Michael, his full name withheld for fairly understandable reasons, was fed up with the “illogical craziness” he was seeing on Facebook. The presidential election had come and gone. Joe Biden had won. Yet, despite that, a great many people were commenting under his posts and under the posts of friends, insisting that Biden would never be sworn in as president. Insisting that Donald Trump would continue to hold office past January 20, 2021.
Most of these people, Michael soon realized, were adherents to the QAnon movement. Cultists who believe that Trump was chosen by God to fight the alleged cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run the Democratic Party and who, under no circumstances, were prepared to simply accept the results of November’s election.
Most of us, if confronted with this sort of toxic nonsense on social media, would unfollow or block those posting this stuff or, at the very least, log off for a little while. Michael, who calls himself something of “a political troll,” is not like most people. He’s fascinated with cultists and takes pleasure in challenging them. So when the election nonsense began, and the QAnon adherents began morphing into the Stop the Steal movement, it was only natural for him to see if they were willing to put their money where their mouths were.
“You can’t fight these messages,” Michael said, “but let’s throw out some wagers. Let’s see if these people hold true to their convictions. Let’s put some money on it.” So he did, offering odds on who would be president come January 20.
Michael didn’t think anyone would take him up on it but, to his surprise, over a half dozen did. And they weren’t small wagers. Michael took $11,000 in action from them, promising far more in return thanks to the favorable odds he was offering. More surprising to him than the fact that anyone laid down their money in the first place is the fact that many of the people he wagered against have paid up. Indeed, he has collected $5,000 of the $11,000 he is owed so far. Cash in-hand, not IOUs.
Most of the bets were pegged to Trump remaining in power after Inauguration Day. When that didn’t happen some paid up immediately. Others doubled down claiming, per the ever-shifting theories of the QAnon/Stop the Steal believers, that, actually, March 4 was the real date when Trump would ultimately triumph. When that didn’t happen Michael received more money on March 5. Among those who have not paid are a couple who simply ghosted him or blocked him, but those who are on the hook for $5,000 of the outstanding $6,000 in wagers are either negotiating with him or are attempting to let the wager roll to later dates in the future when, maybe — finally! — Trump will triumph.
Michael is not alone in this unexpectedly lucrative pursuit. Lee has gotten in on this action as well.
Lee has been following the QAnon movement since spring of 2018. He began, like many of us, by just kind of gawking at it, carried by a curiosity in cults he’s had since, as a kid in the 1990s, he saw the reports of the mass suicides of the Heaven’s Gate group. As 2020 wore on and QAnon activity intensified, he actually joined several QAnon Facebook groups — infiltrating them, really — feeling like more people should be keeping an eye on these potentially dangerous cultists rather than simply laughing at them or dismissing them.
Lee’s betting didn’t begin there, however. It began in the comments to the Instagram account of punk rocker/professional skateboarder Duane Peters, who has himself taken a hard turn into right wing politics in recent years. The wagers began over the outcome of the various post-election lawsuits filed by Rudy Giuliani and other Trump lawyers, with Lee betting on their outcome with the cultists. The stakes: loser has to delete their Instagram account. Trump lost virtually every lawsuit he filed, but none of the losers deleted their accounts. When Lee shared his experience in a Facebook group devoted to progressive politics Michael responded to him saying, “Oh, I’ve been doing that too, but with money.” After hearing Michael’s story Lee realized that, as a member of multiple QAnon groups, he had some easy marks at his disposal.
It was already after January 20, but he figured that he could get in on some of that March 4 action, so he began searching for the phrase “March 4” in group postings and messaging their authors with an offer of 10-1 odds on who would be president when that day came. In doing so, Lee says, he avoided those who seemed mentally unwell and avoided those whose profiles and posts suggested that they may be hard up financially. “I focused on normal Boomers with a Facebook account who spent too much time on the Internet,” Lee says.
Lee made the offer to around 200 people. Half of them immediately blocked him. A quarter of them simply didn’t respond. Some of them reacted with hostility, with some even accusing him of being a pedophile. But some took Lee up on his offer. A retired school teacher from California. An accountant from South Carolina. Then some of their followers, all of whom seemed to be reinforcing one another as if there was, somehow, safety in numbers when it came to this business. All of which surprised the hell out of Lee.
“I was totally shocked, actually,” Lee said. “I never expected anyone to bet with me. I just wanted them to admit that they weren’t confident.” In the end, though, he pulled in $5,000 in action.
I spoke to Lee on March 5, the day the bets came due, and he had already collected $220. As of yesterday he had nearly $500 and told me that, based on his ongoing communication with those with whom he bet, he was reasonably certain that he would end up collecting about $2,000 more of his outstanding winnings by April 1. This being money from people who have asked for a little more time just to be sure Trump wasn’t going to come back because, as one of them told Lee, “sometimes the military gets delayed.” Lee, who has come to have a pretty good handle on which of his correspondents are people of their word and which of them are likely to renege, granted them the few extra weeks.
Michael, too, has come to be able to predict who will pay him and who won’t. His sense of this has come to him in the course of his practice of staying in near daily communication with those who have bet with him, politely reinforcing in them the notion that one’s word is one’s bond and that integrity matters. He does this, he says, because he knows, practically speaking, that there are really no good ways to legally enforce gambling agreements and it’s probably the best he can do. But he has found that, for as removed from reality many of these people are in certain respects, the concept of integrity seems to resonate strongly with them and inspires them to pay.
I asked him if, perhaps, he felt like he was taking advantage of these people in some way.
“I felt that maybe for a brief second,” he said. “But then I remember all of the vitriol and propaganda they’re putting out there, all the misinformation they’re spreading and harm they’re causing, and figured that they deserve it. It’s a fun experience. One can probably make a good side business out of this.”
Lee too enjoys taking money from these people. He would like to collect as much of the $5,000 he bet as he can and he certainly holds no sympathy for QAnon cultists. But he continues to engage with the QAnon people for reasons, it seems, beyond merely collecting his winnings. To serve that impulse he has to keep tabs on them lest they slip under the radar and, in their obscurity, become more dangerous:
“I think this is one of my last opportunities to interact with the QAnon. There’s this really good documentary called “In Search of a Flat Earth,” and in the middle of it it notes how all of these flat Earth groups are dying because they’re all going to QAnon. Well, QAnon is going to die too. All of their social media groups have been banned. Q hasn’t posted since December 8. It’s going to transform into something else. They’ll be on to the next thing.”
But not quite yet. One of his correspondents is hanging around, trying to get the bet extended to July 4 because that’s when, he says, Trump is really going to return to power. This time he’s sure of it.
(Featured image from TapTheForwardAssist via Wikimedia Commons)