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Q&A: Documentary Unravels Twisted Knots Of QAnon Movement

Supporters of then-President Donald Trump fly a U.S. flag with a symbol from the QAnon conspiracy theory as they gather outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 ahead of the insurrection.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Supporters of then-President Donald Trump fly a U.S. flag with a symbol from the QAnon conspiracy theory as they gather outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 ahead of the insurrection.

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was predictable if you were following message boards on shadowy corners of the internet.

"Yeah, I thought Jan. 6 was going to be really bad," Cullen Hoback, director of the documentary Q: Into the Storm, told NPR in a recent interview. "I got hardly any sleep the two nights before it. I was very anxious going into that day."

Hoback followed the growth of the QAnon movement for three years and unravels the twisted knots of the conspiracy theory in a six-part series on HBO. He focuses on the interpersonal drama between those behind the website 8chan (later 8kun), where an enigmatic "Q" posted false conspiracy theories that convinced millions there were nefarious Democratic actors involved in child-trafficking rings.

Spurred on by former President Donald Trump's false allegations of widespread fraud in the 2020 election that he lost to President Biden, many Q believers were among a larger group of anti-government extremists who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 in protest of the usually ceremonial counting of Electoral College votes affirming the election result.

The drama in the film develops incrementally as the inner workings of the dark web are explained for an audience unfamiliar with this world — which includes Fredrick Brennan, who created 8chan, and Jim and Ron Watkins, who later take on ownership and administration of the site.

The documentary centers on the rivalry between Brennan and the shadowy father-son duo of Jim and Ron Watkins. Though they once all worked together, Brennan turns and winds up strongly advocating against 8chan. He does not believe the Watkinses, who test the bounds of free speech on the internet, are responsible stewards of the site, particularly after episodes of murder and violence that were linked to posters on the site.

Through his investigation, Hoback believes he has revealed the identity of Q. Through anonymous "drops," Q boasted of dates — that never materialized — when the cabal would be toppled. Followers of the movement believed Q must be someone high up in Trump's inner circle.

NPR has not independently verified Q's identity, but Hoback's film shows strong evidence that Ron Watkins was Q. He's not someone particularly special and didn't have any real ties to Trump, but he is someone who had access and motive.

"I hope that by revealing the mechanics behind Q and the personalities behind it," Hoback said, "that they see that it really is just this kind of absurd cast of characters that created this massive global movement and that it is not this sort of scary mystery box."

The movement grew so large that QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., who "expressed openness to Q" even won seats in Congress, where they continue to spread misinformation. Greene even reportedly tried to start an "America First" caucus that would have focused on "Anglo-Saxon" values. After initially seeming to defend it, she backed off after the effort drew a sharp backlash.

Early in her tenure this year, she was stripped of committee assignments and yet, despite her marginalization — or perhaps because of it — she raised $3.2 million in the first three months of this year. It's a sum that's not just high for a member of Congress but rivals many Senate candidates.

Q hasn't posted since the election, and many of its followers have been disappointed that its supposed prophecies haven't come true. So where does the grassroots energy behind the movement, with its distrust of experts and willingness to believe misinformation, go from here?

Hoback talked with NPR about his investigation, what he hopes people take away from it and what it all might mean for the future.

The following is a selection of our conversation and was edited for length and clarity:

NPR: You were following QAnon far back when most of us — it was under our noses and just didn't really understand it. Why did you then think that this was an important topic to cover and what drew you to it?

HOBACK: I thought it was a sign of things to come, both in the ways Q was being managed online, removing Q or suggesting that this thing was something that was too dangerous to be allowed on Reddit. It made me wonder if it actually was going to have the opposite effect, if it was going to make it bigger. To me, it looked like something that was likely to continue to grow. And I was just drawn to the mystery as well. I felt that unmasking Q might bring the whole thing to a conclusion.

I'm a political editor. Jan. 6 was one of the most harrowing moments in the film. What do you take away from the lead-up to Jan. 6?

The day itself, I found to be rather nerve-wracking. I think anybody who had really been tracking what was going on could see that this was the moment in which those power players who had been circling around Q, whether that's Roger Stone, [retired Maj.] Gen. [Paul] Vallely, [retired] Gen. [Michael] Flynn, Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, Donald Trump, all of these guys, they were all prodding in the runup to Jan. 6 in a way to make the Q narrative real. And there were these overlapping groups that were all driving toward something similar. So I think if you were tracking it closely, you probably would have thought like myself that it was going to be even worse than it was.

How much fault do you think Ron and Jim deserve for that day?

Well, I don't think Jan. 6 happened because of Q, but I also don't think it would have happened without Q.

How interconnected was Trump world and Q?

So I would like for there to be more investigation into the ties between Ron and Jim and some of these power players in D.C. — Gen. Flynn and these other characters. I mean, we've seen some forensic evidence, and certainly after the 2016 election, it stands to reason that, given the amount of traffic 8chan was turning to Trump's own campaign, that they would have reached out. I think the series paints a pretty good case for their ties to these D.C. operatives. But the exact nature of that relationship remains a little unclear.

