By Prithvi Iyer
“Have we all been conned?” asked one QAnon supporter on 8kun—an internet forum previously known as 8chan that has harbored QAnon content on the internet. Donald Trump’s decisive loss in the US presidential election and failed attempts at attributing the loss to voter fraud has jolted the QAnon conspiracy, leaving some supporters skeptical of its claims. Will this clear the contradiction in their beliefs? Will Biden’s victory diminish QAnon’s allure? Or do conspiracy theories always find a way to prevail even in the face of apparent contradictions? It is worth probing these questions to understand if and in what ways QAnon—a conspiracy theory that has been deemed as a domestic terror threat— will adapt to a reality incompatible with their core belief that Trump would win in a landslide and vindicate himself against the “deep state”.
“It’s hard to keep the faith when your wife and daughters have left you and we didn’t get the decisive MOAB [mother of all bombs] win we deserved on election night,” noted one QAnon supporter as he expressed his disbelief at what transpired on election day. Moreover, what seemed like an even bigger blow to the QAnon movement was the sudden resignation of Ron Watkins, the administrator of Q’s online sanctuary on 8kun. Strangely, ever since his resignation, Q has not made any posts, compounding fears about the future of the movement and possibilities that Q was merely a persona created by the Watkins family—a claim that has been strongly refuted. Nonetheless, it is clear that Biden’s victory has jolted the QAnon base and made one of its strongest prophecies fail.
This is not the first time that conspiracy theories have dealt with failed prophecies. If history is anything to go by, failed prophecies do not guarantee the end of the conspiracy. In fact, a meta-analysis of major conspiracy theories revealed that only one of the thirteen conspiracy theories examined collapsed after the failure of a prophecy. Thus, despite QAnon supporters expressing skepticism at the value of the movement and its leader, it may be too quick to disregard QAnon’s future.
Psychologists have been fascinated with why people continue believing conspiracies even after their deepest convictions fail. Most famously, psychologist Leon Festinger studied a cult group that wrongfully predicted the end of the world. Common sense would have us believe that the cognitive dissonance would be so large after a failed prophecy that people would lose faith in the movement but Festinger found the opposite to be true. When confronted with contradictory evidence, the group dealt with dissonance by claiming that their piety was recognised and that prevented the world from ending. While Festinger’s work has been criticised, it provides a useful conceptual foundation to understand the extent to which humans display a need for cognitive consistency—a tendency to maintain uniformity in beliefs even when proven blatantly wrong.
Psychologists have improved upon Festinger’s model and also studied the role of specific defence mechanisms in upholding conspiracies after failed prophecies. Of particular relevance to the QAnon discussion is the mechanism of “rationalisation”—the tendency to deal with emotional turmoil by conjuring seemingly logical and self-serving explanations. This strategy of rationalisation has been proven to be the most adaptive strategy when prophecies fail and the explanation for Trump’s defeat provided by popular QAnon influencer Joe M is a clear example of this defence mechanism at play. Joe M explained Biden’s victory as a “necessary scare event”, arguing that Trump had to allow fraudulent votes to be cast in order to expose the corruption and demonise the Democrats.
Another implausible rationalisation for QAnon’s failed prophecy was offered by QAnon influencer “Rose Unchartered”. She claimed that the Biden administration used a powerful supercomputer known as “The Hammer” to “hack into the election” and steal votes. These rationalisations fit QAnon’s overarching narrative of corrupt democrats stealing the election from its rightful winner, Mr. Donald Trump and hence, may be easily believed by their support base.
Such explanations may seem bizarre to most people but for those captivated by conspiracies, it helps them deal with the cognitive dissonance. For people whose life has been consumed by one powerful expectation—in this case that Trump would defeat the corrupt Democrats—abandonment of their faith because of one aberration is too traumatic to fathom. Remember, most QAnon supporters have destroyed their personal relationships in order to uphold their allegiance to the movement. Thus, to prevent confronting the futility of their sacrifice, they seek explanations for QAnon’s legitimacy—no matter its truth value—just to reaffirm to themselves that they did not make a mistake by sacrificing so much for QAnon, especially since QAnon’s beliefs are paranoia-based, in the face of contrary evidence, such believers will ensure that the evidence and the messenger’s legitimacy is undermined.
Joan Donavan, research director of the Shorenstein Centre of Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University also noted how QAnon is “able to incorporate breaking news events into its own storyline, so no matter what happens to Trump, the theory will adapt, and the network will shift”. This seems to already be taking place, with a section of QAnon supporters co-opting the “Save the children” movement to push their preposterous child-sex trafficking ring theory by posing as genuine anti-trafficking advocates. Adopting the “Save the children” mantra revitalised the movement and “introduced an entire new population to QAnon”. Thus, by piggybacking and misrepresenting legitimate social movements, QAnon has demonstrated enormous fluidity and willingness to reform its ideologies in order to thrive.
How QAnon fares in a Biden presidency, only time will tell. Will the initial discomfort of a failed conspiracy that led some QAnon supporters to call it a con job prevail? Or will QAnon’s interwoven set of conspiracies and strong in-group identity fostered on sites like 8kun that hail believers as “enlightened” individuals prevent the movement’s downfall?
The initial years of a Biden presidency will reveal answers to these complex questions. However, if past research is anything to go by, it seems likely that QAnon will survive this crisis of legitimacy. This is because one failed prophecy does not signify the failure of an entire movement. In QAnon’s case, their prophecies are anchored on a broader mission of pitting “good against evil” and “light against darkness”. This prevents specific failed prophecies from mattering a whole lot.
Also, we should not forget that Trump still won more votes than he did in 2016 and his support base will not magically evaporate because Biden becomes President. Trumpism is alive and QAnon aids its survival. Moreover, with murmurs of Trump running in 2024, the QAnon movement could peg its future prophecy on that election as being the decisive one where the rightful leader regains his rightful place and if that prophecy fails, another prophecy will take its place. All in all, it seems that Trump’s departure from the White House may not be enough to ensure QAnon’s departure from American society.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).