For decades, people have thought of conspiracy theories as harmless amusements. But the past six years have demonstrated their extraordinary toxicity: They are incredibly dangerous to democracy, primarily because they destroy the shared reality necessary for it to function. By untethering people from reality, conspiracy theories poison relationships on every level, from national to local to the family itself.
As a recent incident in Michigan demonstrates, their ability to tear families apart is especially devastating. In the town of Walled Lake, a 53-year-old man named Igor Lanis became so wrapped up in QAnon and other Trumpist conspiracy theories—particularly the former president’s claims to have won the 2020 election—that he finally erupted at his family because they failed to fall down the rabbit holes with him, went on a rampage with a handgun and a shotgun, and gunned them down before being shot by police on his front lawn.
His wife, 56-year-old Tina Lanis, was killed, as was the family dog; both were shot multiple times. His 25-year-old daughter, Rachel, was also shot but managed to survive her wounds and call police. She was too distraught to give them the address, but police were already on the scene, having been summoned by neighbors.
Lanis then walked out the front door of the home and began shooting at police, who returned fire, killing him.
His younger daughter, 21-year-old Rebecca Lanis, was staying overnight with friends and survived the massacre. On Reddit Sunday, only hours after the killings, she posted her account.
“My Qdad snapped and killed my family this morning,” she wrote on the QAnon Casualties subreddit.
She wrote that “growing up, my parents were extremely loving and happy people. I always had a special bond with both my parents.” However, she wrote, that all began to change after the 2020 presidential election.
“In 2020 after Trump lost, my dad started going down the Q rabbit hole,” she wrote. “He kept reading conspiracy theories about the stolen election, Trump, vaccines, etc. It kept getting worse and he verbally snapped at us a few times. Nothing physical though. He never got physical with anybody.”
Rebecca Lanis told Will Sommer of The Daily Beast that her father’s mental health worsened the further he succumbed to the conspiracist alternative universe. She said he tried to force family members to watch videos on a variety of theories—vaccines as social control, 5G cell towers as the cause of COVID, tales of a secret cabal of lizard people running the world. He was particularly focused on election-denialist theories.
Lanis explained in a later Reddit thread that her father’s behavior and personality had completely changed.
“He would spend all day and night reading stuff on his phone and laptop and would get really pissy over the smallest things. His carefree and fun persona was gone. He started talking about 5G and EMFs being bad, and modern medicine being a sham,” she said. “It's like he got possessed by a demon.”
She told Sommer that family members had tried to persuade her father to return to reality, but arguing with him was “pointless.” Indeed, it may have spurred him to violence.
At around 4 AM Sunday morning, after her parents had argued over his beliefs, Rebecca Lanis wrote that her father “decided to take our guns and shoot her, my dog, and my sister. My mother succumbed to her wounds and my sister is in the hospital right now.”
The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office received a “chilling” 911 call shortly afterward from Rachel Lanis, who told them her father had shot her and killed her mother.
Responding officers first spoke with neighbors who had also reported gunfire. As they were doing so, they heard a gunshot from the Lanis’ house next door, and began moving toward it when Igor Lanis emerged from the front door, armed with shotgun. He reportedly fired at them and they fired back, killing him.
It was the first time any Walled Lake police officer had ever shot anyone, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said.
“I think there was danger to anybody,” Bouchard said. “He had his keys with him so who knows where he was headed. ...This is terribly sad on so many levels."
Officers found Rachel Lanis attempting to crawl out the front door; she had suffered what Bouchard described as “super traumatic injuries” to her back and legs. After emergency surgery at a local hospital, she was updated from critical to stable condition. Rebecca Lanis told Reddit readers that “there's a possibility she won't be able to move her legs again.”
Rebecca Lanis explained in a later Reddit thread that her family was religious but that “Q turned my dad away from our religion. I believe that God has a plan for me and I will not be the next casualty to this actually demonic Q cult.”
This incident is only the latest of a long litany of murderous violence inspired by QAnon conspiracy theories, and all too often—as in the case of the California man whose QAnon-fueled beliefs in “lizard people” led him to murder his two young children—family members are often the first people in their line of fire.
The Jan. 6 insurrection demonstrated that, on a meta level, QAnon conspiracism can be a serious national security threat. As Amarnath Amarasingam and Marc-André Argentino explained in a study for the CTC Sentinel, “QAnon is arguably no longer simply a fringe conspiracy theory but an ideology that has demonstrated its capacity to radicalize to violence individuals at an alarming speed.”
And it can spread like wildfire among authoritarian personalities, leading to both political and interpersonal violence. A December 2020 Ipsos poll taken shortly before the insurrection found that even before the attack on the Capitol, one-third of respondents falsely believed that voter fraud helped President Joe Biden win the election.
Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson told National Public Radio that poll results such as these showed that an increasing number of people were losing touch with a "baseline reality."
"Increasingly, people are willing to say and believe stuff that fits in with their view of how the world should be, even if it doesn't have any basis in reality or fact," Jackson said. "What this poll really illustrates to me is how willing people are to believe things that are ludicrous because it fits in with a worldview that they want to believe."
Political scientist Michael Barkun explains in his book Culture of Conspiracy that conspiracists love what he calls “stigmatized knowledge,” sources that are obscure or even looked down upon. In fact, the more obscure the source is, the more true believers want to trust it.
As Donovan Schaefer observes at The Conversation, this kind of appeal is how The Joe Rogan Experience podcast operates on the daily. Rogan regularly invites “scientists” who present themselves as “lone voices” oppressed by the Establishment because they’ve been repudiated by their colleagues onto his program. Somehow, these figures are presented as more credible than the people who debunk them.
The conspiracist mindset is so obsessed with this kind of selective skepticism—with views that support their predisposed beliefs winning out—that scientists or other authorities may concur 98% of the time, but conspiracy theorists believe the other 2% are really on to something. The result is that they see themselves as “critical thinkers” who have outsmarted everyone else, who they dismiss as hapless “sheeple.” Eventually, they come to see those “sheeple” as active participants in the conspiracy, fully dehumanized.
"It's really so shocking but it really can happen to anybody," Rebecca Lanis told The Detroit News. "Right-wing extremism is not funny, and people need to watch their relatives and if they have guns, they need to hide them or report them or something because this is out of control."
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