Unmasked

REVEALED: Cullen Hoback exposes the identity of QAnon. It’s scarier–and stupider–than you think

Director Cullen Hoback

Cullen Hoback’s whole career has built to this moment.

The affable journalist-turned-filmmaker announced himself as a director with the 2007 film Monster Camp about live-action role-playing games. His 2013 follow-up, Terms and Conditions May Apply examined privacy on the internet, and first exposed data harvesting by major companies such as Facebook and Google (a face-to-face between Hoback and Mark Zuckerberg in the film should be seen to be believed). What Lies Upstream confronted government inaction and corruption in environmental protection in the wake of the Flint Water Crisis.

Now, Hoback synthesizes the subjects of all three films into his most ambitious project to date, a six-part series debuting March 21 on HBO Max.

Q: Into the Storm profiles the online cult of QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theorist group that followed the online predictions of a mysterious source known only as Q. Hoback began tracking the rise of QAnon back in 2017, only to see it become a driving force in American politics in the 2020 Election and subsequent Captiol Insurrection. His investigation led him to the origins of Q on the message board 4Chan, and to a cast of eccentric characters, including former incel and programmer Frederick Brennan, a former follower turned critic of Q, and to former porn kingpin/pig farmer Jim Watkins and his programmer son Ron. Hoback investigates how the message board 4Chan and its successor 8Chan played a key role in the scandals of Gamergate, the Christchurch Massacre and the rise of Q, and raises questions about the role of websites in growing political polarization and violent extremism. Hoback also profiles several possible true-life identities of Q and, in the end, does capture an on-camera confession.

In this case, knowing the identity of Q somehow begs even more disturbing questions than it answers. We snagged time with Hoback to chat about the appeal of QAnon, Q’s true motives and how a banal message board intertwined itself with Trumpism and helped cause the January 6 riots. Q: Into the Storm streams on HBO Max March 21.

Do you remember the first time you heard about QAnon?

I think, like a lot of people, it was in my periphery that first year. It wasn’t until Reddit banned QAnon that my ears perked up. It’s an example of the Streisand Effect, right?

[Laughter]

I was like, why are they banning this thing? What is it about this idea that is so dangerous and pernicious that it warrants a ban? Is that a good idea? Might that have the opposite effect? So that’s when I became interested. I also was intrigued by the mysteries of it: who is Q? So it was a confluence of those things. And, like an on/off switch, once the switch is turned on, I’m all over it. I took about three hard weeks of research to take the temperature of the space and assess if it was a world I wanted to flip the switch for. It became apparent it wasn’t a mystery that could be solved from the comfort of my computer. It’s old-school muckraking as they say.

Jim (left) and Ron Watkins

That’s part of what gives the show flavor—the jet-setting and extreme personalities?

It depends on which character you refer to. Look at people like Ron & Jim, for example. These guys are basically the embodiments of the website they own and operate.

Right.

Which means they’re like real-life sh*tposts. They’re always trying to provoke a response, always trolling.

[Laughter]

You started the doc in 2017 as I recall. Obviously, between then and now, the “community” grew. At what point did you start to panic? Obviously, you saw there was no one behind the curtain.

Well, I had to check those kinds of emotions at the door and focus more on my curiosity, always recognizing that I needed to be cautious. Anyone I could be talking to at any point in time could be Q. It’s hard to know how good someone’s hacking skills are, or how far he might go to get inside your system. I was on a higher state of alert in the early days of filming, even though the seriousness of consequences increase over time.

Yes.

I realized that the characters running this circus had made a projection that is designed to seem super-scary, super frightening. They call the website “The darkest region of the internet.” They embrace infamy. That’s a marketing tactic. It’s the Wizard of Oz creating a projection saying “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” So, over, time, I was like who are these guys? And what are you going to do? You can’t be in those situations always on high alert at all times. That didn’t mean I let me guard down, but spending weeks of time with people to figure out their level of involvement with Q does take its toll.

