Review: Q-Into the Storm (HBO)

HBO’s six-part documentary on the Qanon online conspiracy theory dropped it’s final two episodes yesterday. I’ve just finished watching the final episode and it was a genuinely fascinating piece of journalism. (https://www.hbo.com/q-into-the-storm )

Given the framing of the series as documentary about the movement (which was heavily implicated in the January 6 Capitol Riot) the actual focus of the series might leave you disappointed if you are expecting an explanation or history of the various (and numerous) strange beliefs of the Qanon supporters. It does touch on some of the lore that these groups have cooked up but there are better sources (eg the semi-satirical Qanon Anonymous podcast, who make an appearance in episode 1 https://www.qanonanonymous.com/ ). However, what the show does extraordinarily well comes from the level of access that journalist Cullen Hoback managed to get from the people behind Q’s main platform: 8Chan.

I’d considered having a distinct chapter on the story behind 4chan and 8chan for the Debarkle project, for four reasons, their origin in fan culture, their role in GamerGate (coming up soon), their role in Alt-Right culture & meme wars, and (of course) Qanon which was heavily promoted in recent years by Vox Day. I scrapped the idea because it was way too much to unpack. The very brief history being that anonymous image boards rose out of Japanese Otaku (extreme fannishness) culture, leading to a site called 2channel (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2channel ) being set up in the US for Japanese fans to skirt Japanese censorship laws. That culture of anonymous posting with an emphasis of socially or legally dubious content, later taking form in English language boards with a similar approach, most notable of which being the notorious 4chan.

4chan was a major organising site for GamerGate but when 4chan eventually cracked down on GamerGate content, many users decamped to an alternate image board site: 8 chan. Behind 8chanwas the American man who originally helped 2chan skirt Japanese law by hosting the site in the US: Jim Watkins. Into the Storm, follows Jim Watkins, his son Ron Watkins (the chief admin of 8 chan) as well as Frederick Brennan, the young man who originally establish 8chan as a kind of more extreme/less moderated version of 4chan. A better version of this history that works in the role of the hacker collective Anonymous (which has another touch point to fannish history with their campaign against Scientology) was done in this episode of the Qanon Anonymous podcast https://soundcloud.com/qanonanonymous/episode-128-from-anonymous-to-qanon-feat-dale-beran-matt-alt-fredrick-brennan-fuxnet ).

Into the Storm, tracks a lot of this history while examining likely candidates for the identity of the person behind Q. While it does spend time talking to some Q-promoters and their critics in Episode 1, most of the episodes are really a deep dive into looking at the three central characters, Jim Watkins, his son Ron and Frederick Brennan. Initially, Jim Watkins projects the image of simply being who he superficially appears to be: an expat American business man, living in the Philippines with a wide range of business interests. It is only over the multiple episodes (filmed over several years) does a deeper picture emerge. Ron Watkins, his more tech-savvy son, also initially projects a disingenuous image of just being a guy who administers a “free speech” website.

As characters, far more interesting is Frederick Brennan. Brennan has brittle bone disease and a very complex relationship with his disability (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fredrick_Brennan ) and was also extremely online from a young age, including activity on far-right websites and incel communities. In 2013 he set up his own alternative to 4chan known as 8chan but it wasn’t until GamerGate that the site began to grow. Unable to manage the level of traffic and attention 8chan was getting, Brennan sold 8chan to Jim Watkins in 2014 and moved to the Philippines to work for him. I don’t want to recount the whole story, as the doco does it better but Brennan’s maturing beliefs and circumstance led to Brennan and Watkins being increasingly at odds (some of which occurred before the documentary began filming but which only accelerates during the episodes, leading to very real danger for Brennan in 2020).

The central question though, is whether Cullen Hoback gets to discover who Q is as a real person. Various possible candidates are considered, Steve Bannon, General Michael Flynn, but in the end (and really throughout) there is one, glaringly obvious candidate: Ron Watkins, Jim’s son and the person with full control over 8chan (or in its revised form 8kun). There is a kind of anti-conspiracy theory/Occam’s Razor quality here: assume the smallest number of people are involved in something secret. There is some scope in Hoback’s analysis to suggest that Watkins was not the original person behind the Q posts but for the bulk of the growth of Qanon, Hoback leaves little doubt that Ron Watkins is the most likely culprit.

If you want a good sense of how Qanon grew and gained such a bizarre level of influence, the show may well disappoint. However, what it does it does well by focussing on a trio of people who have had little examination of their beliefs and motives. I found it compelling.

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8 responses to “Review: Q-Into the Storm (HBO)”

  1. The problem with trying to deep dive into what the Q conspiracy believes is that it might be easier to list what they don’t. It’s pretty much a free-floating collection of white supremacy, ‘they done me wrong!’, ‘you can’t tell me what to do!’, and waiting for the savior to come fix everything, with a dash of antisemitism thrown in (because there almost always is). It’s a whole bunch of people who have been raised on distrust of everything that seems official, led with political purpose initially, but arranged in an ‘anonymous’ form so it’s just become a leaderless mob with ideas bubbling over faster than anybody can follow them. It’s the ultimate form of collaborative ‘ignore the experts, do your own research!’ that allows everybody to feel smart by figuring things out for themselves, but has gone so far off track from reality that nobody’s even looking for the track anymore.

    I’ve said it many times before: the internet is great for community-building; it just isn’t picky about what types of communities get built. And a good chunk of QAnon seems to be about feeling like you’re a member of a community of like-minded people, which is part of what makes it so hard to shut down.

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    • I’ve said it many times before: the internet is great for community-building; it just isn’t picky about what types of communities get built

      Substitute the word “religion” for “the internet” there and a whole lot of weirdness may make more sense…

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  2. Fred Clark also did a review of this on his on blog, Slacktivist: Meet the creepy men behind the QAnon hoax. I think his descriptions of the Watkins family is worth quoting:

    Jim Watkins, Ron’s father, is a pornographer. Think Larry Flynt, but with less subtlety and wit. He got into the internet pornography business early enough to carve out a niche and make a fortune at it as one of the first website owners to figure out how to base sites in countries with the most permissive laws. He hosted and ran a wide array of porn sites from the Philippines, mostly catering to an audience in Japan.

    Watkins is make-you-shudder creepy. He has the vibe of Humbert Humbert mixed with Joseph Goebbels mixed with the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. His interactions with everybody come across as simultaneously contemptuous, condescending, disingenuous, and salacious — even on the rare occasions when he’s not doing anything overtly or deliberately icky. He seems, at all times, to imagine himself to be playing a secret game with secret rules. The nature of the game, or the fact that the game is even being played, is unknown to everyone else, but that doesn’t reduce the smug delight Watkins takes from outwitting them all to win this imaginary game in his head. To Watkins, this proves that he’s smarter and better than they are.

    He is, in other words, a troll. Jim Watkins is so skin-crawlingly horrifying that viewers can’t help but feel pangs of sympathy for his son. But sympathy for Ron Watkins is difficult to sustain because he consistently proves himself to be just as smugly creepy as his dad. Ron was raised to play Jim Watkins’ imaginary game and he, too, seems to be playing it — and congratulating himself for beating others at it — all the time.

    What of Ron’s mother? Is there or was there a Mrs. Watkins? Hoback never shows or tells us anything about that. But she’s a tangible absence in this story about a father and son uninfluenced by love and respect from or for any woman. Jim and Ron Watkins don’t seem to want or need the company or influence of women. They have porn for that. They don’t like women, but they really like porn.

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