Director Cullen Hoback believes he’s unmasked Q, the unknown individual or individuals behind the sprawling, pro-Donald Trump QAnon conspiracy theory that asserts the Democratic Party and Hollywood are ruled by an Illuminati-style cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles. For years, Q pretended to be a high-ranking government official with firsthand knowledge of the Satanic threat, posting anonymously on a series of fringe boards beginning with troll hive 4chan and later white supremacist haven 8chan (now itself relaunched as 8kun). Countless right-wingers and gullible rubes took the bait, and QAnon surged in popularity on Facebook and wormed its way into the ideology of the Republican Party. QAnon peaked, at least for now, in riots at the Capitol on Jan. 6, which sought to overturn the 2020 election results but only succeeded in causing five deaths.
It hasn’t exactly been a secret that Hoback’s preferred suspect is Ron Watkins, the son of creepy 8chan owner Jim Watkins and the site’s longtime administrator (several months ago he claimed he was resigning, though it may have only been a ploy to build his credibility as he pivoted to promoting pro-Trump election hoaxes). Six episodes of following the Watkinses around and interviewing practically everyone in their orbit in, Hoback thinks he’s tricked Ron into admitting Q is what he was “doing anonymously before.”
Both Watkinses obviously view themselves as master psychological manipulators, though they’re nothing of the sort. Whether it’s due to some feckless attempt to spread a cloud of ink over everything going on at 8chan or sheer incompetence, the two couldn’t keep their stories straight for the duration of the series.
The older Watkins spends much of the documentary denying he’s a “political” guy. But he ran a conspiracy news site called The Goldwater and barely even pretends to care that 8chan’s white supremacist /pol/ board, a festering wound on the internet, was tied to at least three mass shootings in 2019 by white supremacists who killed at least 75 people and wounded 66 others. By the end of the series, he’s in attendance at and cheering on the riots at the Capitol.
Amid vaguely menacing Hoback and his documentary crew with a mochi hammer and trying to pressure the documentarians into visiting prostitutes as a sort of vetting exercise, the younger Watkins is alternately suspiciously familiar with various facets of Q world and in total denial that he knows anything about the conspiracy theory at all. The show also makes clear that as the site’s administrator, Watkins would have had total access to the Q account and technical data that could help unveil the poster’s identity—and his behavior is well beyond suspicious.
The theory doesn’t require Watkins taht started QAnon; at an early point in the QAnon saga, the writing style of Q’s posts changed dramatically, suggesting that the account changed hands. Whether that was because of some behind-the-scenes deal or the result of a hostile takeover is a mystery that may never be solved. But it’s clear that Watkins had the means to easily seize control of the account associated with the posts, and Hoback details a large number of instances in which the seemingly new Q’s posts mirror or reference Watkin’s actions in supremely obvious fashion. At one point, the administrator leads Hoback on a wild goose chase to unveil former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon as Q, a dubious theory that relied on possibly forged IP address logs pointing to Bannon’s address in Orange County, California, and a monastery in Italy where he tried to set up an alt-right training camp.
“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?” Hoback asks in the documentary.
But it’s not until near the end that Watkins makes one seemingly major confession and slips up on another one. First, Watkins claims that he was personally driving much of the activity on /pol/, thus tying him even more directly to the terroristic massacres tied to its community. Second, Watkins all but outright states he controlled the Q account for years before immediately backtracking.
“I’ve spent the last, what, almost 10 years doing this kind of research anonymously,” Watkins told Hoback. “Now I’m doing it publicly, that’s the only difference…. don’t think for a second that half the threads on /pol/ (the political page of 8Chan) weren’t like, me digging.”
“... So thinking back on it, like it was basically three years of intelligence training teaching normies how to do intelligence work,” he continued. “It’s basically what I was doing anonymously before.”
Watkins paused, smiled, and added, “But never as Q.” Both he and Hoback broke into laughter, which Hoback appears to believe was a shared moment of recognition that his subject had finally fucked up, big time.
It’s certainly an overt admission that the Watkinses were much more involved behind the scenes with the toxic culture of 8chan than they’d otherwise like to let on—something that would have already been obvious to anyone paying attention to the site’s history. An ironclad admission that Watkins is Q it is not, especially given how much of Q: Into the Storm fixates on painting him and his father as weirdo narcissists who spend most of their time lying for attention (not particularly well, but still). It seems unlikely the public will get a more detailed confession out of Watkins or any other suspect soon, given the movement is now facing the scrutiny of the feds.
According to the Washington Post, the Watkinses doubled down on the Bannon theory in a recent livestream, but also argued it could be Hoback himself. Other researchers have noted that QAnon involved a sweeping set of political actors including Trump admin officials and allies, GOP politicians, conspiracy activists, and grifters in it for the merchandising opportunities, making it far larger than any one person.
“Even if it was only Ron Watkins, the movement has grown far beyond one person or alias,” SITE Intelligence Group director Rita Katz told the Post. “It is now a global societal virus that has become a vessel for everything from [anti-vaccine] misinformation and coronavirus conspiracy theories to political agendas. ... Everything Jim or Ron Watkins say should be taken with skepticism—even if that statement comes in the form of a bizarre ‘slip-up.’”
Whoever was last in control of the Q account, they’re not posting. The account went dark in December, around the same time Watkins supposedly resigned as admin of 8kun, leaving its adherents high and dry and in search of new causes. As Hoback noted, some of them are moving on to new, more fertile pastures like rallying against so-called “cancel culture,” a relatively recent Republican obsession. Many others have simply continued on out of blind devotion, busying themselves with projects like defending Trump-allied Rep. Matt Gaetz from allegations of sex trafficking or switching their focus to racism. Two, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Green and Lauren Boebert, are in Congress.