Although its prophecies have proven false, the pro-Trump movement remains popular globally.
It took Leila Hay, a softly-spoken university student from northern England, less than 24 hours to become sucked into the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory during a lonely first coronavirus lockdown.
Drawn to its Manichaean elements, she quickly found herself spending hours a day online devouring the narrative that a Satan-worshipping, paedophilic "deep state" — made up of Democrats, business chiefs and Hollywood figures — is running the world and that Donald Trump is the only hope of defeating them.
And with that, she became increasingly detached from friends, family and reality. "I stopped watching movies or listening to music because I was paranoid about celebrities," she says.
The bespectacled 19-year-old is just one of millions around the world who have followed the amorphous super conspiracy, which asserts that a whistleblower, "Q", who has top-level US government security clearance, is slowly divulging the disturbing state of the world through a series of online tips. Although its main focus has been on the US, QAnon has drawn in supporters in dozens of countries.
But Hay is also one of those who have now managed to successfully tear themselves away from its clutches — a painstaking process of deradicalisation similar in some ways to the journey which some Islamist extremists have undergone over the past two decades.
Even more than old-fashioned conspiracy theories that predate social media, QAnon is easy to get involved with, and difficult to leave behind.
For those who have left, their change of heart has often been aided by the fact that none of QAnon's nearly 5,000 auguries have materialised. Joe Biden's victory in the November US presidential election, the failure of the Capitol Hill riot to overturn the election and Q's indefinite hiatus since December have all prompted disillusionment with the would-be prophet.
But the conspiracy theory still remains potent: Pew Research in March found that nearly a quarter of Republicans who knew about the theory had at least a somewhat favourable view of it. Its continued support is also in evidence on the messaging app Telegram, where a channel belonging to QAnon conspiracist and lawyer L Lin Wood still boasts over 800,000 subscribers.
"Social media . . . makes it very easy [to spread conspiracy theories]," says Arie Kruglanski, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. "Among the millions who participate in online forums, it's easy to find people who resonate with you to join your conversation."
Although the FBI has labelled fringe political conspiracy theories such as QAnon as potential domestic terror threats, the movement's online and interactive nature have made it particularly difficult to leave, former QAnon followers say. It gamifies the process of truth-seeking; everyone is invited on social media to be an armchair sleuth, picking apart Q's "drops" and spreading the word.
"You are empowered to interpret the news of the day and offer your own gloss on it, which offers new evidence and raw material for whoever else is . . . coming into the community," says Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
'Everyone can have their own reality'
The presence of QAnon supporters among the mob who stormed Capitol Hill on January 6 is one sign that such beliefs can lead to violence. Mike Rothschild, who has extensively researched the movement, also points to several alleged child kidnappings linked to belief in the movement.
These beliefs can also be devastating for family members and friends who disagree. Online communities like Reddit's QAnonCasualties — which boasts nearly 150,000 members — have hundreds of stories of users who say that they were compelled to cut off relatives parroting QAnon talking points ranging from electoral fraud or vaccine misinformation.
Roderick Jones, founder of security group Concentric and former detective with the UK's Special Branch police, focused on countering domestic and international extremists, says that combating QAnon is doubly difficult in the "post-truth" era. He describes it as a "meta-modern movement where everyone can have their own reality".
"As a society we used to agree on a shared set of facts. But we don't agree on the basic facts in society any more, and that has been a consequence of mendacious politicians," he says.
Leila Hay found her way out of QAnon thanks to a "social media cleanse", she says, during which she shunned the apps she used to browse daily for QAnon-related content. "It took me about five weeks to realise it's brainwashing. Even now I get moments."
Rob, a 26-year-old Berlin-based software developer, who asked that his real name not be used, says he turned to the movement via fringe online forums when he was depressed, anxious and, due to intense loneliness, felt resentment towards women. "I was looking for something that would trigger this feeling of unfairness and being oppressed," he says.
"You get anxious when you read a hateful post and your adrenaline goes up but then you need it more. It was a psychophysiological response."