Related: Folks are sharing stories about QAnon gays, and wow. Just wow.

Well, and that says a lot about Q’s followers. These Q-Tubers, as you call them—People like Dustin Nemos or Tracey Beanz–fancy themselves journalists (which gives all online journalists a bad name, incidentally). How much of the theories do they believe? Are they taking advantage of Q to boost their own profiles? Or are they really invested?

That’s a great question. It varies. I’d say a lot of the followers do genuinely believe many of the theories conjured in the QAnon universe. It’s also possible to have two completely opposite beliefs in their heads at the same time. That’s just true to the nature of conspiracy: you can believe it’s possible for two opposite things to be true. But the people who are higher in the echelon, within the power structure of Q, those who are the full-on grifters or patryots who saw it was a convenient way to build an audience or sell health supplements—they piss me off the most. Then there are some who genuinely believe it, or came to believe it. I think Craig [James, an evangelical minister] is one of those individuals who largely believes the things he’s saying.

The January 6 Capitol Riot

Ok.

Though I will tell you he eventually admitted to me that anyone who thought Donald Trump or any high-level official was posting on 8Chan or 4Chan are kidding themselves. So he’s aware of that. That’s why a lot of people, when you look at how Q evolved, think of it as a game or a LARP [live action role playing game]. Over time, it memes itself into reality. And that’s sort of the nature of belief: if you pretend to be something long enough, you become it. That’s what makes it tricky to answer that question.

Sure.

These people are dancing back and forth: how much is truth, how much do I believe? How much is made up? And this is true for the Chans in general. You have a lot of people posting toxic, nasty stuff. It’s hard to tell if they believe those things, if they’re being ironic or post-ironic. At some point, it stops mattering. The longer you engage in that kind of behavior, the more likely you are to start to believe those things. You won’t be able to tell the difference.

You make me wish we had a psychiatrist on hand. There’s a wealth of analysis to be done on some of these characters. You mention the LARP. One lingering question I have—Fred says it, I think. Q sort of started out as a live-action role-playing game master before becoming political. Do you think Q was the same person all the time? Or was the Q identity stolen by someone else?

I don’t think Q was the same person. We make a pretty clear case that it changes hands at least once. The original 128 drops didn’t have a trip code. That means anybody could have been LARPing as Q. All you have to do is go through what everyone is saying, and reflect those things back at them. Eventually someone—or a group of people—locked it down. You see a dramatic style change. Episode 105 tackles that. You see the network bolstering Q at that time and who had the capabilities to bolster Q at that time. I also have thousands of pieces of forensic evidence that I couldn’t include in the story that supports the claims that are made. In the series, we show that network, and where it changes.

Both Ron and Jim have this habit of very obviously gaslighting you and the viewer. At a certain point, it almost becomes pathological. The idea that Jim claims not to be political, but started a political website called “The Goldwater” for which he was an on-camera spokesperson—that’s ridiculous. Quite simply, are these healthy people? What’s driving them

Wow. That’s one of the big questions you ask when spending time with them. I try to show a lot of those moments to help the audience understand whatever the philosophy is that drives them. That’s why I get into Diogenes: this idea that they see themselves as absurdist cynics trolling the world. To some extent, I don’t know that they make decisions based on a consequence or a moral outcome. It’s more just trying to be provocateurs and make money.

Former programmer and anti-QAnon activist Fred Brennan

Yeah.

Let me say this: just the other day, Ron messaged me. He said, “You know, I identify more with villains. They’re way more fun.” And he cited Darth Vader, the Joker, Kylo Ren. So there’s something about them where they are drawn to darker instincts of humanity and revel in that corner. It was fascinating to see him describe himself in that way. It was something I’d seen in him but he’d never said before.

Is Q proud of himself after the insurrection?

Well, Q’s final message would indicate that he is concerned that Congress may want to talk to him. There’s a reason Q hasn’t posted since 2020. [Jim & Ron] are concerned that the US government is going to want to talk, and this time it won’t be about white supremacy and hate content on a website.

