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QAnon Struggles After Trump Election Defeat

Last weekend, as jubilant Democrats danced in the streets to celebrate the election of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the country’s 46th president, QAnon believers were on their computers trying to make sense of it all.

“Biden will NEVER be president,” wrote one QAnon believer, still firmly stuck in the denial stage of grief.

“Trump knows what he is doing,” wrote a member of a QAnon forum, well on his way to bargaining. “He is letting the Dems, technocrats and media publicly hang themselves.”

Some QAnon believers, however, were already inching toward acceptance.

“We’re losing,” one tweeted. “Not sure I trust the plan anymore. Not sure there even is a plan.”

These are trying times for believers in QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory that falsely claims the existence of a satanic pedophile cult run by top Democrats. For years, they had been assured that Mr. Trump would win re-election in a landslide and spend his second term vanquishing the deep state and bringing the cabal’s leaders to justice. Q, the pseudonymous message board user whose cryptic posts have fueled the movement for more than three years, told them to “trust the plan.”

But since Mr. Trump’s defeat, Q has gone dark. No posts from the account bearing Q’s tripcode, or digital user name, have appeared on 8kun, the website where all of Q’s posts appear. And overall QAnon-related activity on the site has slowed to a trickle. (On a recent day, there were fewer new posts on one of 8kun’s QAnon boards than on its board for adult-diaper fetishists.)

There are also signs of infighting among QAnon’s inner circle. Ron Watkins, an 8kun administrator who some believed was Q himself, announced on Election Day that he was stepping down from the site, citing “extensive battles” over censorship and the site’s future. His father, Jim Watkins, a professed QAnon believer who owns 8kun, has been singing hymns on his livestream and posting debunked claims about voter fraud, but has not given any indication of when Q might return.

Q’s sudden disappearance has been jarring for QAnon believers, who have come to depend on the account’s posts, or “drops,” for updates and reassurance.

“They feel really defeated by the deep state, even if they’re not admitting it in public,” said Fredrick Brennan, the founder of 8chan, 8kun’s predecessor site. Mr. Brennan, who has left the site and become a vocal critic of Mr. Watkins, said QAnon believers had bought into the idea that Mr. Trump was fully in control, even as the polls showed he had a slim chance of winning.

“They were not expecting him to lose, and they were not expecting Fox News to call it,” he said. “It was really psychologically damaging.”

Over the last few months, QAnon followers have been barred from most major social media platforms, deflating the movement’s momentum and depriving it of its most effective organizing tools. Large Facebook groups and YouTube channels with hundreds of thousands of subscribers disappeared overnight, and some of QAnon’s most prominent promoters have been reduced to peddling conspiracy theories on fringe websites.

The crackdowns have hurt QAnon’s grifter class — the self-appointed leaders who make a living selling Q merchandise, writing QAnon-themed books and organizing offline Q events. But they also disconnected rank-and-file believers from the communities where they gathered to discuss the news, decode the latest drops and plan for the future.

“QAnon believers were hoping for direction if Trump lost, and not only are they unable to hook into Q, there have also been moves by platform companies to remove other sources of entertainment and leadership,” said Joan Donovan, the research director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.

Election Day was not a total loss for QAnon. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, two Republicans who have praised the conspiracy theory, won their House elections and will be sworn in next year.

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Credit…Erik S Lesser/EPA, via Shutterstock

“QAnon believers are used to having Q’s predictions not come true,” said William Partin, a research analyst at the nonprofit Data & Society who has studied the QAnon movement. “Sometimes people get disappointed and quit. Others try to adjust the overall narrative to make the setback part of some larger plan. But it’s very difficult to do that kind of adjustment with something as large as losing the presidential election.”

Some QAnon watchers I spoke with speculated that during a Biden presidency, some of the movement’s most prominent influencers would quietly peel off into adjacent conspiracy theory communities — stirring up fears about child sex trafficking as part of the Save Our Children movement, for example, or sowing distrust in a Covid-19 vaccine.

QAnon supporters also could throw themselves behind more mainstream conservative efforts to dispute the election’s results. Already, some QAnon influencers have been promoting Stop the Steal rallies in states where Mr. Trump and his supporters have made baseless claims of voter fraud.

