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QAnon Has Become The Cult That Cries Wolf

March 4 was supposed to be a terrible day. Based on reports of a possible attack, linked to the fact the online cult QAnon had identified March 4 as the day their predictions would come true, nearly 5,000 National Guard troops were ordered to remain in Washington, D.C. Capitol police warned internally of a Q-fueled militia plot, and FBI officials noted it was on alert as well. Congress shut down operations for the day

And then, nothing. No plot, no protests, no Q. March 4 was a limp, dried-out nothingburger. 

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Dates have always played a crucial role in the cult of Q — the baseless conspiracy theory that there is a global cabal of Satan-worshipping child sex traffickers, and that former President Donald Trump is involved in a righteous plan to bring these evildoers to justice. The group’s predictions are often tied to some date on the horizon, when Trump’s adversaries will start to be arrested and the global sex trafficking ring will be exposed. The latest date was March 4, but before that it was Jan. 20. And before that it was Dec. 5. And before that, some date in “Red October.”

An illustration of a Q with a cross in the middle, sitting in the clouds with a sunburst behind it, a la a religious pamphlet

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For a long time, we didn’t have to circle these dates on our own calendars. But after the attack of the Capitol building included some QAnon followers, the group’s timeline has caught the attention of law enforcement. Even if the dates aren’t signalling the fall of a global cabal, perhaps they could help us prevent another deadly attack. Just as a doomsday cult continually reworks its calculations to account for failed end of days predictions, QAnon is always moving the goalposts for when its big day will arrive. It’s the cult that cries wolf.

Just take March 4 as an example.

To understand March 4, we have to start with all the other March 4s that came before it. QAnon has long warned a “storm is coming,” and that at some point the shadowy group of Democratic and celebrity elites — said to be pedophiles who eat babies and drink children’s blood — would be brought to justice. When exactly this will take place has been a moving target since Q’s inception.

Some of the earliest messages from “Q,” an anonymous person or group of people claiming insider knowledge on which the QAnon conspiracy theory is based, specified precisely when these arrests would begin. A post in October 2017 claimed that “Hillary Clinton will be arrested between 7:45 AM – 8:30 AM EST on Monday – the morning on Oct 30, 2017.” When this didn’t happen, new dates were disseminated. Gradually, Q’s posts became more vague, allowing the followers to project meaning onto cryptic messages to decipher what would happen when. That way, if nothing happened, it was simply because Q followers had misinterpreted the scripture-like missives, not because Q was bogus. The result has been a constantly evolving ephemeris of dates, culminating in a fever pitch of anticipation for Jan. 20, 2021. Most QAnon followers believed that on Inauguration Day, Trump would reveal he had actually won the election, introduce martial law and begin public trials and executions of those in the cabal. 

When this prophecy failed, just as all the previous ones had, many QAnon followers were inconsolable. Some even decided to abandon the movement altogether, saying they felt duped. But others simply went back to the drawing board, hoping to find another date on which to hang their hopes. That’s when March 4 started to pick up steam.

A shot of a demonstrator carrying a flag that says “Trump JFK Jr. 2020”. Behind him there’s another demonstrator with a “Trump” flag in the park.

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Despite the often illogical nature of QAnon predictions, the March 4 date wasn’t plucked out of thin air. As a date of significance, it predates QAnon entirely. For much of U.S. history, Inauguration Day was indeed on March 4, until the ratification of the 20th Amendment in 1933 changed it to Jan. 20. A decades-old conspiracy theory held by a group known as the sovereign citizen movement claims that at some point in the 1870s,1 the United States government was converted to a corporation owned by the city of London, and every president since Ulysses S. Grant has been illegitimate. According to this far-out thinking, U.S. birth certificates and Social Security cards are actually contracts of ownership, with U.S. citizens as property of this vast, foreign-owner corporation. Though the sovereign citizens’ conspiracy is even more elaborate, the QAnon followers only lifted the bits that served them, and decided that on March 4, the “corporation” of the United States would be dissolved, and Trump would take office as the 19th legitimate president. 

This theory was floated in QAnon circles in early 2021. On Jan. 11, a user in a Q Telegram chat room wrote out the basics of the theory. “Trump will NOT be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on January 20 Trump WILL take office as the 19th president of the United States on March 4,” the post reads. “I really don’t know all the details involved in this. Just know the end goal has always been the destruction of that 1871 corporation and the return of America to the people like the democratic republic it always intended to be.” On Jan. 15, Canadian Q vlogger Michelle Anne Tittler posted a video in which she reads out the same text, which became popular once Jan. 20 failed to deliver, as Recode reporter Rebecca Heilweil noted. The video had been cross-posted to alt-video sites, and the March 4 idea continued to spread on mainstream platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok, as well as on Telegram and QAnon message boards. By January 22, the theory had spread far enough that Reuters ran a fact check debunking the rumour. Tittler’s YouTube profile was eventually removed for violating the site’s policies, but not before the video promoting March 4 had racked up nearly 1 million views. The cross posts of her video on BitChute and Rumble have currently been viewed 124,000 and 66,000 times, respectively. 

