One of the more surprising resignation letters in recent history was published on the day of President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Posted on Telegram by Ron Watkins, a website administrator who emerged as a major force in the disinformation campaign around Dominion Voting Systems and the false narrative of a stolen election, the letter was shockingly tepid for a trollish, Trump-supporting info-warrior. It read: “We gave it our all.… We have a new president sworn in and it is our responsibility as citizens to respect the Constitution. As we enter into the next administration please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years.”
With that banal sign-off, one of the most formidable spreaders of twenty-first-century conspiracy theories—a likely author of the Q posts that spawned the QAnon cult, whose scrambled election narratives were cited by President Donald Trump himself and may have contributed to the January 6 Capitol riot—went virtually dark. Banned from Twitter, Watkins decamped to Gab, the right-wing, free speech–fundamentalist social network, but he soon stopped posting there, as well. He’s hardly been heard from since, though informed speculation would tell you that, now reaping the hazards of years of informational warfare, Watkins likely fears a lawsuit from Dominion, which has sued Rudy Giuliani and other purveyors of electoral lies.
Unwinding how the thirtysomething Watkins reached this moment of ignoble defeat is the task of QAnon: Into the Storm, a new six-episode documentary airing on HBO. Directed and narrated by Cullen Hoback, who previously made the tech-skeptic film Terms and Conditions May Apply, Into the Storm is a wild journey through the QAnon universe and a worthy introduction to some bizarre characters who have exerted outsize influence over the beliefs of scores of Americans (along with Q supporters around the world). With a running time of six hours, it’s a revealing but occasionally grueling encounter with a dark side of American culture that our political class is still struggling to understand—or to manipulate to its own ends.
Hoback is trying to answer a deceptively complex question: Who is Q? Who wrote the posts that spawned QAnon, an equally ridiculous and frightening movement of people who think that the U.S. government is controlled by a cabal of child-eating pedophiles who are destined to be unseated—and executed en masse—thanks to the intervention of Donald Trump?
If all that sounds absurd, good: You haven’t fallen for the Q mythology yet. But millions seem to have done just that—at least before bans of Q content on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and elsewhere forced the once-flourishing movement to go subterranean. That has made it harder to track, while also disrupting the movement’s ability to organize and spread its views. (It’s also reinforced a sense of government oppression—this is what they don’t want you watching—that might boost the QAnon narrative.)
But back to Watkins and the movement that, if he didn’t found it directly, he at least helped incubate as the administrator of 8chan, later called 8kun, the website where Q posted most of his “drops,” the allusive, question-filled posts that generated feverish activity by Q researchers attempting to supply answers to his riddles. Ron and his father, Jim, who was based in the Philippines, ran 8chan at a loss, but the site’s popularity became a source of pride and power for them. (They made up the losses via other businesses, like an organic café and a pig farm where Jim Watkins jokes he disposes of his enemies’ corpses. He says this with just enough mania in his eye to make one wonder if it’s true.)
As the film methodically documents, 8chan/8kun is only the latest in a long line of shit-posting message boards that pride themselves on an ethic of trolling, anonymity, edgelord-ism (posting extreme, shocking material to provoke and show how far one will go), and practically murderous contempt for women and minorities. You could trace this dark cultural strand through notorious sites and internet movements like Something Awful, 4chan, Gamergate, and Reddit. It’s an integral part of today’s internet harassment campaigns.
Besides being the home of Q’s posts, 8chan also distinguished itself as the site where the perpetrator of the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, posted his livestream (to much excitement from the board’s other posters). That’s what ultimately pushed Fredrick Brennan, the site’s founder and an employee of Jim and Ron Watkins, to cut bait. Positioned next to the mysterious, perhaps sociopathic Watkins family, Brennan is the film’s most engaging and sympathetic character. Disabled by brittle bone disease and confined to a wheelchair, Brennan accepted an offer from the Watkinses to move to the Philippines, where he would work for them and have his needs provided for. Needless to say, the whole arrangement goes south, provoking legal threats and Brennan’s semi-clandestine flight from the country, back to the United States. (Today, Brennan remains a potent critic, mostly on Twitter, of the Watkinses and “chan culture.”)
Into the Storm might inspire a lot of sober discussion about online speech and its limits, the role of tech companies in cultivating factual debate and civic discourse, and what it means to live in a political culture where truth seems almost meaningless. But even though it is six hours long, the documentary potentially leaves some things out. Examinations of possible Q candidates—Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, the retired U.S. Army major general Paul Vallely—can feel like a series of red herrings. There are worthwhile interviews with some of the journalists covering QAnon and right-wing grifters but few academics or historians of conspiracy theories or information warfare. And by most accounts, information warfare seems to be what’s happening here: As Ron Watkins describes it, allowing the mask to slip at one point, he essentially tutored millions of 8kun users in “intelligence work,” teaching them to search for patterns—fraudulent, fruitless patterns, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t seem meaningful to an entire movement.
The ultimate question of who Q is may seem pointless—and indeed may never be settled—but in this character-driven narrative, it’s impossible not to feel some interest in discovering the answer. I am not spoiling anything to say that I finished the series convinced that Ron and Jim Watkins bear responsibility for some (though perhaps not all) of the Q posts. The bulk of the evidence, along with some revealing coincidences, point to them.
Still, even as Into the Storm centers on the murky dealings of the Watkins family, its later episodes bring into sharp focus the profound effects they—or at least their website—had on the political sphere. 8chan, which has struggled to stay online in the last year, became notorious as the site of choice for mass shooters and their supporters. Jim Watkins assumed a position of MAGA celebrity and was called to testify before Congress about internet speech. Trump and people in his orbit made repeated approving references to Q, including on Twitter. And the Q movement was shepherded from nearly the beginning by Ron Watkins, who, after some disavowals, admits to heavy involvement in the online “research” that underwrites much Q community activity.
The film’s most startling moment might come on January 6, 2021, the zenith of Q influence—for now. Hoback, the director, attends Trump’s rally at the Washington Monument, alongside Jim Watkins. (Ron is off tweeting truth bombs about election malfeasance and stirring up QAnon rage against Vice President Mike Pence, who became a traitor in the eyes of Q supporters.) Comparing the event to Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington, Jim Watkins says, “This march wouldn’t be happening right now if Q hadn’t been there.”
As absurd as it sounds, Watkins might be right. Hoback, no fan of Watkins’s actions, seems to understand this.
“It started as a LARP,” says Hoback, referring to live action role-playing, which informs the 8kun sensibility—a cruel, heavily ironized trolling that takes nothing seriously.
Watkins practically finishes Hoback’s sentence. Yes, it was once a LARP. But “it became real. It’s American history now.”