Being wrong stings. And, as we may soon discover in the wake of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, people often cope with that sting by insisting that they’re still right. It’s a popular path, but it’s also one that often leads down the rabbit hole of reality-avoidant conspiracy theory.
Since Mueller’s report is yet to be released, it’s unclear whether it will reveal substantial information that hasn’t already been laid out in the indictments, convictions and guilty pleas of 34 people and three companies. And the ultimate consequences of the investigation are unknown. But, per Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the report, “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Assuming that Barr represented its contents accurately, the report also made no conclusion on the question of obstruction of justice by President Trump.
For a certain group of commentators who built massive online audiences by making bold, unsubstantiated claims about the Mueller investigation, that’s direct disconfirmation of some dearly held speculation about the investigation’s ultimate findings and consequences. They may react to this news in weird ways. There is already evidence that the frustration of dashed expectations will lead at least some of them down a strange road, one that might find them sharing more with the adherents of conspiracy theories such as QAnon than with the prosecutor whose rigor and discipline they supposedly admired.
For example, Barr’s summary of the Mueller report contradicts many statements made by Claude Taylor, a former low-level staff member in the Clinton White House, who has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter by tweeting shocking claims about Trump, which Taylor attributes to unknown “sources.” One of his January 2018 tweets says: “Source. Mueller has Trump dead to rights on obstruction of justice.” Recent news also disconfirms the already legally confused 2017 proclamation from Seth Abramson, author of the book “Proof of Collusion,” that “Bob Mueller will hunt both Trump and Pence to the ends of the Earth to secure impeachment and conviction.” Barr’s summary also contradicts several assertions by blogger Louise Mensch, who gained notoriety for making kooky claims about Trump and the Mueller investigation. Earlier this month, Mensch wrote on Twitter that “Mueller will demonstrate collusion, and that will be the least of it.”
They were all wrong. And being wrong marks a crucial moment for these personalities and the left-leaning people who have followed their dramatic claims about Mueller, gleaned from unnamed inside sources and their own supposed expertise. Will they adjust their statements to better accord with the reported facts, or will they detach even further from reality?
As someone who closely follows the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, I’m familiar with what happens when an online political community that is highly invested in a particular result faces failed predictions. Dedicated true believers usually double down and work even harder to convince others that they were right all along.
The QAnon conspiracy theory, which absurdly posits that people who work in military intelligence are releasing high-level government information on the controversial imageboard website 8chan, has persisted despite its adherents’ countless claims that run contrary to reality. To cite just one example, many in the QAnon community baselessly believe that Hillary Clinton will be arrested for colluding with Russia, among many other supposed wrongdoings. Many even asserted that this would be revealed in the Nunes memo, a four-page memorandum by staffers for the House Intelligence Committee, chaired by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), that alleged that the FBI relied on partisan sources to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order on Trump adviser Carter Page.
Before the memo’s Feb. 2, 2018, release, the 8chan poster known as “Q” claimed, “Memo factually demonstrates collusion at highest levels.” In reality, nothing substantial happened as a consequence of the public release of the Nunes memo. It did not accuse the FBI or the Justice Department of breaking any particular law. It did, however, create temporary drama for the news media. The Nunes memo proved so inconsequential, it isn’t referenced by Q or even Nunes himself anymore.
Since then, the QAnon community has invested its hopes in several dates and events it baselessly thought would lead to mass arrests or public validation of its theories, only to be let down over and over again. Many in the community thought that the Justice Department inspector general’s report on the investigation into Clinton’s email server, which was released in June, would bring down James B. Comey and Barack Obama. Obviously, it did not. Inspired by Q’s cryptic reference to a “Red October,” some followers thought the long-promised arrests would happen in the month before the 2018 midterm elections. Obviously, this too would fail to come to pass. Q followers thought a “parade that would never be forgotten” would march Nov. 11, that QAnon would be publicly validated Dec. 5 and that military tribunals for “deep state” enemies would begin in January. Obviously, none of that took place.
