The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

QAnon believers seek to adapt their extremist ideology for a new era: ‘Things have just started’

With Q having vanished and Trump out of office, far-right extremist groups are targeting disillusioned believers online in hopes of further radicalizing them to a new cause

A man wears a QAnon shirt in New Hampshire in August. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images) (AFP/Getty Images)

Tiffany, an Oklahoma mother of two who runs an online children’s boutique, had expected more arrests.

A believer in QAnon, the sprawling set of false conspiracy theories that alleges former president Donald Trump is at war with a world-shaping cabal of child-trafficking Satanists, she said she was “shocked” when Inauguration Day came and went without any of the mass military roundups of Trump’s enemies that Q, the movement’s prophet, had promised all along.

But after a night of processing the day’s events by reading QAnon promoters’ posts, she said she believes that everything is still humming along according to plan — and that Trump’s election loss was all part of Q’s master strategy to expose the evildoers who corrupted the vote.

“Things have just started,” said Tiffany, who spoke on the condition she’d be identified only by her first name for fear of harassment. “They had to ‘commit’ the crime to fully lock the deal.”

Biden’s rise to the White House marked the biggest inflection point yet for QAnon’s core believers, who this week voiced doubts and frustrations that the movement’s years-old promises of mass executions and an extended Trump presidency had been bogus all along.

QAnon believers grapple with doubt, spin new theories as Trump era ends

But even as reality intrudes, many QAnon adherents are finding ways to carry on, including by concocting new explanations for QAnon failures. And with Q having vanished and Trump out of office, other far-right extremist groups are seeking to capitalize on the leadership void by targeting disillusioned believers in hopes of radicalizing them to a new cause.

The movement’s resistance to reality highlights a major challenge for the Biden administration as it braces to confront the specter of disinformation online: Emboldened by conspiracy-theory echo chambers and encouraged by fellow online believers, the followers of far-right ideologies appear impervious to even the most obvious truths — and many are digging in for the years ahead.

Followers of the QAnon extremist ideology believed then-President Donald Trump would hold onto power after 2020. With him gone, they struggle with what's next. (Video: The Washington Post)

QAnon has featured prominently in real-world violence, including through its devotees’ participation in the Capitol siege, and it has bedeviled tech companies who have scrambled to remove known purveyors of violent threats and conspiratorial lies.

But several QAnon adherents interviewed by The Washington Post in the hours after the inauguration said they had no difficulty buying into newly devised QAnon theories thanks to a growing number of like-minded gathering places across the Web.

Tiffany echoed a number of ideas that QAnon channels on the encrypted chat app Telegram have floated in the past day, including that Biden’s swearing-in actually had been taped 11 hours earlier — proof, somehow, of what the pro-Trump attorney L. Lin Wood had told his 560,000 Telegram followers was “more Biden/Cabal/China fraud.”

Exiled from social media mainstream, Trump will find life different at the extreme edge of the Web

QAnon believers are not monolithic: While some subscribe to the most extreme beliefs — that Trump is waging war against a “deep state” cabal of powerful Satanists who drink children’s blood — others adhere only to its basic tenets, which preach a deep distrust of Trump’s political and media antagonists and outline how a secret worldwide system of oppression has been built to keep Trump supporters down.

President Biden and Vice President Kamala D. Harris were sworn in, just hours after the 45th president, Donald Trump, left the White House on Jan. 20. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Ricki Carioti/The Washington Post)

Though several said some of QAnon’s core promises had not come to fruition, many still saw the movement as having helped lead them down the path to other increasingly extreme and baseless ideas. Researchers worry the QAnon movement’s splintering could prove dangerous.

Colin Clarke, the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm, said he has seen white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups online seeking to “groom” disenchanted QAnon believers into their own hateful ideologies. The far-right movements, he noted, share what he called a “fringe fluidity” because they overlap in their ability to attract people prone to fringe beliefs about shadowy forces controlling the world.

“We’re very likely to see QAnon lead to a steppingstone of … racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists,” he said. “They’re looking at this as an opportunity to grow their movement.”

Many QAnon believers, Clarke said, have been pulled into the movement at a time of great anxiety: Trapped at home by the pandemic and worried about money and health, they’re being presented with a never-ending assortment of polarizing “propaganda” that promises easy answers to intractable fears.

QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory, is fueled by right-wing outrage online and in the real world. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

With QAnon’s prophecies falling apart, Clarke worries how many will react.

“If you’re a true believer and you’ve been exposed, in that this is some elaborate hoax, people are going to be really pissed off,” he said. “We’ve been so laser-focused on jihadis for 20 years that we basically ignored this threat that has grown on our own soil. Now it’s here and it’s impossible to ignore.”

Far-right forums that fomented Capitol riots voice glee in aftermath

QAnon promoters have in the past day held up an incoherent set of new theories to explain away Trump’s anticlimactic exit from Washington: that the military is in control of the country, not Biden; that Biden and Trump have switched faces; that Biden’s inauguration was illegitimate, and that the real one (for Trump) would take place in March; or that Biden has been in on the QAnon plan all along.

In QAnon-devoted Telegram channels and message boards, some QAnon believers have announced their worries that they now feel conned by a four-year-old hoax: “Power has changed hands and that is the end,” one user on Telegram said. “In the time we needed Trump and Q the most … [they] both shut up and left,” said another on a QAnon-related forum.

But many others seem to have recommitted to QAnon, swapping explanations they feel validate their continued faith and echoing established QAnon slogans such as “Trust the Plan” and “Hold the Line.” Others said QAnon had already attained a vast spiritual victory, by awakening the masses to an evil undercurrent that had been shaping the U.S. government, media and technology industries all along.

Q, who has posted nearly 5,000 cryptic information “drops” online since 2017, has not issued a single message on his home message board of 8kun in 44 days, leading some believers to a crisis of faith. And the father-son duo that leads 8kun have offered up different portrayals of the next QAnon phase.

Ron Watkins, 8kun’s longtime administrator and a mass promoter of election-fraud conspiracy theories, said in a Telegram message on Wednesday that the White House transition meant it was time for his followers to “go back to our lives as best we are able.” His father and 8kun’s owner, Jim Watkins, later worked to defend Q’s “historical value,” saying on his Gab account that “the culture of our country has changed because of it.”

To boost voter-fraud claims, Trump advocate Sidney Powell turns to unusual source: The longtime operator of QAnon’s Internet home

Twitter and Facebook have moved aggressively to stomp out conspiracy theories and viral misinformation, announcing this month that they have removed a combined total of more than 100,000 QAnon-linked accounts. But tens of thousands of new subscribers have joined some of the more prominent QAnon channels on Gab, Telegram and stand-alone websites in recent days.

“Does it make sense that Trump would ‘give up’ like this?” said one QAnon account on Gab with more than 130,000 followers Wednesday night. “What if it had to be this way, what if this actually ends up being the best way? … Call me crazy, but I don’t think this movie is done.”

Tiffany, the QAnon-believing mother and online boutique owner in Oklahoma, said she has lost friends due to her views and been “censored” by Facebook and Twitter, which suspended her accounts for comments she made on conspiracy-related groups. But she said she feels just as firm as ever in her beliefs — and in her questions about a darker reality behind what’s happening in the United States.

“They can try to silence us as much as they want. But there’s too many people who have realized this stuff,” she said. She added that the QAnon movement, even without Trump’s or Q’s direct involvement, has already given way to something far more permanent.

“Q added a little bit of texture to the situation,” she said, “but the reality was you could see the fraud that happened with your own eyes.”

QAnon reshaped Trump’s party and radicalized believers. The Capitol siege may just be the start.