In some ways, QAnon believers are well positioned to help Mr. Trump recast himself as the victim of a Democratic coup. They are experienced and savvy content generators, with an appetite for far-fetched conspiracy theories and delayed gratification. They are also part of a hyperpartisan audience accustomed to questioning official narratives. A Morning Consult survey conducted over the weekend found that seven out of 10 Republicans now doubt that the 2020 election was “free and fair.”

Some QAnon believers are already latching on to a bogus conspiracy theory known as Operation Hammer and Scorecard, which falsely claims that a supercomputer and a software program were used to change tabulated vote totals. (Christopher C. Krebs, the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity agency, called the theory “nonsense” and urged people not to fall for it.) Others have begun spinning a convoluted fantasy that Mr. Trump secretly placed invisible watermarks on ballots in order to entrap Democrats in a voter fraud scheme.

None of the experts predicted that QAnon would disappear, or said those seduced by the theory would magically snap out of it. In some ways, they said, the movement has outgrown its founding myths.

“QAnon is about cultivating this way of knowing, by tying together all these stories and posts and creating a compelling narrative that offers an alternative to the mainstream press,” Mr. Partin said. “That will persist, whether or not Q is posting.”

So far, no plan has emerged for what QAnon believers will do when Mr. Trump’s presidency does, in fact, come to an end, especially if Q is no longer there to steer them to a new theory.

On a podcast on Friday, two prominent QAnon influencers, known by their online handles InTheMatrixxx and Shady Groove, urged their fellow believers not to give up hope. The election will be proven fraudulent, they agreed, and Q’s prediction of a Trump victory will look even more prescient in hindsight.

“We’re winning, folks,” InTheMatrixxx said.

Shady Groove agreed.

“This is not what you thought winning would look like,” he said. “But trust me.”

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What Is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?

If you’re spending a lot of time online these days — and thanks to the pandemic, many of us are — you’ve probably heard of QAnon, the sprawling internet conspiracy theory that has taken hold among some of President Trump’s supporters.

But unless you’re very online, you likely still have questions about what exactly is going on.

QAnon was once a fringe phenomenon — the kind most people could safely ignore. But in recent months, it’s gone mainstream. Twitter, Facebook and other social networks have been flooded with QAnon-related false information about Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter protests and the 2020 election. QAnon supporters have also been trying to attach themselves to other activist causes, such as the anti-vaccine and anti-child-trafficking movements, in an effort to expand their ranks.

QAnon has also seeped into the offline world, with some believers charged with violent crimes, including one QAnon follower accused of murdering a mafia boss in New York last year and another who was arrested in April and accused of threatening to kill Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has warned that QAnon poses a potential domestic terror threat.

Last week, QAnon reached a new milestone when Marjorie Taylor Greene, an avowed QAnon supporter from Georgia, won a Republican primary in a heavily conservative district, setting her up for a near-certain election to Congress in November. After Ms. Greene’s win, Mr. Trump called her a “future Republican star.”

QAnon is an incredibly convoluted theory, and you could fill an entire book explaining its various tributaries and sub-theories. But here are some basic things you should know.

QAnon is the umbrella term for a sprawling set of internet conspiracy theories that allege, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring.

QAnon followers believe that this clique includes top Democrats including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros, as well as a number of entertainers and Hollywood celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres and religious figures including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. Many of them also believe that, in addition to molesting children, members of this group kill and eat their victims in order to extract a life-extending chemical from their blood.

According to QAnon lore, Mr. Trump was recruited by top military generals to run for president in 2016 in order to break up this criminal conspiracy, end its control of politics and the media, and bring its members to justice.

Not by a long shot. Since it began, QAnon has incorporated elements of many other conspiracy theory communities, including claims about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the existence of U.F.O.s, and the 9/11 “truther” movement.

QAnon Anonymous, a podcast about the QAnon movement, calls QAnon a “big tent conspiracy theory” because it is constantly evolving and adding new features and claims. But the existence of a global pedophile cabal is the core tenet of QAnon, and the one that most, if not all, of its followers believe.

