After the presidential election last year, the Proud Boys, a far-right group, declared its undying loyalty to President Trump.In a Nov. 8 post in a private channel of the messaging app Telegram, the group urged its followers to attend protests against an election that it said had been fraudulently stolen from Mr. Trump. “Hail Emperor Trump,” the Proud Boys wrote.But by this week, the group’s attitude toward Mr. Trump had changed. “Trump will go down as a total failure,” the Proud Boys said in the same Telegram channel on Monday.As Mr. Trump departed the White House on …
Despite these delusions, Ms. Gilbert — a self-described mystic who has written four books, with titles like “Swami Soup” — mostly struck me as a New Age eccentric who could use some time away from screens. She disdains the mainstream media, but she agreed to be profiled, and we kept in touch.Over a series of conversations, I learned that she had a longstanding suspicion of elites dating back to her Harvard days, when she felt out of place among people she considered snobby rich kids. As an adult, she joined the anti-establishment left, advocating animal rights and supporting the Standing Rock …
SAN FRANCISCO — Twitter on Monday said that it had removed more than 70,000 accounts that promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory in recent days, as the company widened its crackdown on content that could incite violence after barring President Trump from its service last week.Twitter, which carried out the suspensions over the weekend, said it acted to clamp down on posts that have “the potential to lead to offline harm.” It added that many of the users who were removed had operated multiple QAnon accounts, driving up the total number of accounts that were taken down.“These accounts were engaged in …
“His politics have been guided by platform metrics,” reflected Andrew Gauthier, who was a top video producer at BuzzFeed and later worked for Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign. “You always think that evil is going to come from movie villain evil, and then you’re like — oh no, evil can just start with bad jokes and nihilistic behavior that is fueled by positive reinforcement on various platforms.”And so Mr. Gionet’s story isn’t quite the familiar one of a lonely young man in his bedroom falling down a rabbit hole of videos that poison his worldview. …
But when a user changes the settings to allow “x-tagged” content to be viewed, streams with thousands of viewers discussing the riot at the Capitol quickly dominate the home page. In his stream on Thursday night, Mr. Fuentes, who had attracted 20,000 viewers, called Wednesday’s events “a flicker of hope” that “showed what is possible.”Neither Mr. Gionet nor Mr. Fuentes responded to requests for comment.“Everything about this platform is fake,” said Mr. Jovanovic, 34, the longtime streamer. “It’s like a cardboard building that shows Disneyland. As soon as you press on it, it’s death and carnage.”Mr. …
SAN FRANCISCO — Twitter and Facebook on Wednesday locked the accounts of President Trump, which prevents him from posting messages to his more than 88 million followers on Twitter and 35 million followers on Facebook, after he published a string of inaccurate and inflammatory messages on a day of violence in the nation’s capital.The moves were an unprecedented rebuke of Mr. Trump by the social media companies, which have long been megaphones for the president.Twitter said Mr. Trump’s account would remain locked for 12 hours and the ban could be extended if several of his tweets that rejected the election …
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.
- Officials across the U.S. say they found no evidence that voter fraud played a role in the election results.
- Trump harnesses the federal government’s power as he fights the election results.
- Pence rallied G.O.P. senators around Trump’s election challenges, promising to help defend their majority in Georgia.
But Mr. Trump, the central heroic figure in QAnon’s fantasy, will not. And without an enabler in the White House, it remains to be seen whether the movement’s days are numbered.
“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.”
Just a few years ago, Dan Bongino was a B-list pundit working on the fringes of conservative media.
A former police officer and Secret Service agent, Mr. Bongino ran for Congress three times as a Republican. He lost all three races, then turned to punditry, where he had a bit more success. He appeared regularly with Alex Jones on Infowars, then got his own show on NRA TV, the National Rifle Association’s now-defunct online media arm. After the 2016 election, he became one of Fox News’s most prolific contributors — a pro-Trump attack dog who could be called on to defend the president and humiliate his enemies.
“My entire life right now is about owning the libs,” he said in 2018.
Today, Mr. Bongino is owning more libs than almost anyone in America. He has become one of the most popular right-wing commentators in the country, with millions of social media followers, a top-20 podcast, a line of best-selling books and a Facebook page that generates more monthly engagement than the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN combined.
I first noticed Mr. Bongino’s profile rising a few months ago, when I started compiling a list of the top-performing Facebook posts every day. He appeared on the lists more often than not, and frequently trounced much better-known commentators like Sean Hannity and Ben Shapiro. (This month, for example, Mr. Bongino has gotten nearly twice as many Facebook interactions as Mr. Shapiro, despite having a much smaller following.)