Who were some of the key players and how much were they feeding Q information?

In the series, we show what we know, which is that Jerome Corsi, the known conspiracy theorist, had ties with all of these guys, close ties, and was one of the first to bolster Q. He says that a couple of people he holds very close to him — and we know that he has ties to Vallely — said you need to start paying attention to this. Bring it on Alex Jones' [show]. Make it bigger.

So that would indicate that very early on, some of these ex-military networks saw the value in Q, saw that it was gaining steam and wanted to bolster it. When you talk about the information that's being funneled, I don't think there was really any meaningful information being funneled to Q. Q was just basically picking its favorite research out of things that the anons [anonymous posters] were collecting on 8chan and then 8kun, and then reflecting that research, or those ideas or the conspiracy theories back to the anons in the form of questions.

So you didn't have to be Gen. Michael Flynn to write the Q drops. You just needed to be an incredibly engaged and active user of 8chan and very well versed in the research and analysis and all the internet data points that were being collected in order to create that narrative.

The documentary builds a powerful case that Ron is Q. Ron denies this, but in the documentary, he seems to relish the idea of being suspected. After the election, he comes out of the shadows and begins posting in his own name on Twitter about the election. He even appears on OAN, the right-wing cable TV platform, to share his false conspiracies about Dominion voting machines. Along with Trump, Ron was banned from Twitter. Tell us more about why you think it's him.

There's so much more evidence I have pointing to Ron than what I was able to keep in the series. There's mountains of it, including things he said to me since then. That's part of why it was so valuable to spend this much time with them, because they're not going to tell me the truth. So the answers lie in the omissions, in how they change their stories, in basically what they're hiding and then what they eventually sort of choose to reveal.

One of the things Ron messaged me after the series dropped, he said, "You know, Cullen, I identify more with villains." He wrote, "Something I learned a long time ago is that Internet personalities are just actors on a stage. Making things larger than life makes for a better story and ultimately a more entertaining existence." And then he goes on to say, "Getting away from the narrative that Ron is Q will be impossible, so I may as well embrace it."

I think that it's, like, almost an admission in and of itself. And there have been a few of those since then. You know, I think deep down he wants the credit, but he can't take it.

What do you hope people take away from knowing who Q was?

I think that when you demystify something, it takes away its power. You're left with the baggage of the man and the motives of the man, and it just changes the equation. You know, if you talk to a Q follower, they could imagine that Q could be any number of things. It could have all of the benefits and none of the cons. And also it allowed them to imagine that there was this massive, super top secret military operation in the works. And I think that the truth matters. I think that it's important to reveal the forces behind the operation.

And I think deep down, most of those who believed in Q wanted to know the truth. Whether or not they're willing to accept it is another story. I just present them with the information, and they'll draw their own conclusions. I don't expect QAnons to watch this and suddenly, be like, "Well, I don't believe in Q anymore." The misery of shame is too great. I think that it's a process, and that story may continue to evolve, but I think, also, the people who've seen who's behind the operation, will they be likely to believe in Q now?

Have you heard from any Q followers or supporters?

I have heard from a number of folks, I mean, my DMs on Twitter have been just insane. Some of them had been from Q followers. Some of them have been from family members of Q followers. And I've gotten more than a dozen messages now from people who said that, for the first time in a year in some cases, they're communicating with their family members who were believers in Q. They feel like they understand now what this thing was that they believed in. They can talk about sort of the underlying mechanics and who was behind it.

Mileage may vary. I don't expect that that's going to be the case for everybody. But anecdotally, there's been a number of cases now where lines of communication are reopening between those who believe in Q and their family members. I think that's really important, because I have a lot of Q followers sometimes just call me in the middle of the night, because they were lonely or because they needed someone to talk to or they just saw me as a grounding force, and I would often tell them, "Look, you need to try to try to talk to your brother, try to find some common ground."

Where does this all go from here? What happens to Q followers and the movement?

You've probably seen the Telegram groups. They're not that gigantic, maybe 100,000 people or so. And they're a pretty passionate community. I suspect that it will evolve. It will splinter into factions. Elements of QAnon will be absorbed into the main line of the GOP. But I think Q, as we knew it, will not remain.

What is the point that you're most hoping audiences take away from your film?

I think that the antiseptic of sunlight is a powerful force. And by having people sit down and actually engage with sort of the ugly reality of Q, it also gives them a language. It not only helps them understand what was really happening this whole time, but it also helps a lot of people kind of communicate with those who maybe were on the brink of buying into Q or currently believe in it.

It's not going to be an easy path going forward coexisting with a lot of people who believe in this stuff, but I think that we're already starting to see that the series is helping families reopen lines of communication now. To me, that's the most positive outcome I've seen so far. And I hope it continues.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.