The new HBO docuseries, “Q: Into the Storm,” attempts to answer one of the most urgent questions of our time: Who controls QAnon, the elaborate but baseless conspiracy theory whose followers believe the world is run by an elite cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles.
Over the course of three years, as QAnon migrated from the fringes of the internet into mainstream American politics, filmmaker Cullen Hoback attempted to determine the identity of Q, the anonymous poster who claimed to be a high-ranking government official and managed to lure thousands — if not millions — of people into an alternate reality where JFK Jr. is still alive.
A documentarian with an interest in digital privacy — a subject explored in his 2013 film, “Terms and Conditions May Apply” — Hoback became curious about QAnon in 2018 when Reddit, the hugely popular message board, banned QAnon forums. “What was an idea that was so pernicious that they felt it warranted banning?” Hoback says. “And might banning it actually make people more interested in it?”
That may be the case. Though QAnon originated in one of the most toxic corners of the internet — the unregulated image board 8chan, later known as 8kun, a notorious bastion for hate speech and breeding ground for mass shooters — it quickly spread to everyday platforms including YouTube and Facebook.
The six-part series focuses less on the many Americans sucked into the QAnon vortex, or even the theory’s destabilizing impact on democracy, than the digital cesspool from which it emerged. Hoback gained unique access to Fred Brennan, the founder of 8chan, as well as Jim and Ron Watkins, the shadowy father-son team who took over the platform and fought to keep it online amid growing public backlash.
“I wanted to unmask whoever was behind this, because I thought that that might bring the whole thing to a conclusion,” says Hoback, who spent a collective four months filming with his main subjects.
The investigation took him around the globe from Italy to the Philippines and finally to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 as an angry mob of Trump supporters — many outfitted in Q gear — stormed the Capitol. After pursuing several false leads, Hoback ultimately determines that Q is not a high-ranking member of the military nor even a shadowy political operative but Ron Watkins, a porn-loving bro with a flat affect, a nervous blinking habit and a disturbing lack of empathy.
Hoback unpacked his investigation and its conclusions for The Times; this conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Question: Did you worry that by making this series you might be giving more attention to QAnon and granting a platform to people like Ron and Jim Watkins?
Answer: Over the last few years we’ve seen people try censorship, they’ve tried ignoring it, they’ve tried attacking it. And the only thing that hadn’t really been tried yet is just showing it for what it is and the personalities behind it. Now almost 20 percent of Americans believe in QAnon. Fifty-two percent of Americans, according to an NPR poll, think that it’s possible that our country is run by a group of pedophilic elites. [Editor’s note: 54 percent of Americans in the poll either say it’s true that a Satanic pedophile ring controls politics and the media or that they “don’t know.”] So whatever we’ve been doing so far hasn’t worked. I thought I would try a different approach, which was the antiseptic of sunlight. I think most QAnons, most people who deeply believe in Q, have no idea the kind of place that Q posts [8chan] and have no idea regarding the personalities behind it.
It’s not like we’re just handing Ron and Jim a microphone and saying “Go!” This is a carefully curated and thought-out piece of work designed to reveal Q for what it is. So it’s just a different way of thinking about it.
Question: You have been following the issue of digital privacy for years. What is your take on it now?
Answer: The situation on the Internet has gotten far worse since I made [“Terms and Conditions May Apply”] back in 2013. Privacy is all but dead on the internet, and privacy needs to be dead for Silicon Valley’s business model to thrive. One of the things I’ve learned through this production is a lot of people right now are pointing at the speech and saying, “This speech is dangerous, this speech needs to be silenced.” And, to me, the speech is almost a symptom of something much deeper. Not just fractures in society but deeper problems with how the internet is currently functioning. We can trace it back to digital privacy. If all these companies hadn’t been collecting thousands of data points on each of us, then they wouldn’t have been able to target us with manipulation campaigns and drive us into echo chambers. By virtue of having these psychometric profiles on each of us, we now have this ecosystem of hyper-polarization and that manifests in the form of extreme speech.
It’s also worth noting that the algorithms drive us toward increasingly sensational content. QAnon wouldn’t have been successful without those algorithms.