Mr. Bongino, 45, has become a lightning rod on the left, both because of his growing audience and because he has been criticized for posting exaggerated and misleading information. He was one of the most aggressive promoters of “Spygate,” a dubious conspiracy theory about an illegal Democratic plot to spy on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. He falsely claimed that masks are “largely ineffective” at preventing the spread of Covid-19, and has promoted unproven claims about voter fraud as well as stoking fears about a Democrat-led coup. (Mr. Bongino has claimed that he was merely repeating left-wing claims about post-election violence.)
Plenty of people have fact-checked Mr. Bongino. But nobody has figured out what, exactly, has lifted him above the legions of other pro-Trump influencers battling for attention online.
I called Mr. Bongino the other day, hoping to learn something about how he became Facebook’s biggest right-wing star. But he said he had no idea, either.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said. “The strategy didn’t change at all. I think people just like the message.”
A charming thing about social media — or a terrifying one, depending on your perspective — is that it often creates stars who have no idea how they got there. An Olympic gymnast or a world-class violinist follows a well-worn path, but every day, YouTubers, TikTok stars and Facebook pundits wake up to millions of new followers just because their personas happen to fit into the grooves of a platform’s algorithm.
Granted, Mr. Bongino’s shtick is not exactly new. His brand of right-wing pugilism is similar to what talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin have been doing for decades. He is good at turning daily culture-war skirmishes into hyperpartisan outrage-bait, with a cast of recurring left-wing villains and right-wing heroes who inevitably show up to dunk on them. (Typical headline: “CNN’s Fredo SCHOOLED On His Brother’s Coronavirus Policies.”) And he is skilled at a certain type of industrial-scale content production that is valuable on today’s internet, flooding social media with a torrent of original posts, remixed memes and videos and found footage.
“We’ll take some interesting clip of maybe the president or Kayleigh McEnany, and we’ll intermingle it with clips of my show, and it seems to work well for us,” he said. “Wherever my content is posted, we just get an incredible response.”
Along with his Facebook page, Mr. Bongino and a small team of writers keep up the Bongino Report, a news aggregator started last year to cater to conservatives who felt that the Drudge Report had become too liberal. He puts out podcast episodes and videos in which he rants against the “deep state,” decries the “Russia hoax,” and promotes spurious claims about Hunter Biden’s laptop — all fairly standard Fox News narratives, repackaged for a Facebook audience.
Mr. Bongino’s popularity began to spike during this spring’s Covid-19 lockdowns, as election season began to heat up and QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy movement, grew in popularity. (Mr. Bongino is not a QAnon promoter, but his content is popular with the movement’s supporters.)
Unlike Mr. Shapiro, whose website, The Daily Wire, was caught using a network of affiliated Facebook pages to generate traffic, Mr. Bongino swears he has “absolutely, categorically, 100 percent never” used any underhanded tactics to boost his Facebook presence.
“We don’t use bots,” he said. “We don’t even advertise much on Facebook.”
He credits his popularity, instead, to Facebook’s older and more conservative user base — and to the writers who work for him, who “have almost made a cottage industry” of understanding the platform’s algorithms, he said.
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Bongino is a frequent critic of Facebook and other Silicon Valley tech companies, which he believes are censoring conservatives. His own posts have been flagged several times by Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers, and he said it was only a matter of time before the social network cracked down on him more aggressively.
“I’m anticipating being banned from Facebook,” he said. “They’ll ban me, or use some excuse to throttle my page. It’s going to have nothing to do with facts. It’s going to be ideological.”
It’s hard to square Mr. Bongino’s concerns about right-wing censorship with the incredible performance of his page. Still, he is making backup plans. He has invested in Parler and Rumble, two start-ups building “free speech alternatives” to Twitter and YouTube, respectively, and has begun posting his content there as well as on the larger networks.
Mr. Bongino, who was recently found to have lymphoma, allowed that Facebook had been a “pretty good business partner,” despite his disagreements with the company’s fact-checkers. And he maintained that he had no secret sauce — no growth-hacking strategy, no shortcuts, no networks of unlabeled pages funneling clicks to his posts. Mostly, he seems to be succeeding by catering to a large and hyper-engaged audience of Facebook conservatives, while being slightly more cautious than other right-wing pundits not to run afoul of Facebook’s rules. He said he didn’t even take advantage of Facebook’s analytics tools, which allow creators to get a fine-tuned sense of what their audience wants to see.
“If I told you I spent 10 minutes on analytics over the past year, I’d be lying,” he said. “I have no idea who’s watching, I just know it’s a whole lot of whos.”