In October 2017, a post appeared on 4chan, the notoriously toxic message board, from an anonymous account calling itself “Q Clearance Patriot.” This poster, who became known simply as “Q,” claimed to be a high-ranking intelligence officer with access to classified information about Mr. Trump’s war against the global cabal.

Q predicted that this war would soon culminate in “The Storm” — an appointed time when Mr. Trump would finally unmask the cabal, punish its members for their crimes and restore America to greatness.

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Credit…Pool photo by Andrew Harrer

It’s a reference to a cryptic remark Mr. Trump made during an October 2017 photo op. Posing alongside military generals, Mr. Trump said, “You guys know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.”

QAnon believers pointed to this moment as proof that Mr. Trump was sending coded messages about his plans to break up the global cabal, with the help of the military.

Q’s identity is still unknown, although there have been hints and speculation about it for years. Some speculate that a single internet troll has been posting as Q the entire time; others say that multiple people are involved in posting as Q, or that Q’s identity has changed over time.

Making things more complicated is that Q’s online home base has changed several times. Q’s posts originally appeared on 4chan. Then they moved to 8chan, where they stayed until that site was taken offline last year after the El Paso mass shooting. They now live on 8kun, a site run by the former owner of 8chan. Each of these sites uses a system of identity verification known as a “tripcode” — essentially, a unique digital signature that proves that a series of anonymous posts were written by the same person or people.

“Drops” are what QAnon followers call Q’s posts. There have been nearly 5,000 of them so far, and most take the form of a cryptic coded message.

Here’s an example of a Q drop from September 2018:

PANIC IN DC

[LL] talking = TRUTH reveal TARMAC [BC]?

[LL] talking = TRUTH reveal COMEY HRC EMAIL CASE?

[LL] talking = TRUTH reveal HUSSEIN instructions re: HRC EMAIL CASE?

[LL] talking = TRUTH reveal BRENNAN NO NAME COORD TO FRAME POTUS?……………..FISA = START

FISA BRINGS DOWN THE HOUSE.WHEN DO BIRDS SING?

Q

In this post, you can see coded references to “LL” (Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s former attorney general), “BC” (Bill Clinton), “HRC” (Hillary Rodham Clinton), and “HUSSEIN” (President Obama), along with references to John Brennan, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and “POTUS” — President Trump.

Many QAnon followers use “Q Drop” apps that collect all of Q’s posts in one place, and alert them every time a new post arrives. (One of these apps hit the top 10 paid apps in Apple’s App Store before it was pulled down for violating the company’s guidelines.) They then post these drops in Facebook groups, chat rooms for the Discord chat app and Twitter threads, and begin discussing and debating what it all means.

Yes and no. QAnon has been described as a “big-budget sequel” to Pizzagate, because it takes the original Pizzagate conspiracy theory — which alleged, falsely, that Mrs. Clinton and her cronies were operating a child sex-trafficking ring out of the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant — and adds many more layers of narrative on top of it. But many people believe in both theories, and for many QAnon believers, Pizzagate represented a kind of conspiracy theory on-ramp.

One new element in QAnon is a number of clear and specific predictions about when and how “The Storm” would play out. For years, Q has predicted that mass arrests of cabal members would occur on certain days, that certain government reports would reveal the cabal’s misdeeds, and that Republicans would win numerous seats in the 2018 midterm elections.

None of those predictions came true. But most QAnon believers didn’t care. They simply found ways to reframe the narrative and ignore the discrepancies, and moved on.

It’s hard to say, because there’s no official membership directory, but the number is not small. Even if you count only the hard-core QAnon believers — excluding “QAnon-lite” adherents who might believe in a deep state plot against Mr. Trump, but not a cabal of child-eating Satanists — the number may be at least in the hundreds of thousands.

Some of the most popular QAnon groups on Facebook have more than 100,000 members apiece, and Twitter recently announced it was taking actions to limit the reach of more than 150,000 QAnon-associated accounts. A recent report by NBC News found that Facebook had conducted an internal study of QAnon’s presence on its platform, and it concluded that there were thousands of QAnon groups, with millions of members between them.

