Future Tense

Does HBO’s QAnon Documentary Reveal Who Q Is?

Assessing the latest evidence in a Trump-era mystery.

Jim and Ron Watkins look at the camera as they stand on a concrete walkway on a pig farm.
Jim and Ron Watkins in Q: Into the Storm. Courtesy of HBO

On Sunday, HBO aired the final two episodes of the six-part documentary series Q: Into the Storm, in which filmmaker Cullen Hoback explores the cancerous QAnon conspiracy theory and attempts to get to the bottom of who exactly is behind it. QAnon is an internet-fueled movement consisting of people who believe that pedophiles control the Democratic Party, Hollywood, and other major institutions, and that former President Donald Trump has been leading a covert effort in conjunction with the military to have these perverts arrested and executed. Many followers also believe that members of this cabal are satanists who practice cannibalism and that Trump is using UFOs to fight them. The conspiracy theory has been linked to multiple instances of violence and has torn families apart. The FBI considers QAnon to be a domestic terrorism threat, and at least 34 of its adherents participated in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot.

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Hoback gained unprecedented access to some of the most important people controlling how QAnon proliferated online over the past several years, and in the finale, he offers a case for who he thinks “Q”—the supposedly anonymous government insider at the center of the conspiracy theory—really is. Here’s what he uncovered, and whether it truly gets to the bottom of one of the Trump era’s strangest mysteries.

What’s in the documentary?

The main narrative of the series follows a feud between Fredrick Brennan and the father-son duo of Jim and Ron Watkins. Brennan is the creator of the site 8chan, now known as 8kun. The site is an imageboard where anonymous users can post pretty much anything; it’s become a hotbed of violent racism and outré pornography. It’s also the sole venue through which Q communicates with his followers, in the form of cryptic messages called “drops.” Q claims to be a government official who was high up in the Trump administration and was privy to the former president’s secret war against the elite pedophiles. In addition to exploring the QAnon milieu and some of the speech-related issues the conspiracy raises, Hoback’s mission in making this documentary is to figure out who the person claiming to be Q actually is.

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In 2015, Brennan sold 8chan to the Watkinses and moved to the Philippines, where they resided and ran several businesses. The documentary starts in 2018, a few years after Brennan hands over the reins to 8chan, and continues on through his falling-out with the Watkins family. Brennan began feuding with the Watkinses after authorities discovered that 8chan was linked to a number of mass shootings, including the ones in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas. Brennan wanted to take 8chan down permanently, while the Watkinses wanted to keep it up based on what they said were free-speech grounds. The documentary follows the increasingly heated conflict that resulted from this disagreement.

What do we learn about the main players in the QAnon saga?

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The documentary is an intimate look at the people who have had the most control over Q’s primary means of communication, namely 8chan and 8kun. Hoback is obviously sympathetic to Brennan, and it’s easy to see why. Brennan is exceedingly charming and self-effacing, and he seems to be pursuing a fairly principled, if occasionally underhanded, crusade to get 8chan shut down. Jim and Ron Watkins, on the other hand, strike a rather slimy camera presence. Jim, a U.S. Army veteran turned porn, message-board, and pig-farm impresario, wears the eerily perpetual smile of the Cheshire cat and describes his fantasy of murdering politicians with a machine gun in one of his first interviews in the series. In subsequent episodes, he blames his evasiveness in previous interviews on a suspect claim of hearing loss and later on appears to fellate a pizza crust in a shudder-inducing attempt at humor.

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Jim’s son Ron comes off as a heartless and power-hungry otaku. He’s disposed to grandiosity, at one point pushing to sing opera on camera and at another casting himself as the godlike final boss in a video game he developed based on 8kun. Ron also appears to pressure Hoback into visiting prostitutes in Japan in order to test his trustworthiness.

Who does Hoback think is Q?