Right.

It will be about their involvement with Q. I would be very surprised if Congress doesn’t take that up. If they investigate the 6th, they will investigate Q.

As they should.

The 6th wouldn’t have happened without Q.

Well, and to that point, you show that Jim was present at the Capitol the day of the insurrection. You don’t show him breaking in, but you do show him cheering the rioters on.

Ron Watkins

You’ve endured a bit of criticism in reviews that it’s irresponsible to cover the QAnon movement, the Watkinses, because the viewing audience will either find them glamorous, or try to emulate them, or that the show will embolden extremists. How do you find a balance?

Well, I feel like this show does the opposite of that. Q derives its power from anonymity, from hiding behind the mask, from people believing Q is anyone they want. When you show who actually is pulling the strings, it changes how people perceive the story. You have to shed light on the dark things in society. What would be the better option? Ignoring it? We’ve tried a lot of things in the run-up to today in order to tackle Q. We’ve tried censoring, attacking, ignoring, and now 20% of the country believes in Q.

That’s frightening.

So I was simply trying to do something different: reveal the magic trick and show it for what it is. Just reveal Q instead of talking about the harm caused by it. A big part of what Q thrives on is the fear and belief that it’s powerful. When people see the ugly truth about who’s pulling the strings, that can have a lasting effect.

Social media, the internet are great tools for bringing people together. There’s no question the LGBTQ movement was the first beneficiary of that. But it also, in recent years, seems to lend itself to hysteria. For you, how do we combat disinformation and extremism? Do we need to regulate the internet?

These are tough questions. One thing we need to address as a society is why people are turning to something like QAnon. What makes the narrative QAnon proposes so attractive that people in this country believe in it? What is failing us? We’ve been told it’s good to have factories leave, that Iraq had nukes, that banks can do no wrong. We shouldn’t be that shocked that people believe in pedo-lizards. You can see when people feel like institutions fail them, they start looking elsewhere. What QAnon seemed to provide was a false narrative that was easy to understand. It’s black and white versus the banality of evil, or all those other things I’ve described. So, of course, we need to address the broader inequities of society, but that’s not the only thing that leads to something like Q.

Right.

If I was to talk about what we can fix on the internet, I think that the hate speech we see is a symptom of something much deeper. And it’s fueled by algorithms. 4Chan, 8Chan, these websites have been around for 20 years. What’s new are these algorithms that drive people to increasingly sensational content and win eyeballs based on rage and hate. They drive people into hyper-polarized echo chambers to the point it becomes impossible to talk to your neighbor. One thing I hope this project does is deescalate the situation. It’s likely that everyone will have someone at the Thanksgiving table this year who believes in QAnon. We’ve got to figure out a path forward. We have a society where people are allowed to believe in crazy sh*t, but at what point does believing in that crazy sh*t turn into crazy action? And we have to ask, what is more dangerous? Crazy beliefs or trying to stop those crazy beliefs to protect ourselves?

Ron Watkins

Yeah.

So I think we’re seeing a bit of a sleight of hand by big tech. They’re saying the answer is more algorithms to suppress hate speech online. Why? They don’t want people looking at the algorithms that make up their business model. Those algorithms are required to keep them in business. They want our consent to monitor every word to keep their data harvesting industry alive. In fact, you could make the argument that we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if privacy hadn’t eroded on the internet. It was the erosion of privacy that led to thousands of data points being extracted on each of us, which then led to hyper-targeted campaigns that could manipulate our thinking and drive us into echo chambers. Now we see the hate manifest across these platforms.

Yes.

So I think it’s tricky to solve, but we can start by putting seat belts on algorithms and getting some privacy laws in place.

Great answer.

I think part of the design or tone of creating something engaging is that people across the spectrum will watch this story and hopefully understand what was really going on with QAnon. It may sound crazy, but if a year from now people bring up QAnon and laugh, that might be the best-case scenario for society.

Here’s hoping.

Q: Into the Storm streams on HBO Max March 21.