As adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory face the reality of Joe Biden’s presidency – something they believed could never happen – the movement appears to be searching for a way forward as some cast aside their beliefs, according to researchers.
QAnon is a loose set of unfounded beliefs based on the refuted notion that a cannibalistic cabal of liberal elites working to traffic children and harvest their blood to remain young at the behest of either interdimensional demons or psychic vampires, depending on the adherent.
Adherents believed former President Donald Trump was chosen to defeat the cabal, based on “drops” by an anonymous figure called “Q” on the 4Chan imageboard.
The conspiracy gained momentum in 2017, after Q made his first cryptic drop, and subsumed numerous other unfounded theories, like those from the anti-vaccine movement that claims jabs cause ailments, and inspired violence, including plots to kill then-candidate Biden.
Coming to terms
As Biden – part of the liberal cabal, according to Q beliefs – took office, some on platforms like the encrypted messaging app Telegram and far-right social media site Gab pushed for adherents to “trust the plan”, a common phrase referring to a nebulous plan for the military and Trump to intervene.
One user told his Q compatriots to hold the line for “a few more hours, maybe even a few more days” in case a surprise twist was coming, according to a screenshot shared by a senior researcher at Media Matters for America, Alex Kaplan.
Here's a QAnon influencer already preparing to move the goalposts on QAnon about Biden taking office. pic.twitter.com/AIFOVoETjY
— Alex Kaplan (@AlKapDC) January 20, 2021
“If you choose not to trust Q at this moment, trust DJT,” the user said, using Trump’s initials.
But others appeared to realise they had been fooled. “We’ve been had, it’s over,” another user wrote.
The QAnon conspiracy travelled from one imageboard to another as domains that hosted such sites banned them. QAnon’s home base ahead of Biden’s inauguration was 8kun, a successor to 4chan, the site where Q released his first drop.
Even Jim Watkins, a leading figure among Q adherents due to his role as 8kun’s administrator who stepped up his public profile after Trump lost the November election, has admitted QAnon’s defeat.
“We have a new president sworn in and it is our responsibility as citizens to respect the Constitution regardless of whether or not we agree with the specifics,” Watkins said in a statement after Biden was inaugurated, telling people to return to their lives.
But Media Matters President Angelo Carusone told Al Jazeera the movement is not likely to disappear.
Carusone said in an interview that while original Q adherents, who viewed Trump as a type of saviour, could look to other groups, “new blood within the QAnon movement is sort of primed and ready to fight this fight.”
QAnon gained fresh momentum in April, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spread in the United States and people looked to vaccines for hope.
“That was when they began to cross-pollinate with the anti-vaxxers on Facebook, so you had a massive influx of anti-vaxxers into the QAnon movement and vice versa,” Carusone said.
He warned the myriad QAnon views will likely begin to seep into Biden’s COVID-19 response. He also warned that others will become “increasingly radicalised” on the far right.
Dr Heidi Beirich, co-founder and chief strategy officer at the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, has similar concerns.
She told Al Jazeera QAnon adherents seem “like a ripe group of people to target for recruitment”.
Though QAnon supporters are thought to be mostly white, the conspiracy did not deal in overtly racist rhetoric, favouring coded language.
Beirich, who has researched the far right for decades, said the militia movement is the most likely new home for QAnon and Trump supporters.
“They certainly have become more ant-immigrant and more anti-Muslim in recent years, but they don’t portray themselves as white supremacists.”
But members of the militia movement were allegedly active in the deadly riot at the US Capitol on January 6.
Edward Caldwell, a leader of the Oath Keepers, a militia that often recruits former military members, has been charged with conspiracy for his alleged role in the riot by US prosecutors.
Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers founder, called on militia members to be ready to “defend themselves” from the Biden administration.
“It’s just amazing that Trump let the election be stolen out from under him and to let the country be stolen like this”, Rhodes said on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ programme on Wednesday.
“You needed to be raising local militias in your towns and counties, and like the Founders did, you need to then nullify, refuse to comply, and when they come for you, you defend yourselves.”
It remains unclear what will become of QAnon, and Beirich said it is possible that many involved in the movement could return to their lives, as Watkins urged.
Still, grievances about an election perceived as stolen will remain, and Beirich worried about a recent YouGov poll that showed 20 percent of voters, including 45 percent of Republicans, approved of the storming of the Capitol.
“That’s 20 million people who don’t believe this election was fair and don’t believe our institutions are legit,” she concluded.