As the world watched Joe Biden’s inauguration outside the US Capitol, which just weeks before had been overrun by insurrectionists, supporters of far-right conspiracy theory QAnon were confused.
Many took to dedicated forums and online channels to ask why Donald Trump and ‘Q’, the shadowy anonymous leader of the movement, had been silent for weeks on end, accusing each other of being false Q followers for failing to believe a great storm of reckoning was about to happen.
QAnon supporters believe a secret society of paedophiles run by high-profile celebrities and government officials is plotting against now-former President Donald Trump, who they say is leading a covert crack down on the group. Joe Biden’s swearing-in, absent from an organised coup to keep Mr Trump in power, stoked further infighting in an already fractious community.
Ron Watkins, former moderator for conspiracy hub 8kun and prominent QAnon figure often suspected of being Q himself, told his more than 100,000 followers on encrypted app Telegram to return to their former lives.
Returning to former lives
“We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able,” he wrote under his username CodeMonkeyZ. “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 or details regarding officials who are sworn in.”
Mr Watkins’ message was met with a mixture of despair, confusion and outrage, as members in the channel and other forums debated the movement’s future, searching for secret messages conveyed in Melania Trump’s choice of dress as she touched down in Florida and calling on Mr Trump to “send us a sign”.
Mr Trump was so central to QAnon and its narratives that its united survival will hinge on finding a replacement leader, suggests Sara Beirne, head of digital at agency Eulogy.
“Mr Trump provided all sorts of different conspiracy theories with a figurehead they all came together under, uniting separate factions,” she told i. “If a new leader doesn’t come to the fore these groups will probably fracture across newer platforms, including Telegram and YouTube alternative Rumble and Facebook revial MeWe.
Trumpism refuses to die
These newer, smaller platforms don’t have the scale of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, and Big Tech’s renewed crackdown on QAnon groups, pages and networks earlier this month will prevent believers and supporters from reaching would-be followers as they did in the past, she points out.
“QAnon is essentially founded on an anti-paedophilia narrative with Donald Trump as its saviour, and if you remove the core part of it [Mr Trump in the seat of power] it breaks up the heart of the theory,” Ms Beirne says.
“They’ll keep searching for justifications and proof points that their belief in the theory is real and correct, but once it’s broken apart some of them will simply seek to fashion it into a new theory. QAnon believers are still on Facebook and Twitter and desperately searching for ways to understand the world, and Mr Trump is searching for new platforms to focus on, whether that’s a news network or a new social platform. Every channel at some point was new and emerging, just because his supporter platforms are small right now doesn’t mean they always will be.”
Refocusing on other emotive topics
While many QAnon believers will feel disillusioned in the movement and return to their lives, thinking they’ve been lied to, their sense of dissatisfaction in the world order will push others to finding a new online outlet for their anger, agrees Dr Sue Greenwood, senior lecturer in journalism at York St John University.
“We’re in quite an incredible crisis, and there is a lot of historical evidence that crises quite often lead to the development of conspiracy theories,” she says. “These kind of theories can’t be empty movements, because without a figurehead they will be dead quite soon, like previous movement the Tea Party.
While QAnon gathered pace in the US by focusing on anti-Jewish and Muslim rhetorics based around religion coupled with the over-arching anti-paedophilia tenet, its spread in the UK has been more closely linked to racial tensions and anti-animal abuse: old, familiar and extremely emotive topics, Dr Greenwood says.
“It will be interesting to see whether the movement will coalesce around other members of the Trump family and certain ideas, refocusing on issues that people have been angry about for a long time: immigration, border closing, housing for immigrants. QAnon has always been based on fear of the other, whether in the UK or the US,” she explains.
“There will be some kind of hardline movement towards something, whether that’s a re-emersion in the QAnon theories or anti-immigrant rhetoric, the followers will keep searching for something to attach their current anger to.”