QAnon followers are used to disappointments. Hillary Clinton was never arrested. Donald Trump lost the election. And the “storm” that was always “coming” never actually came.
But the inauguration of President Joe Biden on Wednesday appeared to break something in many QAnon followers.
In the immediate aftermath of Biden’s inauguration, online QAnon channels and chat groups were overwhelmed with posts from angry and frustrated followers who realized they had been duped.
“I think we all got played,” one follower said while another said it was “game over.” One QAnon believer simply said: “Fuck.”
Ron Watkins, the man who, more than anyone, helped facilitate the conspiracy theory and propel QAnon into the mainstream, told followers it was all over and that everyone needs to “go back to our lives as best we are able.”
It looked like QAnon was finished.
But as the dust settled, it became very clear that QAnon was not going anywhere.
“Some weak soldiers left the field today,” one high-profile figure told their followers, before urging them to remain faithful, and believe in everything they had learned over the last three years.
This was a common thread among almost all the major QAnon influencers, many of whom also invoked prayer and God’s role in what is supposedly to come. Over the last three years, QAnon’s high profile figures have attracted hundreds of thousands of loyal followers. Many of them have made a lot of money from their followings, and they’re not about give up the grift.
Less than 24 hours after the inauguration, the QAnon boards and message groups are no longer in despair. Now, they’re citing the influencers’ messages as signs of hope and that this is not over yet.
“I was very doubtful yesterday but feel a renewed sense of hope this morning,” one follower wrote on a Telegram channel on Thursday morning.
Even QAnon followers who said that Wednesday was the final straw won’t simply disavow everything they’ve come to believe over the last three years.
“People are not going to completely give up on their entire belief system,” Aoife Gallagher, an analyst who tracks QAnon at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), told VICE News.
“QAnon is deeply embedded in people and the alternative reality that it has created for some of its followers will not go away overnight.”
Rather than simply admitting the last three years of their lives were for nothing, QAnon supporters are pivoting away from a focus on Trump and towards what they see as an even bigger truth.
Some QAnon followers are now saying the movement “was never about Trump. This is about protecting American freedoms.” By removing Trump from the equation, the cult can continue to grow. Or, the community could fracture, with different influencer-led factions fighting amongst themselves.
“This could give an idea of what's to come — a splintered community where fervent followers stick with the QAnon influencers who are doubling down, and another group of people whose confidence in Q and Trump has been shattered, but the beliefs they've picked up along the way still hold strong,” Gallagher said.
As extremist researcher Marc-André Argentino pointed out on Twitter, it’s likely that a hard-core group will remain: they’ll continue to believe in QAnon and rely on the digital world to fight the information war. But, he adds that a small minority of QAnon supporters could see the information war as now lost, and therefore turn to real-world action, and violence.
And already, disillusioned QAnon followers are being preyed upon by extremist groups keen to pick up new members.
“There are quite a few cases of white supremacists circling around and trying to pick up the pieces,” Nick Backovic, a researcher who tracks QAnon and other extremist groups, told VICE News.
“Some of the disillusioned Q followers make prime targets for extremist groups looking to exploit people's vulnerability here in order to radicalize them even further.”
Gallagher too has seen evidence of extremist groups and movements using Biden’s inauguration as an opportunity to further “redpill” those disillusioned by Wednesday’s events. Years of devouring wild conspiracy theories have made them perfect targets for extremists.
“QAnon followers have already turned away from mainstream media, they already believe that evil, dark forces control the world, therefore it isn't seen as too much of a leap to further radicalize people into more extreme beliefs,” Gallagher said.
“This is one of the worrying effects of de-platforming. QAnon followers have now been pushed to the darkest corners of the internet and could therefore be exposed to even more extreme content.”