SAN FRANCISCO/NEW YORK (REUTERS) - For three years, adherents of the sprawling QAnon conspiracy theory awaited a so-called Great Awakening, scouring anonymous Web postings from a shadowy "Q" figure and parsing statements by former US president Donald Trump, whom they believed to be their champion.
On Wednesday (Jan 20), they grappled with a harsh reality check: Mr Trump had left office with no mass arrests or other victories against the supposed cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophile cannibal elites, especially Democrats, he was ostensibly fighting.
Instead, Democratic President Joseph Biden was calmly sworn into office, leaving legions of QAnon faithful struggling to make sense of what had transpired.
In one Telegram channel with more than 18,400 members, QAnon believers were split between those still urging others to "trust the plan" and those saying they felt betrayed. "It's obvious now we've been had. No plan, no Q, nothing," wrote one user.
Some messages referenced theories that a coup was going to take place before the end of Inauguration Day. Others moved the goalposts again, speculating that Mr Trump would be sworn into office on Mar 4.
"Does anybody have any idea what we should be waiting for next or what the next move could be?" asked another user, who said they wanted to have a "big win" and arrests made.
Mr Jared Holt, a disinformation researcher at the Atlantic Council, said he had never before seen disillusionment in the QAnon communities he monitors at this scale.
"It's the whole 'trust the plan' thing. Q believers have just allowed themselves to be strung from failed promise to failed promise.
"The whole movement is called into question now."
A poll with more than 36,000 votes conducted in another QAnon Telegram channel before Mr Biden's swearing-in ceremony showed that more than 20 per cent of respondents predicted nothing would in fact happen and Mr Biden would become president, according to the Q Origins Project, which tracks the movement.
However, 34 per cent believe "the military and Trump have a plan coming in the near future", even while acknowledging the transfer of presidential power.
The anonymous person or people known as "Q" started posting the vague predictions that would become the basis of the QAnon movement on message board 4chan in 2017, claiming to be a Trump administration insider with top secret security clearance.
The number of followers exploded with the arrival of the coronavirus last year, providing a sense of community missing in many people's isolated pandemic lives by encouraging participants to "do their own research" and contribute findings to the crowd.
Q interpreters have become mini-celebrities in their own right, spreading the gospel on mainstream sites like Facebook , Twitter and YouTube and raising money with appeals to charity or merchandise sales, before the social media platforms cracked down late last year.
Among them was Mr Ron Watkins, who was among a small group of movement leaders who stepped up their public activity after Mr Trump's loss in the Nov 3 election, as the "drops" from Q slowed and then stopped.
The long-time administrator of 8kun, an unmoderated forum where Q posted alongside violent extremists and racists, Mr Watkins adopted the cryptic tone of Q in the past two months on Twitter and then Telegram.
At the same time, he positioned himself as an expert on election fraud, getting retweeted by Mr Trump and interviewed by Mr Trump-favoured media outlets such as One America News Network.
In one of the most jarring apparent reversals on Wednesday, Mr Watkins appeared to admit defeat, posting: "We have a new president sworn in and it is our responsibility as citizens to respect the Constitution regardless of whether or not we agree with the specifics.
"Please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years."
Mr Watkins said he was working on a new venture, but gave no further details.
On TheDonald.win, a reconstituted version of the Reddit forum "The Donald" that long served as an online home for Mr Trump loyalists, users turned on Mr Watkins and accused him of being a "shill" and a Central Intelligence Agency plant.
Other fringe groups, including neo-Nazis, said they intended to capitalise on the disarray by stepping up recruitment from among QAnon followers.