Is this the end of QAnon? The reckoning inside the conspiracy theory that snared thousands
TORONTO -- Over the course of Donald Trump's presidency, QAnon conspiracy theorists – those who believe in a “deep state” plot against Trump, along with a shadowy cabal of pedophiles and child traffickers embedded in the upper echelons of U.S. power – have “waited and watched” for a reckoning in the U.S. government.
Biden’s inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20, was meant to be the stage of what was colloquially termed as “the storm,” or “great awakening,” where “true patriots” of the country would swoop down and arrest Democrats at the U.S. Capitol, Trump would remain in power and a cataclysmic shift in politics and the social agenda would occur.
It didn’t happen.
Just like all the other promises made by “Q,” an alleged intelligence operative who has been stringing people all over the world along for years with “Q drops,” codified “messages” from the highest of security clearances to the QAnon faithful. These drops were spread around in message boards on 8kun, Gab, Parler and other social media platforms.
When President Joe Biden was sworn in, a reckoning began to occur on Q message boards, as some began to push back against QAnon “influencers” –asking, was it all a lie?
WHAT'S NEXT FOR QANON?
“We were the ones brainwashed,” one user wrote in a QAnon chat room. Many others had the same sentiment, posting about confusion, disillusionment, and disinformation.
Some are leaving the movement entirely, according to Aryeh Tuchman, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Center on Extremism.
“I think we've already seen some indications that people are leaving QAnon. There are references on Qanon message boards and channels where people are admitting that they were had. One person I saw referred to QAnon as…the most epic troll of all time,” Tuchman said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca on Thursday.
But even though the inauguration failed to be the flashpoint of the uprising, the QAnon movement is not going anywhere, experts say, and already there are worrying signs other extremist groups are swooping in to recruit rudderless QAnon members.
“For a few years now, they’ve wrapped their worldview and personal identity into the Q movement, into the tribe, and tribalism plays a strong role in this,” said Director Samantha North of North Cyber Research, a disinformation consulting firm, in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca Thursday.
“Now that their icon Trump has been knocked out of power, some of them may experience an identity crisis and because they need an ingroup to turn to, this is a really prime opportunity for other extremists like the Proud Boys or white supremacists to swoop in and to bring them into a new ingroup, and give them a new identity and sense of belonging” North said, adding that there is “a lot of overlap” between extremists groups and the QAnon movement already.
It is a sentiment echoed by Tuchman.
“This is definitely a moment where extremists, who are on the move, may reach out to try to gather up the people who are shaken and confused because their world view has just suffered a serious blow,” he said.
North says that whoever is in charge of the movement – and it has not been proven yet who is behind the “Q” persona – will not give up the momentum and money they have built from people desperate to believe in the messages.
“This is not the end of Q,” North said. “I would expect it to pivot and refocus, because the people who are in charge of this, whoever they might be…they’ve been making big money from Q. Whether it be through donations, through online advertising or through merchandising – they’re going to want to hang on to that.”
Two of the most notorious proponents of QAnon, Jim and Ronald Watkins, the owner and former administrator respectively, of forum site 8kun - the place where many “Q drops” have originated – were rumoured to be behind the entire facade. They have both denied being “Q” in the past.
After the inauguration, Ronald Watkins posted a message distancing himself from the entire movement, a major blow to those who had been avidly fed QAnon content for years through their site.
North said because the QAnon movement has sparked so many different sub-conspiracy theories, “Q” has a “great deal of scope to twist into a new narrative.”
“We have already seen a few examples of this, [QAnon influencers] reinvigorating the ‘Joe Biden is a pedophile’ narrative, or ‘Joe Biden has dementia,’” she said. “It’s not going to go away, its just going to evolve.”
HOW DO YOU FIGHT BACK AGAINST A MOVEMENT LIKE QANON?
The question of how to battle against a leaderless and often at odds with one another, group of conspiracy theorists has no easy answers.
“We haven't really been successful over the last few years, although obviously having Biden in power is a big help on the surface,” North said.
