(CNN Business)For years, believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory had been waiting for the moment when a grand plan would be put into action and secret members of a supposed Satanic pedophilia ring at the highest ranks of government and Hollywood would suddenly be exposed, rounded up and possibly even publicly executed. They were nearly always sure it was right around the corner, but “The Storm” never came — and the moment of Joe Biden’s inauguration was the last possible opportunity for President Donald Trump to put the plan in motion.
But as Biden raised his hand and swore an oath to defend the Constitution, becoming the nation’s 46th president — nothing happened.
The anti-climax sent QAnon adherents into a frenzy of confusion and disbelief, almost instantly shattering a collective delusion that had been nurtured and amplified by many on the far right. Now, in addition to being scattered to various smaller websites after Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) cracked down on QAnon-related content, believers risked having their own topsy-turvy world turned upside down, or perhaps right-side up.
Members of a QAnon-focused Telegram channel, and some users of the image board 4chan, vowed to keep the faith. Others proclaimed they were renouncing their beliefs. Still others devised new theories that purported to push the ultimate showdown further into the future. One of the ideology’s most visible icons, Ron Watkins — who goes by the online moniker CodeMonkeyZ — told supporters to “go back to our lives.”
“The most hardcore QAnon followers are in disarray,” said Daniel J. Jones, president of Advance Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks extremist groups and misinformation online. “After years of waiting for the ‘Great Awakening,’ QAnon adherents seemed genuinely shocked to see President Biden successfully inaugurated. A significant percentage online are writing that they are now done with the QAnon, while others are doubling down and promoting new conspiracies.”
The smattering of reactions underscores the uncertain future now facing the QAnon movement, which tech companies had allowed to metastasize on their platforms for years but didn’t start taking action against in earnest until 2020.
The baseless conspiracy theory has been circulating since 2017. In addition to alleging a vast child-trafficking conspiracy, those who were drawn in claim that government bureaucrats comprising a “deep state” were quietly working to undermine President Donald Trump’s agenda. Trump himself fueled the claims by refusing to publicly denounce them on national television.
And people identifying as part of the QAnon movement were part of the mob of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol earlier this month.
Following the riots, QAnon supporters eagerly anticipated the moment of Biden’s inauguration.
“As the noose tightens around the deep state, some people are becoming more and more desperate to discredit Q,” one 4chan user posted on Wednesday morning. “I guess what they say is true. The flack is heaviest over the target.”
But after Biden’s swearing-in came and went, panic set in.
“We were promised arrests, exposures, military regime, classified documents. where is it????????” wrote one member of the QAnon-linked Telegram channel, which has nearly 128,000 subscribers.
“I’m scared, feeling sick in my stomach, but I am holding the line still,” said another.
“Well babies are still being raped and eaten, any f**kin minute now GOD,” said another.
Some began acknowledging the truth.
“Biden is our president,” a fourth user in the Telegram channel said. “It’s time to get off our devices and get back to reality. If something happens then something happens, but for now I’m logging out of all social media. It’s been fun guys but it’s unfortunately over.”
Other believers insisted that the lack of a climax was itself a part of the plan, theorizing that Trump merely “allowed” Biden to become president “for appearances” while the former reality show host would be the one pulling the strings. “Anything that happens in the next 4 years is actually President Trumps doing,” wrote one 4chan user.
“It’s a hot mess, frankly,” said Carla Hill, research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, of the various reactions of QAnon believers. “Frustration started seeping in. There is some embarrassment, some anger … A range of [new] conspiracies are spinning out of this and they are arguing among themselves.”
The apparent ease with which some QAnon believers have been able to adjust the theory to suit new events underscores how slippery the conspiracy theory can be. But the proliferation of new theories and beliefs could also lead to a splintering of the movement — and, some extremism experts warn, a potentially new crisis in mental health.
As QAnon believers got pulled deeper into the conspiracy theory, they built a comforting belief system around themselves, said Marc Ambinder, a senior fellow who studies mis- and disinformation at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
“The ‘plan’ was so much more powerful in the abstract than anything you could offer in the real world to counter it,” he said.
But now, as many QAnon supporters are increasingly confronted by reality, the resulting cognitive dissonance could break them, Ambinder said — with potentially devastating consequences.
“This type of event is the kind of thing that can set somebody who is already incredibly anxious, in the time of a horrible global pandemic, feeling like they’re completely pushed to the edge,” Ambinder said, saying he fears more of the type of violence that the country witnessed at the US Capitol two weeks ago.
In recent weeks, CNN has seen Trump supporters embracing the idea of martial law in large numbers on various social networks. Earlier this week, a Telegram account falsely purporting to be run by Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the moment some supporters had been waiting for — that is Trump finally acting and using the military to crush his enemies — was coming. A spokesperson for Gen. Hyten told CNN Tuesday morning that the account is “an absolute fake” and added the Pentagon was “actively working” to get it taken down.
Major social networks have stepped up their crackdowns of QAnon as of late. On Tuesday night, Facebook said that since August it has removed about 18,300 Facebook profiles and 27,300 accounts on its subsidiary Instagram for violating its policies against QAnon. The company has also removed 10,500 groups and 510 events for the same reason.
Last week, Twitter said it banned more than 70,000 accounts for promoting QAnon.
But that may not be enough. People who are embedded in conspiracy theories do not listen to authoritative voices, said Ambinder, but rather to the voices they consider to be authoritative in upholding their worldview.
Even though Trump may no longer be president, he and his political allies — some of whom still serve in government — may be some of the only ones who can draw QAnon believers back to the real world, according to Ambinder.
“For the sake of hundreds of thousands of people who are still trapped in the QAnon alternate world and have no idea what to do,” said Ambinder, “this is when Republicans who cynically and willfully spread the false ‘election was stolen’ rumor need to step up.”
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