Who is Q? Why QAnon's ringleader may have been hiding in plain sight all along

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Rachel E. Greenspan
·11 min read
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jim watkins qanon q 8kun
Jim Watkins Watkins Xerxes/YouTube
  • QAnon researchers have long suggested that 8kun's owner and operator were involved in the theory.

  • QAnon began with posts an anonymous figure who most recently posted on 8kun, Jim Watkins' website. 

  • There is also speculation on the involvement of Watkins' son Ron, a former operator of the platform.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Related: How the QAnon conspiracy theory seeped into Trump rallies

For years, Jim Watkins has occupied a dark role on the internet.

The owner of the fringe message board 8kun - formerly 8chan, best known as a forum for violent extremists and mass shooters - has been a prominent voice advocating for limitless protections for speech online, even when it veers into hate.

In 2019, Watkins testified in front of Congress, saying his platform "has no intent of deleting constitutionally protected hate speech," doing nothing to assuage fears that spaces like 8kun would continue to serve as breeding grounds for extremism.

8kun's role in the QAnon conspiracy-theory movement, for instance, became increasingly clear in the last year. The movement, which revolves around the belief that a "deep state" cabal of human traffickers exists in the top levels of power in the US, grew and spread out of a series of posts on the message board, and eventually contributed to many rioters storming the Capitol during the January 6 insurrection.

And now, after speculation that Watkins himself played a role in the propagation of QAnon, a new HBO documentary series has seemingly added evidence to the idea that Watkins' son, Ron, the former administrator of 8kun, led the show for quite some time.

"It was basically three years of intelligence training, teaching normies how to do intelligence work. It was basically what I was doing anonymously before, but never as Q," Ron Watkins told filmmaker Cullen Hoback in the finale of "Q: Into the Storm," which aired Sunday night. While Watkins claimed he wasn't interacting with QAnon supporters "as Q," his admission that he was previously posting "anonymously" raised eyebrows. As Hoback said in the film, "Ron had slipped up." 

ron watkins oan
Ron Watkins was interviewed by OAN's Chanel Rion as a "cyber analyst." OAN/YouTube

In posts on his Telegram channel in March and April of this year, the younger Watkins told his 152,000 subscribers that he is "not Q."  

QAnon watchers and internet sleuths have long believed that the Watkins father-son duo could have a primary role in orchestrating the movement, which has found a home among Republicans, many of whom have praised QAnon believers

The entire worldview of QAnon adherents is based on the notion that the anonymous "Q" figure has been communicating with them for years. If either Watkins admitted openly to being "Q," the community would be forced to reckon with proof that the anonymous figure actually has no connections to the White House.

And in the day's after the finale of "Q: Into the Storm" aired on HBO, the community reacted as many experts suspected it would: denial and accusations of "fake news."

Fredrick Brennan, the software developer who created 8chan and has since become its most vocal critic, told Insider in an October 2020 interview that he believed the elder Watkins was responsible, in some part, for "Q drops."

"He's smart in that he sees that there is power to be had by controlling the fringes of society, not just the core mainstream level of society," Brennan, who has worked with Watkins, told Insider. 

Here's the evidence that links the two Watkins men to QAnon.

QAnon grew out of Watkin's platforms

8kun 8chan
A screenshot from a video posted by 8kun's owner Jim Watkins. YouTube/Watkins Xerxes

The QAnon movement revolves around a baseless far-right conspiracy theory that claims former President Donald Trump was secretly fighting an elite "deep state" cabal of human traffickers. It was born on the message board 4chan in 2017, before moving to 8chan, where people began to pick up on so-called "Q drops" from an anonymous poster named "Q" who claims to have a high-level security clearance in the US government. 

When 8chan, which was owned by 56-year-old Watkins, went offline in 2019 after its cybersecurity provider cut ties with the platform, "Q" reappeared on Watkins' new platform, 8kun.

Aside from his initial appearance on 4chan, "Q" sends messages to his followers only on a platform operated by Watkins and his son, Ron. 

QAnon skeptics have long been curious about Jim Watkins' impact on QAnon, but many QAnon researchers and experts have recently speculated that Watkins himself might be responsible for the "Q drops." ("Q" has not posted since December 2020.)

Despite the evidence that "Q" is likely not whom he says he is, QAnon supporters don't seem to care.

Alexander Reid Ross, a doctoral fellow at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right, an organization that tracks right-wing extremism worldwide, told Insider that because conspiracy theories exist in a framework of "deep suspicion and paranoia," QAnon adherents won't take new assertions of truth lightly. 

"Every iteration has to become plausible for them, and sort of co-exist within what they already believe through QAnon," Reid Ross said. "They can't walk it back - they have to continue to move forward."

qanon trump
A man holds a large "Q" sign while waiting in line on to see President Donald J. Trump at his rally August 2, 2018 at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Rick Loomis/Getty Images

Watkins' son, Ron Watkins, previously declined to comment, and told Insider to reach out to Is It Wet Yet, a parent company for 8kun and other websites. A representative for Is It Wet Yet did not respond to a request for comment.

Brennan worked with the father-son Watkins duo until 2018 when he quit in protest of the platform being used for harm, as mass shooters continually used the message board. Brennan's relationship with the men unraveled, eventually leading to Jim Watkins hitting him with a libel lawsuit

Brennan's theory that Watkins may be "Q" was investigated by The Atlantic in June. And a September investigation, ABC News reported on the likelihood that Watkins is Q, finding that he and his son, Ron, were the "two Americans most clearly associated" with Q drops. The theory was also popularized by a September "Reply All" podcast episode.

