Since his loss in the Nov. 3 elections, Donald Trump has largely dipped out of public view and occupied his time in some gold-plated panic room, issuing a ridiculous series of tweets claiming victory in various states and ordering his cartoon parody of a campaign legal team to sally forth and step on rakes while trying to disenfranchise Black voters. The right-wing media has been happy to trot out one conspiracy theory about voter fraud after another as fodder for his disinformation campaign, though none of it’s sticking outside the GOP echo chamber.
Case in point: On Wednesday, Trump tweeted out a clip from the One America News Network interviewing a supposed “cyber analyst” discussing flaws in procedures by election supplier Dominion Voting Systems, which OANN cited as evidence the vote was definitely stolen from Trump. Just one problem, though. The “cyber analyst” was Ron Watkins, an administrator on far-right site 8kun, and son of its owner, Philippines-based pig farmer Jim Watkins.
8kun is a rebranded version of 8chan, an imageboard that became one of the key nodes of white supremacists and was driven offline in August 2019 after three mass shooters uploaded manifestos to the site before going on killing sprees. It’s also the last refuge of QAnon, a sprawling movement of far-right whackos that believes Democrats, Hollywood, and federal agencies are under the control of a secret cabal of child-raping, cannibalistic Satanists. QAnon is directed by “Q,” a huckster posing on 8kun/8chan as a military or intelligence official helping Trump lead a war against the shadow pedophiles. The Watkinses themselves are suspected to be Q, or at least operating with full knowledge of who it is and profiting from the hoax. (They deny this.)
In October, Mother Jones reported that Jim Watkins’ company, N.T. Technology, appears to have operated a network of sites with domain names “explicitly related to pedophilia”—and that metadata from these sites appeared to indicate they were used to host child pornography. After the Nov. 3 elections sent QAnon into a depressive tailspin, Q hasn’t posted, and Ron Watkins has claimed to be “resigning as admin of 8kun effective immediately” to focus on woodworking.
QAnon devotees view Ron Watkins as “the technical brain behind the platform where Q posts,” conspiracy theory expert Julian Feeld, one of the pseudonymous cohosts of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, said. According to Feeld, Ron Watkins has maintained a lower profile than but “played just as big a role in the QAnon movement’s growth” as his father.
“His ‘departure’ from 8kun is highly suspect and possibly just a PR move more than anything else,” Feeld added. “It allows him more freedom as a right-wing operative, specifically around the various voter fraud conspiracy theories. It has been astonishing to watch his messaging garner so much support at [OANN] and by Trump himself. He’s also in contact with [Republican members of the House] Kelli Townsend and Jim Jordan, by all appearances.”
Trump has aggressively promoted a baseless and labyrinthine theory in which Dominion is a left-wing software firm with ties to Venezuela and Democratic billionaire George Soros that threw the election for Joe Biden. In this tale, Dominion deleted hundreds of thousands of votes on election night, somehow bypassing chain-of-custody procedures for ballots put in place by states, evading public observation of canvass and certification procedures, and not being noticed in any kind of audit. The theory’s proponents say this allowed Democrats to snap up Electoral College votes in Michigan and/or Pennsylvania. Dominion says its employees have received death threats and harassment as a result.
In the OANN clip, Watkins was introduced as a “large system technical analyst” and cited procedures in a manual for Dominion voting machines, positing hypothetical scenarios in which someone with knowledge of their vulnerabilities could commit voter fraud.
It is indisputably true that white hat hackers, security researchers, and others have been raising the alarm about poor cybersecurity practices rife in state and local elections and in election system technology for years. It is also true that Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, election officials across the country, and dozens of leading experts in election security have all stated there is absolutely no evidence the election was compromised, let alone in favor of Trump.
Courts have also been unimpressed: The president’s legal team has been reduced to a gibbering mess as it’s been annihilated in a series of shaky lawsuits claiming irregularities in the voting process. In one recent filing, the campaign asked a federal judge in Pennsylvania to simply ignore the results of the state’s election and award its electoral votes to Trump. None in the slew of lawsuits the Trump campaign has filed across the country have resulted in any change to the Electoral College vote count, and many of them were filled with embarrassing legal errors.
“It seems that the QAnon-ization of the right-wing political machine has led to a portion of politicians acknowledging Ron as a trustworthy source of information,” Feeld said. “Just as people sought answers for the coronavirus by absorbing QAnon or QAnon-like theories into the mainstream MAGA and Republican discourse, we are seeing a reaction to Trump’s loss: the multiplication of voter fraud conspiracy theories.”
“The future is more uncertain for figures like [Ron] if Trump looks like a loser now,” Feeld added.
Update: 4/1/2021: This article has been updated to explicitly note that Julian Feeld is a pseudonym.