Hoback believes Ron Watkins is Q. This isn’t a particularly surprising conclusion. For more than six months, Brennan has been pushing his own theory that Jim and Ron Watkins control the Q account; his claims led to two major reports from ABC News and Reply All about the identity of Q in September. Referring to ABC’s article, Brennan gleefully brags in the documentary that “reporters basically wrote exactly what I wanted in certain instances.” However, his theory at the time did seem to have some fairly convincing evidence behind it. As owners of the site, the Watkinses have control over accounts that post there, including Q’s. Brennan also noted that Q stopped posting anywhere else on the internet when 8chan, the forum through which Q disseminates his messages, went down in 2018 because its service providers deplatformed the site. It was only after the Watkinses started a rebooted site called 8kun a few months later that Q started posting again.

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Importantly, Brennan and Hoback don’t think that Ron started this whole conspiracy theory. They simply say that he has likely commandeered Q’s account. Brennan has hypothesized that a South African conspiracy theorist name Paul Furber actually started posting as Q but then lost control of the account to the Watkinses. This is partly because Q inexplicably relocated to a different forum within 8chan outside of Furber’s control in 2018. After this migration, Q’s writing style notably changed. Hoback interviews Furber in the documentary, who contends that an impostor took control of the Q account. (Furber has denied ever being Q, and does so here.) And, to be clear, there are also other theories that vary in their plausibility.

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Why does Hoback now suspect Ron?

In the sixth and final episode of the series, Hoback presents his case for why he thinks the younger Watkins is Q. He mostly relies on circumstantial evidence that he’s collected through shooting the documentary, some of it compelling, some of it not. Much of it boils down to Ron’s inconsistent statements; he would one day seem to know Q’s intricate motivations and inner circle, and then he’d claim to know nothing about Q the next. Ron and his father also spend buckets of money on their hobby of collecting luxury watches and pens—Q has been known to post pictures of expensive-looking watches and pens in an attempt to prove that he’s in secure locations like Camp David. The piece of evidence that Hoback presents as the closest thing he has to a smoking gun is an apparent slip-up that Ron makes in an interview near the end. In his final conversation with Hoback, Ron seems to admit that he had been anonymously directing the analysis and research that 8chan users were conducting based on Q’s cryptic messages, even though he’d previously claimed to not be involved with any of the content on the site beyond his responsibilities as administrator. Ron, after briefly discussing his role in spreading conspiracy theories about voter fraud following the 2020 election, says, “It was basically three years of intelligence training, teaching normies how to do intelligence work. It was basically what I was doing anonymously before, but never as Q.” It’s deeply suspicious, but not quite enough to pin him as Q.

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Hoback does admit that his theory “lacked definitive proof.” It seems clear, though, that the Watkinses have an overwhelming amount of control over the Q account and at the very least have the ability to commandeer Q’s account at any time and post whatever they please. If they aren’t Q themselves, they likely have some sort of contact with Q. It’s also possible that multiple people author Q’s posts.

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Are there any other suspects?

In the documentary, Ron tries to convince Hoback that former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon is actually Q. Bannon had left the White House in August 2017, two months before Q started posting. In January 2018, Bannon stepped down as executive chair of Breitbart, around the same time the Q account allegedly changed hands. Ron showed Hoback the IP addresses associated with Q’s drops. A number of drops were routed through an address in Orange County, California, where Bannon lived. Ron also pointed to a specific instance in which Q apparently made two posts from different IP addresses within 30 minutes of Bannon’s house. Hoback then visits the Italian monastery where Bannon had established a school for fledgling far-right populists to try to investigate Ron’s claims (Bannon had already left), but ultimately doesn’t buy the theory. Hoback instead suggests that Ron actually tried to frame Bannon. He muses, “In order to throw off anyone who came sniffing around, wouldn’t it be smart to create a fake digital forensics trail, one that leads to someone from Trump’s inner circle?”

Does this still matter?

Q hasn’t posted since December, and Trump’s election loss has put a damper on the fantasy that he was going to use his power to root out the elite pedophiles. However, true believers are still trying to stay relevant. Salon reports that QAnon adherents have recently taken to defending Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz against allegations of child sex trafficking.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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