As the world watched Joe Biden being sworn in as the 46th president of the U.S., users in one corner of the internet struggled to grasp what they were seeing.
In the few online spaces where they are still allowed to operate openly, followers of the loose-knit conspiracy theory known as QAnon reacted with a mixture of shock and horror as Biden put his hand on a Bible and was sworn into office by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
“Anyone else feeling beyond let down right now?”, one user on a prominent forum dedicated to the conspiracy theory wrote shortly after the inauguration. “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 the whole time,” the user, only known as FL350, wrote.
The anonymous user’s sentiments were echoed by Ron Watkins, the former moderator of the internet forum 8kun, which until last year was the intellectual center of the conspiracy theory.
“We gave it our all,” Watkins wrote. “Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able.”
Others though, were angrier. “Q was created by the left to get real patriots to sit on their hands and trust the plan while they stole our country,” a user named Bart posted in a Telegram channel dedicated to the conspiracy theory.
At its most basic level, QAnon is a pro-Trump conspiracy theory that posited the now former president was in a secret war against pedophiles — a supposed cabal of “deep state” liberals in politics and Hollywood. At some point, the theory goes, Trump is supposed to unleash “the Storm” to expose and punish his enemies.
Since last summer, social networks have been cracking down on the conspiracy theory. Facebookannounced on Jan. 19 that from August to Nov. 30, it removed 3,000 pages, 9,800 groups, 16,200 Facebook profiles and 25,000 Instagram accounts for violating their policies against the conspiracy theory.
Believers began to slowly splinter at the end of 2020 when new posts from Q, the anonymous individual at the center of the system, stopped appearing on 8kun.
Some QAnon adherents speculated that the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol marked the beginning of the Storm. But Biden’s swearing in on Wednesday — preceded by Trump’s departure aboard Air Force One, headed to Florida — offered a stunning visual rebuke to some of the conspiracy theory’s central tenets.
Still, there were some QAnon followers who weren’t ready to give up on the idea. On the same forum where the post from FL350 appeared, a user asking for a headcount of those who “still have faith” attracted 239 comments by Wednesday afternoon in New York.
On the Telegram messaging app, groups and channels dedicated to QAnon were filled with devout followers imploring them to “trust the plan” in the hours after Biden’s inauguration.
Travis View, host of a podcast that analyzes QAnon and other conspiracy theories, called QAnon Anonymous, said he expects some followers to become disillusioned and fall away, some to “trust the plan” and some others to “get funneled into ever darker extremist movements.”
“Regardless of the specifics,” he said, “the growth of QAnon and its consequences will likely be part of the American landscape for at least a generation.”
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