For some, the electoral loss of Donald Trump and the disappearance of the figure known as “Q” was marking the beginning of the end of the QAnon movement. As the year drew to a close, some Americans had assumed or hoped that the worst of the past 4 years was behind them, or that a page could be turned with a new administration, more widespread COVID vaccine availability, and a fresh opportunity for social and economic progress. Keen-eyed reporters, analysts, and researchers were not of the same opinion. The election results were still being disputed, and the results were not accepted by half the population due to unfounded claims of electoral fraud and disinformation being amplified by politicians, extremists and conspiracy theorists. #StopTheSteal went viral once more, but this time it was more than a digital expression of frustration, but a real national security threat in the making. In a recent investigation ProPublica found that “Facebook groups swelled with at least 650,000 posts attacking the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory between Election Day and the 6 Jan. siege of the U.S. Capitol, with many calling for executions or other political violence.” As the new year rang, some Americans were preparing to travel to DC for a political protest. On January 6th they gathered to hear Former President Donald Trump speak. Not long after, the crowd began milling on Capitol Hill, and at 14:15 it was reported that the Capitol was breached.
On 12 January, the large tech platforms banned Donald Trump and purged QAnon, along with other groups and movements that participated in the insurrection, from their platforms. As Argentino, Crawford, Keen and Rose wrote, what took place following the ban of QAnon from the major social media platforms was the “Balkanization of the QAnon ideology and movement to the platforms where adherents have found refuge.” This inevitably leads to a) the creation of communities on alt-tech platforms where QAnon influencers have banded together to maintain canonical QAnon narratives and ideologies in the absence of ‘Q’; b) given rise to new influencers in the neo-QAnon movement; c) given increased influence to old influencers in the movement; and d) provided the opportunity for QAnon to merge with other movements, at times more entrenched in violent extremism.
In this piece, we will examine how QAnon has adapted and evolved a year after January 6th, the disappearance of ‘Q’ and the electoral loss of Donald Trump. We will 1) highlight three different actors who have emerged as key QAnon influencers that have stepped in to replace ‘Q’ and their disparate ideologies and ecosystems, 2) discuss the ideologically motivated violent criminality perpetrated by QAnon adherents in 2021, 3) as well as how QAnon has adapted their use of social media in 2021. This analysis was supported by our consultations and discussions with various experts on QAnon about what they observed in 2021 and will highlight some trends and avenues of further research for 2022.
QAnon is not Dead
Ultimately, while some incorrectly speculated QAnon was dead or dying, QAnon continues to pose a national security threat in the US and abroad, remaining a threat to democratic processes and a threat to public health. Mike Rains, host of the adventures in HellwQrld podcast, highlighted that 2021 was the year QAnon showed that it could survive without Trump acting as President or ‘Q.’ Over the last year he highlighted how he had friends and family ask him if QAnon was dead, and they were surprised when Rains informed them that QAnon was still thriving. Though QAnon viewed Trump as a messianic and prophetic figure, his electoral loss did not lead to the end of the movement. As Rains told us, “QAnon is a movement that has a lot of people trying to make money off it. It has people seeking fame and attention by promoting it, and worst of all it has people seeking comfort in it. People needed new narratives to be crafted, new stories to be told and they will find and support the people who tell them what they want to hear. In many ways QAnon will never truly end, but what it will become is a mystery.” QAnon has survived the failure of its prophecies multiple times, and as Rains and others have pointed out, QAnon will continue to do so.
Rains is not the only individual we spoke to who highlighted the monetary incentive behind being an influencer in an extremist movement. Mike Rothschild wrote about the QAnon influencer “Patel Patriot” behind the “Devolution” conspiracy theory who emerged and gained prominence in 2021. Rothschild stated that “Patel Patriot, a run-of-the-mill MAGA supporter who was so devastated by Trump’s loss that he invented a hopelessly complex conspiracy theory called “Devolution” to explain that Trump actually still had power over a military government, and was exercising it through executive orders, secret communications, and continuity of government documents.” In his investigation Rothchild found out that “while GhostEzra did little to monetize his following, Patel (revealed as South Dakota resident Jon Herold) quickly made tens of thousands of dollars selling subscriptions to the Substack page where he unveiled new “Devolution” posts and livestreams.”
