What the future holds for the QAnon conspiracy theory and Q supporters is unknown. But the last few years have been well documented by activists and scholars trying to understand the appeal of the movement. And with Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election we can now take better stock.
A new documentary on the topic aims to do just that. Charting the development of QAnon from its origin in the Anonymous and Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) movements online, Q: Into the Storm lays out the history of Q as well as interviewing some of the main players in the popularisation of the movement. Included in the menagerie of conspiracy theorists and trolls is likely the person actually behind the Q’s posts on 8chan.
The first episode of the six-part series begins with a quote from one of Q’s drops: “This is not a game”.
But after watching the series it becomes clear to the viewer and also the documentary maker, Cullen Hoback, that there are clearly some who treat it like a game. These people see QAnon as a way to boost their profiles, make money, or simply to troll the Internet and the political establishment. It’s nothing more than a LARP to them.
We also get to see fervent believers of the QAnon conspiracy. Hoback interviews a couple who have completely immersed themselves in the movement. Disagreeing with the media’s depiction of Q supporters as conspiracy theorists their response is as typical as it is popular for anyone who has come up abasing QAnon supporters: “Conspiring against what?… We just want information”.
Hoback posed the question to himself as to what exactly Q is, thinking that perhaps it’s there to “lure in people with a question then slowly change how they think”. This seems to be a common theme with people he interviewed for the series. They had left their jobs or had previously voted for Democrats but were now fully down the Q rabbit hole.
One aspect of the QAnon phenomenon, perhaps not given enough attention elsewhere but pointed out here, is that it’s “much vaguer” than previous conspiracy theories like Pizzagate. This allows a level of interpretation of Q’s posts that perhaps isn’t possible in other conspiracy theories And it also likely allows for QAnon to spread amongst a wider population compared to the idea that NASA faked the moon landings. There aren’t any members of the US Congress who have questioned the authenticity of the moon landings. But there is an elected representative in Congress in the form of Marjorie Taylor Greene who was until recently a full-blown QAnon supporter.
Hoback also intersperses the documentary with the battle between former 8chan founder and owner Fredrick Brennan and its current owners, the father and son team, Jim and Ron Watkins. Brennan tells Hoback that he originally created 8chan as a haven for free speech. The senior Watkins, Jim, bought 8chan from Brennan as its founder was having difficulty funding the endeavour.
Watkins kept Brennan on as an employee but the latter eventually left in 2018. A mixture of increasing disgust at the content users posted on the site as well as the autocratic management style of Watkins the senior was the impetus for the move. This, along with the effects of the QAnon movement on the real world, has prompted Brennan to become a vocal opponent of the Watkins, 8chan, and QAnon.
Time and again we hear from Brennan of his disgust and anger at what’s happening because of 8chan in relation to QAnon. In contrast we see glee or a casual lack of concern, especially from Ron, in relation to the same things.
In the aftermath of the El Paso shooting in August 2019, when a white gunman murdered 23 people, 8chan was taken offline for a period of time. The gunman had posted his manifesto on the website minutes before he went on the shooting spree. Brennan claims the site was taken offline as a result of his contacting the web host for 8chan, Cloudflare, which stopped providing its services for the image board.
It also wasn’t the first time that the website was used by a gunman to spread his message before murdering people. Just a few months earlier the Christchurch terrorist posted his manifesto on 8chan.
Reacting to the website being offline after the El Paso shooting, Ron Watkins commented to Hoback that “millions of people are upset” that the website is down. In fact, he even claimed that the website was being “bullied by the few, really loud talking heads on the mainstream media” and that “It’s really unfair”.
A family affair
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the documentary is the role of Jim and Ron Watkins in the QAnon phenomenon. Although originally posting on 4chan, the infamous Q moved to 8chan, now known as 8kun, in 2018 where they’ve been since. Hoback painstakingly documents this, the involvement of the Watkinses, and raises questions about their possible motivations.
As Hoback himself asks, once Q moved to 8chan “wouldn’t Ron have done whatever was necessary to keep Q on the platform as part of a bigger strategy for gaining power?”. And this includes posting as Q themselves. A machine learning tool has already suggested that more than one person has written as Q based on an analysis of Q’s writing styles on 4chan and 8chan.
Time and again throughout the documentary both Jim and Ron claim to have little interest in politics or even the Q phenomenon itself. But Hoback points to contradictions in their statements. One day Ron would tell Hoback that he rarely used 8chan, wasn’t entirely sure what users were doing on the site in terms of QAnon, and that he “barely even follow[s]” QAnon. The next he would have insight into Q’s motivations that only somebody intimately familiar with the person or persons behind Q would know.
As 8chan admin, it would have been extremely easy for Ron to post as Q. From here he could dictate the beliefs of thousands if not millions of people. And in the denouement of the series Ron, perhaps unable to endure the lack of recognition any longer, strongly implies that he’s been Q for the last few years.
But the question remains as to why Ron and his father would do this if it is indeed them behind Q. Their website was not making any money as far as anybody knows. It was, in fact, costing them a lot of money. Perhaps they wanted some influence on US and world politics; an influence massively undeserved. Or, as Hoback suggests in the closing scenes of his series, maybe Ron, in true 4chan anon fashion, simply wanted to troll the world. Considering QAnon has reached our own shores, he’s been wildly successful.
QAnon still continues. In spite of the failed predictions and Trump’s election loss, believers still abound. The movement couldn’t simply disappear because Joe Biden won the presidential election. Some have invested too much energy and time into the conspiracy theory for that to happen. And all because two men seemingly wanted to troll the world.
Featured image via YouTube – Screenshot