- Interview by
- Luke Savage
By the end of the Trump era, QAnon had firmly made its way into media discourse surrounding the Republican Party and the wider issue of political extremism gestating online. It had also very visibly made its way offline, playing a pivotal role in the events surrounding the January 6 storming of the US Capitol.
But it wasn’t always that way. At one time, not very long ago, the sprawling online conspiracy we now collectively call QAnon was little more than one of many percolating in the obscure recesses of the right-wing internet — and filmmaker Cullen Hoback was there from some of the phenomenon’s earliest days to witness its emergence and growth.
Both are chronicled in the director’s new film Q: Into the Storm, which debuted on HBO last month and concluded its run the weekend before last. Getting in close to some of the Q-verse’s most influential figures, Hoback’s portrait is arguably the most thorough treatment of QAnon yet — and an example of a high stakes creative gamble ultimately paying off.
Jacobin spoke to Hoback about Q: Into the Storm, his investigative filmmaking methods, the series’ reception in the Q-verse, and more. This interview has been edited for clarity.
What most distinguishes Q: Into the Storm from other documentaries about QAnon, or so it seems to me, is that you began it so early in the phenomenon’s development — very much a high risk, high reward type of gamble that ultimately paid big dividends.
Can we travel back in time a bit to the moment you conceived this project? What did QAnon look like in those early days, and what inspired you to choose it as a subject?
I jumped on to this story a little less than a year into QAnon, and what piqued my interest was actually when Reddit banned it. My ears perked up. I was a pretty heavy Reddit user, so I wondered what this idea was that was so dangerous and pernicious that it warranted being banned. Q had kind of been in my periphery at that point, but I hadn’t looked that closely at it. I had a sense of what it was. But after the banning, I wondered if this was maybe a sign of things to come: was this direction that the internet was headed, and might banning QAnon actually have the opposite of the intended effect? Would it actually draw people into Q or make them more curious about this thing that seemed macabre and taboo? These things may draw people to it, and, in fact, they drew me to it. Here was something that was getting pushed off of Reddit and I said “Well, what is this thing?”
So I was brought into it from a digital rights perspective initially, because I also have a background in digital rights (I made Terms and Conditions May Apply, which was this exposé on the erosion of digital privacy). Then, of course, there was the question of who Q was. That mystery was something that I wanted to unravel because I thought that unraveling it might bring the whole thing to a conclusion.
What did QAnon look like when it was still a year old and just a few signs at Trump rallies?
In the beginning, I would say that it’s hard to know exactly how much people were fully invested in QAnon. I think we were still seeing a lot of people who were one foot in one foot out: people weren’t openly, publicly supporting QAnon in the way we know it now. You would see some Q signs at rallies, but it wasn’t a titanic force in the culture at that point. You get this from talking with Q’s followers — those who had come out as QAnon believers — you weren’t sure if they’d fully bought into it yet or not.
I talked to Q-Tubers — the people who are on YouTube who translate Q’s message to the masses — sort of the bottom of the information hierarchy in a way (though there are, of course, the people who consume the information). I started out with people who had been mentioned in the Q drops. When I started out with this question of who Q was — and you see this in this series — I drafted up a list of possible suspects, but rather than chasing down every one of those leads, I just thought it would be more efficient to try and go to the source, which was the site where Q posts. 8chan was the name of it at the time, and it marketed itself as the edgiest place on the internet and as this dangerous and scary thing, which is very much their brand.
Having seen QAnon in its earliest stages as well as its later ones, was there a particular moment or event when you basically thought “Oh shit, this thing has really taken off…”?
In the series I really wanted to chart the transformation that I saw happening where, in the beginning, it did start out as a kind of interactive game — and a lot of people treated it like that. But, over time, it became reality. In the series we start with more gamified music and gradually move toward music that’s actually coming from authentic instrumentation, which was done to reflect the transformation I felt happened over the course of the three years of filming.
