In this photo illustration, Donald Trump's TRUTH Social account is seen on a mobile device with an image of a QAnon sticker in the background in Washington, DC on September 13, 2022. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
As the expected red wave failed to materialize in the midterms last week and former President Donald Trump baselessly claimed the election had been stolen (again), new Q drops landed.Usually new communiqués from Q during a pivotal moment in American politics would send shockwaves through the QAnon conspiracy community. It would be shared everywhere and endlessly broken down to find hidden meaning buried with the short, staccato sentences.
This time around, however, there was a different reaction: tumbleweeds. Other than the most diehard followers, no one really seemed to care. The mysterious, titular figure at the centre of the massive conspiracy which posits that Trump is fighting a secretive war against pedophilic elites and has burrowed its way into millions of Americans brains has seemingly lost his mojo. The new Q drops, four in all, were messages supposedly coming from the person or persons who created the QAnon movement, barely registered a ripple of interest among the community. Influencers, who have built up huge followings within the movement, largely ignored it. The hardcore QAnon believers on 8kun, where Q drops are posted, responded with derision, claiming the post was fake. And most of the rest of the world simply didn’t even know anything had happened."A new Q-drop was a frenzy. You'd have people on Reddit, on Twitter, on 8chan immediately picking it apart. You'd have long threads discussing what it actually meant," Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy researcher who wrote a book on the QAnon movement, told VICE News. "It must have been like what getting the Bible in real time, like ‘wow, we've got more, our gurus telling us more.’ Now everybody's moved on and Q returning I think really only highlights that." But that lack of interest doesn’t mean that the QAnon movement is going anywhere. It seems that the new message was ignored because the QAnon movement has moved past requiring new Q drops to bolster itself. QAnon is now a self-sustaining conspiracy movement, buoyed by a growing army of faithful believers, a posse of influencers who seek to profit from keeping the conspiracy alive, and, most importantly, thanks to the mainstreaming of QAnon conspiracies by major figures within the Republican Party, lead primarily by Trump. To say it simply: QAnon has grown beyond needing Q.
The response to the midterm Q drops may at first glance appear to suggest that QAnon is dead or dying, but the opposite appears true. New survey data published last month reveals that the number of Americans who believe in QAnon conspiracies has risen in the last 12 months while the number of people who flat out reject the wild conspiracies has fallen.
The Election Day Q drop was ignored for a number of reasons. Firstly, all the evidence points to the fact that the post, like a flurry of messages last June, was written not by “Q”—a fictitious secret insider in Washington— but by Jim Watkins, the owner of 8kun. (Watkins and his son, Ron, have long been suspected to either know the identity of the person making the Q drops, or of being “Q” themselves.)The first election Q drop, which was posted on November 6, simply asked a bunch of questions (the topics included Ukraine and Hunter Biden) and ended by telling readers their “vote matters” and that they “have all the tools you need” to “take back control.” The second post, on November 7, focused on election fraud and once again told people to go out and vote. The third, on Election Day, just talked about “endless” things.“In the past, when Q would post, you would get a whole bunch of other posts with people talking about what Q wrote but it seems like nobody cares anymore,” Fred Brennan, the founder of 8chan who is now dedicated to bringing the site down, told VICE News.
On 8kun, the response was less than enthusiastic. Users questioned who was making the drops, and pointed out that the poster's cadence and style was off. “They look like a trilogy that started with Spielberg being the director and ended with some amateur,” wrote one disappointed fan. “Kind of a letdown as a post,” wrote another. Experts suggest the extended Q holiday has weakened the narrative connection with the conspiracy audience.
“It doesn't work to throw out a couple of these things and then run away for months,” Rothschild said. “The reason why Q worked as well as it did, why it was so compelling to so many people, is because it was a sustained story that kept feeding you new content, new rabbit holes, new research avenues. This is just like a bunch of questions and then nothing.”Over the course of just over three years, from late October 2017 to December 2020, the person behind Q posted just shy of 5,000 messages, first on 4chan and then on 8chan (now called 8kun). These messages became QAnon’s sacred text. In the past, every new Q drop was greeted with huge excitement within the community, endlessly analyzed and taken apart to find some hidden meaning or link to the real world.
‘They look like a trilogy that started with Spielberg being the director and ended with some amateur.’
