The inauguration of Joe Biden as US president delivered a severe blow to followers of the Qanon conspiracy theory. Without their central figure, Donald Trump, where will adherents of this movement go next? In this post, I present my thoughts based on a recent discussion I had with Canada’s CTV News.
What is Qanon?
Firstly, let’s take a quick look at what Qanon is and how it has evolved. Qanon is an umbrella conspiracy theory encompassing many different parts. These centre around the existence of a global paedophile cabal run by elites such as Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and Bill Gates, along with several Hollywood stars.
This fictitious cabal engages in child trafficking. Its most notorious ‘activity’ is using trafficked kids to extract the psychedelic drug adrenochrome, a by-product of adrenaline. Who is going to save the world’s children from these evil traffickers? None other than Donald Trump. Q lore states that an unknown group of military generals appointed Trump to save the world from the elite cabal.
The Qanon conspiracy theory is wide-ranging, incorporating numerous sub-conspiracies, some old and some new. In particular, the anti-vax movement is one that has been energised through its association with Q, especially with new relevance brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other key narratives include:
- Bill Gates’ master plan to make vaccines mandatory, so he can install everyone on the planet with microchips, and track their movements.
- Support for 9/11 truthers & ‘who shot JFK’ conspiracy theories
Since it began, Qanon has woven a whole host of events and causes into its universe. For example, Black Lives Matter vs Antifa, the 2020 US election, fears about 5G, COVID-19, etc. In all, the aim has been to create division, stoke tribalism and expand the Q ranks.
Qanon has evolved from fringe to mainstream, even making inroads into US Congress, in the form of a Q supporting congresswoman, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who recently won a seat after she ran for office in Georgia. Many ordinary people have been sucked into Q’s world too. And there have been several real-life repercussions, such as the notorious Pizzagate incident and numerous attacks on 5G masts.
But those incidents were minor compared to the Q-supporting mob that stormed the Capitol building in January 2021. This outrageous move could be viewed as a culmination of years of Qanon conspiracy theories, finally reaching eruption point, egged on by Trump himself.
Some analysts believe Qanon is a political psy-op intended to cause division, while others suspect that someone (or a group) could be cynically monetising the whole thing (e.g. through means of ad traffic, merchandise, or donations). Even if the monetisation effort is not centrally controlled, many Q-affiliated individuals have undoubtedly earned income from the Q brand in one way of another. Q-related traffic and engagement is so massive, it would be a significant money-spinner.
What might happen next for Qanon?
- For starters, whichever parties are making money from the Q brand will have to pivot and refocus, in order to maintain engagement levels. It’s too early yet to predict what that might look like.
- It’s possible that Q followers will go underground (e.g. to alternative platforms like Parler, Gab or MeWe). From this vantage point, they will probably monitor the Biden presidency for any signs of behaviours that seem to support the ‘elite cabal’ theory. This could manifest itself in violent IRL events from time to time, e.g. when some ‘lone wolf’ takes matters into their own hands.
- Much of the damage has already been done. There’s a powerful current of tribalism running through the US population. In this, Q followers see themselves as set apart from the liberals/ and/or mainstream. It will be difficult to reverse. Now that Trump is out of office, some Q followers may experience an identity crisis, because their entire worldview is wrapped up in the Q tribe.
- The more extreme Q narratives might fall apart, but others, like the anti-vax ones, will likely have more staying power. Widespread anxiety about the pandemic, combined with many hours spent in in lockdown, online and in echo chambers, will keep the anti-vax narratives alive with or without Q. That poses a risk to the US achieving herd immunity and recovering from the pandemic. Similar risks could also exist in other countries where Q narratives have been influential, such as the UK.
- Dissatisfied extreme Q adherents may be recruited by white supremacists and Proud Boys. There’s already substantial overlap here, as we saw with the Capitol attack, so there could be a risk of armed militias conducting domestic terror attacks. On the other hand, less extreme Q followers may just drift away, disenchanted with being lied to.
- Q followers may rework the conspiracy into a format that can be mainstreamed into conservative US politics, which could cause a split in the Republican party.
- Trump may also play a role, even though he has been banned from mainstream social media channels. He has set up profiles on extreme websites like Parler and Gab, which he could use to keep spreading disinformation, keeping the Q tribe on-side, ready to spring into action.
How can we address the risks?
It’s critical to keep monitoring Q narratives online, not just on mainstream platforms but also on Parler, Gab, MeWe and so on. We need to stay abreast of evolving themes and be well placed to predict when things might evolve into real life harms. Analysts should also be tasked to monitor the nexus between real-life events and related online Q chatter, which may reveal attempts to organise and instigate violence.
There’s already a new Q conspiracy in the works. It claims that Donald Trump will become president again on March 4, 2021, under the rules of a ‘restored republic’. Based around a belief that the US was dissolved in the 19th century, this conspiracy theory could be just the tip of the iceberg.