Investigative journalist and host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast Travis View, in his discussion about QAnon with us, highlighted that 2021 was the “the first year with no new “Q Drops” since the emergence of QAnon. It was also the first year that social media companies harshly cracked down on QAnon content, banishing QAnon adherents to alt-tech platforms. Despite that, 2021 was clearly QAnon’s most impactful year, gaining institutional clout, spawning dangerous splinter cults, and fuelling far right narratives that undermine democracy.”
Though QAnon lost Donald Trump in the White House, they did gain two congresswomen who were sworn in: Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, both women who gained popularity via their endorsement of QAnon before and during the electoral campaigns. Though both tried to distance themselves from the movement after the violence of January 6th, both congresswoman act as an amplifier for QAnon and QAnon adjacent conspiracy theories about the election results, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Further, QAnon found that they still have other elected officials and political players as allies. A QAnon influencer known as ‘QAnon John’ helped organise the “For God & Country Patriot Roundup” in Dallas, Texas, which took place from 28 to 31 May. Travis View highlights that “QAnon devotees spent at least $500 per ticket to see QAnon luminaries such as Sidney Powell and General Michael Flynn speak. But “Patriot Roundup” also featured the appearance of mainstream Republican politicians. The event was attended by Texas GOP Chairman Allen West, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.”
Following the first 100 days after the insurrection, an ICSR report found that “a vast number of anti-Democrat conspiracies continue to be prevalent among existing Stop the Steal communities, meaning that election fraud narratives are likely to be a dominant narrative.” Within the QAnon community, the voter fraud and #StopTheSteal disinformation campaigns were significant and volatile. In November 2020, two QAnon adherents were arrested on weapons charges outside of a Philadelphia voting centre, and these same narratives played a role in the motivation for the insurrection. It is not surprising that the audits would play an important role in sustaining the QAnon community in 2021. In our discussion with both Travis View and The Q Origins Project, it was highlighted that the Arizona audit was very significant to the QAnon movement. View noted that the former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, the main funder of the fruitless Arizona audit, praised the QAnon community and regularly associates with QAnon figures. The Q Origins Project further highlighted that the Arizona auditors “hired Austin Steinbart, an influencer who claimed to be Q from the future, to help.” Moreover the “audit” was led by Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan, a “stop the steal” advocate who retweeted Ron Watkins. Ron Watkins, former 8chan administrator and whom some believe was acting as ‘Q’ in the final days, made an appearance at the Mike Lindell’s “cyber symposium”, an event where Lindell claimed he would present evidence of election fraud, but even the cyber experts he summoned to the event stated that his data showed nothing of substance. QAnon survived primarily on the anti-democratic and anti-government narratives among the StopTheSteal ecosystem. QAnon now features prominently within the movement, as those who promote the stolen election narrative have echoed QAnon’s call “for public executions of Democrats and their supposed Republican co-conspirators,” according to The Q Origins Project. The continued trend in of electoral fraud narratives and the violence they have inspired in the QAnon community is a potential concern in terms of violent extremism as the US is faced with midterm elections in 2022.
The Next ‘Q’
The departure of ‘Q’ and Donald Trump from the QAnon scene left a significant power vacuum. Out of this power vacuum have emerged various neo-QAnon influencers who have built a large following around them in 2021. Three contenders have emerged as the next ‘Q’ like figures to their own communities: GhostEzra, Negative48 and Queen Romana Didulo. Mike Rothschild highlights that each of these influencers appears “to have different motivations, and each has piled up hundreds of thousands of social media followers as they attempt to become the leading figure in the still-growing QAnon movement.”