But failed predictions and misplaced expectations haven’t damaged the size or enthusiasm of the QAnon community. They persist in their faith that high-level Democrats will be arrested at any moment, weathering several more disconfirmations of Q’s legitimacy and trustworthiness. Some QAnon followers even claim that failed predictions are irrelevant, because dates that pass without incident serve the purpose of tricking the evil “cabal” they imagine they’re fighting.
“Don’t be hard on yourself if you push a date that doesn’t yield,” explains Joe M, a QAnon follower who created the popular “Q — The Plan to Save the World” video. “We are playing our role. Those dates are meant to throw [them] off the trail and use up their ammunition. When we are tricked, they are tricked, and the latter is what counts the most.”
This is an irrational response to being proved wrong. But it’s also a natural, human and well-known reaction for journalists and academics who study fringe communities. This quirk of human psychology was most famously documented in the 1956 study “When Prophecy Fails.” This study examined a religious group that had predicted that the world would end on a specific date. When the date passed without incident, they rationalized the failed prophecy by concluding that their good nature had saved humanity. Far from abandoning their beliefs, members of the group redoubled their recruiting and public relations efforts.
So since Mueller has completed his work without the fireworks many were hoping for, there is a risk that people who held unrealistic expectations will dig deep into conspiracy theorizing rather than adjust to the new facts. That goes double for people who built an online audience with sensational speculations about the investigation. After all, there are egos, reputations and book sales on the line.
Eric Garland is already deploying a strategy used by QAnon followers to convince themselves that high-profile arrests are around the corner: using PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) to look up “sealed court cases.” In a Monday tweet, Garland wrote, “Whole lot of cases sealed in March alone in DC and EDVA.” What he was implying — that there are sealed indictments in the Muller investigation and hence more revelations of criminality to come — directly contradicts Barr’s letter, which states that the special counsel did not “obtain any sealed indictments that have yet to be made public.” Abramson, meanwhile, seemed to insist Sunday that Mueller’s conclusions about “collusion” are irrelevant because, confusingly, “Mueller never investigated the collusion allegation Trump was facing.” Mensch attempted to square recent news with her prior claims by spinning a highly creative interpretation of Barr’s letter in a blog post published Monday. “All that is happening here is Barr is telling Americans what categories of crimes the probe is going to charge these domestic traitors with,” she wrote.
Regardless of what may be found in the full Mueller report, and even if it is more damaging than Barr’s letter lets on, the spin of these Twitter-famous pundits smacks of a QAnon-like rejection of reality. For example, Q claimed, before the release of the DOJ inspector general report in June 2018, “When the info is released no more Russia investigation.” Of course that was false; the investigation didn’t end because of information in that report. But Q brushed off that disappointment by asserting that Trump was in possession of the “original IG unredacted report,” which supposedly contained the real dirt. In QAnon world, the genuinely damning information is perpetually hidden and the promised punishment of Q’s enemies is eternally in the near future. That’s a frustrating way to process news. But it’s what happens when personal hopes take priority over facts. For every disconfirmation, there is an equal and opposite rationalization.
That said, I don’t wish to draw a false equivalence between QAnon and fans of people such as Garland, Mensch, Taylor and Abramson. QAnon is far more elaborate and ludicrous than even their most outlandish claims. It is also more fanatical and concerning, as evidenced by the recent revelation that the alleged killer of the reputed boss of the Gambino crime family may have been influenced by QAnon.
But QAnon should serve as a warning about what happens when people lack the humility to recognize that their assumptions were wrong. When people decide that their private beliefs are more important than the reality outside their heads, those beliefs tend to mutate, getting progressively more complex. If things go far enough, that belief system eventually becomes an absurdly byzantine, Occam’s-razor-defying mess that can barely be understood by its own supporters. The deeper they dig in to disconfirmed beliefs, the harder, and more painful, it is to get out.
There’s no shame in being mistaken. But there is in continuing to insist that your mistaken beliefs were right the whole time.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted the Nunes memo.