In a strange, innuendo-filled rant published Monday, the administrator of the far-right social networking platform Voat called it quits, spreading shockwaves across far-right image boards and social networks. Adding to President Trump’s failure to secure an election victory or overturn his stinging defeat, the loss of Voat spells another setback for QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory movement whose supporters found a home in the soon-to-be defunct web forum.
This isn’t the first time Voat has neared the precipice of annihilation, but it may be the last. A site that aspired to become the Reddit of the far right at its founding in 2014, Voat immediately gained notoriety as a hub for racists and ableists after the banning of racist and fatphobic subreddits. Priding itself on a lack of moderation, Voat faced a shutdown the following year by its German web host for providing a platform for illegal right-wing extremism.
Like other “dark web” sites peopled by white supremacists, Voat users also traded in images that sexualize children, leading PayPal to halt services later in 2015. While the site circumvented the bans by accepting Bitcoin and venture capital, in 2017, the admins announced an imminent collapse. Yet according to its admin, Justin Chastain, an “Angel” donor stepped in to keep the network afloat.
That “Angel” has abandoned the project.
“The short of it is that the ‘Angel’ defaulted on the contract in March 2020,” Chastain announced. “This is when Voat lost all of it’s funding. I personally decided to keep Voat up until after the U.S. election of 2020. I’ve been paying the costs out of pocket but now I’m out of money.”
Reddit Refugees Respond
In a rapidly evolving social media landscape, the loss of Voat put many denizens of the dark web into despair. Gamergaters, Pizzagaters, Incels, and finally, in 2018, QAnon followers all migrated to Voat after Reddit bans. Getting its start at the beginning of the alt right’s major wave, Voat served as a prototype for an alternative “free speech”-based social network for communities that cast themselves as “shunned by the mainstream.”
A scholarly study published in October found that some 20,000 subscribers to Voat’s v/GreatAwakening subverse featured some 13,500 posts, 22.9 percent of which came from just one top user. Nearly half the posts came from the next top 14 posters, while 28.2 percent of posts came from the other 331 submitters. So Voat’s high traffic numbers and QAnon’s claims to “millions of followers worldwide” were largely driven on the site by what the study called “a handful of users.”
Meanwhile, Voat’s audience of thousands of users came from overlapping sites that reacted to the news of its impending closure with brief tributes and mocking memes. The image board most infamous for toxic online troll behavior, 4chan, mourned the loss of Voat with memes showing a mountain goat (Voat’s mascot) on the edge of a cliff framed by the words, “I Guess This is Goodbye.” Other memes showed sad images of different Pepe the Frog characters gathered around a fire and a crying cartoon dog. But amid the tributes, there were also hints of friction among the different misogynistic, racist, and conspiracy theory communities that had used Voat.
8kun, which spun off from 4chan after the latter’s own moderation of child pornography and other alarming content, discussed Voat’s passing in more jaded terms. “Voat was good until 2018 or so,” one commenter stated, “Then it became obvious it was a honeypot as Q sheep got flooded into there... Most the ‘based’ people left.” 8kun itself was once 8chan before the site was banned after users inspired a spate of fascist mass murderers from Christchurch to El Paso.
When QAnon followers migrated to Voat in 2018, they brought with them a syncretic mélange of connect-the-dots charts, lists of unconnected trivia, and a kind of millenarian optimism that chafed against the nihilism of the site’s original Gamergate contingent. Indeed, the Stanford study found that v/GreatAwakening hosted somewhat less toxic content than the rest of Voat.
The network’s demise was seen by some within v/GreatAwakening as nothing short of an existential crisis for the entire QAnon movement, which is fueled by cryptic clues posted online by an anonymous person going only by “Q” who is supposedly a government insider with top secret information to share.
One user noted, “I have been a faithful follower of Q and of this board and I’m feeling like... I dont know now if it was real or not. .”
“I trusted ‘nothing can stop what is coming’ until it cost me friends, family and ridicule,” the poster continued, using “Q”’s catch phrases, NCSWIC. “It’s looking more and more like the deep state will win. Was this all for naught? My heart is breaking for this nation and I’m fast losing hope.”
Still, dozens of users offered the disheartened QAnon follower words of reassurance, telling them to “hang in there” and reminding them that the community owned numerous firearms. Others sent harsher sentiments, insisting, “Q will come back and identify himself just as he said once this is all over fool.”
The Voat Goat Nap
Meanwhile, dark web users across platforms point to a newer “free speech” website called Poal which markets itself with the slogan, “Say what you will.” According to a WhoIs search, Poal was created two years ago in Ontario, Canada, but its registrant is redacted. The Poal board /QStorm has announced “The Great Voat Goat Nap of 2020,” as users migrate over and adjust to the newer platform.
Not all users are enchanted by the new platform, as some find its memes stale and contrived compared to Voat and 8kun, where QAnon’s core remains. Indeed, the loss of Voat may be tied to the disillusionment of some of the QAnon movement and contributes to the sense of despair and abandonment felt by many who supported Trump and expected his certain victory. According to Alexa site rankings, Voat was two times more popular than 8kun, although both sites are eclipsed by qanon.pub, a clearing house for cryptic statements called “Q drops.”
As QAnon followers fall out with Parler, whose lax security irked 8kun’s former administrator Ron Watkins, the diminishing number of forums available to true believers appears to reflect the complicated position of Q theories within the far right. The QAnon community seems increasingly mainstream yet insular at the same time. Its supporters find prominent promoters like the current President of the United States, but in conspiracy theory hot zones like 4chan, QAnon remains as contested as ever, while a movement is building from members of Congress to academics attempting to confront the information systems contributing to its development.
The closer President-elect Joe Biden gets to inauguration, the more pressure builds on the community to validate Q’s feverish conspiracy theories and predictions about Trump-led military tribunals—and the more detractors on the right and left can point to unfulfilled prophesies as proof that QAnon followers are members of a demented cult.