The fun ended in December 2020 when the poster known as Q went silent.But the movement didn't go anywhere and, in fact, grew. They continued formulating conspiracies and influencers stepped into the power vacuum. Perhaps most importantly, though, the GOP establishment and their media appendages began wooing these people with a more watered-down version of QAnon. Then, out of nowhere, Q returned in June 2022, with a cryptic post ripped right out of a B-movie: “Shall we play a game once more?” The post was initially met with excitement and joy in the movement, and was covered heavily in the mainstream press. But within days, experts had spotted technical errors in how the message was posted, suggesting that it was likely Watkins and not “Q” who was behind the posts. 8kun users immediately noticed that immediately prior to Q’s supposed return, Watkins had changed the way the secure tripcodes used to identify particular users were generated, except for one specific tripcode, belonging to Q. The ID of the initial two Q drops was also changed after they were posted, which is something only the administrators of the site are allowed to do.One of the experts pointing out these errors was Brennan whose campaign against his former site and those who run it has resulted in death threats. In total, there were six messages claiming to be from Q posted on 8kun in June, followed by silence until last week when the three new messages appeared from the Q account on 8kun.
It’s obvious that while the QAnon movement has irreversibly impacted American politics, the Q poster themselves has lost impact. There are multiple reasons why this occurred. The long break in communication led the community to craft conspiracies themselves. Others fell to sub-communities within the movement—some lending their faith to Michael Protzman in Dallas who preached the return of JFK Jr., others to Romana Didulo, the QAnon Queen of Canada. “The average Q believer, if they were to be shown these drops, would probably accept them, even though they are clearly fake,” Brennan said. “But you have this influencer corp that dictates what is good doctrine and what's bad doctrine essentially. They haven't accepted these new Q drops at all. [Watkins] really has not been able to get the influencers on his side, at all.”While this may be bad news for Watkins and 8kun, which has been unusable for large periods of time in recent months due to constant attacks, for the wider QAnon community it appears as if Q’s absence has done little to slow the movement’s growth.It has always been difficult to track the scale of QAnon belief among Americans. That became even more difficult when QAnon supporters attempted to ditch the name altogether in 2021. The central role played by QAnon supporters in the insurrection significantly tarnished the movement and brought unwanted attention from lawmakers and the media. And so QAnon supporters simply decided to abandon the name, citing an October 2020 Q drop that said: “There is Q. There are Anons. There is no QAnon.” The post went on to add that QAnon was something made up by the mainstream media to tarnish the movement.
As a result, simply asking someone if they believe in QAnon is not a very good way of assessing just how widespread the conspiracy movement is.
And that’s why the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a nonpartisan research group, decided that a different approach was needed. Instead of asking directly if someone supports QAnon, the PRRI researchers asks respondents if they agree with the core tenets of the conspiracy theory:
- The government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation
- There is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.
- Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.
This suggests millions of Americans decided over the course of the last year that QAnon, actually, may contain some truths after all.A separate PRRI survey pf Qanon beliefs last year found that the movement is hugely diverse with adherents in every corner of the U.S., at all levels of education, and from numerous religions. But the researchers found that far and away the single biggest predictor of belief in QAnon conspiracies is a preference for watching right-wing news outlets, including Newsmax and Fox News. It also found that the most likely demographic to believe in QAnon were white Republicans.Today, one of the biggest driving forces in bringing these conspiracies to a larger audience in the last 12 months is the increasing adoption of these beliefs as mainstream orthodoxy within the GOP.“The fact that Republicans have co-opted some of this does serve to increase belief,” Natalie Jackson, director of research at PRRI, told VICE News. “The more people you have repeating conspiracy theories, the more people hear them, and it allows them to continue reverberating around.”Trump has led this charge by openly embracing QAnon on his own Truth Social (his social media platform) channel—sharing pictures of himself with explicit QAnon slogans, and even a post that linked back to the text of an original “Q drop.” Truth Social has its very own Q account that has 223,000 followers. Trump has shared explicitly QAnon-inflected content. And Jackson believes that Trump’s impending announcement of his plan to run for president again in 2024, combined with his likely return to Twitter, could drive even more interest in QAnon. (Although Americans are at least somewhat adverse at voting QAnon candidates into office.)“I think it is a very good possibility that with Trump more back in the spotlight, and possibly active again on Twitter that we see an uptick in willingness to believe these conspiracies,” Jackson said.In the meantime, however, while QAnon remains massively influential, Q simply does not.