Many members vowed to fight on
Credit: Olivier Touron/AFP
QAnon believers were left in disarray Wednesday after the inauguration of President Joe Biden passed without the triumphant mass arrests of Democrats that their prophecies had predicted.
In online spaces popular with the cult-like conspiracist movement, users watched the ceremony proceed with mounting horror and disbelief as chances of the promised military coup withered in real time.
Some people angrily renounced QAnon’s theories, declaring them "a total hoax", "one big delusion", "complete bulls—", or a psychological warfare operation designed to distract Mr Trump’s supporters from enacting real change.
"It’s over. We lost," said one.
Others attempted to keep the faith, suggesting that the "plan" was still in motion behind the scenes, while still others appeared distraught at what they believed to be the victory of a worldwide Satanic cabal. Most vowed to continue the fight, in some cases violently or via "civil war".
The situation did not appear much changed by a call to stand down from Ron Watkins, administrator of the 8chan web forum where QAnon began, whom some researchers suspect to be the real identity of the movement’s enigmatic prophet "Q".
The reaction offered mixed omens for where the QAnon movement will go next, having already played a central role in this month’s riot at the US Capitol as well as inspiring kidnapping and terror plots over the past two years.
While some adherents showed signs of reconsidering their views and stepping back from future violence, others appeared to be doubling down, and white supremacist groups are already exploiting the chaos to hunt for more recruits.
Sorry QAnon people. You’ve been conned. pic.twitter.com/yh1QqzG659
— Parlertakes🇺🇸 (@parlertakes) January 20, 2021
Since 2017, Q has posted on 8chan claiming to be a high-level US government insider dropping hints of a secret plan by the US military to retake power, with Mr Trump as the figurehead. The posts inspired a thriving community devoted to "researching" the supposed conspiracy, as well as the slogan "trust the plan."
But Q has been largely silent since Mr Biden’s victory in last year’s election, and after the attack at the US Capitol most followers pinned their hopes on a last-minute interruption of the inauguration ceremony on Wednesday.
In Telegram channels devoted to QAnon and the "Stop the Steal" movement, users shared memes about eating popcorn while "enjoying the show" that was about to unfold.
As Mr Biden was sworn in, movement leaders suggested that this was necessary for the arrest of Mr Biden to proceed. "Relax. We have to let them complete the crime of high treason," said a Telegram user, with 13 minutes to go until the end of Mr Trump’s term.
Even 28 minutes after Mr Biden took power, some continued to hope, often expressing that they were not sure what to believe. "Can you arrest a thief in a store before they actually steal something?" asked one believer.
One user speculated that video of Mr Biden speaking might be a "deepfake" generated by artificial intelligence to cover words by Mr Trump. "Have you ever heard Trump speak like that?" asked someone else. "He’s faking it," came the reply.
The mood was buoyed by a statement from Mr Trump’s son, Eric Trump, which ended with "the best is yet to come". One QAnon influencer adopted that language, adding: "Wait until you see the plan that was in store for you tomorrow…"
QAnon forums now:
"I dont think this is supposed to happen? How long does it take the fed to run up the stairs and arrest him?"
"It's like being a kid and seeing the big gift under the tree thinking it is exactly what you want only to open it and realize it was a lump of coal" pic.twitter.com/oBUF2cm3fT
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) January 20, 2021
By that time, however, many others had given in, often confessing that they felt heartbroken, devastated. Someone posted a link to a Telegram channel for a therapy service. Other reactions were more sardonic, such as: "I trust that we are f—ed."
In the comments section of a QAnon news source on Telegram, furious readers shared images of the channel’s logo with "FAKE NEWS" written over it, as well as images of Donald Trump with the word "TRAITOR". A common theory was that QAnon had undermined the Trumpist movement by convincing people to stay home and wait for the military to deliver them a win.
Even on a dedicated QAnon forum, posts had titles such as "Oaths taking place, there is no plan" and "It’s over and nothing makes sense… absolutely nothing".
Amid the chaos, merchandise sites continued to hawk memorabilia, with one Telegram poster advertising a "gold plated $1,000 bill" emblazoned with Mr Trump’s face. Clicking through, customers were told that the item was now free but in very high demand, and urged to pay up to $8.95 in postage to secure theirs quickly.
An online shop page shared in a QAnon-filled Telegram group
The Telegraph also saw evidence of white supremacist groups attempting to recruit disaffected believers by blaming QAnon’s defeat on Jewish people. One recruiter, whose profile picture showed a neo-Nazi symbol known as the black sun, posted in a pro-Trump Telegraph channel that Trump had "betrayed white people".
Arguing for "total war" as the only way out, they directed users towards another channel that recommended reading speeches and books by Adolf Hitler and the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley.
The most common reaction was a determination to carry on the struggle, either through legal means such as backing QAnon candidates in Republican Party primaries or, in some cases, violent resistance.
One user admitted their belief was faltering, but said: "Q helped me open my eyes and take off the blinders to what is really going on in the world and the type of corruption that really exists. I can’t be mad about that."
Many quickly looked to the future. After discussion and an internal poll, a Stop the Steal Telegram channel renamed itself "Move to Texas".
Here and there, a few rare cases were visible of users accepting the result. "Time to step back and examine what we believe on the internet," said one person. Another signed off with a message saying that while they did believe the election was fraudulent, and were terrified of Mr Biden’s presidency, they did not want him to fail.
"I hope and pray I am wrong, because I am an American patriot adult and I want America to succeed. It’s in God’s hands and I will not question his plan," they said.