That number has probably grown during the pandemic, as people stuck indoors turn to the internet for entertainment and socializing and wind up being pulled into the QAnon community. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal found that membership in 10 large Facebook groups devoted to QAnon had grown by more than 600 percent since the start of lockdowns.

A common misconception is that QAnon is purely a political movement. But it functions, for people who believe in it, as both a social community and a source of entertainment.

Some people have compared QAnon to a massive multiplayer online game, because of the way it invites participants to cocreate a kind of shared reality filled with recurring characters, shifting story lines and intricate puzzle-solving quests. QAnon has also been compared to a church, in that it provides its followers with a social support structure as well as an organizing narrative for their everyday lives.

Adrian Hon, a game designer who has written about QAnon’s similarity to alternate-reality games, says that believers “open a fascinating fantasy world of secret wars and cabals and Hillary Clinton controlling things, and it offers convenient explanations for things that feel inexplicable or wrong about the world.”

Even though Q’s posts appear on fringe message boards, the QAnon phenomenon owes much of its popularity to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which have amplified QAnon messages and recommended QAnon groups and pages to new people through their algorithms.

In addition, QAnon believers have used social media to harass, intimidate and threaten their perceived enemies, and to seed other types of misinformation that wind up influencing public debate. Several of the most popular conspiracy theories on the internet this year — such as “Plandemic,” a documentary containing false and dangerous claims about Covid-19, and a viral conspiracy theory that falsely claimed that Wayfair, the online furniture company, was trafficking children — have been amplified and popularized by QAnon followers.

Some of these networks have started trying to remove QAnon content from their platforms. Twitter recently banned thousands of QAnon accounts, saying they had engaged in coordinated harassment. Facebook is reportedly coming up with its own QAnon containment strategy. But these interventions may be too little, too late.

It’s true that much of QAnon’s subject matter is recycled from earlier conspiracy theories. But QAnon is fundamentally an internet-based movement that operates in a different way, and at a different scale, than anything we’ve seen before.

For starters, QAnon is deeply participatory, in a way that few other popular conspiracy theories have been. Followers congregate in chat rooms and Facebook groups to decode the latest Q posts, discuss their theories about the news of the day, and bond with their fellow believers. The Atlantic has called it “the birth of a new religion.”

There’s also the basic danger of what QAnon followers actually believe. It’s one thing to have a polarized political discourse with heated disagreements; it’s another to have a faction of Americans who think, with complete sincerity, that the leaders of the opposition party are kidnapping and cannibalizing innocent children.

Combine those violent, paranoid fantasies with the fact that QAnon followers have been charged with committing serious crimes in Q’s name, and it’s no wonder people are worried.

Mr. Trump is the central and heroic figure in QAnon’s core narrative — the brave patriot who was chosen to save America from the global cabal. As a result, QAnon believers parse Mr. Trump’s words and actions closely, looking for hidden meanings. When Mr. Trump says the number 17, they take it as a sign that he is sending secret messages to them. (Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet.) When he wears a pink tie, they interpret it as a sign that he is freeing trafficked children. (Some hospitals use “code pink” as a shorthand for a child abduction in progress.)

Mr. Trump has never directly addressed QAnon, but he recently declined to denounce or disavow the movement when asked about his support for Ms. Green, the QAnon-affiliated congressional candidate. And he has shared posts from QAnon followers dozens of times on his social media accounts.

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Credit…Stephanie Keith/Reuters

Yes. For months, QAnon followers have been hijacking #SaveTheChildren — which started out as a fund-raising campaign for a legitimate anti-child-trafficking organization — as a recruiting tactic.

What they’re doing, basically, is using false and exaggerated claims about child trafficking to attract the attention of a new audience — in this case, worried parents. Then, they attempt to steer the conversation to QAnon talking points — saying that the reason children are being trafficked, for example, is because the global cabal wants to harvest a supposedly life-extending chemical from their blood.

This particular tactic has been especially problematic for legitimate anti-trafficking groups, who have had to deal with clogged hotlines and rampant misinformation as QAnon has latched on to their issue.

Merely posting #SaveTheChildren doesn’t mean your friends are QAnon believers. They could have just stumbled on a post about child trafficking that resonated with them and decided to share it. But they, and you, should know that those posts are part of a concerted QAnon strategy.

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