” The conspiracy is designed like a game. Discovering clues that clarify Q’s cryptic missives produces a eureka effect, which offers a hit of dopamine and improves memory retention. It’s the same satisfaction that comes from solving a puzzle or finding the answer to a riddle.
Believers apply the same approach to everyday news: Find information that confirms any existing beliefs, then use it to augment their understanding of the conspiracy. Reject facts or information that counter the existing beliefs. It’s one of the reasons they struggle to recruit their family members, unless they’re persuaded to do research themselves.
I wondered what would happen in the days after Mr. Biden’s inauguration. Rather than re-evaluate their approach in the wake of Q’s failures, many doubled down. The problem wasn’t that the whole worldview was false, just that they had been led astray by inaccurate reports and misinterpretations. Their response was to improve their process. They were, in a sense, inventing journalism.
Others made excuses. Theories spread that Q was actually part of a deep state plot to keep Mr. Trump’s supporters complacent. A few members tied Q’s strategy to a C.I.A. psychological operation. And if that was true, their prophets, like Q and Mr. Trump and major personalities in the community, weren’t everything they hoped they would be.
They would develop a list of sources, vet credentials, link to original material, and view unconfirmed information skeptically
“By us believing that, you know, there’s all these things going on behind the scenes. And I don’t think it’s happening,” one said.
“We can’t be digital warriors our whole life. We can’t be keyboard warriors our whole life,” another said, recommending they focus on banking, education and passing real laws instead. He added: “We can’t put all our eggs in one basket like we’re doing and waiting on Trump. Our forefathers never relied on one man. We rely on each other going forward.”
If the current version of the Q conspiracy theory dissolves, what happens to its followers? They already found a community, and their friendships weathered Mr. Biden’s inauguration. If anything, their bonds have been strengthened. The channel was thriving, keeping hope alive for dozens of followers. Right-wing activists were organizing with fervor on Signal and Telegram. A few in the chat discussed plans to meet in person.
“It didn’t play out the way we wanted, but it showed that we can – we’re powerful when we’re together,” one said. “It’s created a whole new era. It’s not done. It’s far from over.”
After the inauguration, Ron Watkins, one of the main pushers of QAnon’s theories, who some suspect is actually Q, seemed to signal the end of the movement. In a message to followers, he focused on the strength of the community, writing , “As we enter into the next administration please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years.”
It’s preventing us from doing anything because we’re just sitting down, waiting and watching for all this to secretly happen
The original version of the conspiracy seems in tatters, but the community is strong. And that will be harder to unravel.
“Trump has changed things forever. It’s a lot of seeds that he planted. And history is going to be very kind to him and the people that fought on the right side of the war.”
The audio chat offers a clearer picture of these believers than the Facebook pages and Telegram channels where they also gather. The all-caps screeds of the internet give way to gentler moments, like when they talk about their pets or babysitting their grandkids. Many members were struggling in some way – financially or emotionally, with legal troubles or addiction. As Covid-19 swept their states, many got sick, and some family members died. A few members were recently out of prison. Another was living in a sober house.