What This Documentarian Learned After Three Years Spent In the Deep Dark Rabbit Hole of QAnon
What's an idea so dangerous that it warrants being banned?
That was the initial question in filmmaker Cullen Hoback's head when he set out to uncover who is behind the far-right conspiracy known as QAnon — a movement, dating to 2017, that warns of secret evil among the American elite being secretly battled by Donald Trump.
The theory takes its name from the so-called "Q," who first began posting on the internet in October 2017, styling themselves as a government insider incorrectly predicting Hillary Clinton's imminent arrest.
In the years since, QAnon has become larger and more diffuse, more like a series of overlapping conspiracies united by common themes of exploitation, coverups and covert messages. Based on forums and in social media posts, its true popularity — the number of its true believers — is hard to measure. But its profile is clear: QAnon has spawned countless amounts of merchandise, been referenced approvingly by conservative lawmakers and had a presence at the Jan. 6 Capitol attack by a pro-Trump mob.
More and more, QAnon has also been booted from mainstream platforms, though it still thrives in some digital corners.
In attempting to answer the question of who was behind it all, Hoback may have gotten more than he bargained for — ultimately spending three years embedding himself with both those who believe in the conspiracy and those who just may have created the entire thing to begin with.
Much has been written about those who follow the QAnon narrative, which alleges a number of wild and macabre claims, including that a group of cannibalistic pedophiles run a global child sex-trafficking ring and actively plotted against President Trump while he was in office.
Far less has been confirmed about who is actually pulling the puppet strings at the center — as the author of the Q posts — which is what Hoback says he wanted to do: Determine who, exactly, was behind the conspiracy-laden prophecies purporting to share insider information about the White House and top levels of government.
In short, Hoback wanted to use his six-part HBO docuseries, Q: Into the Storm, to out the anonymous part of the movement.
"I thought that unmasking 'Q' might bring this whole thing to a conclusion," he tells PEOPLE.
The QAnon phenomenon is rooted in the series of posts purportedly written by someone with "Q-level" security clearance, who first appeared on the anonymous forum 4chan nearly four years ago. (The "Q drops" have since made their way to the similarly-named message board website 8chan.)
Q's conspiratorial predictions were dense and jargon heavy — or nonsensical, depending on the view — and read to fans like a code to be cracked.
Over time, as the number of posts by Q grew, an online community sprouted up around it. Eventually, Q's warnings (the bulk of which never came true) found their way to other websites, drawing in more and more followers and launching YouTube channels from those attempting to decode the latest "drops."
QAnon, though still viewed as something of a fringe group, has no doubt had an impact on the American electorate. The conspiracy has even made its way into mainstream politics thanks to the Trump administration and lawmakers like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who expressed her support for QAnon in the past. (Her spokesman has since said she thinks it's "disinformation.")
Many observers also noted the amount of QAnon paraphernalia at the deadly insurrection at the the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
While Hoback says he doesn't blame QAnon for the riots, he also says the attack likely wouldn't have happened without it.
"It's the idea of meme and magic — memeing something into reality. Jan. 6 was the attempted manifestation of that," Hoback says. "You had a number of people … trying to make the Q narrative real."
Indeed, an ABC News report examining the court records of those arrested for participating in the riots showed a large number of them appeared to be followers of QAnon.
To understand the movement's appeal, start with the members of the little-known forums where Q first appeared. After all, if the person purporting to be a government insider is really just a fraud (an Oz-like character who wields only the appearance of power), doesn't that make all of the posts — and, by extension, the system of beliefs — a fraud, as well?
"Those who follow Q see the magic trick. And what we're doing is showing how the magic trick works," Hoback says of his docuseries. "And I think once you show how a magic trick works, it can't work again."
Based on the investigation he documents in Into the Storm, Hoback believes the primary architects of the "magic trick" of QAnon are Jim and Ron Watkins, a father-son duo who took over the forum 8chan, now known as 8kun, from founder Fred Brennan.
As the site administrator, Ron has long been rumored to be the man behind Q. Some say that even if he wasn't the first person to begin posting as Q, he eventually took over as Q or, at the very least, knows who the poster is.
Hoback explains that, in his view, Ron, Jim, and the conspiracy-laden message boards are "the engine that makes Q work." (The Watkins have disputed this.)
To understand Q, he says, you have to understand them.
Some QAnon followers claim not to care who the poster actually is — but Hoback doesn't buy that: "Deep down, they all wanted to know the answer, even though the talking point was that they don't care."
Determining Q's identity, he says, can lift the curtain on the truth.
"Masks have an incredible amount of power. And when you take a mask off of someone, all of the baggage that comes with that person is revealed," Hoback says.
He continues: "It's not my intention to make people turn their back on it. It's just to show them what was going on behind the scenes and let them come to their own conclusions."
Even without the identity of Q being made public, Hoback says he's seen support for the group begin to splinter. Following a number of Q predictions that failed to come true (such as a claim that Trump would somehow become president again on March 4), he says "there are a lot of QAnons who are rudderless and feeling misled and they want to know the truth."
Still others aren't giving up — a notion Hoback says one believer featured in the documentary recently compared to basketball players "running around shooting hoops, trying to change the score even after the game is over."
As the movement's claims continue to go unfulfilled, the allure of the conspiracy has begun to fade among some. For those who still believe, learning the truth can be harsh.
"It had a very game-like quality [initially]," Hoback says. "I think people were flirting with the idea of 'Maybe it's real, maybe it's not.' But if you pretend to be something long enough, you eventually become that thing."
Even as Q hasn't posted since December, it's unlikely that the QAnon community will dissolve entirely. Instead, the group of believers might morph into something else.
"I think we will have an element of Q going on into the distant future," Hoback says, "but if folks sit down and take the bitter pill of what was going on behind the scenes, I think it will change the story they tell."
That someone could invent an alter-ego who shares government secrets on internet message boards and use that persona to inspire an entire community seems almost too tailor-made for TV — and yet that may be what happened, with Into the Storm pointing the finger in the direction of Ron Watkins.
While Ron has previously denied that he is behind Q — saying last month that "I am not Q. I've never spoken privately with Q. I don't know who Q is" — Hoback believes Ron leaned into the narrative in text message exchanges with him sent as the docuseries began to air.
In one of the more recent messages, according to Hoback, Ron wrote something that Hoback says seems to be "almost a confirmation in and of itself."
"Something I learned long ago is that internet personalities are just actors on a stage," Ron wrote, according to Hoback. "Making things larger than life makes for a better story and ultimately more entertaining existence."
Q: Into the Storm is available now on HBO.
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