Why Disillusioned QAnon Conspiracy Theorists Might Become a Serious Security Threat
By: Ruben Pfeijffer
With Donald Trump losing the 2020 presidential elections and the mysterious ‘Q’ going silent, followers of the popular conspiracy movement QAnon are going through a severe test of faith. While some keep clinging to the hope that there is yet a plan waiting to unfold that will see Trump reinstated as president, others have become increasingly disillusioned by the long list of Q’s failed predictions. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) now warns that their disillusionment might soon turn into anger, and perhaps even violence.
On 28 October 2017, an anonymous user going by the name of ‘Q clearance patriot’, or simply ‘Q’, started posting on 4chan (a controversial online imageboard) in a thread titled ‘The Calm Before the Storm’. The username of the anonymous poster implied they were an insider from the US Department of Energy with Q level clearance. This was not the first time a self-proclaimed whistle-blower started posting anonymously on 4chan. Before Q, there had already been FBIAnon, CIAAnon, and WH Insider Anon. None, however, gained the attention QAnon would accumulate over the years.
The real identity of Q remains unknown until this day. Analyses of Q’s posts suggest that multiple persons with divergent writing styles have likely posted as Q at different times. The true motives behind the movement remain therefore similarly unknown. However, it should be noted that Russian bots played a significant role in the movement’s spread during its infancy.
Q’s first posts were all a direct reference to another conspiracy theory that had previously originated on 4chan, known as ‘Pizzagate’. The premise of this conspiracy theory was that alleged code words in the leaked emails of John Podesta (Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager) indicated that several pizzerias in Washington D.C. were secretly facilitating the satanic ritual abuse of children. Clinton and other prominent Democrats, like former President Barack Obama, were accused of being involved. Although Pizzagate was immediately debunked by the media, many conspiracy theorists remained convinced that certain members of the American elite were part of a satanic cabal of child abusers.
Q used Pizzagate as a base and expanded the conspiracy theory by including the recently elected Donald Trump as a ‘saviour’ that would ultimately bring ‘the Cabal’ to justice in an event called ‘the Storm’. Q claimed that a ‘plan’ had been secretly set in motion by patriots within the government and military to expose the crimes of the Cabal to the world in a process called ‘the Great Awakening’. As the movement grew throughout the years, QAnon’s conspiracy theory continued to expand further, often absorbing other popular pre-existing conspiracy theories.
The success of QAnon as a conspiracy movement is unprecedented. While other relatively large conspiracy movements have existed before (flat-earthers, crop circle researchers etc.), they were usually centred around specific topics and restricted to isolated parts of the internet. Conspiracy theorists were often perceived as stereotypical tin-foil hats wearing basement dwellers. QAnon has changed that. It has become the first modern conspiracy movement to have a real impact on mainstream society.
An estimated 30 million Americans now believe in QAnon. Worldwide this number is believed to be even higher, being particularly popular among conservative Christians and the alt-right. This can be explained by the movement’s inclusion of themes that typically resonate with these demographics. However, the movement’s central premise of fighting against child abuse has also attracted a lot of followers that normally don’t fit this bill. A further impulse to the movement’s popularity was given by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. By including narratives about the pandemic’s origin in its conspiracy theories, QAnon has gained a lot of support among opponents of lockdown measures.
Perhaps the most staggering thing about QAnon’s popularity is the amount of failed predictions the movement has survived. Q’s very first prediction, namely that Hillary Clinton would be arrested in October 2017, never became a reality and it was followed up by countless other predictions about the onset of the ‘Storm’ that similarly never happened.
There are multiple explanations for why all QAnon’s failed predictions never really seemed to affect the popularity of the movement. First of all, Q’s posts were generally very cryptic, leaving followers to interpret the posts themselves. Failed predictions could therefore often simply be attributed to ‘faulty interpretations’. Another explanation is Q’s repeated efforts to encourage his followers to simply ‘trust the plan’ and his constant words of reassurance that ‘patriots are in charge.’
Finally, Trump’s presidency was often seen by the movement as proof that the Plan was still working. As long as he remained in charge, the window for the predicted Storm to happen remained open. If it didn’t happen at a certain time, it was often simply assumed it would happen later during his presidency.
The US elections of 2020 were an incredibly hard time for a lot of QAnon followers as once again they were promised something that did not materialize. They believed that Trump would win in a landslide victory. When Biden won, some started seriously questioning their beliefs. Others doubled down and remained convinced that Biden winning was actually just all part of ‘the Plan’, and that they needed Biden to cheat in the elections in order to finally bring him to justice. Trump’s refusal to concede the elections and the widespread allegations of voter fraud strengthened this belief.
Although Q himself went silent on 8 December, QAnon followers continued speculating on when the promised Storm would take place. A new date was determined: 6 January 2021. On this day, Congress would convene in the Capitol building to confirm the electoral vote in favour of president-elect Joe Biden.
In what would go down as one of the darkest days in American democracy, thousands of Trump supporters, including QAnon followers, stormed the capitol, participating in what they believed to be ‘the Storm’. They did this after Trump held an inciting speech outside the capitol in which he encouraged his supporters to march towards the Capitol building.
When all rioters were removed from the capitol building, congress reconvened and formally confirmed Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States. Ending all hope for QAnon followers that the results of the elections could be legally overturned.
The Capitol attack was a shocking wake-up call for the world to the potential security threat large conspiracy communities like QAnon can pose. The storming of the capitol building was seen as a genuine attempt to overthrow American democracy. As a result, security measures were significantly tighter for Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
Q’s enduring absence and the long list of unfulfilled predictions have plunged the movement into a deep crisis of faith. Since Q is no longer there to convince them to ‘trust the plan’, QAnon followers might feel increasingly inclined to handle matters themselves. As more and more time passes without any sign of ‘the Storm’, the risk that QAnon decides to create another Storm of their own making becomes greater. With tens of millions of Americans believing their country is ruled by a satanic cabal, conspiracy theorists might become one of America’s most dangerous security threats for the coming years.
This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group.
About the author:
Ruben Pfeijffer is a graduated anthropologist who currently follows the MA program Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University. While working on his bachelor thesis in the Netherlands during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, Ruben gained experience with conducting ethnographic research under the challenging circumstances of the pandemic, and has learned to be adaptable with his research methods.