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Four years ago today, an anonymous 4chan user posted the following message:
“Hillary Clinton will be arrested between 7:45 AM - 8:30 AM EST on Monday - the morning on [sic] Oct 30, 2017.”
An hour later they followed up with some more detail about the operation, including predictions of “massive riots organized in defiance” and a claim that the national guard would be “activated for duty across most major cities.”
Needless to say, Clinton was not arrested then—or ever—but these were the first of almost 5,000 messages posted by a user who became known as Q, and they inspired the conspiracy movement known as QAnon.
Four years later, the movement’s God-Emperor, former President Donald Trump, is out of office. Q went silent almost a year ago. An innumerable list of Q’s predictions have failed to come true. But true believers are still holding out hope.
“Happy birthday, Q,” a Telegram user called AbsoluteConviction1776 wrote on Thursday. “For your birthday bash this year, can we maybe celebrate with some arrests and the fall of the cabal? Would be great!!!”
The post is signed from “a grateful American patriot.”
Over the last fours years, QAnon has changed completely: Initially, it grew slowly on sites like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit before exploding in popularity as it moved to mainstream sites like YouTube, Twitter, and, in particular, Facebook.
The way people now speak about QAnon has also changed dramatically. No longer are people dismissing it as a joke, a fringe conspiracy believed by a bunch of wackos. The FBI calls it a potential domestic terror threat, and following the Jan. 6 riots, it is seen as a serious threat to the integrity of U.S. democracy.
But it’s not just the U.S. where QAnon has spread.
In an indication of the global appeal of the movement, responses to the birthday message on Telegram came from users in the Netherlands and England, showing the movement’s international reach, despite its deeply U.S.-centric conspiracies.
QAnon groups have been found in 85 countries, intermingling with anti-vaxxer groups, sovereign citizens, and far-right extremist networks. In France, a QAnon group was behind a recent kidnapping of an 8-year-old girl.
The birthday message to Q, which has been viewed thousands of times and shared in one of the most popular QAnon channels on Telegram, is a testimony to the enduring nature of a conspiracy that spiraled out of all control and is quickly becoming part of mainstream politics in the U.S.
This week saw more than half a dozen sitting U.S. lawmakers and candidates for secretary of state sharing a stage with some of the QAnon movement’s biggest QAnon grifters and influencers, at the QAnon-focused Patriot Double Down conference in Las Vegas.
At that event it was revealed that a QAnon influencer has become central to the creation of a coalition of GOP secretary of state candidates who are eager to push a slew of voter-suppression measures.
And Trump himself, who has done as much as anyone to help QAnon fester and grow, by repeatedly failing to denounce it, is helping to boost QAnon-linked candidates ahead of the 2022 elections.
And no one has exemplified the rise and radical mainstreaming of the conspiracy more than Ron Watkins. Watkins was the administrator of 8kun (previously known as 8chan), an even more fringe website where Q began posting exclusively from early 2018.
As administrator, Watkins facilitated QAnon’s rise, refusing to do anything to stop the posts even after QAnon-inspired violence began emerging in 2019. Indeed many of those tracking QAnon’s evolution believe that it was Watkins and his father Jim, who took complete control of the Q account shortly after it moved to 8chan, and even wrote the posts themselves.
But Watkins moved out of the shadows and into the spotlight on Election Day 2020, when he announced he was retiring as 8kun administrator and was now a cyber security expert. In the year since, he has ingratiated himself into the right-wing MAGA community by pushing baseless election fraud conspiracies.
Watkins has been so successful that he is now running for Congress, and while his chances of winning are almost zero, the fact he believes he has a chance is a further testament to how mainstream QAnon beliefs have become.
As QAnon merges with mainstream American politics, and as followers of the movement continue to try and shed the QAnon branding because of its toxic associations, the future of the movement is in flux.
But as the QAnon conference in Las Vegas this week showed, four years after the first “Q drop,” there’s still a huge amount of interest in the QAnon conspiracy theories, and people still believe. The movement has also found a home in the more extreme parts of the evangelical community, and given enough time, the movement could itself become a mainstream religious movement.
“There is this old adage among folks who study religion that cult plus time equals religion,” Ryan Burge, a pastor and an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, told VICE News.
“Everything sort of started out as a cult, whether it be Christianity or Judaism or, you know, Scientology. If it hangs around long enough, it will eventually become a religion.”