Anon and QAnon — Q: Into the Storm (2021)
There are two definitions of “anon” which are useful to the conversation surrounding conspiracy theories.
The first is “anonymous” which is the magic and terror that abounds in the ability to post content without reciprocity or subjection to scrutiny.
The second is “anon” which is an Old English term that was originally defined as “in or into one state, or course”. Which means that to say “anon” would mean that it would happen “soon”.
Can we imagine a more interesting combination?
Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
Turns out that God’s understanding of time and ours needs to be recalibrated. 2,000 years later and the hope for all mankind has seen its fair share of setbacks that are large enough to give anyone pause. To give anyone doubt.
This concept of “soon” can be deadly to anyone with a tight grip on a belief system or ideology, and it is no different with those of QAnon, a group of like-minded individuals who believe that there exists a cadre of celebrities and politicians who perform unspeakable acts behind closed doors. They worship Satan, they eat babies, and they participate in a sex-trafficking network. The conspiracies began when “Q” started posting anonymously on 4chan in 2017 cryptic messages that implicated the very top of society. Though it seemed like the beliefs of some fringe, alt-right group, and should not have been taken seriously, four years later we watched as conspirators foisting QAnon shirts and flags stormed the Capitol and desecrated the symbol of democratic process. All the blame should not fall on QAnon, yet clearly seeing the outcome of the conspiracy laid bare in so obvious a way became a single moment in a string of bad American moments, where skepticism proceeded so far along a curve that it circled back into something like dogma. What are we to make of our own troubled thinking, and how can we maneuver past catalysts like wealth inequality, a global pandemic, and a polarized political space, in order to mitigate the disastrous effect of conspiracy theories like these in the future?
For better and worse, the latest Q: Into the Storm (2021)-now on HBO Max from Cullen Hoback-does not answer these larger questions. Going into the first two episodes on March 21st, I had the impression that the documentary was going to be a bird’s eye view, with a vast panel of experts that I had seen in several other documentaries from the likes of Alex Gibney about the power of network propaganda. I had expected some psychological profiles of “Q”, but little attempt to give the people suspected of being the instigator any screen time. Hoback’s documentary is not that story. Instead, he takes on QAnon from a personal and intimate portrait, one filled with strange anime sculptures from Neon Genesis Evangelion. One filled with questions about free speech in an increasingly digitized world. One of collecting thousand dollar watches, pens, and pigs. And, strangely, one where the identity of “Q” might have been revealed.
Cullen Hoback originally starts his investigation with Fredrick Brennan, the creator of 8chan, a forum that combines the power for anyone to make a board on whatever topics they see fit with the power to post anonymously. The result becomes what radical thinkers of the internet since its popular adoption have always wanted, which has been a playground for taboo and kink. Some forums are more benign than others, which descend down into depths that make you want to hug your family and smell the flowers. For a time, Brennan rested, and 8chan was good. But, as growing instability mounted around the world in the economic downturns surrounding the 2008 financial crisis, the temperature on forums like 8chan grew from tomfoolery to dangerous anarchy. After a series of race related mass shootings, Brennan believes that his 8chan creation helped to spur on other copycat killers, who posted racial epithets, manifestos, or even livestreams of their shootings in process.
Hoback is told, by Brennan, to also drop by Ron and Jim Watkins’s place, a father and son duo who work with Brennan on 8chan. Both are American expats who own a pig farm, collect things considered either priceless or worrying, and participate in an insular world where life seems less like a functioning society than as a codebase that can be manipulated to suit their needs.
And so Hoback begins a set of three stories that intersect throughout the six, hour-long episodes. One plot concerns “Q”, his or her unmasking, as well as the movement that “Q” is helping to construct. The second story is a rivalry between Fredrick Brennan and the Watkins duo on 8chan, where things quickly get personal, and the estrangement allows Hoback to play messenger and collaborator. Still a further plot discussed is the theme of internet free speech and censorship. How much is too much, and is there an easy throughline from the words of the likes of “Q” into the world that makes it easy to cancel users and followings?
Like any good investigation, some cases end up becoming one case. Hoback begins to suspect that, though there are a wider range of suspects, that the Watkins family may be deeply involved in “Q”’s posts on 8chan, as Ron Watkins, aka CodeMonkey, is an admin over the forum with enough powers to have a backstage pass. Either he is “Q”, we think, or he’s in on it. This makes the conundrum of 8chan’s battle with free speech that much more fascinating. When the rivalry between Brennan and the Watkins achieves its peak (personal attacks on Twitter), Jim Watkins files criminal “cyber” libel charges against Brennan. As they operate in the Philippines, if Brennan was indicted, he would have to serve a minimum six year sentence in horrific prison conditions that would undeniably kill him. Brennan suffers from brittle bone disease, and is wheelchair-bound. In a tense moment of the documentary, Hoback has to fly Brennan out of the country, in a time when coronavirus travel restrictions fall on the world, combined with an indictment that may land before even that. When Hoback asks Jim Watkins later about the significance of filing libel charges on someone while simultaneously fighting for the right for free speech on their own site, Jim rationalizes “right” and “wrong” to the camera as if they were self-evident. Hoback’s documentary, more than anything, is able to find the crossing point between beliefs and self-preservation. This culminates into some truly heinous disinformation campaigns regarding the coronavirus pandemic as it surfaced in 2020 when it came to mask wearing. Jim and Ron Watkins, if they were behind “Q”, may well have gotten people killed.
On the other side of the world, the promise of that Old English definition of “anon” weighs on disgruntled Americans who bring up “Q”’s conspiracies on YouTube channels and at dinner tables. Hoback has taken some criticism for the idea that QAnon comes off as a conspiracy that seems “edgy” and “enticing”. But for the typical audience of an HBO Documentary series, those who have been subjected to the theories and have turned follower do not come across as particularly salient or convincing. Many of those in front of Hoback’s camera come across as lacking any of the qualities that we deem inspiring; they are either, on the one hand, devoid of humility, or incredibly predatory. As the years build QAnon into a, ahem, “reputable” following, the politicians who piggyback off of it (Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump) see little interest in quashing their short-term gain. More horrifying than the ordinary people who find themselves poor and desperate for answers are those who should be bastions for truth, and should know better. More than broken families across the Thanksgiving dinner table, there is a broken political system where truth and success are not correlated.
Cullen Hoback’s hope for his documentary was that, by “unveiling a magic trick” that it “would not work anymore”. Whether Ron Watkins was “Q” or not, the unfortunate reality of the information age is that Hoback may be right about this particular magic trick, but others can take its place. The easy problem of internet censorship cannot replace the larger questions of AI-inspired manipulation hoisted by corporations as intractable problem and somehow also the solution. The easy problem of solving “Q” does not tackle the robust gaps in education among our poor, as well as their poverty. And so Hoback’s story, while thrilling, documents a symptom rather than a solution. If an edgelord living in the Philippines can encourage mass outrage over hidden baby eating, a cyber nuclear arsenal can be easily democratized. The dark age of the internet is upon us. Like the very same between Christianity and Islam long ago, over the beliefs surrounding how soon paradise would be upon us, it was important to save everyone before that fated arrival.
For what it is worth, Q: Into the Storm is a breathtaking timestamp of an intimate portrait of internet work and a larger systemic problem with society’s embrace of the medium. After the six episodes, it is impossible to find oneself on online forums late at night without wondering if what you are doing right now could lead to radical thinking. And, thanks to the Capitol riots on January 6th, the question of the effects of these kinds of shenanigans are here to stay.
Originally published at https://theroyleline.blog on April 9, 2021.