On Sunday, HBO aired the final two episodes of the six-part documentary series Q: Into the Storm, in which filmmaker Cullen Hoback explores QAnon’s cancer conspiracy theory and tries to find out who exactly is behind it. QAnon is an internet-powered movement of people who believe pedophiles control the Democratic Party, Hollywood, and other major institutions, and that former President Donald Trump led a covert effort in conjunction with the military to arrest and execute these perverts. . Many followers also believe that the members of this cabal are Satanists who practice cannibalism and that Trump uses UFOs to fight them. Conspiracy theory has been linked to multiple cases of violence and has torn families apart. The FBI views QAnon as a domestic terrorist threat, and at least 34 of its adherents participated in the January 6 riot on the U.S. Capitol.
Hoback has gained unprecedented access to some of the most important people controlling the proliferation of Qanon online over the past few years, and in the finale, he offers a case for whom he says the government insider is – saying anonymous at the center of the conspiracy theory really is. Here’s what he discovered and if it really gets to the bottom of one of the strangest mysteries of Trump’s day.
What’s in the documentary?
The series’ main narrative follows a feud between Fredrick Brennan and the father-son duo of Jim and Ron Watkins. Brennan is the creator of the 8chan site, now known as 8kun. The site is an image board where anonymous users can post just about anything; it has become a hotbed of violent racism and outrageous pornography. It is also the only place through which Q communicates with its subscribers, in the form of cryptic messages called drops. Q claims to be a government official who was high up in the Trump administration and was aware of the former presidents’ secret war on elite pedophiles. In addition to exploring the QAnon milieu and some of the speech issues raised by the conspiracy, Hobacks’ mission in making this documentary is to determine who the person claiming to be Q.
In 2015, Brennan sold 8chan to the Watkins and moved to the Philippines, where they resided and ran several businesses. The documentary begins in 2018, a few years after Brennan handed over the reins to 8chan, and continues through her falling out with the Watkins family. Brennan began feuding with the Watkins after authorities discovered 8chan was linked to a number of mass shootings, including those in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso. Brennan wanted to remove 8chan permanently, while the Watkins wanted to keep it based on what they said were free speech grounds. The documentary follows the increasingly heated conflict that resulted from this disagreement.
What do we learn about the main actors of the QAnon saga?
The documentary is an intimate look at the people who have had the most control over Q’s primary means of communication, namely 8chan and 8kun. Hoback is obviously sympathetic to Brennan, and it’s easy to see why. Brennan is extremely charming and self-effacing, and he seems to be pursuing a fairly reasoned, if at times devious, crusade to shut down 8chan. Jim and Ron Watkins, on the other hand, strike a rather slimy presence from the camera. Jim, a US Army veteran turned porn, message board, and pig farm impresario, wears the eerily perpetual Cheshire Cat smile and describes his fantasy of murdering politicians with a machine gun in one of his first interviews. from the Serie. In subsequent episodes, he attributes his evasiveness in previous interviews to a suspicious allegation of hearing loss and later appears to cut down a pizza crust in an attempt at chill-inducing humor.
Jims’ son Ron comes across as a heartless, power-hungry otaku. He was willing to greatness, prompting at one point to sing the opera in front of the camera and another to pose as the final divine boss in a video game he developed based on 8kun. Ron also appears to be pressuring Hoback to visit prostitutes in Japan to test his reliability.
Who does Hoback think is Q?
Hoback thinks Ron Watkins is Q. That’s not a particularly surprising finding. For over six months, Brennan has been pushing her own theory that Jim and Ron Watkins control the Q account; his claims led to two major reports from ABC News and Reply All about Q’s identity in September. Referring to the ABC article, Brennan happily brags in the documentary that reporters basically wrote exactly what I wanted in some cases. However, his theory at the time seemed to have some pretty compelling evidence behind it. As the owners of the site, the Watkins control the accounts that post there, including questions. Brennan also noted that Q stopped posting anywhere else on the internet when 8chan, the forum through which Q posts its posts, went down in 2018 because its service providers misrepresented the site. It wasn’t until the Watkins launched a rebooted site called 8kun a few months later that Q started posting again.
Mostly, Brennan and Hoback don’t think Ron started this whole conspiracy theory. They just say he probably requisitioned the Qs account. Brennan speculated that a South African conspiracy theorist by the name of Paul Furber actually started publishing as Q, but then lost control of the account to the Watkins. This is in part because Q inexplicably moved to another forum in 8chan outside of Furbers’ control in 2018. After this migration, Q’s writing style changed dramatically. Hoback interviews Furber in the documentary, which claims an impostor took control of the Q account. (Furber has denied ever being Q, and does so here.) And, to be clear, there are other theories as well that vary in their plausibility.
Why does Hoback now suspect Ron?
In the sixth and final episode of the series, Hoback presents his reasons why he thinks young Watkins is Q. He relies primarily on circumstantial evidence that he gathered while filming the documentary, some convincing, others no. Much of it comes down to inconsistent statements by Rons; he would seem to know Q’s complex motivations and inner circle one day, and then pretend to know nothing about Q the next day. Ron and his father also spend sums of money on their hobby of collecting luxury watches and pens. Q is known to post pictures of expensive watches and pens in an attempt to prove he is in places. sure like Camp David. The piece of evidence Hoback presents as the closest thing to a smoking gun is an apparent mistake Ron makes in an interview towards the end. In his last conversation with Hoback, Ron appears to admit that he anonymously led the analysis and research 8chan users were conducting based on Qs’ cryptic messages, even though he previously claimed not to be involved in the content of the site beyond its responsibilities as administrator. Ron, after briefly discussing his role in disseminating conspiracy theories of voter fraud after the 2020 election, said: It was essentially three years of intelligence training, teaching standards how to do intelligence work. It was basically what I did anonymously before, but never as a Q. It’s deeply suspicious, but not enough to pin it as a Q.
Hoback admits his theory lacked definitive evidence. It seems clear, however, that the Watkins have overwhelming control over the Q account and at the very least have the ability to requisition the Qs account at any time and post whatever they want. If they’re not Q themselves, they probably have some sort of Q contact. It’s also possible for multiple people to create Q messages.
Are there any other suspects?
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In the documentary, Ron attempts to convince Hoback that former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon is in fact Q. Bannon left the White House in August 2017, two months before Q began publishing. In January 2018, Bannon stepped down as executive chairman of Breitbart, around the same time the Q account would have changed hands. Ron showed Hoback the IP addresses associated with the Qs drops. A number of the drops were routed via an address in Orange County, California, where Bannon lived. Ron also pointed to a specific case where Q apparently posted two messages from different IP addresses within 30 minutes of the Bannons house. Hoback then goes to the Italian monastery where Bannon had established a school for nascent far-right populists to try and investigate Rons’ claims (Bannon was already gone), but ultimately does not buy the theory. Hoback suggests instead that Ron did try to frame Bannon. He thought to himself: in order to keep everyone who came to sniff away, wouldn’t it be smart to create a digital forensics false trail, one that leads to someone from Trumps’ inner circle?
Does it still matter?
Q hasn’t posted since December, and Trumps’ election loss dampened the fantasy that he was going to use his power to root out elite pedophiles. However, true believers always try to stay relevant. Salon reports that Qanon members have recently taken to defending Florida Representative Matt Gaetz against allegations of child sex trafficking.
Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.
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