with Aaron Schaffer

QAnon conspiracy theorists faced a big reality check when their baseless theories failed to materialize as Joe Biden became president. But experts studying the extremist ideology warn it will remain a force in American political life for years to come. 

The baseless ideology potentially risks becoming even more dangerous after former president Donald Trump leaves Washington. 

Biden's inauguration marked another transition of power in the United States — and not, as QAnon disciples expected, a long-anticipated “storm.” Followers of QAnon, an ideology the FBI deems a domestic terror threat, believed Trump would carry out a secret plan to take down a supposed cabal of child-eating Satanists who control the government and Hollywood. Yet Trump's departure from the White House left QAnon adherents reeling, with some expressing depression and doubts about the ideology they bought into. 

But many die-hard believers of the theory simply doubled down, or even sought secret messages in Trump and his family's departing messages, my colleagues Drew Harwell and Craig Timberg report. They noted Trump appeared in front of 17 flags as he delivered his farewell address, and that “Q” is the 17th letter of the alphabet. Others sought to make the case Biden's victory was part of the grand strategy all along, or encouraged people to “trust the plan.”

“A minority are facing reality that Biden’s going to be president,” Travis View, a researcher and co-host of the podcast “QAnon Anonymous, told my colleagues. “Others are coming to believe that the storm they were expecting is still going to happen but sometime during the Biden administration.”

The baseless theories have developed a strong grip on many Americans. 

Millions of people have viewed QAnon materials online — and many are buying into the ideology's outlandish claims. A recent NPR-Ipsos poll reported that 17 percent of Americans believe a group of Satan-worshipping, child-enslaving elites is trying to control the world, and another 37 percent aren't sure about the false allegation. 

“Conspiracy theories and cults are very sticky, and there are going to be a lot of people continuing to double down and figure out where to go from here,” Alex Newhouse, digital research lead at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at Middlebury, told me in an interview. 

QAnon will be particularly difficult to stamp out because it has already invaded mainstream Republican politics. Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has expressed support for the movement, is now a member of Congress. And Trump gave a major boost to the theory when last year he refused to disavow it from the White House briefing room, calling QAnon followers “people that love our country.” 

Yet more people are waking up to the real-world dangers of QAnon. Well-known disciples of the movement and people wearing clothing branded with QAnon phrases stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to try and overthrow Biden's legitimate election.

There are generally three paths people go down when a conspiracy theory hits a wall.

Newhouse said Trump's departure could impact QAnon followers in multiple ways. They can become disillusioned and exit the movement altogether. They can keep plugging along and believing in the system or the plan. Or they can lose faith in the system and try taking matters into their own hands, he explained. 

That third path is most concerning to researchers. Already there are signs white supremacists  and other extremist groups are seeking to recruit those disenchanted with QAnon. From Ben Collins, a journalist with NBC News:

Researchers are concerned about a rising intensity among die-hard QAnon adherents, and warned my colleagues a militarized core could continue to cause problems.

“What we’re seeing is a trend in increasingly bunker-down, apocalyptic language,” Joel Finkelstein, co-founder of the Network Contagion Research Institute, a research group that studies online disinformation, told my colleagues. “It’s gone from [talk of] a revolution to a civilization-ending kind of collapse.”

The movement has also now gone international, with strong followings in Germany and Japan, that could make it more difficult to contain. 

Biden will face a major challenge in addressing the QAnon threat.

It's very difficult to convince believers a conspiracy theory isn't true, but there are decisive actions the new administration could take to ensure QAnon doesn't grow or to prevent other conspiracy theories from cropping up. 

Newhouse said one essential approach Biden could take is investing heavily in media literacy — not just for young Americans, but also for older Americans who may not have strong digital literacy. He also said it's urgent that Biden find ways to invest in social opportunities like recreation centers, sports teams and clubs. 

“That's one of the reasons why we've seen so much radicalization happen,” he said. “One of the things we've seen happen during the pandemic is those forces — socialization and social connections — have become harder to forge.” 

QAnon may also struggle to attract new adherents as large tech companies crack down. 

