For days after the election, adherents to the QAnon conspiracy movement had been trying to get President Donald Trump’s attention with constant false claims about voter fraud connected to a company that makes voting machines.
On Thursday, they celebrated. Trump tweeted in all-caps about a conspiracy theory that baselessly alleges that Dominion Voting Systems, a company that makes voting machines, “deleted” millions of Trump votes, citing a report on the far-right cable news outlet One America News Network.
While the theory has already been debunked — including by Chris Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which is tasked with national security related to the internet and technology — Trump’s tweet offered a sliver of energy at a time when the QAnon movement had stalled, waiting for its leader, “Q,” to return with guidance from a hiatus that began on the morning of Election Day and lasted more than a week.
But QAnon is far from done. The movement’s recent evolution and activity around the Dominion conspiracy theory highlight how even Joe Biden’s election win and the disintegration of the broader QAnon narrative do not spell the end of the broader conspiracy ecosystem it has built.
Advance Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks misinformation, found that 1 in 7 tweets about “#Dominion” since Nov. 5 originated from accounts that self-identified as QAnon accounts. Tweets featuring the #Dominion hashtag rose from about 75 tweets per day to over 35,700 each day in the last week.
QAnon adherents had been reeling in the last week, as the conspiracy prophecy had seemingly failed. The conspiracy theory posited that President Trump was secretly working to save the world from a cabal of high-profile Democrats who murder children to appease Satan, and that an anonymous user named “Q” on the extremist website 8kun was outlining his secret plan to round up and execute them.
But “Q” did not post in the seven days after polls closed, and the administrator of 8kun, Ron Watkins, resigned on Election Day.
QAnon followers, however, quickly moved past the failed prophecy and began following QAnon influencers on Twitter, including Watkins, for guidance and talking points, which led Q believers to push the Dominion conspiracy theory.
The ability for QAnon accounts to shapeshift into ambassadors for brand new political conspiracy theories outlines how the conspiracy movement has built a lasting and unwavering digital army that will work to absolve Trump of any negative outcome, despite the foundations of the conspiracy falling apart.
“The QAnon community’s ability to crowdsource false but catchy narratives that spread through the far-right media ecosystem and beyond is an important clue about the longevity of the movement,” said Travis View, the co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast. “Even if 8kun went offline tomorrow and Q stopped posting, the community of true believers would remain. And so would their inclination towards building and promoting conspiratorial fantasies.”
“It’s a self-sustaining misinformation factory,” View said.
False conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems had been floating around the fringes of the internet, especially the message board 4chan and QAnon-related Twitter accounts, in the days since Biden was announced as the projected winner of the 2020 election.
With the official Q account silent, followers turned to high-profile QAnon influencers on YouTube and Twitter, and even new seized on other government insiders. On 4chan and Twitter, QAnon followers began idolizing — and even pretending to be — Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Trump loyalist who was promoted to acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security after a series of firings and resignations at the Defense Department this week. Similar to “Q,” they claimed “ECW” had almost mythical powers to aid the president’s fight against a nonexistent cabal and help Trump remain in office.
Some people who are central figures in the QAnon world helped push the Dominion conspiracy theory into conservative media favored by Trump. The theory reached a critical mass when Watkins tweeted that he knew technical details about how the votes could be flipped, and offered to help Trump associate Rudy Giuliani in discovering voter fraud.
Watkins tweeted shortly after midnight on Thursday morning that Chanel Rion, White House correspondent for One America News Network, reached out to him about the claims. About 10 hours later, Rion aired a report on the network that summarized internet conspiracy theories about Dominion. The president tweeted a quote from the segment shortly thereafter.
When asked by NBC News if Watkins’ ideas informed Rion’s report, Watkins responded “Sounds like you should ask Chanel that, not me.” When asked how much Watkins’ ideas informed her report that was tweeted by the president, Rion responded “None” in an email.
Dominion Voting Systems has forcefully denied the possibility its software could be used to “switch” votes.
“Dominion Voting Systems categorically denies any claims about any vote switching or alleged software issues with our voting systems. Dominion systems continue to reliably and accurately count ballots, and state and local election authorities have publicly confirmed the integrity of the process,” the company said in a statement. “Claims about Dominion switching or deleting votes are 100% false.”
The future of QAnon still remains uncertain. Fredrick Brennan, who created the 8chan website that was later rebranded as 8kun, has said that Ron and his father, Jim Watkins, could post under the QAnon account at any time. Ron Watkins’ Election Day resignation further fueled speculation he could be part of a team making posts as “Q.” Watkins has repeatedly denied that he has anything to do with “Q.”
Brennan has publicly distanced himself from 8chan and 8kun and has repeatedly tried to get the site removed from hosting providers because of its ties to white supremacist mass shootings.
“The Q people now are in a very vulnerable place, because they’re looking for a new narrative,” Brennan said. “They’re trying to figure out how they can still continue their growth and continue their control over this digital army without necessarily believing that there’s a commander in the White House.”