Aside from perhaps Donald Trump himself, no one is struggling more with the president’s re-election defeat than QAnon conspiracy theorists.
Since Oct. 2017, when the mysterious “Q” first began issuing clues on the anonymous message board 4Chan, QAnon believers have been promised that Trump would bring down a “cabal” of pedophile-cannibals in the Democratic Party, Hollywood, and banking with mass waves of arrests in a cathartic moment called “The Storm.” They have been promised that The Storm would solve not only the world’s biggest problems, but their own. At various points, they have even convinced each other that Trump would solve diseases like cancer and absolve crushing medical and credit card debts.
But as Joe Biden built his lead in Pennsylvania, QAnon followers were faced with their greatest challenge yet. For years, they’ve been told that—no matter how bad things looked for Trump on the outside—the president and the military had everything in hand. “Patriots were in control,” Q told them in one popular motto, “Enjoy the show.”
Now, it’s starting to look to even some of the most dedicated followers—some of whom have sacrificed family in their devotion to the conspiracy theory—that QAnon might actually have been nonsense. And they aren’t sure what to do.
“It’s hard to keep the faith when your wife and daughters have left you and we didn’t get the decisive MOAB win we deserved on election night!!” complained one QAnon supporter on a QAnon forum on Friday, as QAnon believers tried to cheer one another up. “No win for me-PERIOD!!”
The 2020 election results have shaken the faith of QAnon believers. Some have taken to despair. Others began promoting new conspiracy theories, such as one that alleged ballot “watermarks” would save the election for Trump.
QAnon believers have faced disappointment before. The entire conspiracy theory launched with the idea that Hillary Clinton would be arrested by the end of October 2017 and shipped to Guantanamo Bay. When that failed to happen, they decided that they had misread the clues, or that Clinton had been arrested and was wearing an ankle bracelet, or that she really was imprisoned and the Clinton appearing at book signings and in TV interviews was really a clone.
QAnon has faced election losses before, too. In 2018, Q promised that Republicans would weather the midterms, only to be proven wrong—a contradiction that one-time QAnon supporter and newly elected congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) has claimed shook her faith in QAnon.
But Trump’s election defeat promises to undermine the entire project in an unprecedented way, leaving “The Storm” unfulfilled and the “cabal” intact.
The disappointment of a Trump loss also comes at a tumultuous time internally for QAnon. Ron Watkins, an administrator on QAnon hub 8kun, whose technical access would theoretically let him post as Q or at least know Q’s identity, announced that he was stepping back from the site. Neon Revolt, an anonymous blogger who’s amassed a following in the QAnon community, implied this week that the “Q” account was for sale online for $1 million, an idea that brought into question the conspiracy theory’s foundations.
Making matters worse, QAnon believers had been left to deal with Trump’s dwindling ballots lead without their mastermind, since Q stopped posting after election day. Even more ominously, a QAnon believer was arrested in Philadelphia on Thursday near the ballot-counting site with QAnon merchandise and an AR-15-style rifle.
Of course, QAnon believers can always invent a new bizarre claim to reaffirm their beliefs, even if only for a little while. In this case, some of them have created a hoax about a fictitious ballot watermark.
The origins of the watermark claim center on a viral Facebook post that asserted the Department of Homeland Security had planted secret “blockchain” watermarks on legitimate ballots. The post, which went viral on a “Stop the Steal” Facebook group with more than 300,000 members before Facebook shut it down, posited that DHS created those watermarks as a sting operation to test how many true legitimate ballots emerged after the election.
"The DEMS fell right into the trap of this sting operation and TRUMP has it all!!!" the post, which has been screenshotted and copy-pasted into forms across social media, read.
For watermark believers, Biden ballots in battleground states will be wiped away as fraudulent once DHS and the National Guard step in. After that, the theory goes, top Democrats will, as always, be arrested.
The conspiracy theory was further fueled by an InfoWars interview with Alex Jones associate Steve Pieczenik, who claimed that the watermarks were real. It was also aided by a widely circulated, but ultimately fraudulent screenshot of a supposed DHS press release that claimed to show the department admitting to the scheme and claiming nearly half of all Biden ballots in Michigan, for example, were fake.
“DHS announces election audit sting after contentious US election sparks confusion and outrage from election skeptics,” the headline on the bogus press release reads.
And yet, the watermark conspiracy has taken off. Twitter replies to top Republicans like Trump and his sons have filled up with diehard Trump believers asking for confirmation of the alleged sting.
“The watermark shall rule the libs and bring them down for good and jail for all,” one pro-Trump Twitter account tweeted at Trump on Friday night.
The watermark conspiracy theory has busted out of QAnon’s confines. Newsmax White House correspondent Emerald Robinson nodded at the theory on Friday, tweeting that “lots of my followers have been asking me to check into a story that DHS put a watermark on election ballots to verify them.”
It also regularly appears among talk radio show callers, baffling even hard-right hosts. Glenn Beck was forced to address the watermark hoax on his show on Friday, pointing out that one of its tenets—that one paper company supplies all the paper ballots in the country—obviously isn’t true.
“I want to believe the watermark thing,” Beck said. “That doesn’t even make sense logically, it doesn’t work. And before you spread things, you should think that one through.”