QAnon Believers May Have Reached a Turning Point in 2020 Election - Rolling Stone
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The Election Could Be a Turning Point for QAnon Believers

Deplatforming and other attempts by social media companies may have helped curb the spread of misinformation — but true believers thrive on feeling oppressed

MANKATO, MN - AUGUST 17: A woman holds a Trump 2020 flag and a Q Anon flag outside of Mankato Regional Airport as President Donald Trump makes a campaign stop on August 17, 2020 in Mankato, Minnesota. Trump spoke at the airport before continuing on to a campaign stop in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

A woman holds a Trump 2020 flag and a Q Anon flag outside of Mankato Regional Airport as President Donald Trump makes a campaign stop on August 17, 2020 in Mankato, Minnesota.

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

One of the central (and, frankly, more insufferable) tenets of improv is the principle of “yes, and” — essentially, agreeing to everything your scene partner suggests and then building on it. The purpose of this is to free you up to be as flexible and responsive to your partner’s suggestions as possible: If they establish, for instance, you’re at a pontoon boat salesmen’s convention in Akron, you should affirm that and add that the ghost of Abraham Lincoln is also present and that he is in the market for a new Sun Tracker.

Believing in QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory suggesting that President Donald Trump is lying in wait to bust up a deep state pedophile ring, is a bit like being good at improv. No matter what obstacles others may throw your way, and no matter how challenging the circumstances, you have to do your best to justify and make sense of them in context. Over the past 24 hours, QAnon believers have found themselves in the position of having to say “yes, and” quite a bit.

In the wake of a tumultuous election that increasingly does not seem to be skewed in their favor — and with their favored social platforms falling out beneath their feet — they are at a “really significant inflection point for QAnon,” says Travis View, the cohost of the QAnon Anonymous podcast. “The combination of the social media bans and the defeat of Donald Trump is going to cause them to evolve in really significant ways.”

At first, the general sense among QAnon believers was that Trump would virtually sweep the election in a blowout, only to be forced to come to terms with the reality that this would not be the case (sort of akin to how many Democrats erroneously believed Biden would win in a landslide, turning traditionally red states like Texas and Florida in the process). To make matters worse, Q, the anonymous poster behind the cryptic “Q” drops, has been largely silent during Election Night (save for a fleeting Abraham Lincoln quote on Election Day itself). This, in itself, is not unusual, as it is common for the poster (or posters) behind Q to go quiet for extended periods of time. But amid the turmoil of the election, many rank-and-file Q believers are finding themselves hopelessly adrift without their perceived man on the inside. “I trust the plan, but we all need assurance,” says one follower on a Telegram thread.

That silence may be particularly galling given the Election Day victories of two candidates with a history of supporting QAnon: Colorado’s Lauren Boebert, who won Colorado’s Third Congressional District; and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won Georgia’s fifth congressional district. While the two victories have been maligned in the media as harbingers of the movement’s increasing power within the GOP, actual QAnon believers see them differently (in part because both Boebert and Taylor Greene have attempted to distance themselves from QAnon).

“You’d think they’d be seeing this as a sign of legitimacy and new [opportunities] to get the message out, but that’s not really how Q works in terms of proselytizing,” says Mike Rothschild, author of The World’s Worst Conspiracies. “They don’t expect her to go on Fox News and start spreading the gospel of Q to millions of people. It’s much more about one-on-one interactions” — such as sending a friend a link to one of the popular YouTube documentaries associated with the movement.

Unfortunately, many of the social media platforms on which QAnon believers have relied to spread the good word have failed them as of late. Earlier this year, for instance, Twitter and Facebook instituted sweeping purges of prominent QAnon groups and accounts; even TikTok, a fledgling platform for conspiracy theories, took drastic action, banning all QAnon hashtags and content. Such actions have significantly curbed believers’ ability to spread misinformation. Although QAnon believers have been central in propagating conspiracy theories undermining the election results — such as Sharpiegate, the idea that Arizona election officials purposefully gave voters a Sharpie to render their ballots illegible — they have had far less of an impact than expected on social media discourse, says View. “I can’t say 100 percent sure if that’s the case,” he explains. “But the fact that social media companies across the board cracked down very hard may have contributed to that we saw a lot less viral misinformation.”

The deplatforming, combined with the recent turn of events, has culminated in something of a turning point for QAnon true believers. While many continue to profess confidence in Trump, reiterating the same talking points about Democrats undermining the election results, if the worm does officially turn in Biden’s favor, it could cause nothing less than a crisis in confidence for true believers, who have bought into a mythology that is predicated on their hero being in power.

Yet there is an alternative interpretation that QAnon believers will continue to “yes, and” the progression of world events, conforming them to neatly fit their own narratives. If Trump loses, that is, in many ways, “a much more familiar territory for conspiracy theorists to be in,” says Rothschild. “These are people used to feeling like they are being oppressed. If he loses, it’ll be like, ‘This is why we’re fighting the Deep State, and this is why we have to keep going.'”

The prospect of a Trump loss is, in some ways, even more daunting when you consider how it may serve to energize true believers, rather than deflating them. “QAnon followers sometimes describe Q as a prophylactic for a civil war,” says View. “The idea that if Q doesn’t come along to make things right…may spark more violent unrest.”

The fact that many QAnon supporters have been booted from more mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter, forcing them to gravitate to fringe platforms with larger extremist presences like Gab and Parler, may also have frightening long-term effects in terms of further radicalization. There is a demonstrated history of QAnon supporters engaging in violence in the name of the movement, and Rothschild is concerned that proximity to other far-right extremist groups on fringe platforms may only serve to further hasten the radicalization process. “These people are very unpredictable,” he warns. “Every time I feel Q is on its last legs, it reenergizes itself.”

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