Joe Biden is President of the United States, Donald Trump has retreated to his golf resort in Florida, John F. Kennedy Jr. is still dead and the QAnon community is in shambles, after the core promises of the hoax fell apart on a Storm-free morning in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.
Now one of the conspiracy theory’s suspected founders, Ron Watkins, is urging believers to go back to their lives and accept the reality of a Biden presidency, after fanning the flames of the far-right hoax for over three years.
“We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able,” Watkins wrote on Telegram under his online pseudonym, CodeMonkeyz, at 12:36 p.m. on Wednesday.
“We have a new president sworn in and it is our responsibility as citizens to respect the Constitution regardless of whether or not we agree with the specifics or details regarding officials who are sworn in.”
Watkins and his father, Jim, run the fringe message board 8kun (formerly 8chan), where a user named “Q” has posted cryptic messages to inspire the QAnon hoax since October 2017. Some reports have suggested that they actually run the Q account, though they have not confirmed those claims.
QAnon sprang out of an earlier conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate, which falsely claimed that Democrats were running a child sex-trafficking ring out of the basement of a D.C. pizza joint. A man stormed into the restaurant with a gun based on the hoax in 2016, but both the children and the basement were imaginary.
Some have compared QAnon to an augmented reality game, in which players are rewarded for performing complex mental gymnastics and piecing together disparate clues from the real world and other conspiracies. This clue-gathering activity has turned QAnon into a sprawling mega-hoax, which can lure in new followers through misinformation about everything from vaccines to Jeffrey Epstein‘s death to lizard people.
QAnon believers claim that a high-ranking government agent, codenamed Q, was working with Trump to do God’s work within the U.S government. Q promised that Trump would root out a deep-state cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles (i.e. Democrats, journalists and Hollywood elite) for a day known as the Great Awakening, when the villains would be punished and Trump would be inaugurated for a second term.
Q repeatedly told his followers to “trust the plan” while adherents continually shifted their fantasy world to incorporate other conspiracy theories, such as 5G technology and the coronavirus. Some among the group were even waiting for John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in 1999, to miraculously come back from the dead and serve as Trump’s vice president.
Trust in the plan started to crumble on Wednesday, when Biden took his oath of office.
“Did it happen?” one user wrote on 8kun Wednesday, just before noon. “I was watching Biden being sworn in, so I might have missed it.”
Another user raised concern that Q might have been wrong, and cited a month-long stretch with no posts from him.
“Nothing in over a month,” the user wrote. “It’s over.”
Several people in another group chat expressed despair.
“Well, I’m officially the laughing stock of my family now,” one wrote.
“Here come all the excuses said another.”
“OMG none of this was real,” wrote a third.
Others clung to their hope for a Great Awakening, while some tried to reshape the narrative to fit a Biden presidency.
“The more I think about it, I do think it’s very possible that Biden will be the one who pulls the trigger,” one believer wrote on Telegram.
The panicked conversations have been playing out in the darker and more encrypted corners of the web, after an effort by Facebook and Twitter to de-platform the far-right hoax. The FBI has also been treating the movement as a domestic terror threat since at least 2019.
Wednesday’s post-inauguration chaos is a far cry from QAnon’s apparent height two weeks ago, when adherents flew to D.C. to participate in their long-promised “Storm,” which became the riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Many among that mob were QAnon believers and minor celebrities within the movement. Others were simply believers in the hoax, including Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was shot dead by Capitol Police after tweeting about “The Storm” a day earlier.
The QAnon fantasy has grown long tentacles over the last three years. Several Republican lawmakers have toyed with QAnon’s voter fraud conspiracies or openly backed the entire movement, including Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was voted into Congress during the same election that booted Trump from the White House.
Trump himself flirted with QAnon throughout the latter half of his presidency, though he never fully embraced his position at the centre of Q’s mythology. He frequently retweeted QAnon-linked accounts, memes and conspiracy theories, including the baseless claims of voting machine tampering related to his election fraud. He also claimed ignorance of the group on two separate occasions while refusing to condemn their extremist beliefs.
“I’ve heard that these are people that love our country,” Trump said last August. “I don’t really know anything about it other than they do supposedly like me.”
It’s unclear where the movement will go next, but researchers are keeping a close eye on QAnon to see how it handles the collapse of its core tenets.
“QAnon influencers who have built large audiences over the past three years continue to encourage their audiences to ‘trust the plan,’” Travis View, who hosts a podcast debunking QAnon, told NBC News on Wednesday. “Many rank-and-file QAnon followers are expressing anger and disillusionment.”
View also shared several screenshots of QAnon conversations on Twitter, where some members railed against the seemingly endless plea to trust the plan and search out more hidden signs.
“Enough of the f—ing games,” one user wrote. “Quit looking for mysterious signals in everything you see … Don’t tell me to wait for another f—ing sign or ask me to decipher some more bulls—.”
Others kept their faith in the fiction and vowed to keep hanging on.
Potential “Q” Watkins hinted at a new project for himself amid the chaos on Wednesday. He also offered a bittersweet farewell while grudgingly acknowledging a future with Biden as president.
“As we enter into the next administration,” he wrote, “please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years.”
President Biden specifically warned against the dangers of political extremism and domestic terrorism on Wednesday, before calling for unity as a solution during his inaugural address.
“We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbours,” Biden said. “We can treat each other with dignity and respect.
“We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature, for without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.”