Now that the Biden administration is officially underway, the QAnon community is in crisis. Adherents to the conspiracy theory, which postulates the existence of a cabal of media and left-wing political figures engaged in a child trafficking ring, believed that Inauguration Day would serve as the Great Awakening, and that President Trump would swoop in and arrest and execute all of his enemies. Yet after Inauguration Day came and went without incident, many were left confused, disappointed, and disillusioned with the promises of Q.
As a result of the failed promise of an Inauguration Day reckoning, some extremism experts predicted that the community would be in turmoil, or that believers would undergo a crisis of faith and possibly turn away from the movement. On the encrypted messaging app Telegram, however, which is currently serving as a bastion of far-right extremism, the QAnon community is not just thriving, but growing, according to data from the Center for Hate and Extremism.
“QAnon data shows no mass exodus as some predicted and in fact, in some cases, there was increases in over a 24-hour cycle,” says Kevin Grisham, the associate director of the Center for Hate and Extremism, which provided the data to Rolling Stone. Of the nine QAnon-related channels on the platform his team was tracking, eight experienced a boost in followers between January 20th, the day of Biden’s inauguration, and January 21st. One channel in particular grew by more than 35 percent, from 16,695 followers to 22,851 (Rolling Stone is declining to cite the specific channels on the grounds that they feature disturbing and extremist content).
On social media, there has been some speculation that such growth can be attributed in part to an influx of journalists and federal law enforcement officers following the Capitol riots. Yet the content of the discourse on the groups, says Grisham, is noteworthy. Overwhelmingly, followers are “still hoping to ‘hold the line’ and the plan will happen,” he says.
“Right now, I’m not sure that the reporting about [QAnon believers] snapping out of it is representative of the norm,” says Jitarth Jadeja, a former QAnon believer based in Melbourne, Australia. “I’m seeing a lot of doubling down, more than exits and questioning.” Such doubling-down has taken many different forms, from believers arguing that Biden will be impeached to the prospect of a military coup to the idea that Biden is part of the “plan.” Major influencers continue to echo the party line that Trump, Q, and his cohorts are still maintaining control behind the scenes, and that it is only a matter of time before the reckoning against the deep state takes place. “The storm has arrived. Stay safe and strong on the ground. Stay strong, stay calm, stay informed….keep the faith, trust the plan,” reads one post that was shared on multiple QAnon Telegram channels.
Over the past few months, big tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter have taken major steps toward deplatforming far-right extremists, leading them to gravitate to encrypted messaging apps like Telegram or smaller social networking apps with lax content moderation guidelines like MeWe or Rumble. The social networking app Parler, which markets itself as a free speech app, was also a popular choice for those on the right until it was removed from the Apple and Google Play stores earlier this month, following scrutiny over its role in helping to organize the January 6th Capitol riot. As a result of such deplatforming efforts, Telegram in particular has experienced a huge boost in its user base, with the app announcing it had increased by 25 million users in the days since Parler went dark.
As a result of those on the right who have been deplatformed flocking to apps like Telegram, there is a concern that members of fringe groups will feed off each other and the dangerous ideas they promote, creating cross-pollination of sorts. Such mixing of different types of far-right groups, as well as far-right and neo-Nazi groups actively calling on their members to try to convert QAnon believers in crisis, “could create some really dangerous situations,” Grisham previously told Rolling Stone.
Researcher Marc-Andre Argentino of Concordia University echoes this concern. He has noticed similar growth in QAnon channels on Telegram, citing one channel with more than 131,000 followers that has grown steadily over the past 30 days. He attributes it in part to “Terrorgram” channels, or extremist groups on Telegram, “raiding QAnon channels post-inauguration in an attempt to recruit and radicalize QAnon adherents,” he says.
Even without Trump in office, adherents clinging to the idea that Trump is still in power behind the scenes — or that Biden is secretly part of the “plan” — could pose a huge threat. “The true believers [could] be most dangerous,” says Grisham.
“With Trump in office, he kept them calm, they thought everything was under control, that they didn’t need to do anything, trust the plan and all that jazz,” says Jadeja. “Now I think they’ll start coming up with their own plans.”