One of the things you see in the series is we’re always going three hops away from some QAnon-related content. You could be looking at Tom Hanks in “Toy Story” on YouTube and be three clicks away from “Tom Hanks is a pedophile.” That’s completely factually ridiculous, but it didn’t matter. That’s how so many people gravitated toward QAnon, especially in the early days; YouTube didn’t really start restricting QAnon-related content until October of 2020. And [YouTube and others] didn’t describe the problem as the algorithms having driven people to this content. They just described the content as the problem.
Question: Over the course of making this series, did you get a sense of why this theory — which seems so ludicrous on its face — has gained such a foothold with the public?
Answer: There’s a real anti-establishment thread that runs through most of the people who believe in QAnon and a high capacity for religious conspiratorial thinking. A lot of the people who follow QAnon feel like a lot of things in society have failed them. They’ve stopped trusting expertise. They’ve turned away from institutions. And they’re looking to other sources, but then they find sources that are much worse and far less reputable.
I think a big part of it is that people feel like there’s something wrong in the world. But the banality of evil isn’t sexy. It’s hard to understand. And what QAnon does is it takes heaven and hell and says actually it’s right here on Earth. It puts things in very black and white, super concrete — completely false, but concrete — terms that make it easier for people to understand, as opposed to looking at the nuanced complexities that lead to something like the banking crisis or the war in Iraq. It’s easy to use these old tropes saying there’s an evil group out there that’s out to get you as opposed to looking at the complex systems that allow this.
Question: Do you think the identity of Q even matters to followers? Will they care if Q is, in fact, just a troll with a powerful platform?
Answer: Absolutely. Something I heard a lot along the way from anons was that it doesn’t matter who Q was. But when I pressed all of them deep down, they all really wanted to know. So much of Q’s power is derived from anonymity. Q doesn’t come with any of the baggage that a normal person would come with. If you take off the mask, it reveals all of the ugliness and it’s all connected to a person. And Q understands that. I think a lot of people who follow QAnon are feeling pretty misled right now. They’re unsure if there was ever any plan at all. And they’re looking for answers, post-insurrection.
Something I’ve learned through the process of making this is just how powerful belief really is. Pretend to be something long enough, and you become that thing. In the beginning I think a lot of people weren’t sure if they believed QAnon or not, they were kind of playing along, but over time, they came to believe it. And over time, those who were behind QAnon tried to make it become real, tried to meme Q into existence. And to some extent, that’s what happened on the 6th [of January], that was their attempt to make Q manifest.
Question: Tell me about being at the Capitol on Jan. 6. You were clearly expecting something like that to happen.
Answer: I was extremely anxious going into the 6th. I personally thought it was going to be much worse than it was, I was expecting things to break out into a much more severe conflict. I didn’t get much sleep the two nights before it. I was there to document Jim and to see how he felt about his website’s involvement in what was happening that day. It was one of the more nerve-wracking experiences. You can never tell if Jim is being sincere or joking. He uses humor to mask something more sinister. But when he’s there, screaming [to encourage people who’d penetrated the Capitol], “Out the window!” I think you see what his desires were.
Question: Did you get any sense of what makes Jim and Ron tick — what motivates them? They’re pretty inscrutable characters.
Answer: When it finally clicked for me is that segment in episode four, where Ron is talking about Diogenes. He sees this pseudo-Socrates-gone-mad character as a role model: cynicism as an ideology. And he respects and enjoys the idea of taking a s--- in the middle of the town square just to troll people, with this mentality of “Well, the dog can do it, why can’t I?” And I feel like that’s his entire mentality in life. If you want to understand why Ron is doing something, or why Jim is doing something, it’s like, “The dog can s--- in the middle of the town square, why can’t I?” They are the embodiment of the websites that they host. They’re constantly trolling and trying to provoke a response, whether that response is something that’s humorous or something that’s scary. They also see the world as a game. There’s a nihilism to it.
Question: In the end, how certain are you that Ron Watkins is Q?
Answer: I think we made a very strong case in the series for Ron being the linchpin in QAnon, and having been that linchpin since late 2017 or early 2018. That’s not to say that there aren’t people working with Ron. We paint a picture of the bigger network. But Q only works with Ron. And when you see all of the things that he was covering up, the ways he changes his story and covers up his own fascination with all of the theories and ideas that he had; all of that, he had everything. He has the motive, he has the technical skills. ... So yes, I do think Ron is Q.