In 2021, an increasingly fractured QAnon community started focusing on local politics -- while embracing more extremist beliefs
This is the third installment of “Beyond ‘Q,’” a series examining QAnon’s evolution in 2021 after its central figure stopped posting and the conspiracy theory grew into a lasting movement. Read the first installment here and the second installment here.
Going into 2021, the QAnon conspiracy theory seemed to face serious headwinds. The year before had been a breakthrough one for the conspiracy theory, as consumption of QAnon-related content boomed on social media and then-President Donald Trump praised the conspiracy theory’s followers. But then President Joe Biden took office, social media platforms cracked down on the QAnon ecosystem, and “Q” -- the central figure and guiding light for the conspiracy theory -- went dark.
Without Q’s direction, the movement fractured and evolved. There was a focus on new strategies, including on local politics, the rise of new influencers, and an adoption of new extremist beliefs, while QAnon's spread continued in wellness, church, extremist, and international communities.
QAnon turns to the local level
With Q silent, the community turned to Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Flynn, who has deep ties with the QAnon community and is highly regarded by many of its supporters, encouraged followers to “get involved,” “take responsibility for your school committees or boards,” and “run for local, state and/or federal office.” According to Flynn, “local action = national impact.”
The QAnon community responded, with influencers echoing the call and telling followers to consider running for school boards, and multiple QAnon supporters running for and winning local offices. That included Tracy Diaz, one of the three main figures reportedly responsible for popularizing QAnon, who was elected to a position in a South Carolina county Republican Party chapter.
Similarly, in September, a man named Derek Greco, who has expressed support for QAnon, and a group of protesters disrupted a school board meeting in California, causing the board to adjourn. The protesters decided this meant the board had vacated their seats and “elected” Greco as president. Greco directly credited QAnon show host Scott McKay for his tactics and McKay, in turn, claimed he had corresponded with Greco about it.
This trend became so widespread that the National Education Association warned about it in June.
The QAnon community has also embraced the so-called “precinct strategy,” a plan promoted by Arizona GOP committee member Dan Schultz encouraging followers to sign up as Republican precinct committee officers, who can elect people to higher positions in the party. Schultz appeared on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s podcast War Room: Pandemic to promote the plan. He was also invited onto multiple QAnon shows, where he and the hosts urged the audience to become precinct committee members. Since then, there has been a notable increase in QAnon supporters enlisting as precinct committee officers.
More extremist beliefs crept into the QAnon community
In 2021, more extremist and conspiratorial beliefs not previously associated with or as overtly or explicitly seen in QAnon found greater prominence in the movement.
The QAnon community incorporated beliefs from the sovereign citizens movement, which the FBI has labeled as a domestic terrorism threat and whose followers believe that they are not bound by any laws. Many in the QAnon community started claiming that due to an obscure 1871 act, the U.S. had become a “corporation” and was no longer a federal government, and thus laws passed after the 1870s were not valid. They expected the country to revert to its original state on March 4 and Trump to be reinstated as president.
Even after March 4, QAnon figures and events continued to make references to a “corporation” and to the 1871 law, still claiming that Trump would be reinstated at some point. In December, Lin Wood, a QAnon-supporting attorney who aided Trump’s legal efforts to overturn the 2020 election, said during an online stream run by a QAnon influencer group that “the United States of America is a corporation” and that this could mean “all the amendments to the Constitution are no longer valid.” Therefore, in Wood’s telling, Trump could run for a “third term.”
Additionally, neo-Nazi beliefs and antisemitism, while always present within the QAnon community, became increasingly overt among followers during the year. QAnon influencers pushed material associated with neo-Nazis and shared content about the “Khazars” (referring to a long-running antisemitic conspiracy theory).
Robert Smart, a new QAnon influencer known online as “GhostEzra,” shared explicit neo-Nazi material and quickly grew a following. He became “the biggest pro-Hitler voice on Telegram and the single largest QAnon influencer on the platform,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
A variety of harmful QAnon influencers grew in popularity in Q’s absence, including the former administrator of 8kun, the site where Q posted
Q’s absence broadly coincided with the rise in influence of a man some have argued was Q for at least a period of time: Ron Watkins. Watkins had previously been the administrator of 8kun (using the online username “CodeMonkeyZ”), the site Q posted on, and had reportedly helped Q with posts.
On Election Day 2020, Watkins announced he was resigning from 8kun, and in the following weeks, he started spreading voter fraud conspiracy theories. He started building an independent following among QAnon supporters as he encouraged his followers to start “24/7 surveillance” of a Dominion Voting Systems facility in Georgia and teamed up with a QAnon influencer to post a video he falsely claimed showed wrongdoing by a Dominion employee. He was amplified by Trump and by attorney Sidney Powell in her election lawsuits. Watkins also helped organize transportation for the January 6, 2021, rally that led to the Capitol riot.
Like Q, Watkins was largely quiet in early 2021, telling followers on Inauguration Day, “We gave it our all. Now we need to … go back to our lives.” But by April, he had returned to pushing voter fraud conspiracy theories and targeting election officials. He also released data he obtained from the office of Tina Peters -- the top election official in Mesa County, Colorado -- triggering a criminal investigation into the breach. In August, Watkins attended a “cyber symposium” hosted by businessman and QAnon-connected figure Mike Lindell to push his claims and discuss the breach. Peters attended the event as well.