Mounting evidence has pointed to Jim Watkins

Screen Shot 2020 10 06 at 3.09.57 PM
Watkins films a YouTube video with a "Q" and American flags in the background. Watkins Xerxes/YouTube

Watkins, an American entrepreneur and pig farmer who now lives in the Phillippines, has immense control over QAnon, as the community exists on his platform.

While the first message appeared on 4chan, which is not owned by Watkins, in 2017, the anonymous figure soon moved to Watkins' 8chan, and then to 8kun. When Cloudflare, 8chan's cybersecurity provider, cut ties with the platform last year, 8chan went dark for three months.

Without 8chan, "Q" did not post elsewhere online. They simply disappeared before re-emerging on 8kun, Watkins' new platform.

In an effort to preserve each user's privacy, users of 8kun and its predecessors don't have accounts with their name attached, like on Facebook or Twitter. Instead, they each have a tripcode, a code sequence that lets other users know the same individual is posting.

But because third parties cannot verify each poster's identity with the tripcodes, they are not secure, according to Brennan. Watkins could easily be using the tripcode originally associated with "Q" - or any other tripcode on the site, Brennan said.

Brennan also pointed out in a tweet that the IP address hosting 8kun also hosted QMap.pub. The website cataloged "Q drops" and has previously drawn 10 million visitors a month, according to data compiled by the analytics firm SimilarWeb.

-Fredrick Brennan (@fr_brennan) August 23, 2020

 

The fact-checking company Logically, which uses artificial intelligence to help fight misinformation, reported on September 10 that Jason Gelinas, a New Jersey information technology specialist at Citigroup, was the operator of QMap. Citigroup confirmed to Insider on Tuesday that the company had fired Gelinas, as Bloomberg News first reported.

Gelinas did not respond to Insider's request for comment. He told Bloomberg News in September that he wanted to "stay out of it."

The website shut down soon after the alleged ties to Watkins came to light.

The QAnon conspiracy theory has contributed to Jim Watkins' success

QAnon supporter
QAnon conspiracy theorists hold signs during the protest at the State Capitol in Salem, Oregon, United States on May 2, 2020. Photo by John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Watkins has expressed interest in QAnon, and in a September 2020 interview with the far-right news outlet American Broadcasting Company, he said he thought it was "real." "I think that 'Q' is more than one person posting, I'm guessing, but I don't know. It seems like they have a lot of back information." 

He also wore a "Q" pin when speaking before a House Homeland Security Committee hearing in September 2019. 

"Q is the main draw to Jim Watkins' website," Travis View, a conspiracy theory researcher and co-host of the podcast "QAnon Anonymous," told Insider in an interview. "He's willing to, at the very least, wink and nod and support the community." ("Travis View" is a pseudonym. The researcher's real name is Logan Strain.)

8kun draws in money from advertisements, so the more eyes on the site, the more money it can make.

And traffic data shows that QAnon is undoubtedly a main draw to 8kun. According to SimilarWeb, the analytics firm, four of the five top traffic referrals to 8kun are websites that track "Q drops" - a whopping 54% of 8kun's referral traffic in August 2020 came from the now-defunct QMap.pub, before the website was taken down.

Watkins has also raised money to donate to political campaigns with a PAC that is using messaging that echoes language popular within the QAnon community.  

Read More: The bizarre life of 8chan owner Jim Watkins, the middle-age veteran who decamped to the Philippines and runs a pig farm

At the end of February 2020, Watkins registered the PAC, "Disarm the Deep State," with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). Watkins is the treasurer of the PAC, which is based in Mississippi, according to FEC documents reviewed by Insider. 

FEC documents made available to the public by The Center for Responsive Politics show that as of August 31, 2020, the PAC had earned nearly $4,000 and spent $646, with no money contributed to federal candidates.

Watkins has used money raised by the PAC to buy advertisements on his own platform, View said. 

The PAC's website doesn't reference QAnon specifically, but says that it will "support candidates, legislators, and legislation" that return "power to American citizens and inhibits bureaucratic bad actors." The Center for Responsive Politics categorizes it as a "Republican/Conservative" group.

The PAC's website uses language popular within the QAnon community, calling the PAC a group made of "patriots" that is working to "bring our growing movement of disillusioned individuals into the limelight." QAnon devotees often call themselves "patriots," as "Q" first identified himself as "Q Clearance Patriot." 

QAnon believers won't let go of "Q" that easily

QAnon Trump
A Donald Trump supporter holding a QAnon flag visits Mount Rushmore National Monument on July 01, 2020 in Keystone, South Dakota. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Even if Watkins, or someone else without US government clearance or connections to the White House, were proven to be the person behind "Q," experts have said QAnon adherents would ignore that information - or craft a new explanation for why Watkins being "Q" fits into their belief system. 

View said that QAnon folks are so emboldened in their own worldview that breaking down that conspiracy theory thinking will likely be impossible. 

"There's really nothing that's going to totally dissuade the currently existing QAnon community that they were mistaken," View said. "They can morph into something else, but they are extremely invested in their belief." 

Even if it can be proven that "Q" is a person or group of people with none of the power they purport to have, View said he believes there's a misconception about how people see QAnon - which has been linked to several crimes and referred to as a potential domestic terrorism threat by the FBI - meeting its demise. 

"I think a lot of people have this fantasy that once we sort of uncover the truth to QAnon and its origins, that will somehow break the spell for the QAnon followers," View said. "That's just not the case." 

As of Wednesday morning, just days after the HBO docu-series episode appeared to show Ron Watkins slip up and give the impression that he may have posted as Q, social-media platforms for the QAnon community were discounting and discrediting the news. 

One post on Gab put it simply: "Ha, no."

This article has been updated. The original version was published in October 2020.

Read the original article on Insider