O’Sullivan said that while believers are engaged in an “irrationality” exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, they have likely gone through some form of trauma in their lives.
“It’s really easy to get distracted by the craziness of the conspiracy theory. I think we naturally all get wound up in that. But you got to see past that,” O’Sullivan told HuffPost.
“You’re dealing with totally irrational beliefs. There’s no point really in trying to gauge [it]. You got to engage with the person.”
The documentary, which premieres Sunday after more than a year in the making, follows O’Sullivan as he speaks with loved ones of believers in the JFK Jr. theory, which has ties to the QAnon conspiracy movement.
The episode also looks at Michael Protzman, a leading voice behind the theory. Protzman spoke with O’Sullivan in a tense interview just months before his death, which followed a motorcycle accident in June.
The CNN correspondent noted that when JFK Jr. (and his father) failed to show up in Dallas as expected, “a lot of people went on with their lives.” But a core group continued following Protzman, who was known as “Negative48” in a Telegram channel where he spread his beliefs to thousands.
Despite the conspiracy theory being “so ridiculous,” O’Sullivan said he saw an opportunity to look at its impact on families.
“We often think of QAnon and a lot of this stuff as a joke, and in some ways it’s hard not to laugh at it, of course,” he said. “But if you’ve got a son or daughter, or a mom or dad, or brother or sister who’s gone off and abandoned their family to join this thing, that’s not really a joke to you.”
Family members can find it difficult to voice their disagreement with a loved one who starts discussing “QAnon or cabals” at the kitchen table every night, O’Sullivan said.
“If you tell somebody they’re foolish and stupid, etc., you risk pushing them further into this rabbit hole and alienation,” he said. “But then at the same time, it’s hard to put up with that stuff.”
According to O’Sullivan, family members he spoke to simply wanted their loved ones to return home.
He pointed to his conversations with Protzman’s mother both before and after the death of her son. Though he has been likened to a cult leader, Protzman was once just a man who’d been led astray himself, the woman told O’Sullivan.
“He just happens to be a lot further down this rabbit hole than his followers,” the journalist said. “She wasn’t trying to deny his then-complicity in all of this. But she was just trying to explain to people that he’s a victim, too.”
O’Sullivan said that speaking to Protzman’s mother helped change his perspective.
“We could see in Michael’s past,” he said. “He had a family. He had kids, grandkids. He ran a business. It’s not as if he was some quack for all of his life.”
O’Sullivan added that this kind of reporting is “needed” right now and he hopes to do more in the future.
“We really got to get into it,” he said. “We got to get into the effects on families ... and scratch the why.”
“Waiting for JFK: Report From the Fringe” premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/PT.