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‘Q: Into The Storm’ Director Cullen Hoback On How He Unmasked Q

There are a few things you need to know before reading this interview with the Cullen Hoback, the filmmaker who completely dove into the world of QAnon to make a six-part series, Q: Into the Storm (produced by Adam McKay) that debuted on HBO on Sunday night. Only because getting to the bottom of who Q actually is – and by the end, Hoback does name someone – but it’s a somewhat complicated mishmash of the message boards where Q posts and the people who own those message boards. (If you don’t know what QAnon is at all, first, aren’t you lucky. But, in a nutshell, it’s an anonymous person on the internet who claims to know top secret information, that now millions of people actually believe – or at least did – and contributed to what we saw January 6th at the Capitol. It also involves democrats eating babies.)

The first thing you need to know is that in 2018, the person, or people, who posted as Q changed. Q used to post on a South African man named Paul Ferber’s board. In 2018 Q stopped posting on Ferber’s board and instead started posting on 8chan. Q now had an identifying tripcode and Q’s writing style completely changed. 8chan was then owned by Ron Watkins and his father, Jim Watkins (pictured above). And in the film Hoback spends an enormous amount of time with these two people who both seem to know a lot about Q and have a lot of the same opinions as Q, but swear they don’t pay much attention to Q, even though Q drives most of the traffic to their website.

The other name you need to know is Fred Brennan. Brennan used to own 8chan prior to Q coming along but sold it to Jim and Ron Watkins. Brennan used to be friendly with the Watkinses, but had a falling out and then, after the 8chan message board was used as a platform by the Christchurch mosque shooter, became vocal that 8chan should shut down. This created a lot of strife between Brennan and Ron and Jim Watkins.

By the end of the series, Hoback is convinced that the Q since 2018 is Ron Watkins. (The Q before this is complicated, as Hoback explains ahead.) There’s even an interview in the final episode where Ron Watkins, let’s say, messes up and inadvertently lays out his entire hand. Ahead, Hoback explains what it was like getting to that moment and how he got to a place where he could say, confidently, “Yes, this is Q.” Also he speculates where things go from here and how the average QAnon follower will react to this revelation.

In this film you basically say, “Yes, here’s the guy who’s Q.” You have all the evidence, and then that final video where he pretty much says, “Oops, yeah, it’s me.”

The Rick Perry “oops” moment?

Right. I felt like this would be a huge story, and it’s getting some attention, but not as much as I thought. Why is that?

I think it’s because we have requested that outlets not report on it. That they not reveal the ending, but that seal was broken Wednesday (when news outlets began reporting how the show ends). So, since then, I’ve seen it picking up in the news some.

Are you expecting a big surge of attention over the next few weeks?

Well, it’s hard to say. I think that unmasking Q has a lot of power to it. That’s why I put so much of my focus on that. It really is the driving question of the series: Masks have an incredible amount of power and someone who’s hiding behind a mask doesn’t have any of the baggage that comes with a messy human.

I’ve read about Ron and Jim Watkins before I saw your series, because there are pieces out there that are basically, “this is who Q most likely is.” Did you go into this focusing on them? Obviously entertaining other people, but focusing on them?

Absolutely not.

Oh really?

So you have to know that, when I started this back in 2018, no one knew who Jim Watkins or Ron Watkins even were. They weren’t suspects, really in anyone’s book. And Ron, CodeMonkey, he was the only person out of the three people behind 8chan, Ron, Fred and Jim. But no one was really pointing the finger in their direction. And the reason that I hopped over and started filming with all of those guys was simply because they were closest to the stories. You could chase any number of leads, but the factual leads, the technical forensic data, was all in their hands. So they knew. If anybody knew, it would be them. So that’s where I jumped in. And then of course I’ve been filming behind the scenes for years, tracking all of this stuff. Moving between all sides of the story, the sides that generally hate each other. Having to keep everybody’s secrets in that process, to some extent. Enacting a minimize-harm policy so that I could effectively document this. But it really wasn’t until the last six to eight months or so, I think, that people really started looking in the direction of the Watkinses. And I think you see in the series that a lot of that was eventually being spearheaded by Fred.

Were you surprised the Ron and Jim Watkins even agreed to be interviewed? And not just be interviewed, but really give you a lot of time? Do you think their strategy was they could spend a ton of time with you and that would convince you they weren’t behind Q?

I’ve wondered that myself. First off, for trolls, or for people who enjoy messing with others on the chans, I think they take great delight in trying to fool people into thinking things that are false. A journalist is the gold standard on the Chans. And these guys, Jim and Ron in particular, but also Fred to some extent, they kind of embody the sites that they run. In a way, Jim and Ron are like real life shitposts and it’s hard to know how seriously to take them because, to some extent, that’s the whole idea of a shitpost is to trigger a reaction. And so when I’m chronicling them, I’m trying to walk that line and show that intention, rather than playing into that hand.

But to answer your question, why did they end up giving me so much time? Well, I may have just been the first one there. The first one willing to travel to the Philippines, the first one who was willing to get on a plane. It was also before all the shootings had happened, so they weren’t household names at that time, not by any stretch of the imagination. There were a few weird videos of Jim doing yoga on YouTube. Ron, I think I found one picture of. And Fred was the most public-facing, so he was the one I reached out to first and he was the one who ushered me into the world of 8chan.

