Cullen Hoback spent years making the HBO documentary Q: Into the Storm, in an attempt to identify the person behind the 8chan posts feeding the QAnon frenzy. Spoiler alert: Hoback is fairly confident he figured it out — Q is none other than Ron Watkins, the site’s once-administrator, also known as CodeMonkey.
I don’t care about the identity of Q. And I doubt the followers of Q will accept Ron Watkins as their omnipotent leader. But it was fascinating to watch the people orbiting the conspiracy theory cult.
One such person was Ron Watkins’ father and 8chan’s owner, Jim Watkins. The man’s facial hair alone is a bewildering spectacle, but add to that Jim’s demeanor and his evasive persona, and you get this impression: Jim lacks a stable identity.
Who is Jim Watkins? He’s a businessman, ultimately. But he’s also a character. Someone accustomed to shapeshifting, according to the role he finds himself in, at that moment. As social creatures, we all do this to some extent, but Jim Watkins brings a consistency that throws the whole charade into sharp relief. It’s his voice. His slow, methodical voice, creating the illusion of certainty and conviction.
Even if Jim Watkins is not involved with Q, (as he claims), he still lives in Q’s world. He lives in the world where people believe you, not because you’re telling the truth, but because you’re promising them something. This is what businessmen do: They make promises.
In fact, we all live in Q’s world, whether we want to or not. We live in a fragile reality where our beliefs can dictate our actions, and our actions can reaffirm our beliefs. We defer to the power of the collective, for the simple reason that we can’t function as mere individuals.
It’s not surprising that Jim Watkins looks up to Trump, the quintessential con artist-cum-businessman. With a background in selling illegal pornography, dating back more than 20 years, Watkins would have developed a knack for deception and all around squirrely behavior.
Watching Jim Watkins, I wondered what it would have been like to see Trump in different attire throughout his presidency. What would it have been like if, instead of wearing professional-looking suits and ties, Trump had expressed himself through fashion? What if Trump had exclusively worn T-shirts emblazoned with MAGA messages? Would people love him even more? Or would his credibility suffer? Would he still be believable as a businessman?
What’s clear from Hoback’s documentary is that Americans like to believe in hidden agendas, while refusing to see what’s right in front of their faces. We like the idea of winners and losers, sinners and saviors. We admire people selling the truth, not necessarily the ones telling the truth. We prefer promises, no matter how outlandish those promises may be.
All humans are strange creatures, but some of us are better at hiding our idiosyncrasies. Jim Watkins personifies, in visible, physical, documented footage, how slippery our identities can be. And the internet has only heightened this phenomenon.
Another subject of the documentary, Fredrick Brennan, the founder of 8chan, described the unprofitable website as a “boat.” It was a liability, not an asset, for Jim Watkins — so why bother running it? 8chan, where anonymous users can post whatever they want, including hate speech, was a fun toy for Watkins. Brennan is one of the few believably authentic personas in the film, despite being caught in blatant deception, such as claiming to have received a mysterious blue “Q” letter from the person behind QAnon. We later find out it was a ruse, with Ron Watkins pulling the strings.
Like his father, Ron Watkins speaks in slow, methodical tones, and with both men, their words waver. They contradict themselves, over and over again. We all do this, too. We change our minds, and we contradict ourselves in the process. The difference with the Watkins men is that they never seem to doubt themselves or question their beliefs. Again, I’m reminded of a certain businessman-cum-president who failed to take responsibility for his actions.
Knowing the identity of Q might satisfy those who want to blame a specific person for the mass hysteria brought on by the conspiracy theory, but the power of Q relies on collective action. And collective action is something many Americans still don’t understand.