A mishmash of abject nonsense about global elite cabals, deep state operatives, and pedophilic child-sex traffickers who consume babies’ fear for its rejuvenating power, QAnon’s belief system is so absurd that it would be laughable if it wasn’t so popular—and thus so dangerous.
Shot over the past three years, Cullen Hoback’s excellent Q: Into the Storm (March 21 on HBO) is a complex story about free speech, social media, anti-establishment fury, white nationalist intolerance, crackpot fantasy, and anarchist villainy, all of which contributed to the rise of the infamous conspiracy theory, which during Donald Trump’s presidency took hold of factions of the GOP, and helped fuel the insurrectionist January 6 Capitol riots. Part on-the-ground journalistic exposé, part sociological study of corrosive internet culture, and part whodunit, the six-part affair shines a spotlight on one of the darkest corners of contemporary American life.
What it locates in that gloom, among other things, is the apparent identity of Q himself: Ron Watkins.
Hoback’s docuseries focuses on a collection of out-there individuals, beginning—in the premiere’s opening scene—with Watkins, the administrator of 8chan, an everything-goes message board that was owned by his father Jim Watkins, and hosted on servers located (as Jim himself was) in Manila. Jim made money via a pig farm, local retail shops, and by hosting websites in places like the Philippines, where they weren’t beholden to other nations’ laws. One of those platforms was 8chan (now 8kun), which Jim purchased from Fredrick Brennan, a smart, talkative young disabled man who created the site when he was 19 years old before selling it to Jim, who promptly hired Fredrick as its maiden administrator and relocated him to Manila.
8chan was an image board where anonymous users could indulge in unbridled free speech, including memes, photos, and diatribes about white nationalism, sexism, racism, and any other ugly or deviant thing that’s technically permitted by the First Amendment. It was there that, following a brief stint on 4chan (its more moderated ancestor), Q took up permanent residence. Claiming to be a military insider with “Q-level clearance” who was supposedly close to Trump, Q made regular posts (known as “QDrops”) that were full of coded warnings and premonitions about the coming “storm” that would unmask the deep state, and lead to the arrest, trial, and execution of alleged liberal criminals. Adherents began going on “digs” (i.e. research and analysis) to decipher the meanings of these messages, and then re-posting their conjecture in an effort to crowdsource further answers. As Q: Into the Storm defines it, QAnon (the “anon” is short for “anonymous,” in reference to both Q and those who frequented such boards) was “part interactive game, part religion, part political movement.”
In its early going, the series depicts a few die-hard supporters while providing a handy primer on QAnon’s operation and terminology, including “red pill” (a Matrix-inspired phrase meant to imply someone's eyes being opened to the truth) and and its White Squall mantra, “Where we go one, we go all.” Its primary subject, however, is the drama surrounding 8chan. According to early QAnon supporter Paul Furber, Q’s posts changed when he moved to 8chan, suggesting that an imposter was actually posing as the mystery figure. Nonetheless, Q’s subsequent missives were eagerly received by 8chan denizens, fueling the site’s popularity and spawning a cottage industry around his every word, courtesy of Qtubers like Dustin Nemos, Craig James and Liz Crokin, all of whom wax rhapsodic about the movement. To them, Q was a veritable omniscient deity; Crokin claims that Q is so magical she’d now believe anything, including that the Earth is flat. But to Ron and Jim, who profess their disinterest in politics and Q, he was supposedly just one of many users on the site.
Ron comes across as a soft-spoken, off-kilter narcissist whose every word is unreliable, and that goes double for Jim, who has a creepy twinkle in his eye, and an admitted fondness for politically incorrect off-camera speech. When 8chan refused to take down the manifestos of the 2019 Christchurch shooter (and two subsequent copycats), Fredrick had a contentious falling out with Ron and Jim, and their conflict is one of the central dynamics of Q: Into the Storm, since at the same time that 8chan was supplying a safe haven for murderous hatemongers, it was also giving rise to QAnon.
In lucid fashion, Hoback’s docuseries explicates the evolution of this radical, incel-filled corner of the online universe, tracing a clear line from Gamergate (an attack on female video gamers and journalists by a hostile misogynistic mob), to Pizzagate (a 2016 conspiracy about Hilary Clinton and John Podesta trafficking children in the non-existent basement of Washington, D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong pizzeria), to QAnon, which was the culmination of this milieu’s disgusting, prejudiced, paranoid, conspiracy-minded ideas and elements.
Q: Into the Storm is awash in wild players, weird terminology, and unhinged craziness. With the personable Hoback as its guide, it offers real-time access to Ron, Jim, Fredrick, Qtubers, OAN’s Jack Posobiec, and more, and is bolstered by an avalanche of news and internet clips, archival material, and interviews with experts (such as The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer). Q soon attracted the attention of right-wing bigwigs like Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Trump himself, who publicly claimed ignorance about QAnon but eventually began reposting Q memes and using Q phrases to court its followers. Over the course of its six installments, the docuseries dives headfirst into what appears to be a prank gone awry, with Q metastasizing from an online lark (or LARP, aka Live-Action Role-Playing game) to a feedback loop-fed crusade embraced by nihilistic loons and promoted by anti-democratic right-wingers like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.
Rife with talk about inventive tripcodes, covert psyops, child porn, and Section 230 (which shields websites from being sued for what users say on them), Q: Into the Storm becomes a frightening look at the dangers of unfettered free speech, as well as a portrait of a 21st-century America in thrall to delusions, and the myriad people who promote those falsehoods for financial or political gain. In its final installment, which concludes shortly after the Jan. 6 riots (which he attended alongside Jim, camera in tow), Hoback persuasively points the finger at Watkins as the mastermind of this Q ruse. In doing so, he not only brings some closure to his wide-ranging investigation, but also illustrates how modern society is at the mercy of shadowy manipulators using the internet to turn their destructive lies into reality.
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