GhostEzra is a QAnon persona who has gained a following due to his antisemitic claims that Jews dominate Big Pharma, the media, and central banking. A Logically investigation found out that GhostEzra was a Florida man called Robert Smart, who first surfaced on the Internet as GhostEzra toward the end of 2020 as a minor Twitter influencer at the time of his takedown; he had 26,900 followers. GhostEzra truly gained prominence on Telegram, where he was able to be openly antisemitic and merge his QAnon base with other ideologically motivated violent extremists in the Telegram ecosystem. His channel currently has 311,000 members and is one of the largest QAnon channels on Telegram. Antisemitism was not a new QAnon phenomena in 2021. GhostEzra’s prominence has been built on how he has adapted QAnon narratives to fit with neo-Nazi, Christian Identity, and ethnonationalist narratives and ecosystems, as Argentino highlighted earlier this year. The merger of ideologically motivated (violent) extremism and conspiracy theories has created new recruitment pools and ecosystems.
Between the legitimate Biden presidency and Q’s disappearance after December 2020, there continues to be an unprecedented confusion among QAnon adherents online. Without a leader to rein them in, believers have grown increasingly suspicious of once-influential figures in the movement such as Michael Flynn and Lin Wood, causing a massive amount of infighting among followers. As the group continues to fracture, offshoots of QAnon have evolved from seemingly benign and esoteric sects to what many have considered full-blown cults.
In one unsettling case, QAnon follower Michael Brian Protzman – an antisemitic Nazi sympathiser with a history of domestic abuse – has emerged as a new key figure in the Q ecosystem. He leads a group called Negative48, which is a QAnon-based, new religious movement that was formed in 2021. Protzman’s bizarre and dangerous rituals have kept believers in unsafe conditions under the guise of spiritual leadership. Notably, Travis View highlighted how “Protzman convinced adherents to travel to Dallas, and in some cases abandon their families, in order to see the prophesied return of JFK and JFK Jr. When the Kennedys failed to show, his group continued to occupy the city, using a local Hyatt hotel as a base camp.” What is both interesting and of concern is how Negative48 appeared out of nowhere (even to QAnon researchers embedded in these ecosystems) to lead a real-life new religious movement, gathering in Dallas to await the announcement that both JFK and JFK Jr. were still alive and ready to assume charge of the nation. This has been a prophecy that has not only failed many times in QAnon, but was also deemed false by ‘Q.’ Rothschild further stated that “Protzman openly uses Q drops and numerology to command his small but loyal flock into doing exactly what he wants, raising money from their families, and speaking in increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric as they wait patiently for the great event around the corner.”
Twitter user Karma, who has been embedded in the Negative48 Telegram chats since its inception, has been exposing the details of this new religious movement in an effort to help those who want to escape. In our conversation with her, she told us that
“on October 31, 2021, hundreds of QAnon followers converged on Dallas, Texas, and stood for hours waiting for JFK and JFK Jr. to arise from the dead at Dealey Plaza. An influencer by the name of Michael Protzman aka -48 had organised them to gather by implying that these events would occur. What was supposed to be a weekend gathering turned into a cult following. Many of his followers leaving their families and staying in Dallas for more than two months and missing Christmas and New Years, leaving their families heartbroken and worried about what will happen and when it all will end.”
Negative48 is not the first example of a formalised QAnon religion. However, the new religious movement that was birthed in 2021 demonstrates that QAnon is more than a mere conspiracy theory. The means by which it can turn individuals into fervent religious adherents is not only harmful to their friends and families, but indicates a threat vector, whereby this religious fervour could be weaponised by the right influencer.
Queen Romana Didulo
Canada welcomed its own QAnon influencer in 2021, the self-proclaimed ‘Queen of Canada’ Romana Didulo. According to View, she “makes Q references on Telegram and encourages adherents to harass establishments with bogus “cease and desist” notices if they adhere to COVID prevention policies.” In recent months, Didulo’s rhetoric has only become more extreme as has been highlighted by Mack Lamoureux. In November 2021, as reported by Vice, she asked her 73,000 followers to “Shoot to kill anyone who tries to inject Children under the age of 19 years old with Coronavirus19 vaccines.” This led to one of Didulo’s followers being arrested in Laval, Quebec; according to a press release by the Laval Police, the individual was arrested after allegedly making threats about his daughter’s school.
