QAnon, the online movement of pro-Trump conspiracy theorists, has entered turbulent waters. Its chosen candidate has lost, and its followers have been deprived of some of their most popular meeting grounds by a smothering crackdown from large social media companies.
Q, the anonymous online account at the center of the movement, spent the days before the election posting about taking back the country and holding the political elite accountable. “Are you ready to finish what we started?” Q posted on Oct. 31. At about 1:30 am on Election Day, the account posted a photo of an American flag, an Abraham Lincoln quote and a link to a clip of a song from the 1992 movie “Last of the Mohicans.” Then Q went silent.
Several hours later Ron Watkins, the moderator of 8kun, the message board where Q posts, announced he was resigning. He had to address issues in his marriage, he said, and wanted to resign before U.S. election results were announced so it wouldn’t look as though he’d quit because of the outcome. Watkins said his resignation had nothing to do with QAnon. “I never learned Q’s identity, and nobody ever reached out to me purporting to be Q,” he said in a direct message on Twitter.
All of this is testing the will of QAnon’s followers, who have stretched well beyond the U.S’s borders. The conspiracy revolves around the belief that a cabal of pedophiles run the world — and Donald Trump’s presidency would bring that all to an end. The mythology of Q always required a healthy suspension of disbelief, but the end of the Trump presidency will be particularly hard to explain away, according to Benjamin Decker, founder of digital investigation consultancy Memetica. “There’s a lot of questioning of beliefs,” said Decker, who has been following the conspiracy since its inception.
Still, many QAnon adherents continue to argue that Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s victory is illusory and are urging one another to trust the plan, based on their posts online. In the last week, supporters have amplified baseless theories related to voter fraud, such as the idea that the Department of Homeland Security printed official ballots with invisible watermarks, allowing authorities to identify counterfeit ballots that Democrats allegedly printed to steal the election. (The DHS doesn’t print ballots).
That this is happening without the guidance of Q, who purports to be a highly placed government official and is seen within the movement as an oracle, points to an aspect of QAnon that could make it more durable. It has matured to the point that it no longer needs its supposed leader as a driving force, experts said. “The Q brand is really powerful. It’s shorthand for, ‘You’re on our team,’ ” said Mike Rothschild, a researcher who is writing a book about QAnon. “I just don’t know that the Q poster themselves has that much value anymore.”
Q’s weeklong silence isn’t necessarily a sign the account won’t re-emerge. The account has gone silent for long stretches before, most prominently in the summer of 2019 when 8chan, the message board where Q then posted, went down for more than two months after white supremacists in Texas and New Zealand posted their manifestos to the site before committing mass murders in two separate incidents. Once 8kun emerged as an alternative, Q began posting again.
But the movement now faces an awkward reckoning.
After months of pressure, Facebook Inc. and YouTube, owned by Alphabet Inc.’s Google, took their most aggressive steps yet to cut down on QAnon. Advocates who have been consistently critical of the social media companies for declining to take such action earlier have praised them, crediting the moves for leading to a relatively smooth Election Day. “The actions that were taken were really significant. It would be a very different conversion if the QAnon community was at its full capacity, as they were in August or September,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a non-profit media watchdog. “That just shows how important some of these policies they put in place can be.”
The conspiratorial mindset and extreme lack of trust in institutions that is the real underpinning of the QAnon movement doesn’t show signs of fading. Some disinformation experts have predicted movements like QAnon will have even more appeal as opposition to Democratic leaders than they did as supporters of Republican ones.
For now, significant energy continues to go into contesting the election results. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the first QAnon adherent to be elected to Congress, spent the last week attacking the legitimacy of the electoral process in Georgia (with the apparent exception of the election she won in the state’s 14th Congressional District).
The stance that the election results aren’t final extends well into the broader Republican political base, with the encouragement of senior leadership of the GOP. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has encouraged Trump to challenge the results of the election, and Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader of the House, suggested on Twitter that Biden personally wanted to count illegal votes if they’d help him win.
There’s little indication that legal challenges to Biden’s victory have a chance at success. It won’t be the end of the QAnon movement, but it will make it hard to keep the specific story they’ve been telling themselves alive in its current form. “You can play fantasy land as much as you want, but eventually you come to reality,” said Rothschild. “This is going to hit this community really hard.”
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