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The Great Storm Never Arrived: QAnon Conspiracists Face A Sobering Reality

January 24, 2021


The Lincoln Memorial Photo Credit: The Smithsonian

It's official. "The Great Storm" never arrived.

Donald Trump did not declare martial law in his final minutes in office.  He didn't unveil a secret plan to secure and remain in power forever. Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi were not arrested and sent to Guantánamo Bay. The military did not rise up and arrest an evil cabal of Democratic and elite leaders.

All of these were variously held beliefs among the QAnon community. A recent NPR/Ipsos poll found that 17% of Americans believed that a group of Satan-worshipping, child-enslaving elites is trying to control the world and the above events would transpire as part of what they called, "The Great Storm" during the historically peaceful transition of power on January 20th.

Instead, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. took the oath of office and became the 46th U.S. president on Wednesday.  Everything went smoothly and the majority of Americans breathed a much needed collective sigh of relief.

For many supporters of QAnon, this was an earth-shattering disappointment.

Joe Biden Speaks In Front of Soldiers Photo credit: Defense.gov

Tech columnist Kevin Roose tweeted out screenshots from groups on Telegram — a popular messaging service for QAnon supporters — on Wednesday, after the transfer of power was officially complete. "Been played like fools," one said.

Roose noted that a prominent QAnon figure announced that supporters need to "go back to our lives as best we are able."

Will Sommer, who tracks conservative media and is writing a book about the QAnon phenomenon, reported in the Daily Beast that late on Wednesday morning, QAnon groups were still hopeful that the mass arrests would materialize. But after noon, "the mood changed quickly," Sommer wrote, with supporters saying they felt fooled by Trump and felt sick.

Beyond the fantasy bubble of hard-right wing media and message boards on websites like Telegram & 8Chan, even conservative news media couldn't help but cover the excitement and positive energy surrounding the inauguration, including a series of music performances by a wide range of top pop stars in a glitzy, dramatically produced prime-time event that even featured three living presidents standing together in Washington DC, unanimously wishing President Joe Biden luck ahead. All living former presidents had attempted to remain neutral during the Trump administration, but all eventually spoke out against his autocratic tendencies and unpresidential behavior. It was an unprecedented show of bipartisan unity and a subtle snub of the forty-fifth president.

Presidents Obama, Bush & Clinton Photo credit: CNN

While many of the fairweather QAnon adherents may have come to their senses, it's unlikely this will be the end of QAnon activity.  Camila Domonoske of NPR reports:

The Times' Roose noted Q fans arguing with each other, with some declaring the movement over while others insisting the Storm was still coming. NBC's Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny took a look at one of the largest QAnon Telegram groups, which briefly shut down on Wednesday and reopened with "a range of reactions: confusion and realization that QAnon was in fact a hoax, as well as renewed commitment to the conspiracy theory, despite its unreliability."

Researcher Travis View told The Washington Post that it was only a "minority ... facing reality," while others are simply shifting their expectations.

 The New York Times' Kevin Roose also recently profiled a prominent Boomer QAnon supporter, Valerie Gilbert's descent into the rabbit hole:

“This is not just young, male incels who live in their parents’ basements and can’t get a real job,” said Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher who is writing a book about QAnon. “QAnon gives you a target to point your anger at, and it gives you something to do about it. That’s something that can appeal to anyone who is disaffected in any way.”

Ms. Gilbert’s elite pedigree — she attended the Dalton School in Manhattan and worked on The Harvard Lampoon with Conan O’Brien in the 1980s — illustrates the wide range of people who have ended up in Q’s thrall. And her story hints at how hard it will be to bring those people back to reality.

What attracts Ms. Gilbert and many other people to QAnon isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides. New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends, and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos, but patriots gathering “intel” for a righteous revolution.

This social element also means that QAnon followers aren’t likely to be persuaded out of their beliefs with logic and reason alone.

“These people aren’t drooling, mind-controlled cultists,” Mr. Rothschild said. “People who are in Q like it. They like being part of it. You can’t debunk and fact-check your way out of this, because these people don’t want to leave.”

Apocalyptic cults have survived thoughout history despite the perennial failure of a predicted apocalyptic event. QAnon may outlive the false prophecies around the inauguration just like it has survived many other failed prophecies before. As author Yuval Harari argued in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, gossip is the foundation of our species’ survival. Long hours spent gossiping helped the early humans to forge friendships and hierarchies, which, in turn, helped to establish the social order and cooperation that eventually set them apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. And with a skill so vital to everyday life, it makes sense that our brains evolved structures to help us hone it.

Humans' tendency to engage in conspiracy thinking makes sense given that our brains are optimized for gossip. Perhaps this is why it's so prevalent among the isolated or disaffected among us. With no real life social network to interact with, people turn to online communties that gossip about conspiracy theories. It's certainly something to talk about.

There will always be another fantastical thread of gossip to tie the social bonds of lonely people together. You can be sure a new one is being spun as you read this. But, one can hope that with the return of technocratic proficiency and a semblance of restored tradition in Washington, and a shameful deplatforming of Donald Trump and his coterie of cynical opportunists, these dark forces of misinformation won't be so readily leveraged by politicians to mobilize their dwindling army of angry provincials confronting the inevitable demise of their priviledge in an ever more diverse and pluralistic America.


License: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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