As the idea of March 4 was picking up steam in the QAnon community, it also caught on in the news media. Dozens of stories identified March 4 as the group’s latest goalpost, citing it as a potential sequel to the insurrection on Jan. 6. 

But Jan. 6 and March 4 differed in a number of important ways. Jan. 6 attracted many more than just QAnon supporters. It was a rally promoted by Trump, who invited the thousands of his supporters that came to D.C. that day. Along with QAnon believers, there were also far-right militia groups with backgrounds of instigating violence who were known to be planning to come to the Capitol that day. It was also an undeniably significant date, not significant in the QAnon, cryptic puzzle sense, but in a practical sense: Jan. 6 was the day Congress was certifying the results of an election that millions of Americans wrongly believed was fraudulent, thanks to Trump’s lies. Jan. 6 had all of the ingredients necessary for a dark outcome, yet law enforcement was not prepared. 

In contrast, March 4 was almost strictly QAnon-focused, and even among that group, there was little consensus. That’s the norm for dates in the QAnon almanac. When someone identifies a date of interest, it snowballs into dozens more followers promoting the idea, which then sparks debate and deliberation among the community. Followers share evidence for and against a particular date, noting that Q — who hasn’t posted since December, the longest period of silence since the entity began posting in 2017 — rarely specifies exact dates anymore. 

But even when there is widespread consensus among Q followers on a given date, such as Jan. 20, QAnon rarely makes a call to action more extreme than “pop some popcorn.” Much of the Q philosophy is that the work is done through research on your computer, and when big events take place, all Q followers have to do is sit back and enjoy the show. The message is “on this date, turn your TV on,” not “on this date, we take to the streets.” This is such a well-hewn tenet of the QAnon cult that other alt-right groups often criticize QAnon for promoting complacency rather than the kind of violent uprising those groups prefer. 

“QAnon is built in part on this fantasy that you can change the world in a really grand, revolutionary way just by sitting at your computer and sharing memes,” said Travis View, co-host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous, which has been tracking the movement for years. “Jan. 6 was unique because it was an event specifically promoted by Trump. You really need those big advertising powers from those influencers in order to motivate QAnon followers to do something in the physical world.”

Marjorie Taylor Greene out of focus while a campaign sign is in sharp focus behind her. The sign reads “Marjorie Greene: Save America, Stop Socialism”

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Either way, as soon as the media began publicizing the March 4 date, that coverage threw a lot of cold water on the notion. Just as quickly as the idea emerged, it was being backpedaled. As early as Feb. 9, Jordan Sather, a QAnon influencer, posted on Telegram that he had the feeling the March 4 date was “planned disinformation” designed “to dupe people into spreading probably nonsense theories that make the whole movement look dumb.” Very quickly, the prevailing theory among QAnon was that March 4 was either a psychological operation or a false flag. Q supporters began rejecting the idea and mocking media coverage of the date. 

“March 4 is the media’s baby,” MelQ, a QAnon influencer on Telegram with over 80,000 subscribers, wrote on March 2. “Nothing will happen.”

Law enforcement in and around D.C. could very well have had reliable intelligence suggesting a more organized event on March 4, which may have been squelched by the increased security. We can’t know for sure. I reached out to U.S. Capitol Police officials for comment, but they only directed me to their previous statement, which does not cite QAnon or any other group by name.

QAnon, by and large, is not a violent movement, and popular “holidays” among Anons are not going to be the best place to look for predicting violent events, according to security experts I spoke to. 

“There are organized, white supremacist and far-right militant groups that commit violence on a recurring basis, and that’s the biggest element that’s lost in the way law enforcement looks at these issues. They tend to look at them as standalone events,” said former FBI agent Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “They’re not looking for violence these same individuals committed in the weeks, months and years previous to the attack on the Capitol that would be significant evidence demonstrating their intent.”

Instead, German said law enforcement should focus on individuals and groups with a known track record of violence, and rely on intelligence — rather than random dates tossed around on Q forums — for predicting and preventing violence. That’s not to say we should brush QAnon off as harmless: after all, there are QAnon supporters who have been involved in violent plots, including a man arrested in Wisconsin last week for threatening to commit a “mass casualty” event. And even beyond these outlier offenders, the QAnon movement, including its ever-evolving calendar of predicted catastrophes, comes with its own very real risks in undermining trust in our democratic institutions in a very real, insidious and growing way. 

“We need to worry about Q not because it’s about to overthrow the government,” said Mia Bloom, a professor of communication at Georgia State University and an expert on QAnon and extremism. “We need to worry about Q because the long-term effect is corrosive to democratic values.”

The cult who cried wolf is not one whose cries should be written off for good.

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  1. The specific date varies, depending on whom you ask (are you sensing a theme?).

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.