“Where we go one, we go all.” This tagline from the now infamous QAnon conspiracy has been seared into our hive minds since the insurrectionist events of January 6 on Capitol Hill. The question now becomes, where do Q’s followers go from here? Their “coming storm” prophesied that Donald Trump would seize power, overthrow the deep state and arrest a cabal of Satan-worshipping, pedophilic Democrats. Luckily for everyone else, this storm was little more than an afternoon drizzle. However, the threat from these conspiracies remains.
Flashpoint America: What the Hell Is Happening?
Much has been written about the radicalization of QAnon adherents since the coup attempt, and there is an available body of work for anyone brave enough to wade into this conspiracy pool. There have also been extensive follow-up attempts to dissect the QAnon mindset since President Biden’s inauguration, given Donald Trump’s failure to deliver on the promises made by Q.
While some are taking a certain satisfaction in watching the QAnon worldview crumble, the situation is poised to grow even more complex. This presents an even deeper challenge to the long-term social and political health of the United States. Observers who are commenting on the disillusionment of QAnon communities now that Biden’s presidency has become a reality are missing the point, since reality was never the point to begin with. The point has always been escapism — absconding into a world of fan fiction where the entanglements of our political and economic lives can be distilled down to memes, anonymous “transmissions” and a binary choice between good and evil, filled with legions of heroes and villains. None of this will be abandoned any time soon, let alone gracefully.
Because of this, there is deep turbulence ahead, namely what to do with potentially millions of people who now adhere to an untethered ideology. These digital communities are not going to vanish, nor are they simply going to recognize the absurdity of their ways and come back to the mainstream. Doing so would undermine the investment they have made in the conspiracy that has consumed them, forcing them to acknowledge that their estrangement from family, friends and colleagues is actually of their own making. There is also another dimension, one that goes even deeper. Letting go of the conspiracy and admitting that their beliefs are misplaced is to also acknowledge that they allowed themselves to be deceived and manipulated.
Having this expectation is a heavy lift and one that cannot be expected without programs or mechanisms that support personal disengagement. Arab countries battling extremism have pioneered these kinds of deradicalization programs and have been running them for years. Unfortunately, programs like this that are currently available in the US do not exist on the scale needed to be effective. What we are left with is much more rudimentary and reactive, allowing us to only assess the pathways these individuals are taking and how their digital communities are supporting their radicalization.
There are five main QAnon archetypes currently in play. Each has a role in either disrupting or scaling the radicalization behind the next version of the conspiracy. The first group are those who can be reached. These will be individuals who understand they unwittingly fell into something and are looking for a way back to their lives pre-QAnon with a minimal amount of embarrassment. The second group are those still consuming the conspiracy but who are negotiating their belief system within it as Biden settles into his presidency. The cracks have started to form for these individuals, and it could go one of two ways: Either they are reached and brought back into normative political and social life or they will evolve in the direction of the new conspiracy.
The third group are the enablers who are still committed to trafficking in conspiracy regardless of the form it might be taking. They are the content creators, communicators, logistical planners and recruiters. They have influence within their digital communities, which they will protect by espousing whatever version of the conspiracy keeps them most relevant.
The fourth group are the ideological drivers of the conspiracy, those not only with the most followers and content but those capable of articulating the most radical aspects of the conspiracy. Many of the previous ideological leaders of QAnon have dropped out due to a loss of legitimacy within these digital communities. But in doing so, they have left behind a vacuum. This space is now being filled by opportunists who need to make even more outlandish claims as a way of establishing their bona fides to the millions of followers looking for what comes next, accelerating the potential for radicalization.
Turn to Anger
The fifth group is the most worrisome and where intelligence gatherers and federal law enforcement will need to be most focused. These are individuals who recognize the conspiracy was a lie, but still maintain all of their underlying resentments, specifically white grievance. This will turn to anger, which can be easily exploited, not just because they realize QAnon was a lie, but because they believe they were abandoned by the same politicians who told them the election was stolen. These individuals will be looking for new digital communities that are less keen on fan fiction and more prone to direct action as a way of exercising their grievances. They will be prime targets for white supremacist groups and militias who are looking to recruit, plan and engage in violent action. The recalibration of these relationships is already ongoing.
Believing the followers of QAnon have lost faith in the conspiracy in any meaningful way is naive. Their reality is flexible. Spend a few minutes in any QAnon Telegram channel, and you can see that the unreality of their beliefs is only accelerating. A new conspiracy is already claiming that Trump will become president again on March 4 under a “restored republic,” which links to a belief that the US was dissolved in the 19th century. Individuals who have retreated from normative social and political life into their conspiracy-driven digital communities will continue to find ways to thrive because they have no other choice. Their emotional investment in the conspiracy has become their personal identity. This is only going to make the conspiracy more dangerous and the radicalization stronger.
The FBI cannot arrest its way out of this problem, nor can the tech companies be counted on to regulate their own platforms in a way that addresses the complexity of these vast challenges. While radicalization is nothing new, it is new in the American context. This is a knowledge frontier in its infancy and one we are wholly unprepared for — for all the reasons that led us to this place to begin with. If left unaddressed, we might soon find ourselves in a position where our unreality has indeed become our reality.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.