The “#Storm” envisioned on far-right message boards had arrived. And two women who had died in the rampage — both QAnon devotees — had become what some were calling the first martyrs of the cause.
The siege ended with police retaking the Capitol and Trump being rebuked and losing his Twitter account. But the failed insurrection illustrated how the paranoid conspiracy theory QAnon has radicalized Americans, reshaped the Republican Party and gained a forceful grip on right-wing belief.
Born in the Internet’s fever swamps, QAnon played an unmistakable role in energizing rioters during the real-world attack on Jan. 6. A man in a “Q” T-shirt led the breach of the Senate, while a shirtless, fur-clad believer known as the “Q Shaman” posed for photographers in the Senate chamber. Twitter later purged more than 70,000 accounts associated with the conspiracy theory, in an acknowledgment of the online potency of QAnon.
The baseless conspiracy theory, which imagines Trump in a battle with a cabal of deep-state saboteurs who worship Satan and traffic children for sex, helped drive the day’s events and facilitate organized attacks. A pro-Trump mob overwhelmed Capitol Police officers, injuring dozens, and one officer later died as a result. One woman was fatally shot by police inside the Capitol. Three others in the crowd died of medical emergencies.
QAnon devotees joined with extremist group members and white supremacists at the Capitol assault after finding one another on Internet sanctuaries: the conservative forums of TheDonald.win and Parler; the anonymous extremist channels of 8kun and Telegram; and the social media giants of Facebook and Twitter, which have scrambled in recent months to prevent devotees from organizing on their sites.
QAnon didn’t fully account for the rampage, and the theory’s namesake — a top-secret government messenger of pro-Trump prophecies — has largely vanished, posting nothing in the past 35 days and only five times since Trump’s election loss.
But QAnon’s prominence at the Capitol raid shows how powerful the conspiracy theory has become, and how quickly it has established a life of its own. On fringe right-wing platforms and encrypted messaging apps, believers are offering increasingly outlandish theories and sharing ideas for how they can further work to overturn the results of the Nov. 3 contest — with violence, if necessary.
The fervent online organizing seen ahead of last week’s assault has begun building again. A QAnon group on Gab has grown by more than 40,000 members since the failed insurrection. Thousands more have flocked to QAnon-affiliated spaces on the private-messaging app Telegram. One 12,000-member channel was so overrun with new members that those behind the forum temporarily froze the chat feature.
Even as Trump is set to exit the White House, QAnon’s grip on the conservative psyche is growing. Two freshmen Republican members of Congress, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (Colo.), have voiced support for QAnon, while others have tweeted its slogans. State legislators across the country have further lent it credence while also backing Trump’s claims of electoral theft despite a lack of evidence and dozens of swift rejections in court.
The QAnon movement’s evolution, from an Internet hodgepodge to a hallmark of pro-Trump violence, is a signal of the danger it poses to security this weekend and going into next week’s inauguration. It also presents long-term challenges for President-elect Joe Biden by fomenting resistance to democratic governance and to measures needed to corral the coronavirus pandemic, including mass vaccination.
“The takeaway from this is that disinformation is a threat to our democracy,” said Joel Finkelstein, co-founder of the Network Contagion Research Institute, a research group that studies online disinformation. “And we’re not nearly done.”
As much of the nation — including leading Republicans — expressed horror at last week’s events, a different narrative was playing out in the parallel online universe that has grown around Trump’s presidency and helped sustain it through perpetual upheaval. The siege was justified, described on Twitter by one QAnon devotee as “the least we can do.” Or it was staged as a false flag to discredit Trump supporters, with its participants as the true victims.
“You all know the attack on the Capitol was done by [the far-left political movement] antifa,” Thomas McInerney, a retired lieutenant general in the Air Force, declared in remarks captured on video and peppered across Twitter by accounts participating in a frenzied effort to construct a different narrative of the Capitol riots.
Experts tracking the QAnon conspiracy theory movement believe a new president may only exacerbate feelings of resentment and victimhood that have nurtured the baseless philosophy. Against the backdrop of QAnon, Trump was able to position himself as an outsider, fending off secret enemies, even while in the Oval Office. Once he’s really on the outside, that sense could grow.