His slow process of "detoxification" lasted between two and three years. And involved having to repeatedly resist the urge to look up and engage with QAnon content, he says. He realised that the sense of community he found online alongside other believers was shallow and prevented him making close relationships in real life. Once he rejected QAnon, and started to get help with his mental health, he was able to refocus on those real-life relationships.
"We all have needs and we believe what we are motivated to believe," says Kruglanski. "It's not that we are mindless . . . it's the [same] motivation for significance and measure which shaped history in many ways."
Kruglanski, who has worked extensively with extremists of various creeds, emphasises that deradicalisation is about building relationships with individuals, pointing to previous work with German neo-Nazis. "Most of the ones who left the movement did so because they met someone from a different network and struck up a friendship or romantic relationship," he says. "Very often, it's spontaneous."
Farah Pandith, former senior diplomat in both of the Bush and Obama administrations who was involved in countering Islamist extremism, says there are some parallels between Isis supporters and QAnon followers. "Identity and belonging is at the centre," she says, "the starting point of how people begin to think about why they need to join something . . . so that they get agency, their grievances are heard."
Is 'brainwashing' a thing?
One indication of how complex it is to combat QAnon is the fierce disagreement over how to go about it. Some of the groups promoting QAnon deradicalisation have proved controversial in and of themselves. Most notable is The Thinkin Project, which has faced criticism after it clashed with researchers who disagree with its approach.
Founded last year, TTP describes itself as "a global movement to increase resilience to disinformation, and help QAnon believers find a way out." The project draws on the work of Steven Hassan, an anti-cult counsellor and former member of the Unification Church, considered by many experts to be a cult itself.
"Our work has been one-on-one [with individuals looking to exit], as well as equipping the public, as well as journalists and academics, with tools to discern and identify disinformation and disinformation campaigns via our Twitter," says Desiree Kane, TTP's executive director.
She adds that the path to deradicalisation is not built on "shunting" individuals down a new path. "You don't reach people by calling them 'stupid'," she says, "you remind them of who they were before all of this and you let them know that you miss them without judgment".
Other experts also emphasise that the path to recovery involves education, and that taking an overly aggressive approach could backfire. "Just using the cudgel of 'you're evil or moronic for believing in this; debunking or just saying 'you're wrong' — doesn't work very well," says Geoffrey Dancy, associate professor in political science at Tulane University.
"You need to expose how they have been manipulated psychologically," says Diane Benscoter, a cult expert and author who was also formerly part of the Unification Church, while "helping them to understand that their goal to want a better world . . . was taken advantage of."
But some researchers say that The Thinkin Project itself has promoted controversial theories around the origins of QAnon, and has accused researchers who disagree with it of being "controlled opposition", with supporters often trolling their social media accounts.
"There is never any allowance for research and evidence that could point them in another direction," says Joe Ondrak, senior researcher at another organisation that fights misinformation, Logically. In his view, the documents that TTP had provided to their team about the individuals behind QAnon lacked strong evidence: "It was just claim after claim."
Posts from TTP's Discord channel also show users publishing QAnon style theories about the alleged architects of the conspiracy theory, accusations of sinister plots against TTP, and threats to "annihilate" those who disagree with its mission or approach.
"The harassment of anybody that doesn't fall in line with them is kind of cult-like," says Rothschild, who has been accused by TTP members of being linked to the alleged creators of QAnon without any proof. At least one post on Discord showed a fake QAnon post, tarring Rothschild and others with explicitly anti-Semitic tropes.
Kane says some critics of TTP are engaging in "a form of narcissistic abuse in an attempt to control those who would otherwise name and bring accountability to a situation where it's greatly, greatly needed".
"I cannot comment on what individual volunteers say nor is The Thinkin Project a place where we seek to control volunteers at all," she adds.
Some experts believe it is wrong to place too much emphasis on the idea that the popularity of QAnon is a result of "mind control" or "brainwashing".
Such terms emerged in the 1950s to explain the mass appeal of fascist movements and Communism, says David Robertson, a lecturer in religious studies at the Open University who specialises in new and alternative religions.
While cults which came to prominence in the following decades — from the Manson Family and Jonestown, to the Branch Davidians at Waco — have all played into the idea of insidious leaders taking over the minds of their followers, the American Psychological Association rejected a report on the scientific basis for brainwashing arguments in 1987.
That has made any talk of "deprogramming" QAnon believers controversial among academics like Robertson. "It smacks of re-education camps in [George] Orwell or in the Soviet Union as portrayed by the west," he says. "It has no basis in scientific fact."
Hassan, the anti-cult advisor whose work TTP has drawn on, says that his idea of brainwashing was not about creating a clean slate, but instead that cults promote a worldview in which science and expertise cannot be trusted, and in which magical thinking can shape reality.
QAnon started life as a conspiracy theory on a fringe message board, but the movement saw an explosion of global interest during the pandemic, shifting into the mainstream. By last summer, Facebook's QAnon community alone had 4m members according to the Guardian newspaper — a 34 per cent increase from June.
Major platforms have belatedly taken action: in August, Facebook banned many of the largest QAnon groups and has tightened its policy on splinter groups. According to CBS, Twitter has removed 150,000 accounts promoting Q-related material since January 6, while YouTube last October said that it would ban content targeting individuals or groups with conspiracy theories such as QAnon.
The idea of a global "deep state" cabal orchestrating geopolitics and carrying out ritual child sacrifice — with roots in longstanding anti-Semitic and white supremacist tropes — has sometimes led followers to be typecast as gun-slinging, far-right Americans.
But as a "big tent" conspiracy theory, QAnon has welcomed dozens of mini-conspiracies under its umbrella. There was a place for old school flat-earthers and UFO-hunters. Its co-opting of mainstream fears around child trafficking in the wake of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal has attracted a wide range of individuals, including New Age spiritualists, anti-vaxxers and parts of the wellness community.
While too porous and diverse to be viewed as a new religion in and of itself, QAnon is part of a broader trend of what is known as conspirituality, says Sarah Harvey, research associate in King's College London's department of theology and religious studies, in which conspiracy theories and spiritual beliefs meld together. New Age groups with thousands of Facebook members routinely post QAnon related content alongside more innocuous material about "empaths", "light healing" and the "Galactic Federation".
Even where mainstream platforms' efforts have been successful in booting off major QAnon influencers, they have been able to find homes on smaller alternatives. Telegram, which allows users to create broadcast groups with hundreds of thousands of members, has become one favoured choice. Far-right social media network Gab is another, with its two largest QAnon groups boasting over 300,000 members between them.
That means while QAnon itself may never post again, the movement is not at a loss for leaders who can add gloss to the existing body of texts or even create new content and anonymous sources.
"One of the things that's really dangerous about QAnon is that there isn't really a known leader and it's decentralised — so it's a virus that pops up everywhere," says Benscoter. "It has a commonality, it's not an old style cult."
Kruglanski also emphasises that social media made it more difficult to stop those who do leave QAnon from relapsing. "As long as you reestablish the contact with the network of extremists you can be drawn right back," he warns.
QAnon's flexibility means predicting its next direction is difficult. Anna-Sophie Harling, head of Europe at Newsguard, which monitors and rates news websites on trustworthiness, says it is important not to lump all conspiracy theories together under the QAnon banner as it risks simplifying the issues. She points to one popular framework, the Great Reset, a series of theories that Covid-19 is being overhyped or has even been created to usher in a new world order, and which avoids some of the most outlandish parts of QAnon.
Harling pointed to a documentary on the Great Reset which went viral earlier this year, which can appear more grounded in facts before veering into conspiracy theories: markedly different to the often frenetic and esoteric QAnon material based on hidden knowledge from an anonymous source.
"The idea of a world controlled by elites profiting off of wealth inequality is the central premise," says Harling. "For anyone who feels vaguely disillusioned with the government, that provides a really great answer that is very palatable."
Written by: Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan and Hannah Murphy
© Financial Times