed, I’ll probably engage with them a little bit. I’ll just say, ‘You know, I love you and I say this with love. But what you’re saying here, what you’re suggesting, does not mesh with my understanding. And I actually think it’s harmful.'”

Ngata says how much time she will spend discussing these things will depend on her relationship with the person, and how invested they are in conspiracy thinking. “If they’re already too far gone, then I just let them know, ‘I love you. And I don’t think it’s a healthy space for us to go into this conversation.”

If academic theories about socio-economic status, education and a lack of power making people vulnerable to conspiracy thinking are correct, then the cumulative effects of colonisation means Māori are some of the most at risk.

“When you carry that history with you, it is really easy to believe that there are people out there with ill intentions toward you, that there are people out there who want to continue to dispossess you, and that that intention will extend to wiping you out, because that’s in our history,” Ngata says.

“So when people want to suggest that there is a greater power out there, seeking to take everything off you… It’s only too believable when that experience, it’s in your DNA.”

Ngata is increasingly concerned about the racist and xenophobic ideas that underlie many of the theories being shared online. Earlier this month, for E-Tangata, she wrote that the Māori “distrust of the mainstream media has come pre-packaged for white supremacist groups like QAnon to take advantage of”.

Ngata is hoping that post-election, things will calm things down a bit. “So for some whānau I’ve said, ‘I’ll chat with you about it in a couple of months, right? Like when the election’s done, we’ll talk a little bit more.'”

Although rather innocuously introduced as a “researcher and environmentalist”, it is evident from catalogue of other articles under her name, that Ngata is in fact a highly experienced communicator and activist on a range of Māori, colonisation, gender, political and environmental issues. An article on stuff.co.nz dated 19 June 2018 mentions that she “…teaches indigenous and human rights at university level and that she “…laid a complaint at the United Nations on the grounds that New Zealand’s discovery narrative, through the Tuia Encounters 250 events, “underpinned the denial of indigenous rights”. Considering these factors, the environmental issue introduced at the start concerning 1080 (a poison used to control the introduced possums classified as pests in New Zealand) would seem to be a minor part of her scope of interests, this wider scope being brought to light about halfway through her account.

Her initial statements about misinformation concern drawing a “line in the sand, that they won’t cross”. This somewhat combative statement indicates the need to set boundaries around the acceptable range of discourse, which is reinforced in the next paragraph where she outlines how she deals with people who advance ideas she doesn’t agree with on social media. For instance, for people close to her she will engage with them on private messenger but not in public (note this mirrors Grant’s reluctance to challenge his parents posts on their social media pages). For Ngata, the degree to which she will engage with someone she considers a conspiracy theorist depends on the relationship “If they’re already too far gone, then I just let them know, ‘I love you. And I don’t think it’s a healthy space for us to go into this conversation.” Once again, this focus on loved relatives mirrors and reinforces the image of Grant as a loving son.

The next three paragraphs work to construct a narrative that due to colonisation Māori are particularly vulnerable to conspiracy thinking. “So when people want to suggest that there is a greater power out there, seeking to take everything off you… It’s only too believable when that experience, it’s in your DNA.” In the spirit of bi-culturalism, much of this appears to have been written with a contemporary Māori audience in mind and given my own cultural background as an expatriate European New Zealander who has not visited my birth country in a few years, not something I can adequately dissect. However, it is evident that this appeal to DNA positions the inclination to adopt conspiracy theories as something innate to Māori given their colonisation experience at the hands of a bunch of white guys conspiring to take over the world.

