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Without Their 'Messiah,' QAnon Believers Confront A Post-Trump World

A QAnon supporter attends the Jan. 6 "Stop the Steal" rally in Washington, D.C., after which supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
A QAnon supporter attends the Jan. 6 "Stop the Steal" rally in Washington, D.C., after which supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Now that former President Donald Trump has left office, the community of believers in the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory are left wondering what will happen next.

Washington Post national technology reporter Craig Timberg has written about QAnon and related subjects in recent months. He acknowledges that it can be hard to sum up exactly what QAnon is.

"Our copy editors [at the Post] are questioning whether we should call it a 'conspiracy theory' or an 'extremist ideology,' " Timberg tells Fresh Air. "Some researchers think it's a cult. Some think it's an alternative reality game."

The gist of QAnon is that there is a person who goes by the pseudonym "Q" who is supposedly a top-secret official in the U.S. government. Q posts cryptic online messages about the "truth" of what's really happening in the world. QAnon proponents believe that Trump was battling a cabal of deep-state actors and their celebrity allies who were, in turn, engaged in satanic worship and pedophilia.

"People who believe in this then take those sort of cryptic messages shared among themselves, analyze it, and then have sort of become a community of fellow travelers in this stuff that seems so crazy to many of us, but actually is a really animating force in a lot of people's lives and has been for years," Timberg says.

QAnon supporters, Timberg notes, regard Trump "not merely as their president and leader, but also as essentially a messiah." People with QAnon paraphernalia were well represented in the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

"[They believed that] Trump was going to stay in office, that he had really won the election, that the various baseless claims of election fraud were going to be proven true and acted upon," Timberg says. "And that a bunch of Democrats [were] going to be rounded up and arrested and, depending on which version of this you believed, shot or hung."

Trump's departure from the White House and Joe Biden's inauguration as president left many QAnon followers angry and confused.

After the mob stormed the Capitol, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube on Jan. 6 banned Trump — and social media platforms targeted QAnon as well. Timberg predicts that pushback from the social media giants will likely mean fewer people will be engaged with QAnon but that the supporters who remain will be even more impassioned.

"Researchers have been saying to me for weeks that ... the QAnon believers whose beliefs survive the inauguration of President Biden are likely to be more committed. They're likely to be more fervent and more conspiratorial," Timberg says. "There is a real danger that what we'll see is a somewhat smaller but maybe more fervent and maybe more hateful and maybe more stealthy remnant that remains a force in our political life for years to come — and maybe also engages in acts of violence."

Interview highlights

On QAnon being a violent threat since its inception

QAnon is essentially born in October 2017 on a message board called 4chan. And then the conversation online, including on mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, is almost immediately terribly violent, and they're calling for firing squads and nooses and all that, for people who were supposedly pedophiles, etc. And within a couple of years, there had been some incidents that flowed out of that online talk of violence. There was an incidentat the Hoover Dam where an armed man in a truck kind of blocked off traffic for a while and got arrested. There was an actual murderin New York City of a mob boss by someone who was inspired by QAnon. ...

The FBI issued a warning about QAnon as a domestic terrorism threat a couple of years ago. Researchers at West Point issued a similar warning. And countless independent researchers started setting up bright red flashing warnings years ago that this was not merely something that was roiling the online world, but it was something that had the potential to spill into our world, our real world, and cause actual violence and harm to people.

On Facebook's fear of being seen as a partisan platform if it regulated QAnon

It certainly is the case that Facebook, in particular, and to some extent the others were just terrified of angering President Trump and his followers. And there were two reasons for that: One is President Trump was the most powerful person in the world, oversaw the Justice Department, had leverage in Congress, and if he wanted to go after the social media companies, as he ultimately did, that was a big problem for them. ...

Secondly, Facebook in particular didn't want to be known as the platform for liberal America or moderate America. These are customers. They wanted to have all of America. They wanted all of the world. And so if this idea that Facebook or Twitter or YouTube was really just a platform for the Left, that had real business stakes for all of these companies that they were deeply aware of.