“On one hand, the social media platforms really have a responsibility now to step up and to deeply monitor things like private Facebook groups and other places where to adherents might be congregating and be quite brutal on taking down that stuff because with its actions in the Capitol, “Q” has already proven that it’s a domestic terror organisation,” North said.
While the ADL does not believe “that all QAnon adherents are inherently extremist,” it does note that the conspiracy theory is “dangerous.”
Tuchman said it might be helpful to think of QAnon as a cult or messianic ideology.
“QAnon offered people a very stark view of reality, of good versus evil, and people really identified with Q as a superhuman or messianic figure in a certain way,” he said.
Some QAnon believers have referred to Trump in a messianic way, "like Trump is Jesus," Tuchman explained.
"So right now, you always have people who will go and say, ‘we don't understand what happened here. But my belief in the return of the Messiah figure is unshaken," he said.
“They don't know how ‘the plan’ is going to be revealed or when Trump will return. But they’re sure that is going to happen in some way. Others have begun to look at Q as almost a philosophical or mystical guide that has elevated people, that has awoken them to the secret world that is all around them that they were not aware of before."
A major problem North said, is when those in power give credence and a platform to conspiracy theories like QAnon.
“I noticed when Trump was in power, there was a lot of tolerance for them…Trump and his people in power have got sympathies with QAnon,” she said.
Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is an avid Trump supporter and repeatedly has espoused QAnon talking points both on the campaign trail and in office, is just one instance of how far QAnon has extended its grasp into the U.S. political mainstream.
Greene announced she filed articles of impeachment against President Joe Biden on social media, saying amongst other QAnon beliefs, that he is “unfit for office.”
HOW DO YOU DE-RADICALISE FROM SOMETHING LIKE QANON?
While some believers had their faith shaken enough from the inauguration day to walk away on their own, de-radicalising someone from a toxic community like QAnon is no easy task.
Communities like the “QAnonCasualities” board on Reddit are full of stories of family members seeking support after their loved ones embraced QAnon – and queries for advice on how to pull them out.
“We have Q and Trump followers and they see themselves as opposition to the liberals and the mainstream. And that's going to be really, really tricky to reverse. You can't just tell these people that they're wrong because obviously that will activate their victim narrative,” North said.
Tuchman believes that treating them like people who have escaped from cults could be the best way to go.
“For people who are extracting themselves from a cult or from a conspiracy theory, I think that community is important. They feel adrift, they feel alienated. And so re-establishing the bonds and the ties of community, and family and friends, is particularly important for this person to successfully reorient back into mainstream society,” he said.
Professor of clinical psychology at Universite du Quebec a Montreal, Dr.Ghayda Hassan, who is an expert in de-radicalization and extremist violence said people who are disillusioned after the inauguration need to be encouraged further to step away from QAnon.
“I think that disillusionment and stepping out is a strong first process of not adhering to conspiracy theory,” Hassan said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca Friday.
Hassan added that there is a caveat in discussions around QAnon that “not all people who adhere to conspiracy theories are actually violently radicalised,” and that “people should be encouraged,” not blamed.
“They should be supported, responded to with empathy and be offered help and assistance,” she said.
Hassan pointed out that there are many peer-to-peer support groups for de-radicalization, as well as professional psychological services – but that the first steps can begin at home.
“I think the [people] in the immediate surroundings should really support these individuals and not judge them for what they have said or done… it's very important that they feel that we can integrate them back into the environment that they used to belong to,” Hassan explained.
And for those hardline QAnon believers who only had their beliefs strengthened after inauguration day, Hassan says there is hope for them too – and it can start with a simple phone call.
“I think it's very important for family members to stay open and stay empathic and to encourage critical thinking,” she said, adding that messages like “we’re part of a family, we can still be together,” are crucial.
“Make this ideology less the centre of attention.”
The second important thing is to “help the individual kind of fact check. Assist the person in checking resources, checking sites, although when they are entrenched to that extent, it can become difficult,” she said.
And the final advice Hassan has for families, is “not to hesitate to seek help” from professionals if they can’t get through to their loved ones.
“What we don't want to do is isolate that person or reject them, which can entrench them even further into the group.”