“This will be a new cause,” said Mary B. McCord, a Georgetown Law professor and former national security official at the Justice Department. “Democrats in the White House.”
From online to the real world
In 2017, a writer on the anonymous message board 4chan, styling themselves as Q, wrote posts spinning a dark and cryptic fantasy — detailing how Trump was working tactically to dismantle the “deep state” cabal that controls much of the world.
For years, QAnon spun a tale in the militant language of good against evil, promising that Trump, a soldier messiah, would strike down a global cabal of pedophile politicians and Satanist media elites in a day of reckoning called the “Storm.” The siege, for some believers, was seen as that online theory coming to life.
As its online infrastructure expanded from a single message board to a network of aggregators, chat rooms and social-network bubbles, QAnon, which originally mimicked much of the debunked conspiracy theory Pizzagate, mushroomed into an umbrella conspiracy theory. It encapsulated all manners of disparate right-wing beliefs: vaccine skepticism, anti-Semitic ideas about government control and, most recently, the unsubstantiated belief that Biden’s election win was a fraud.
In recent months, it has become challenging to know where QAnon’s world ends and Trump’s begins. QAnon T-shirts and banners are a constant presence at Trump’s rallies, and pro-Trump figures are exalted by QAnon believers as heroes.
Trump has rarely explicitly acknowledged QAnon, which has been linked by law enforcement to intensifying real-world violence, although believers have often celebrated when he has retweeted the conspiracy theory’s best-known promoters. In August, when Trump was asked whether he believed QAnon’s core claims that he was “secretly saving the world from this cult of pedophiles and cannibals,” Trump replied, “If I can help save the world from problems, I am willing to do it. … We are actually, we’re saving the world.”
Q’s relative quiet since the election has led some believers toward a crisis of faith on whether Q had abandoned the flock. But many still call on their fellow adherents to “trust the plan”: “Do not mistake silence for inaction,” says one site that sends alerts whenever Q posts a new “intelligence drop.”
Much of QAnon devotees’ energy has in recent months flooded to false allegations that Trump had been robbed of an election victory. The QAnon-boosting attorneys Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood led a failing pro-Trump attempt to overturn the election.
The QAnon conversation online had pivoted from taking down a global cabal to targeting a more specific mission: “Stop the Steal.” So when Trump invited supporters to Washington for mass demonstrations on Jan. 6, the day Congress was set to certify Biden’s victory, researchers said pro-Trump agitators and QAnon believers saw it as a demand for action.
“Be there,” Trump tweeted last month. “Will be wild!”
How QAnon shaped the siege
Rosanne Boyland was prepared to take the president literally, traveling from Georgia to “keep the fight alive,” as she wrote on Facebook this month.
She was in Washington when Trump addressed his supporters last week near the White House, urging them to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell.”
The 34-year-old woman was among four participants in the pro-Trump action who died. Two of them, including Boyland, were QAnon devotees, according to family members and a review of their digital footprints. On Facebook, Boyland reposted content from popular QAnon personas and praised members of the Trump administration seen as working most avidly to bring about Q’s promised salvation. Facebook in October removed QAnon pages and groups, citing links to real-world harm, but permitted individual QAnon posts so long as they didn’t violate other policies, such as the ban on inciting violence.
The other was Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran shot by police in the Capitol. Both women have been mourned as martyrs to QAnon, with Babbitt described on Twitter as a patriot whose “heart was pumping with fire and hope.” Anonymous accounts have swarmed tweets by Republican politicians telling them to “show support for our fallen MAGA patriots.”
Others involved in the Capitol breach proudly wore their devotion to QAnon. Douglas A. Jensen, the man who authorities say led a pack of rioters into the Senate, wore a shirt with a giant “Q” rendered in red, white and blue. He was arrested Saturday on federal charges, including trespassing and obstructing a law enforcement officer.
Jo Rae Perkins, a QAnon adherent who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in Oregon last year, wrote on Twitter that she had been present at the Capitol for “over three hours.” She added the rally cry “#TheStormHasArrived,” invoking the day of reckoning associated in the QAnon canon with the mass arrest of Democrats.
