- Many believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory have lost faith since Trump left the White House.
- But QAnon is not going to disappear, researchers told Insider.
- QAnon followers may join other extremist movements or find new ways to spread the tenets of the theory.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Chat rooms dedicated to analysing and discussing the QAnon conspiracy theory have been full of confusion and chaos since President Joe Biden was inaugurated on Wednesday afternoon.
While many followers expressed dismay and frustration upon realising that former president Donald Trump was really leaving the White House, some held onto the idea that Trump, or even Biden, had something planned.
QAnon is a baseless far-right conspiracy theory that alleges former president Donald Trump, while in office, was fighting a “deep state” cabal of human traffickers and pedophiles. Believers thought that Trump would spark mass arrests of Hollywood figures, Democrats, and other powerful people, and they claimed Trump would remain in office for a second term.
The prophecies of QAnon â€” based on cryptic messages from an anonymous figure called “Q” posting on the fringe message board 8kun (previously 8chan) â€” have not come true. Though many QAnon believers did finally resign to reality on Wednesday, that loss of faith won’t entirely wipe out the conspiracy theory.
“QAnon is founded on internal contradictions,” Alex Bradley Newhouse, research lead at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ Centre on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, told Insider. “They have built up coping mechanisms” to shift their beliefs once prophecies don’t come to fruition, Newhouse said.
While conspiracy theories alleging wrongdoing by people in power reappear throughout history, QAnon differs in its cultishness. Cult experts, including Rick Ross, executive director of the Cult Education Institute, and Steve Hassan, the founder of the Freedom of Mind Resource Centre, have told Insider that QAnon functions similarly to a cult.
Now, QAnon followers are ripe for recruitment by other fringe groups.
Many believers started to lose faith in QAnon after the inauguration
The tone on QAnon message boards was extremely bleak on Wednesday in the hours after Biden’s inauguration. After months of believing that Trump would be inaugurated for a second term, despite the fact that he lost the election, faith in the pro-Trump conspiracy theory began to wane.
“So, was Q just one big lie and psyop that I foolishly followed and believed for over 3 years?” said one user in a QAnon Telegram channel. In a message board dedicated to QAnon, one person wrote, “Guys and gals, I’m losing my everloving mind right now. Is this really happening? Was this part of the plan?”
Even Ron Watkins, the former administrator of 8kun, where “Q” posts, accepted Biden’s win and echoed sentiments felt throughout the QAnon online community.
But that widespread dismay was not universal. Many QAnon influencers, who stand to lose the most if QAnon disappears, continued to encourage their followers to “have faith.”
Those figures were “doubling down” on their pro-QAnon efforts, Newhouse said. “But it works, to a certain extent,” he said, because their followers are seeking a “definitive purpose or understanding” of what’s going on.
QAnon evolved out of different conspiracy theories and could easily morph again
QAnon originated in 2017, but it was based on a recent iteration of centuries-old conspiracy theories alleging that powerful people secretly harmed children.
The movement’s most recent inspiration was the Pizzagate conspiracy theory of 2016, which baselessly alleged that Hillary Clinton, then the Democratic nominee for president, was part of a child-trafficking ring based in a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC.
These claims draw on centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes. Throughout the 12th century, false rumours that Jewish people were kidnapping Christian children to drink their blood spread throughout Europe. QAnon, which also features the popular “adrenochrome” conspiracy theory, alleging that the purported cabal consumes the blood of children, echoes that history.
The shapeshifting details of QAnon and popular conspiracy theories at large show the movement’s ability to pivot when challenged. QAnons transition and expansion into the “Save the Children” movement was perhaps its most startling and successful migration. The anti-human trafficking messaging caught on like wildfire, sparking numerous viral conspiracy theories and drawing in many well-intentioned people who didn’t fully understand what they were getting themselves into.
QAnon mimics other cults, which offers clues for how its followers may fare
There are three criteria that define the typical destructive cult, according to Ross, who has studied cults since the 1980s and has worked with law enforcement around the country.
He’s been following the rise of QAnon, its conspiracy theories, and how the movement aligns with the typical destructive cult.
Destructive cults typically have an authoritarian leader with no accountability who becomes an object of worship. That leader uses coercive persuasion and influence techniques to gain undue influence over his or her followers. And with that influence, the leader will exploit and do damage to their followers or society at large.
Ross considers QAnon to be a destructive cult, with that caveat that the public doesn’t know who the leader or leaders are.
QAnon is far from the first group that has survived after the time-based prophecy that bound them together didn’t come true. While these groups might lose some less devout members after a failed prophecy, many members will hold on, Ross said.
The Church Universal & Triumphant, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Branch Dividians, and NXIVM have all carried on in some form after the fall of their leader or initial belief system.
Even the Branch Davidians, a religious sect in Waco, Texas, led by David Koresh that was massacred in 1993 by the federal and state government, continues to live on in a limited form.
“There were very specific prophecies made by David Koresh that had time fixed to them. Those dates have expired, nothing happened,” Ross said.
Even though Koresh failed in his predictions, some survivors of the infamous fire that destroyed the group’s compound, killing 76 of the 85 followers, still believe he was truly a prophet.
“So you’re going to have people that are die-hard QAnon followers, as you can see in other groups that have been called cults,” he added.
When cults start falling apart, the ones who are left tend to be the most devout or extreme in their beliefs.
“Those people who were not as fanatically committed drift away and the group is distilled,” Ross said. “The people who remain are even more fanatically committed.”
QAnon followers overlap with other extremist groups
The cultlike nature of QAnon makes its followers more likely to fall victim to other extremist groups as they become disillusioned with their conspiracy theory, Ross said.
The connection between QAnon and other far-right groups was made quite clear at the January 6 riot in the US Capitol, where QAnon believers were joined by Proud Boys, other militant groups like the Oath Keepers, and neo-Nazis sporting Holocaust paraphernalia.
QAnon’s overlap with militant extremist groups makes believers more likely to join those groups, Newhouse said.
While the Proud Boys in particular â€” a far-right extremist organisation dubbed a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Centre â€” have abandoned interest in QAnon, they’re still recruiting disillusioned QAnon followers.
Stages of defeat: Die-hard Trump supporters range from being deflated over Biden’s inauguration to believing their twice-impeached leader will be running the government as a shadow president for the next 4 years
Without Trump as a martyr in office, extremists are more likely to take matters into their own hands and enact real-world violence, Newhouse said.
Some disillusioned QAnon believers are looking for a way out
This is the time for people questioning their faith in QAnon to educate themselves so they don’t fall prey to another cult or extremist group in the future, Ross said.
“I think that the cult intervention approach, which is called deprogramming, can be useful with some QAnon members when families feel concerns about a loved one,” Ross said. “Many of these people, as they realise the failure of QAnon, may be amenable to that. They may be confused, they may be open to family discussing things.”
The deprogramming process involves having the individual rewind their recruitment process and work through how they got involved with the movement in the first place.
While working on these issues, though, it’s very important for loved ones to avoid mocking or ridiculing the follower, Ross said.
“That keeps people stuck,” Ross said of a punitive attitude from family. “They shouldn’t hold them responsible for that because they were targeted, they were lied to, they were deceived. And we would be sympathetic to someone who was conned out of their money by some grifter, so I think we should also be kind to some of these people who have been conned by QAnon.”
If you believe you or someone you know might have fallen victim to, or has been recruited by, a destructive cult, you can find resources online at
the Cult Education Institute.
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