Now, all that said, I think the events of the past few weeks have really reinforced how actually easy it was for the platforms to make these decisions once they were ready to make these decisions. And it hasn't been lost on anybody that all of these companies acted on the very day that Biden's ascent to the White House became clear and that the Democrats' control of the Senate also became clear. So on the same day ... that the mobs overtake the Capitol, we learn that these two runoffs in Georgia have yielded two new Democrats, which meant a new party was going to be in charge in Washington. And so, yes, it was politically hard for the platforms to act against a dominant Republican Party in the past few years. But it also clearly was logistically supereasy and simple to just turn off some of this stuff — and there's real questions about whether they should have done that sooner.

On the impact of Trump being banned from Twitter and Facebook

We do know the answer to that question now, because by a variety of metrics, misinformation around the election plummeted after Trump's account was taken away by Twitter and a variety of other actions, including the closing of 70,000 Twitter accounts that were pushing QAnon. ...

This gets to the heart of the problem. While we love free speech and we want free speech to be as open as possible, it's also true that my speech can drown out your speech and my lies can drown out your truth. And so those don't seem like good outcomes to me. And so what we have in the past few weeks is kind of a science experiment. Like what happens when you turn down or really eliminate the voice of someone who is pushing a lot of lies? It turns out that those lies have a lot less traction. They move around less often.

On the larger questions Trump's social media ban poses

I'm not sure that it's the wrong choice. It may well be the right choice, but it does raise all sorts of really uncomfortable issues about who gets to talk, what they get to say and where these red lines are. And for my money, I've been covering the intersection of these issues for eight or nine years now, I've never found a really comfortable place in terms of ... not only what the rules should be, but who should make the rules. ... The removal of Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook really brings that debate back to center stage. Who gets to decide, who gets to talk, and how? And while there's certainly not a First Amendment right to have a Twitter account or anything like it, to deny the power that these companies are now wielding, seems to me to be shortsighted.

On where QAnon believers will go now that they're not allowed on traditional social media platforms, and conservative social media service Parler has been removed from the app stores

I think the conventional wisdom is A) the Internet's such a big place that there will always be places for them to gather and talk to each other. What they lose is the ability to talk to my uncle, [who] might stumble upon this stuff on Facebook. ...

There's a lot of evidence that folks have moved off of places where they can be easily monitored, not just by researchers and journalists like me, but also by the FBI.

But B) the other place people have gone are these encrypted chat apps, Signal and Telegram, etc. And I love these apps, like I use Signal every day, all day long. And I think it's great. But the downside of it is that there's really no way to monitor what's going on on a platform where the communications are encrypted end-to-end, meaning from my phone to your phone. And so I think there's a lot of evidence that folks have moved off of places where they can be easily monitored, not just by researchers and journalists like me, but also by the FBI. They have moved off of these places into these darker, quieter places where they can speak in an unfettered way and there's very little possibility anyway to be overheard by someone they don't want to overheard by.

On what Q supporters think is next, now that Trump has left office

I would say they fall into two broad categories: There are those who believe that "the great storm" is still coming in some way, shape or form, even though President Biden is now in office. And I guess there's two iterations of this. One is President Trump is secretly in charge and controlling events from Mar-a-Lago. I guess the other is that there's a new date, March 4, which was the original inauguration date in this country, was done away with, I believe, in the '30s, and that when March 4 arrives, Donald Trump will swoop back in and say, "I've been president all along, I'm taking a second term," and then the mass arrests and the coming storm all happen then.

So we'll have to see what happens to that group when that day comes and goes. But then there's an even more angry kind of dead-ender group that is feeling as though this central tenets of QAnon about pedophilia and Satan worshipping, etc., have been true all along, that Donald Trump was not maybe the messiah they thought he was, and that they're sort of like preparing for a longer struggle. Of all the groups, that one kind of scares me, because they're really doubling down on the most terrifying parts of these prophecies.

Amy Salit and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.