QAnon adherents call it “the storm”. At midday on Wednesday, there were supposed to be blackouts across the US, military tribunals led by Donald Trump and the mass execution of Democrats in the streets.
It did not happen. Instead, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th US president and the day of reckoning anticipated by the pro-Trump conspiracy cult failed to materialise, disappointing the faithful.
“QAnon believers invested all their remaining hopes in false beliefs that Trump would take action validating their theories before or during inauguration,” said Jared Holt, a research fellow focused on extremism at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “For some followers, watching Biden and (vice-president Kamala) Harris sworn into office was a breaking point in their beliefs.”
QAnon followers had been among the rioters who stormed the US Capitol on January 6 in the hopes of overturning the results of the November presidential election, which Mr Trump and many of his followers say was rigged.
According to QAnon prophecies, Mr Trump would maintain power as electrical outages spread across the US on January 20. But when the lights stayed on in America, the mood in QAnon circles turned dark.
Believers began proclaiming: “Nothing!!!!” on messaging apps, with their verdict sometimes accompanied by angry face or broken heart emojis.
“We all got scammed, you caused us all to lose friends over this charade,” posted one member of a QAnon discussion group created a few days after the Capitol riot. “Now we all sit with egg on our face.”
“Q”, the pseudonymous poster or posters behind the nearly 5,000 arcane messages that form the central scripture of the conspiracy theory, did not offer any explanation.
But Ron Watkins, whose father owns the imageboard where QAnon’s posts are hosted, said: “We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able.”
The setback was only the latest in a series of reversals for the QAnon movement, whose ranks grew dramatically in 2020 during coronavirus pandemic-related lockdowns.
Facebook said on Tuesday it had removed more than 40,000 QAnon Facebook and Instagram pages and accounts since August as part of a clampdown on extremists. Accounts belonging to QAnon influencers were removed by Twitter earlier this month, shortly before the website permanently suspended Mr Trump.
QAnon supporters were also affected by the closure of Parler, the “free speech” social network popular with conservatives, after Amazon suspended its web hosting services earlier this month.
Nevertheless, some QAnon believers on Wednesday attempted to find ways to explain the situation, or fell back on the cryptic messages that characterised many of QAnon’s posts. “Trust the plan,” wrote one.
Experts warned that individual conspiracies within the wider ideology — such as anti-5G and anti-vaccine narratives — would likely live on, possibly morphing into something more menacing.
“For many people, there won’t be an easy step back. The engagement cycle has been too addicting and empowering,” said Molly McKew, chief executive of consultancy Fianna Strategies and an information warfare expert. “And what if they decide to latch on to a new, less lazy and incompetent leader than Trump? The power in this belief system hasn’t dispersed yet.”