The QAnon conspiracy theory cult that has spread around the world over the last two years has had a rough couple of months as one after another of its apocalyptic prophecies has failed to come to pass.
The movement was born on 4chan in October 2017 as a grander evolution of the earlier Pizzagate theory, which argued that Democratic political leaders were operating a child sex ring out of an Italian restaurant in Washington, DC, called Comet Ping Pong.
That urban myth was based on nothing more than the pizzeria’s owner, James Alefantis, once offering to cater fundraising events for the party, which emerged when the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta were hacked in March 2016 and culminated in a gunman arriving at the restaurant in the hope of liberating the fictitious children he believed had been imprisoned in a basement that proved not to exist.
Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incident.
Pizzagate’s sequel extended the same basic anti-elite idea even further, positing that a Satanic paedophile cabal including Ms Clinton, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks among their number were controlling the US government and that Donald Trump, with the covert aid of FBI special counsel Robert Mueller, was engaged in a secret war to bring them down from the inside.
“Q”, supposedly a deep-cover agent working at the heart of DC, posted regular but cryptic dispatches online from the frontline of this imaginary struggle, each “drop” devoured ravenously be his ever-growing audience of readers, whose number swelled significantly in 2020 with millions of people cooped up at home behind their laptops and phones in lockdown and in search of a distraction or focal point for their existential anxieties and frustrations.
This phenomenon saw QAnon-related tweets rise from 5m in 2017 to 12m in 2020, according to NewsGuard data, as the conspiracy theory spread to Europe and sympathy groups sprang up in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands and Portugal as an expression of discontent from citizens in those countries against their own governments.
But since the deadly US Capitol riot on 6 January 2021 - when a mob of disaffected supporters of Mr Trump, stoked up by his false claims about election fraud, stormed the legislative complex to prevent the Senate cementing November’s election results and Joe Biden’s victory - the group has been forced to keep amending and modifying its overarching narrative to fit inconvenient realities.
The long-foretold “storm” that day was supposed to herald in practice amounted to very little, with Congress reconvening swiftly to ratify Mr Trump’s defeat without opposition from vice president Mike Pence and Mr Biden duly inaugurated as president two weeks late.
The bloody uprising and mass executions of political opponents Q fantasists had been persuaded to expect again failed to materialise.
Since then, even prominent conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has angrily lost patience with the movement, yelling at “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley on his InfoWars show that his prophecies were “lies”, that he was “full of s**” and that “every goddamned thing out of you people’s mouths doesn’t come true.”
“I will not suffer your Q people after this!” Mr Jones roared. “I knew what you were on day one and I know what you are now and I’m sick of it! I’m sick of all these witches and warlocks.”
Even Ron Watkins, once the movement’s primary source for spurious Trumpian “election fraud” updates on Telegram, dismissed other followers’ desperate claims that Mr Biden’s inauguration had been faked on a Hollywood sound stage to tell his 134,000 subscribers on 20 January: “Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able.”
The QAnon’s faithful’s most recent fanciful revision of its storyline saw Mr Trump returning triumphantly to the presidency on 4 March, sworn in again at a second inauguration after winning a nebulous legal battle to prove that the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1868, was actually invalid and that all subsequent changes were likewise void.
With the US Capitol Police and Department of Homeland Security on high alert, that eventuality - a borrowing from another bizarre conspiracy group known as the Sovereign Citizens Movement, closely monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center - also failed to occur, prompting Q adherents to hastily push back the deadline until 20 March.
The date of presidential inaugurations was originally 4 March but was moved to 20 January under Franklin D Roosevelt in 1933 to shorten an outgoing commander-in-chief’s lame duck period.
QAnon believers’ switch in emphasis to 20 March appears to stem from a desperate misreading of the Presidential Transition Enhancement Act of 2019 which “extends support provided by the General Services Administration to the president- and vice president-elect for up to 60 days after the inauguration”.
It also happens to be the date on which the Republican Party was founded 167 years ago at a meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854.
“Don’t be disappointed,” one subscriber wrote on Telegram when the hoped-for return of Mr Trump failed to take place on 4 March, according to Insider. “The race is not run yet and I have reason to believe March 20 is also possible.”
“We still have 16 days,” another undaunted believer wrote. “Lots can happen between now and then!”
“March 4 is a Trap! Q knew,” another argued, laying the groundwork for the next revision by suggesting that date had been an “MSM false flag” all along, alluding to the mainstream media, his suspicions already voiced by others as early as 11 February:
The next day, followers of the same channel were repeatedly urged to “keep the faith”, a tacit acknowledgement that loyalists might be crestfallen and entertaining doubts given that not one of Q’s wild predictions to date had yielded fruit.
Since then, another Telegram user spotted by Insider attempted to address the problem of definite dates by doing away with them altogether, writing: “Dates for late March, April, May, and more dates in the fall have been tossed out there. While we can speculate and hope, no specific dates have been landed on… don’t get caught up in the dates, watch what’s happening.”
Ultimately, the increasingly vague and internationalised nature of the QAnon movement means it will continue to adapt and evolve so long as people remain spellbound by its compelling fear-mongering about elite-level political corruption, no matter how regularly its highly selective mythology butts up against the pedestrian business of reality.
“What these QAnon followers get out of the community isn’t necessarily the predictions,” Travis View of the QAnon Anonymous podcast said recently.
“They enjoy, basically, being part of the group, feeling like they have esoteric knowledge, feeling like they are part of a revolutionary movement; that they’re helping to usher in a golden age and they’re helping to do away with evil.
“Studies show that when people are highly committed to this kind of belief system, they can continue to move the goalposts indefinitely.”
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