In recent weeks, large tech companies have been more aggressive in stamping out content related to QAnon or other right-wing extremist ideologies. Facebook announced yesterday as of Jan. 12 it had removed about 3,300 pages 10,500 groups, 510 events, 18,300 Facebook profiles and 27,300 Instagram accounts for violating its policy against QAnon. The company said it's continuing to identify new terms associated with QAnon and the ways people avoid the platform's detection systems. Twitter announced earlier this month it purged more than 70,000 accounts linked to the extremist ideology after the Capitol riots.

The actions from major tech platforms have cut off a key recruiting pipeline. But serious QAnon followers continue to digitally congregate on platforms with less robust content moderation systems, including Telegram, MeWe, 8kun and others. 

Newhouse said the tech companies' moves will have a “huge impact on their ability to expand.” 

“But we also have to reckon with the fact that there are already millions of people engaged in this,” he told me. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story quotes Travis View, co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, without reporting that this name is a pseudonym, a detail View did not disclose to The Post when the story was written. That violates Post policy, which prohibits the use of pseudonyms except in rare cases and requires disclosure that a pseudonym is being used. View’s real name is Logan Strain.

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Amazon offered to assist Biden in distributing the coronavirus vaccine. 

Dave Clark, the chief executive of the company's worldwide consumer division, committed to leveraging its operations and scaling up to help the Biden administration achieve its goal of immunizing 100 million Americans in its first 100 days in office, according to a letter the company posted on Twitter hours after Biden took office. 

The letter signaled how major tech companies are bracing for a new relationship with Washington after four years of tensions with Trump. 

Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos had an openly contentious relationship with the former president, which was exacerbated by the administration's decision to pass the company over for a $10 billion cloud computing contract. (Bezos owns The Washington Post). The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the letter. 

Many executives voiced their support of Biden's early executive orders to reverse Trump's actions on climate change and immigration which were widely criticized in the tech industry. They sought to strike a congratulatory tone with the new regulator-in-chief as they anticipate tougher regulations on their services. 

Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai commended Biden for his “quick action on COVID relief, the Paris Climate Accord and immigration reform.” 

Apple CEO Tim Cook weighed in:

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates also celebrated Biden’s “great first step” in rejoining the Paris agreement:

The App-Based Work Alliance — a coalition of companies including DoorDash, Instacart, Lyft, Postmates and Uber — also foreshadowed potential talks with the administration on gig worker regulations. The group said it looked forward “to partnering with their Administration to address the challenges facing independent workers” in a statement. 

The Biden administration took control of official White House social media accounts. 

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube transitioned official government accounts to Biden’s administration. And Twitter created a new official @SecondHusband account for Harris's husband, Douglas Emhoff. Top Trump administration officials' tweets from handles such as @POTUS have been archived and are available to view:

Not everyone’s completely satisfied, though: 

One of yesterday's social media updates caused a geopolitical dust-up. Twitter users noticed that the U.S. ambassador in Israel’s bio had been updated to include the West Bank and Gaza:

The move was swiftly denounced by congressional Republicans including Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. McCaul noted that the change flew in the face of what Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said the day before:

Within hours, however, the bio was changed back, with one embassy official telling the Jerusalem Post that it was an “inadvertent edit and not reflective of a policy change.” The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem did not respond to a request for comment.

Biden's White House website has a mix of new and returning features. 

The White House’s redesigned website has a mix of old and new features designed to increase accessibility, the Verge’s Mitchell Clark reports. The flashiest updates are a dark mode and an option to resize the site’s text size. The Biden administration also noticeably reintroduced a Spanish-language White House website, which was taken down shortly after Trump took office:

The site also includes a variety of pronouns for users to select when contacting the White House, GLAAD found: 

Eagle-eyed observers even noticed an Easter egg promoting the U.S. Digital Service’s recruitment efforts in the site's source code:

But some, including GitHub engineering director Erica Baker, say they wish the recruitment effort went further:

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– Vice President Kamala Harris hired Storm Horncastle as her social secretary, Politico reports. Horncastle previously worked at Netflix as the company’s head of public affairs and diplomatic engagement in North America.

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Late night takes on Inauguration Day: