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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

QAnon Pivots Its Exiled Online Movement to the Real World

The crowd pulsed as more than 1,500 attendees stamped and sang “We’re Not Gonna Take It!” While the For God & Country Patriot Roundup, a QAnon-linked conference in Dallas in late May, began with narratives of unity and love, speakers alluded to or outright spoke of a second insurgency, including in a video with the words “INSURRECTION to RESURRECTION” and “THE ONLY WAY IS THE MILITARY,” and General Michael Flynn’s now infamous suggestion that a Myanmar-style coup should happen in the United States.

Though many have questioned how QAnon will survive without their anonymous “leader,” Q, the event signaled a new phase as online conspiracy theories transform into in-person actions and events. Similar to other efforts to overthrow the 2020 election based on false claims of voter fraud—including former president Trump’s recent Ohio rally and ongoing support for the Maricopa County audit—the Patriot Roundup brought a new sense of urgency and motivation that speakers sought to channel into local political action. And while QAnon has struggled to recruit online, the movement has found new communities to target, including evangelical Christians.


Throughout the weekend, speakers advocated for local political engagement and in-person meetings, focusing particularly on school boards, child protective services, and running for local office. For example, when asked about forthcoming “military tribunals” and her election-overturning “Kraken,” former Trump attorney and QAnon advocate Sidney Powell insisted that the only plan is involvement in local politics. “No, there are no military tribunals going on,” she said. “There’s nobody that’s going to magically solve this problem for us.” She then encouraged attendees to get involved “in your precinct, in your school districts, in every part of your lives to reclaim this country.” While politically engaged QAnon supporters have run for local office in the past, the conference marked a formalized coordinated effort.

The push for local activity and offline events is a pivotal response to QAnon being deplatformed from the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube. Throughout the weekend, speakers made these removals a key narrative of oppression. Alluding to the deplatforming of QAnon supporters immediately after January 6, one speaker, “Kate Awakening,” called it “the Purge” and said, “it was almost like the scene from Titanic.”

“Us getting together, this was the next inevitable step,” said Brad Getz, a QAnon content creator and another speaker. “They can censor us–you know we’ll just take it on the road then."

Others made extreme and inaccurate comparisons to gulags. “They don’t need gulags, gas chambers, and killing fields because the technology available today allows them to do it by writing a line of code,” said speaker Evan Sayet. “This Jew has been electronically ghettoized. They have removed my voice from the community of Facebook. They have removed my voice from the community of Twitter. I am in Zuckerberg’s gulag—because while it doesn’t look the same, and the method isn’t the same, the outcome, the purpose, is the same.”

Flynn, a keynote speaker, likened deplatforming to a military conflict: “We’ve been getting picked off from the social media tech titans left and right … We are fighting for an information beachhead right now.”

Speakers and attendees also continued to speak energetically about combating election fraud and mythologized the January 6 Capitol attack. Many referenced the Maricopa County “audit,” a recount of votes which is considered to be highly partisan and has been dismissed by the GOP chair of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. Many attendees believed it would produce a chain reaction of similar audits in other states that ultimately would overthrow the verified and certified results of the 2020 election. Maricopa-style audits promoted by Robin Vos in Wisconsin, Steve Carra in Michigan, and Dave Argall in Pennsylvania, among others, are poised to continue fueling this narrative and the violence associated with it.

Many attendees and speakers also shared stories of being at the Capitol on January 6 with pride, nostalgia, and invariably cheers.

“We know that the media, your friends, your family want to shame you and tell you that you did something wrong … I myself wear January 6th as a badge of honor,” said Couy Griffin, a New Mexican county official who is under investigation for breaching the Capitol. Evoking the QAnon motto, Griffin exclaimed, “Because where we go one …” and the audience shouted back, “we go all!”

Several current and aspiring politicians were also in attendance, including current US representative Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who spoke in front of a screen of an enormous cowboy hat emblazoned with the QAnon motto, “WWG1WGA.” Fellow Texas Republicans Allen West and the commissioner of Texas agriculture, Sid Miller, were also speakers. Both alluded to future runs in Texas gubernatorial elections, treating the audience as a constituency. Another speaker, Gene Ho, announced that he was running for mayor of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. All of these speeches occurred on the same stage where others had encouraged a violent overthrow of the government.

While the speakers and participants were generally in support of local political engagement, they were less sure of how to coordinate their non-local strategies without access to large social media platforms. Though a handful of alternative platforms were mentioned, attendees seemed most excited for Donald Trump’s rumored social media service (in the wake of his failed blog). Some involved with organizing the conference have already expressed excitement for the app Gettr, which is led by former Trump spokesman Jason Miller.

One notable effort by Jason Sullivan, a former social media consultant for Roger Stone, involved working with Flynn to create a digital “war room” that would track social media to detect a “moment of influence.” When such moments happened, a mass text line would disseminate the names of QAnon’s political enemies that followers could target in real time or articles the leaders would like to go viral.

"We’re gonna tell you, look, Adam Schiff is, Shifty Schiff is doing this,” Sullivan explained, “and this is what the General [Flynn] thinks that we oughta do about it, and guess what? You’re all gonna get a text message.”

Text-based political disinformation in the United States has risen over the past year, with real world consequences. Last November, mass texts sourced to the Trump campaign instructed Philadelphians to go to a specific location to disrupt a vote count.

One reason these strategies are effective, as our research has shown, is because across countries, platforms, and political groups, the most effective way to spread messages at scale is through dedicated human advocates. Even without a sophisticated digital infrastructure, political messengers innovate new ways to disseminate messages. For example, political messengers in India shared lists of tweets through Google docs on WhatsApp to hijack trending topics on Twitter.

QAnon also remains notably active on alternative platforms like Telegram, where QAnon-aligned influencers can coordinate inauthentic engagement and organize offline events such as the Patriot Roundup.

Despite their removal from mainstream social media platforms, QAnon-linked groups in the United States are far from gone. Rather than diminishing in size, deplatformed movements like QAnon adapt by moving to alternative platforms and organizing offline events. Such strategies should be particularly concerning given the potential for QAnon supporters to become increasingly violent.

Don't get us wrong, deplatforming is highly effective. But as the movement continues to receive legitimization from the Republican party and moves offline, it is also important to maintain vigilance in local elections, and for reporters and researchers to shed light on the casual extremism that is becoming increasingly prevalent at these events and in our personal lives. Citizens, too, can help combat these conspiracy theories by kindly but firmly correcting misinformation.

Notably, the organizers plan to continue moving the Q movement into the physical world, announcing a second Patriot Roundup for Las Vegas this fall.

WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here, and see our submission guidelines here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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