After he hyped the “audit” of ballots cast in Maricopa County, Arizona, Watkins announced that he was running for Congress in the state. He also announced partnerships with anti-vax figures.
Besides GhostEzra and Watkins, 2021 also saw a variety of other QAnon figures rise in popularity who brought their own harmful views to the movement. They include:
- Lin Wood, who directed his followers to other QAnon influencers and even told them to harass a hospital’s staff. In November, Wood criticized Flynn and some of his allies, leading to a split between pro-Wood and pro-Flynn factions within the QAnon community.
- John Sabal, known online as “QAnon John,” who organized a QAnon conference in Dallas, which was attended by Flynn and Powell, and one in Las Vegas, which multiple elected officials and candidates attended. Worries about the Dallas conference at the time in part caused the Department of Health and Human Services to move migrant children out of a nearby convention center.
- Jon Herold, known online as “Patel Patriot,” who created a conspiracy theory known as “Devolution.” The conspiracy theory, a spinoff of the belief that Trump would be “reinstated” into office, claims that Trump is secretly still the president but is now working behind the scenes to expose massive election fraud and will come back to the Oval Office at some point. Herold associated with QAnon figures as his conspiracy theory became widely embraced within the QAnon community, and he has said his claim “mirrors closely to Q.”
- Terpsichore Maras-Lindeman, known online as “Tore,” who has filed an anti-mandate lawsuit in Ohio and was able to encourage her followers to do the same throughout the country. She’s also organized her followers to harass elected officials and to try to get state attorneys general to support a Supreme Court “complaint” released by Lindell that pushes false voter fraud claims. Tore has also become close with fellow QAnon-connected figure and former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne -- a major election denier figure -- with Byrne regularly praising her and asking her to collaborate.
- Michael Brian Protzman, known online as “Negative48,” who helped lead a group of QAnon supporters who falsely claimed John F. Kennedy Jr. is still alive to the place where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Protzman claimed that Kennedy Jr. and his late father would appear with Trump, who would be somehow reinstated into office. Even though it didn’t happen, the group remained in Dallas, with members drinking harmful substances and discussing having to “experience … physical death” in order to see “the truth.”
- Romana Didulo, known online as the “Queen of Canada,” who has directed her followers to harass businesses and to kill people who try to give children vaccines. She was later detained by Canadian police.
QAnon’s intersection with wellness, religious, militia, and international communities grew
Many QAnon trends from previous years continued to thrive in 2021. The health, lifestyle, and wellness community continued to struggle with the spread in its ranks of “Pastel QAnon” (the intersection of the conspiracy theory and spirituality), with one 2022 congressional candidate writing of himself, “Here is some Pastel Q from a [Republican] LGBTQIA Pride Hispanic congressional candidate.”
Evangelical churches also continued to struggle with QAnon beliefs in their congregations. While some pastors have tried to fight this movement, other pastors and religious figures have joined in spreading it, such as Pastor Greg Locke, who has invoked QAnon claims in his sermons.
Anti-government, militia, and white nationalist groups also continued to see crossover with QAnon. There was the rise of a QAnon militia group (which Sabal and his organization promoted), and some QAnon adherents were involved with militia efforts targeting immigrants on the border. Members of the Proud Boys continued to show up at QAnon events and appear with QAnon figures, increasingly trying to appeal to the community (Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, also had dinner with Maras-Lindeman). Some of the community in turn supported the Proud Boys. Some affiliated with the Three Percenters militia movement also associated with QAnon.
QAnon also continued to expand its reach internationally, with QAnon supporters taking part in protests in New Zealand and Australia and engaging in a sprawling online ecosystem in Germany. An extremist plot in France that allegedly aimed to topple the government had QAnon ties, and the French police and a state agency expressed concern about QAnon. In June, Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, added QAnon to its list of potential threats.
Meanwhile, QAnon supporters in the U.S. continued to commit more crimes, including murder.
QAnon has become a sprawling anti-reality network -- even without Q
Despite all the factors pushing against the conspiracy theory since the start of 2021 -- its preferred president no longer in office, its central figure going silent, and its original social media infrastructure heavily targeted -- QAnon has survived and is evolving. Its influence has expanded as elected officials and politicians have continued to associate with it and its figures, and anti-vaccine figures are associating and partnering with the community. In addition to focusing on local politics, QAnon supporters have continued to run for Congress, for governorships, and for state legislatures.
Fundamentally, QAnon has developed into a sprawling anti-reality network that has given a boost to election deniers, anti-vaxxers, white nationalists, militias and anti-government groups, and even 9/11 Truthers and Flat Earthers. And even others in the far-right who do not truly or fully support QAnon have still praised its supporters as allies and identified the community as an opportunity.
In other words, the community has grown beyond Q and is very much alive.
This is because the social media companies made an extremely consequential choice by not acting as QAnon grew on their platforms for years. When the crackdowns came, it was too late and the platforms struggled to fully enforce them. The QAnon ecosystem, along with a significant number of supporters, then moved to other platforms -- such as Telegram, Rumble, Bitchute, and Gab. And multiple QAnon-supporting participants in the Capitol insurrection appeared to have stumbled into the QAnon world due to that choice.
Now, an evolving -- and Q-less -- QAnon has continued to corrode our democratic system, our public health, our friends and families, and our society.
Sadly, the storm is still very much upon us all.