A Vice investigation by Lamoureux “found the accused man’s social media pages, and it appears he and his immediate family are all followers of Didulo who have posted about her several times on Facebook.” Didulo has built her following off her opposition to the vaccine mandates in Canada, as well as from her leveraging language and conspiracy theories from the pseudolaw movement in the cease and desist letters she had mailed to elected officials, reports and private citizens.
Didulo is not only an example of the transnational expansion of QAnon, but also a demonstration of how non-US-centric influencers can become a dominant force in the QAnon movement.
QAnon and National Security
2021 was also a year where QAnon ideologically motivated criminality saw a boom. Between 2016 and 2020, there were 48 cases of QAnon ideologically motivated criminality; in 2021 there were 93 cases. Part of this large increase is due to January 6th, where 78 QAnon adherents were arrested for their participation in the insurrection. Travis View stated that
“the danger of QAnon became undeniable thanks to the many QAnon adherents who participated in the January 6th insurrection. Jacob Chansely, aka the ‘QAnon Shaman’, became an international symbol of the event thanks to his flamboyant facepaint and horned headdress. Two of the rioters who died in the Capitol that day, Ashli Babbit and Rosanne Boyland, were passionate QAnon believers.”
From a national security perspective, what is of concern ahead of the 2022 midterms and 2024 elections is how View, Argentino, and many others highlight that “the anger and passion of the QAnon community were deliberately harnessed by the Trump team.” It was recently revealed that the Trump administration had plans to seed disinformation about the 2020 election which included recruiting the assistance of primary QAnon figure Ron Watkins. Any old or new QAnon influencer could in the future be leveraged in a similar way by any potential elected official. As it stands in the 2022 midterms, Alex Kaplan has found that there are 49 QAnon adherents running for congress.
An additional 15 QAnon adherents were arrested in 2021 (4 women, 11 men), for crimes ranging from vandalism, making threats, kidnapping, violent protests and murder. The Kidnapping of Mia Montemaggi is probably the most significant QAnon story of 2021 following the January 6th insurrection. As was recently revealed in a CNN investigation, documents from France’s intelligence agency and social media messages were able to unravel the deeper story behind Mia’s kidnapping: a plot to overthrow the French Government. Rémi Daillet-Weidemann is a known figure in the French world of conspiracy theories for over a decade. Recently due to the pandemic, Daillet-Weidemann got into QAnon, which he merged with his violent anti-government ideation. 2020 was the year that started the large-scale transnationalisation of QAnon, but 2021 was the year where we saw ideologically motivated criminality inspired by QAnon spread abroad to Canada, France, the UK, New Zealand and Australia.
Though ideologically QAnon is getting more dilute from the ‘Q’ canon, new influencers and its merger with more esoteric ecosystems like Pastel QAnon, conspirituality, as well as its merger with post-organisational violent extremism & terrorism, promises the sustainability and survivability of QAnon, though it may not be the same as it was prior to 2021.
Social Media & the Fractured Q Movement
Tracing the misinformation spread by promoters of the Capitol riots helped shed light on the role of Facebook and other social networks as catalysts of harmful rhetoric – including that of QAnon. Not long after January 6th, Q influencers and followers fled mainstream social media in favour of alternative platforms, where conspiracy theories about the 2020 election continued long after the ballots were counted. In fact, remnants of election fraud paranoia permeated these social networks during the 2021 California recall election, as well as the 2021 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, generating further radicalising discourse and sowing even more doubt in the electoral process.
What worked well for the growth of Negative48, GhostEzra and Romana Didulo, as well as being equally effective for other QAnon-adjacent groups, is the messaging app Telegram: A platform that famously favours open speech over moderation, thus leaving disinformation, antisemitism, and other dangerous content virtually unconstrained. Since the Capitol riots, Telegram has become an unsurprisingly favourable alternative for QAnon – especially after mainstream sites like Twitter started cracking down on misinformation-spreading politicians such as Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene. The app’s global reach and lax moderation mean that events which might seem specific to American politics have become everyone’s problem, with no safety features in place to moderate the content.
