Whether you call it a conspiracy theory or a collective delusion, QAnon now takes up a shocking amount of breathing room in national politics. Q shirts have proliferated at rallies across the country, and Q followers have made life on large chunks of social media unbearable. But the person or persons behind this movement—a supposed deep-state mole rallying Americans around Donald Trump as he battles a satanist Democratic cabal—has remained a surprising afterthought. Thanks to recent reporting from ABC News, Reply All, and others, however, there’s now more evidence backing one of the more compelling theories explaining who might be behind Q. It’s complicated—OK, not as complicated as the yarns Q spins for his followers—but here’s what you need to know.
Remind me: What is QAnon?
QAnon is a dizzying conspiracy theory positing that there is a vast network of satanic elites within the upper echelons of the Democratic Party, Hollywood, and the “deep state” who run international child sex-trafficking rings and are working to bring down Donald Trump. Some of them also supposedly engage in cannibalism in an attempt to attain immortality. Adherents of the theory believe that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the Dalai Lama, and Ellen DeGeneres are major figures perpetrating the conspiracy. Trump, as the story goes, was enlisted by military generals to run for president in 2016 and bring down the pedophilic cabal. Q claims to be a top government intelligence official who is trying to expose the plot against Trump. The QAnon mythology continues to become more intricate and expansive and includes plot points like the JFK assassination, UFOs, and 9/11. Not all followers believe in every aspect of the theory, though most of them adhere to the central claim that a pedophile syndicate controls the world’s major institutions.
QAnon has grown into a massive movement. Facebook conducted an internal investigation last month and uncovered the existence of thousands of QAnon groups and pages with millions of members apiece. Q supporters often show up to the president’s rallies and have staged hundreds of “Save the Children” events around the country. There have also been a number of dangerous offline incidents involving Q supporters. In 2018, a man toting a large cache of guns and ammunition in an armored truck blocked off a bridge in Arizona in the name of Q. In 2019, a man shot and killed alleged mob boss Francesco Cali believing that he was one of Q’s enemies. The FBI has labeled the movement a domestic terrorism threat.
At least 21 candidates for state legislatures this year have signaled their support for QAnon. House of Representatives candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican who’s almost certain to win the seat for the state’s 14th District, is a notorious booster for the movement, though she appears to have distanced herself from it over the past month. Jo Rae Perkins and Lauren Witzke, who won the Republican Senate primaries in Oregon and Delaware respectively, have also aligned themselves with Q, though they’re unlikely to defeat their Democratic opponents.* When asked about QAnon, Trump has declined to condemn the movement. “I’ve heard these are people that love our country,” he said during an August press conference. “So I don’t know really anything about it other than they do supposedly like me.”
How does Q communicate with followers?
A mysterious user known as Q first began posting on the notorious imageboard 4chan in October 2017. The main Q account would eventually jump to 8chan, which was rebranded as 8kun in 2019. (Imageboards like 4chan and 8chan are forums where people can anonymously post images and text and have become hotbeds for violent rhetoric and hate speech.)
Q posts cryptic messages known as “Q drops” containing clues about what’s going on in the war between Trump and the pedophiles. Supporters pore over the riddles, obscure references, and numerology within the messages in an attempt to crack their meanings. Here’s an example of a Q drop from 2019: “[C] BEFORE [D]. [C]oats BEFORE [D]. The month of AUGUST is traditionally very HOT. You have more than you know.” The drops are posted to 8kun, though popular websites like QMap aggregate the messages and disseminate them to a wider audience.
Who (might) Q actually be?
Frederick Brennan, the creator of 8chan, has been going to news outlets for months claiming that his former business partner Jim Watkins likely currently controls the Q account—claims that have led to the publication of two major investigations over the last week. In 2014, a year after founding 8chan, Brennan moved to the Philippines to work on the site with Watkins at his pig farm in Manila. Brennan ceded ownership of 8chan to Watkins in 2015. The two had a falling-out after 8chan was linked to several mass shootings, and Brennan tried to get Watkins to take it down. Watkins would eventually invoke a criminal libel law against Brennan, which forced him to flee the Philippines.
In an interview with the tech podcast Reply All, Brennan says he believes that a longtime conspiracy theorist from Johannesburg named Paul Furber is actually the first person who started posting as Q back in 2017. (Furber has denied this.) Furber publicly acted as Q’s interpreter and spokesperson on venues like 8chan and Infowars. According to Brennan’s telling, Watkins’ son Ron was able to wrestle control of the Q account away from Furber at the beginning of 2018 using his login privileges as the site’s administrator.
Jim and Ron Watkins have denied that they’re behind the account or that they have any direct contact with Q. However, Jim Watkins has been very outwardly supportive of Q; he’s founded a QAnon super PAC and wore a Q pin during his testimony before Congress about 8chan in 2019.
Why do people suspect the Watkins family is behind Q?
Nothing has surfaced definitively proving that the two Watkinses currently control the Q account, though Brennan has presented evidence that he says at the very least proves that they have an overwhelming amount of influence over it. Even before Brennan gave his most recent interviews to the media, people began suspecting that the Watkins family was linked to Q. When 8chan’s service providers forced it to go offline in August 2019, Q didn’t post any drops for months, not even on other platforms, seemingly waiting until the message board came back as 8kun in November.
Last month, anti-Q activists discovered the fact that 8kun shares an IP address with QMap, the most popular Q drop aggregator, suggesting that the Watkinses were behind both sites. Yet the developer of QMap, a man living in New Jersey, denies any connection to the Watkinses. Brennan has said that the shared IP strongly implies that the Watkinses have control over the two primary platforms through which Q disseminates drops, though again there is no definitive proof. If this were the case, though, the Watkinses could effectively become Q at any time by accessing the account on 8kun and spreading the message on QMap.
Brennan also points to the moment when Furber allegedly lost control over Q as further proof of the Watkinses’ influence. In the early days of QAnon, the main 8chan account wasn’t particularly secure, so people would often break in and post as Q. Furber took on the role of verifying who was or wasn’t the real Q because he ran the particular forum on 8chan where the drops were posted, and so he could see users’ IP addresses. In 2018, however, someone began posting as Q who Furber said was a fraud. According to this telling, Ron Watkins stepped in at that point and said that he can also identify who the real Q is because he’s 8chan’s administrator. Watkins ended up claiming that this supposedly fraudulent Q was actually the real deal. He also created a new forum for this Q to post outside of Furber’s purview. Watkins is now the only person who can verify who the real Q is, giving him even more control over the movement. (For QAnon followers, identifying whether a Q drop is “authentic” involves looking at Q’s unique tripcode. To understand this aspect of the story, here’s a good explanation.)
Does it matter who Q is?
The identity of the person actually writing as Q might be beside the point. It could be the Watkinses, or one or more people working under them, or someone they have close contact with. “It doesn’t really matter who is writing the ‘Q drops,’ ” QAnon researcher Mike Rains told ABC News. “Watkins is the publisher. He is the only source of information that is allowed to get out there.” Followers of QAnon also have a deep distrust of the media and similar established institutions, meaning that no matter how much evidence piles up that the Watkinses or one of their associates is Q, it might not make that much of a difference to the deep state–skeptical QAnon faithful.
Correction, Sept. 25, 2020: This article originally misspelled Jo Rae Perkins’ first name.