Ngata’s account then asserts that “racist and xenophobic idea underlie many of the theories being shared online” with the associated hyperlink referencing an article on The Spinoff website headlined “Amid racism, rumour and fear mongering, South Auckland stands up for affected family” which concerns “As racist and unfounded rumours swirl, how is the family at the centre of New Zealand’s newest Covid cluster and the wider South Auckland community responding? Justin Latif reports… “A lot of people are living in fear right now because of Covid, and emotions and judgement is out of whack for a lot of people, but it’s just highlighting that racism is very much alive and real in our country. The most disturbing thing is that it is a genuinely held thought or mindset for a lot of people in this country.” “ In other words, another article of the same genre as RNZ’s “When a relative falls down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole”—i.e. the subject of this analysis. The second sentence then attempts to argue that this Maori distrust of mainstream media somehow makes them susceptible for “white supremist groups like QAnon to take advantage of.” The hyperlink to this latter reference links to another article by Ms Ngata, “The rise of Māori MAGA” which somewhat bizarrely “…looks at the rise of Billy Te Kahika and his New Zealand Public Party, and why far-right, white-supremacist agendas are finding favour with many Māori.” This then acts to mirror and reinforce the account of Grant’s parents falling under the spell of the charismatic Billy Te Kahika, while linking specifically Māori experience with non-Māori experience.

The final sentence attributed to Ngata rather patronisingly infers that the fuss will calm down after the impending NZ election “So for some whānau I’ve said, ‘I’ll chat with you about it in a couple of months, right?

After Ngata’s section, we transition back to Grant for the article’s close.

Some of Grant’s family members are hoping that his mum and dad will calm down after the election too – that the intensity building up around people like Billy Te Kahika will diffuse. He hopes they’re right. For now, he’s ceased communication with them – looking at their social media upsets him too much. “I actually don’t know what they’re doing now and what they’re saying and what they believe, because I’ve had to put some space between us. Because it’s way too consuming, and upsetting. It’s heartbreaking.”

And the plan to cut off their internet? He isn’t sure how he’d go about doing it, or whether he’d actually go through with it, but it’s the only thing he thinks would work.

Here Ngata’s final sentiments about things calming is used to link to the hopes of some of Grant’s family “that his mum and dad will calm down after the election too – that the intensity building up around people like Billy Te Kahika will diffuse.”

Interestingly, the earlier assertion that it was Grant’s parents who were responsible for their isolation is contradicted by the statement that Grant himself has cutoff all communications because “looking at their social media upsets him too much.” Here Grant is again positioned as the victim, when he is admittedly complicit through his emotional investment in trying and failing to changing their opinion and reading stuff they have posted that contradicts his own understanding of events. It’s hard to tell whether his heartbreak is that he can’t change their minds, can’t stop them embarrassing him on social media, can’t cope with seeing things he doesn’t agree with, or at the fact that he has cut his ties to his parents leaving them to endure whatever unstated emotional response they might have to the situation.

The final tie back to the idea of cutting their Internet serves as a rhetorical device to provide narrative closure and emphasize his supposed powerless frustration about the situation.


As a piece of debunking propaganda, Strongman’s article is a carefully constructed narrative that uses a one sided strawman construction of Grant and his parents to cast these significant others as gullible deluded innocents who through psychological weakness or impairment have adopted a range of wacky ideas and cult-like behaviours falling outside what could be regarded as normative. In spite of being responsible for eventually breaking off relations with his parents, Grant is positioned as a long suffering victim in this situation. This sense of victimhood is also reflected in the long suffering Ngata, whose relatives bombard her with their crazy ideas to the extent that she has to draw boundaries around what she deems acceptable and unacceptable communications.

The three part narrative construction—starting with Grant, transitioning to Ana and then Ngata with a small reference back to Grant between and finally back to Grant—employs a well known hypnotic technique of embedding stories within stories to confuse the mind and get the reader (or listener) to subconsciously accept ideas without critically thinking them through. In this way, the absence of Grant’s parent’s views from the narrative is obscured, as is the lack of consideration of the truth status of the various conspiracy theories strung together to form preposterous strawman super theories. Ideas are likewise linked and mirrored between the three accounts to reinforce the core messages. Notably, the voices and positions of the other protagonists in Ngata’s narrative are also absent.

It’s hard to say whether Grant and his parents really exist and, given that both stand as avatars of a particular narrative construction, it doesn’t really matter. The article acts to inoculate the reader from aberrant ideas and casts those who engage with them as psychologically disturbed cult members. It serves as a role model for excluding and ostracising those who adopt such ideas, thus insulating the potential victim of their heretical beliefs from contracting this pandemic of dangerous misinformation.

Sadly, this is exactly what has happened to my wife and myself.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.