So are you under the impression that someone else was running the Q account before an incident happened in 2018 where Q switched boards and had a very noticeable style change?

Yes.

So who do you think that was?

I have a lot of very strong theories on exactly who was working with whom in those earliest days and how that all went down. We paint a case for Cicada’s involvement [Note: this would take forever to explain, but here’s the Wikipedia page], some of these ex-military camps to get involved. It’s hard to pin down exactly what their level of involvement was. It’s very possible that someone like Paul Ferber (a South African man whose board used to host the Q posts, whoever Q was in 2018 and before, before moving to Ron Watkins’ board) was a part of Cicada. It would make a lot of sense, certainly, that the person who created the tripcode would have taken that account to a board of their own design, right? The question of why does Q choose Paul Ferber’s board is a pretty good question?

Right. And then Ron and Jim Watkins are thinking, “Why are we letting him be on that board?” And then they just take it.

Right. Well, I’d say the one thing that really differs between Paul, and particularly the Watkinses, is that Paul’s story never changed. I interviewed him up and down, hours and hours, both on Skype before traveling to Johannesburg and then in person for days and his story never changed. It’s possible he’s lying. And it’s possible that he was in control of the account at that time.

So who’s your best guess? Or is it still somewhat of a mystery?

Well, the first Q was born partially out of a collective imagination. So the original 128 drops did not have a tripcode, so anyone could have jumped in and role-played as Q during that time. And, in fact, that’s largely how it started. So, while it was on 4chan, anyone could try to write in Q’s style. And if you were steeped in 4chan culture, particularly the culture of /pol/ – politically incorrect board on 4chan – you would have known the theories that were already favored by the anons. In order to be Q, you just needed to really know what people already believed and then know how to role play that and bounce it back to them in the form of questions.

I think I do make a pretty strong, compelling case in the series for the network of individuals that were involved with that and I think it connects back to the overarching theory that’s presented at the end of the series. I don’t point the finger 100 percent because I have mountains of evidence that ties to that early network, but in some ways what matters most is who’s been running the account the whole time. We know there’s a style shift, right? So we know there is at least one change of hands that takes place.

So you’re saying if it’s multiple people before Ron takes it over for good, they’re all trying their best to write like that?

That’s correct. So you can go back and look through those boards. And there are some QDrops that, for whatever reason, didn’t end up in the Q narrative or the Q canon. They just got omitted, or where board owners would delete them. There are ones which are debated as to whether or not they actually were Q. So they went back and kind of constructed who they thought were Q, simply based on style.

So especially after the final episode airs and it really gets out there in this film is saying, “Hey, here’s Ron Watkins. This is your leader. It’s this guy.” How is the average Q follower going to react to this?

Well, I’m still in touch with a lot of people who believe in Q, or the characters who are in the film and I’ve talked to all of them since the announcement. And interestingly, Craig, who’s in the film, right. He’s sort of the main QTuber that we follow…

Right, but those people have the financial interest. I’m talking about just the average person.

I think you’d be interested in hearing what he has to say, because he has maybe 100,000 people who believe in Q and are following him. So he knows what they want and what they’re thinking. It’s interesting because he described it to me like this, he said, “Half of the people who are following me right now think that it was a PSYOP. We all got tricked. There was no plan. And the other half believe that they need to double down, triple down. They’re bending over backwards in order to explain why none of the things that happened, why everything in reality seems to contradict the story that they’ve been telling themselves.”

And his position was, “Look, it’s like a basketball game where, at the end, your team lost, you’re down by five points, but for some reason your team is still running around the court shooting hoops, trying to score points. But the game is over. If there was a plan, it failed.” That was his view. So I think it’s really mixed, but to answer your bigger question about how the Q community is going to react to this?

Right, that it wasn’t some “insider.” It’s just this guy.

You’ll sometimes hear this idea that those who believe in Q or follow Q don’t care who Q is. That it doesn’t matter who Q is. That it was all about the research, and it’s a little bit of a refashioning of history But also something I’ve found along the way is that, when pressed, of course everyone who follows and believes in QAnon does, deep down, really want to know the truth. And I think, especially now, when reality is contradicting the story that they’ve come to believe, there’s more desire than ever to know what was really happening behind the scenes.

And, yes, Ron is a linchpin in a lot of this, but you do see that there were political operatives and other power players who were making this a reality. So the story that they told themselves wasn’t completely false in that sense: the idea that there were people in DC who were actively trying to make Q become real. But at the end of the day, if there was one person behind the curtain, who was it? And I think we make a pretty strong case in the series for who that was and I think they’re going to want to know that.

Well, you’re done with the film. You can sit back and see what happens, I guess.

[Laughs] Yeah. It’s hard to say, and part of me almost wishes that we had just let the series play and everyone kind of figure it out along the way because now there’s a lot of anticipation, right? Because, right now, a lot of people are like, “Oh, you point to this individual?” And, well, there’s a lot of context and a complex case that’s painted here. You should watch the series to see if you see what all those details are and decide for yourself.

That’s true. By the time you say, “this is the guy,” it’s so well laid out, yes, of course it is.

Right, yeah. We’re spending all of this time with these characters, not only to understand their motives and why they would keep a site like this up and running, but it’s a cat and mouse game to figure out what their level of involvement is.

I’m very curious how people react to this.

Me, too.

‘Q: Into the Storm’ airs Sunday night on HBO and streams via HBO Max. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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