QAnon, said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, “is one major point in a constellation of right-wing terrorist movements that also includes ‘boogaloo,’ militia movements, white supremacists, neo-Nazis.”
Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on and soon-to-be chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said QAnon’s ability to “weave together — and thereby recruit from — a wide constellation of existing conspiracy theories and causes has brought these dangerous beliefs more into the mainstream.”
QAnon believers, in videos and posts about the siege, said they felt invigorated by the starring role they had played in battling their hero’s enemies. Tamara Towers Parry, a Seattle woman who goes by the name “Dr. Tammy,” had voiced her devotion to QAnon with posts and videos on her since-suspended Twitter account in which she said Q would one day “be in every history book.”
After the siege, she posted another video outside the Capitol, where she wore an American-flag cowboy hat and gripped a large “Q” flag.
“We just stormed the Congress, and I’m going to tell you right now, it was wild,” she said. She narrated the action as she clambered past broken windows and dodged clouds of tear gas. “Our eyes are burning, but you know what, compared to what our Founding Fathers did, it’s the least we can do.” Parry did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment.
Then she voiced a signature QAnon belief — that Biden, among other Democratic leaders, would soon go to prison.
“God bless America,” she said into the camera, flashing a big smile.
The coming storm
The next wave of mayhem is expected to arrive this weekend, possibly extending into Inauguration Day on Wednesday. One video circulating widely on YouTube and elsewhere offered a mash-up of Trump speeches that culminates in a call to Washington as Biden is sworn in, promising “PANIC IN DC.”
This time, authorities are taking these warnings seriously, with heavy police presences and up to 15,000 National Guard members planned to help keep the peace.
In the siege’s aftermath, when Trump acknowledged there would be a transfer of power on Jan. 20, some QAnon adherents saw a final betrayal — although others, trusting Q’s plan, said they saw in it a coded message that Trump would not actually cede control.
At the same time, the fervor among QAnon supporters appears not to have ebbed, even as arrests mount. A mix of excitement and fear pushed QAnon believers further into their alternative digital reality. One QAnon-affiliated account with more than 11,000 subscribers on Telegram posted a list of emergency resources the night of the failed insurrection, including survival guidebooks and documents detailing firearms and physical training in isolation.
QAnon believers doubled down on their worldview, offering contradictory and nonsensical theories for the week’s events: The siege was instigated by undercover Black Lives Matter and antifa activists, they said, but pro-Trump operatives seized the opportunity to steal laptops they said would contain evidence of widespread sex trafficking among elites.
Another theory posited that Trump’s comments on Thursday about a “smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power” were not about an incoming Biden administration but about imminent military rule led by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, whose Twitter account was suspended last week as part of the platform’s widening ban on QAnon content.
After the siege, the administrator of a smaller far-right Telegram channel promoted the use of untraceable 3-D-printed gun parts and posted the locations for the headquarters of Twitter, Facebook, Google and Apple.
The response by Republican leaders makes it unknown which direction the party will go. Even those no longer in office, and no longer subject to the will of pro-Trump voters, have not always been full-throated.
“A sad day,” wrote Tom Graves, Greene’s predecessor in Congress. “Not who we are to be.” When invited to say more, he did not take the opportunity.
But while members of Congress have stayed silent about QAnon, its believers have pushed for more aggressive action. The raft of suspensions across social media targeting QAnon-related accounts — as well as the ban of Trump’s Twitter account — led some to claim the U.S. military was launching a global media blackout, the first phase of a cryptic operation they believed would climax with thousands of arrests and live-streamed military tribunals exposing the crimes of the political elite.
“We are safe from the blackout here,” wrote one user, “Digital Soldier,” on Telegram.
Most theories converged on a key point for QAnon, which over years of missed deadlines for an impending conquest by Trump has hinged on promoting and anticipating some new blockbuster event: that Trump was going to drop reality-shifting intelligence in the days and weeks ahead.
“The reason we had to go through all this drama,” one user posted on Telegram, “was for people to become aware, angry and ready to look at the evidence and demand justice.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.