Days of Darkness: How one woman escaped the conspiracy theory trap that has ensnared millions

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WASHINGTON (AP) — At first his stories seemed harmless. Tales about secret organizations plotting to take over the world, about the good guys working to save it, and about the proof that, if you knew where to look, was hiding in plain sight.

To Ramona, her boyfriend Don’s tales of conspiracy theories sounded like a movie. A lot of it didn’t make much sense, but Ramona would nod along anyway. Don enjoyed telling his stories and showing off what he’d read online. He always knew the answer.

The pair met while still in high school. They worked at the same fast-food place in Ramona’s hometown in western Tennessee. They started dating a few years later. Don was a big guy, good with engines, somebody who could fix anything. Ramona had always wanted to be a teacher and was enrolled at a nearby college. Sometimes she struggled with anxiety, but with Don she felt safe.

The couple moved in together as COVID-19 swept the globe. To Don, the pandemic and the global response to it were filled with clues pointing to some kind of conspiracy, orchestrated by America’s leaders and the media. Maybe the virus was accidentally leaked from a lab; maybe it was a bioweapon. Don also suspected the lockdowns had a nefarious purpose, and he believed the vaccines were unsafe, perhaps designed to kill.

Don’s wild stories had seemed innocent and even silly before, but in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic they suddenly seemed plausible. At a scary time, when questions about the virus outnumbered answers, the conspiracy theories filled in some of the blanks.

“I have a lot of fear about what I can’t control,” Ramona, now 23, said of her vulnerable mindset as COVID-19 spread. Ramona agreed to tell her story to The Associated Press after she detailed her experiences on a forum for recovering conspiracy theorists. The AP is not fully identifying Ramona or her ex-boyfriend to protect her privacy and safety. “The stuff he was telling me, it made me feel like at least we understood. He had an explanation for what was going on. I didn’t realize what I was getting into.”

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