What's Next For QAnon Supporters?
Devotees of the online conspiracy theory QAnon are reckoning with the inauguration of President Biden — an event that their digital prophet known as Q had said would never happen.
Q followers believed the military was going to stop the ceremony on the orders of former President Trump and arrest supposed members of the “deep state.” Now some fear other far-right groups could capitalize on the chaos in QAnon and recruit its members to other dangerous causes.
Up until Biden took the oath of office on Wednesday, QAnon followers thought that the entire inauguration was “basically an elaborate setup,” says Ben Collins, who covers disinformation, extremism and the internet for NBC News. They believed Biden, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and others would be rounded up by the military and executed live on television.
“They really did believe this, and a lot of people were looking forward to it. And then, you know, it didn’t come,” he says. “It sounds disgusting that they would think like a mass execution would be a big present to them, but that’s what they really believed.”
Collins says he was watching QAnon forums on the group’s preferred social media app Telegram, and when none of that happened, many said they were duped.
“They felt betrayed in real time,” he says. “They had talked themselves into this shared delusion together. So when it became noon, Joe Biden was the president, it was very hard for them to square this.”
Others “tried to look for answers in ridiculous places,” Collins says, with some suggesting that since Biden was sworn in a few minutes before noon, he must not really be the president. Those groups of deniers are getting smaller and smaller — but more radicalized, he says.
“There are like two kinds of deniers at this point. There are deniers who are going that mystic route who just firmly will never believe that Joe Biden is the president,” he says. “And then there is the scarier part. There are people who are disillusioned by this but don’t want to give it up.”
Even though their predictions didn’t come true, QAnon supporters aren’t suddenly going to look for factual information, Collins says. This opens the door for white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups to recruit QAnon supporters.
“In fact,” Collins says, “there have been specific guides on the internet that said, ‘Look, this is a good recruitment time for us. These QAnon supporters are disillusioned just like we were disillusioned. They like Donald Trump, just like we kind of like Donald Trump. We use him as a means to an end. We can go and bring those people in right now. We can recruit them. That’s where it gets dangerous.’ ”
After the inauguration, one of the largest QAnon groups on Telegram closed comments to let everyone, as they said, take a breather. Despite their disappointment, Collins says he doesn’t expect QAnon to fade away — it might just not be called QAnon anymore.
“Maybe they’ll stop believing that there is a government insider named Q who has access to information. Clearly, this guy has failed them over and over again,” he says. “I’m sure some people will move past that, but there’s too much money to be made in this grift and frankly, there’s too much identity wrapped up in it.”
Collins suspects QAnon’s influence will continue because it has become somewhat mainstream in the Republican Party. The group gained so much power because the Trump administration benefited from it, he says.
“That’s why Donald Trump would not denounce it,” he says. “It was a really powerful tool for hatred of his enemies. That is not the case anymore.”
QAnon also grew so quickly because social media companies didn’t take it seriously, Collins says, even though people in the group had been warning in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6 that they were going to storm the Capitol.
“Now they realize this isn’t all talk,” he says. “You know, even if 98% of the time they don’t, 2% of the time they do. And it’s deadly and it’s very serious.”
Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org. [Copyright 2021 NPR]