Following the deplatforming that has taken place since January 2021, QAnon-affiliated actors have migrated to a multitude of alt-tech platforms. Other more entrepreneurial actors in QAnon have set out to create their own platforms. Though QAnon may not be able to leverage the powerful algorithms of the larger platforms, they are still active and growing on alternative platforms, where they are adapting their strategies to their new realities. This has formed new radicalisation ecosystems which have altered the threat landscape.
Nevertheless, QAnon still has found a way to survive on some mainstream platforms. According to misinformation and disinformation researcher Abbie Richards, even the more popular apps such as TikTok have remained worryingly successful in aiding the spread of misleading content from QAnon and other conspiracy theorists. “There is no doubt that QAnon and the January 6th Capitol Riot influenced the thriving conspiracy ecosystem on TikTok,” says Richards, discussing the viral, disinformation-laden TikTok videos that gained momentum this year among conservative users. Still, Richards finds that existing attempts at mitigation by TikTok are largely futile: “Despite the social media platform’s community guidelines and bans on particularly offensive terms, this content still goes viral.”
What follows now is the complex challenge of content moderation and threat reduction on platforms and in ecosystems where QAnon has migrated to. This challenge is one that is on the minds of many researchers, CSOs and governments. A year later, that challenge has grown larger and more difficult, but it is one that remains front and centre for 2022. Further research is required on these platforms and ecosystems in order to determine violent extremist threats. The potential threats emanating from these platforms must also be measured and reported on in order to better inform policymakers and decision makers. The growing cross-pollination between nonviolent and violent extremists presents a particularly important challenge. Even if recruitment and radicalisation does not supersede past rates, the fact that a new large pool of potential recruits has migrated over to these platforms may lead to an increase in new members for more established extremist and violent extremist groups.
The QAnon incidents of 2021 have shown that the impact of QAnon will outlast the actual “Q Drops” that spawned the movement. Every optimistic prediction that the influence of QAnon will wane has so far proved false and naive. I don’t pretend to be able to predict the future, but precedent suggests that it would be foolish to underestimate the staying power of the most significant movement of online conspiracists ever formed. Blyth Crawford, in her analysis of QAnon over the past year, highlights that
“In many ways the insurrection was the boiling point demonstrative of what researchers of the far right have been warning about for years. We saw a broad selection of cross-ideological movements bonding together with a common opposition, encouraged by representatives in mainstream positions of power. While some so-called groups or “organisations” were important actors, this was a movement predominantly made up of individuals not associated with one clear group, but driven by the broad and nebulous sphere of misinformation and the creeping influence of extremist ideology being reflected in mainstream institutions.”
Though this analysis only provides a snapshot of what has occurred in QAnon in 2021, we can highlight a few things. 1) Despite deplatforming, QAnon and its adjacent movements are far from gone a year after the insurrection. What QAnon’s use of social media in 2021 does highlight is that deplatforming from mainstream social media platforms doesn’t curb the problem, as the growing sphere of alt-tech platforms and ecosystems provide avenues for these movements to exist. Though it may be at a smaller scale, this continued existence has permitted QAnon to thrive. With growing platform polarisation, alt-tech platforms continue to see a small but steady influx of influencers, media personalities and politicians who have drawn the ire of social media platforms.
Crucially, QAnon is both innovative and agile in response to deplatforming decisions taken by mainstream social media platforms and financial services. QAnon as a movement and ideology has demonstrated how it has used the actions taken against it as a springboard to further radicalise new adherents in attempts increasingly to broaden the mass movement that has emerged in the wake of the January 6th insurrection. It is therefore critical that we continue to monitor and find novel and more effective ways to disrupt these channels where we can, in a more deliberate way than we’ve ever attempted before.