QAnon meme’d itself into reality. It’s an example of meme magic: the kind of alchemy of willing something into existence, and I think what we saw on the sixth [of January] was a lot of people, including those in Trump’s inner circle, trying to make the Q narrative real.
In many ways what makes the series is you yourself getting in so close to key figures associated with the movement: notably Ron and Jim Watkins, and Fredrick Brennan — the founder of 8chan who has since fallen out with the Watkins’ — but also several of the so-called Q-Tubers who were instrumental in giving it an audience.
Many of these people are remarkably talkative in front of your camera, and the level of access you were able to get is pretty extraordinary. On the other hand, many are also quite obviously unreliable, which I imagine presents some real challenges.
How exactly were you were able to get into rooms with some of these people — and why did they seem so keen in many cases to talk to you, particularly given how obvious it probably was that you weren’t yourself a Q sympathizer?
That’s a great question. I came at this from a position of neutrality, and I would tell everybody that I was filming with their opposition and trying to create this holistic picture of what was happening. Because, even back in 2018, I thought the whole thing was probably going to grow in scope and scale, and so I would tell people I was making a historical document. And, because I cared about the free speech issues as well, sometimes I would have conversations about that (though I think my interest in that topic is probably greater than an audience’s interest, so it’s a driving theme in the series but it’s not what the series is necessarily about).
But in order to be able to move between these sides that hated each other, I had to set up some ground rules. And, because these are unreliable narrators, you don’t know if they’re using you as a channel for information or disinformation. If Ron and Jim (who are the owner/operators of 8chan, now 8kun), for instance, are saying “Oh, the FBI is going to come and get Fred tomorrow,” are they being honest or are they saying something to me they’re hoping I will relay to Fred so that he flees the country? So one ground rule I had was to minimize harm.
Another ground rule was that I wouldn’t share information between the two sides unless they were specific about me doing that. I would tell them “Look, I’m going to give the other side the same courtesy that I’m giving you,” and then I just did my best to listen to those situations and to play the role of a neutral observer. But, also, everybody knew that I wanted to get to the bottom of who was behind Q, and I think that when you see where the series ends up, you wonder why Jim and Ron would have been interested in letting me into the fold and giving me the kind of access that they did. I think their motivations shifted over time. In the beginning, they were just starting to have a falling out with Fredrick Brennan (the creator of the website where Q was posting) and I think they wanted to have their side of the story told.
This was before anyone knew who Jim and Ron Watkins were. They weren’t really major suspects for Q at the time. The shootings that were tied to 8chan hadn’t happened yet, so hardly anybody even really knew what it was. I had already been filming with them for months before any of that happened. I think they probably enjoyed trolling me a little bit too — screwing around with the journalist is basically the gold standard for trolls — and I think that they liked that I had a background in digital rights. They also run a maximalist free speech website, so I thought they’d have a lot to say on the subject, though over time I think their motivations for continuing to participate changed.
I think, the first time I was there, they thought my line of questioning would be more focused on the free speech side and less on Q. Then, the second time they agreed to meet with me, their stories changed significantly: suddenly they knew a lot less about Q, which is very suspicious, of course. And as the years went by — especially as we were approaching January 6 and they were really starting to get access to the seat of power in DC — they wanted it documented, they wanted people to know the role they were playing.
The series [spoiler alert] ultimately mounts a pretty bold, and remarkably compelling case, as to the actual identity of Q. Do you have a sense of how this has been received, both when it comes to the person in question and throughout the Q-verse more generally?
I think a lot of the Q-Tubers have gone on the attack. Their reviews have been kind of funny. I think the Watkins’ appreciated the artistic construction of the project and felt that, for better or worse, I gave them a fair shake (although they have to debate the conclusion that I draw at the end as to who’s behind it for reasons of self-preservation). One of the things that’s been fascinating is that I think anons in particular — people who are old chan users and not necessarily QAnons — found that the series’ analysis of what goes on in the chans and the representation of that ecosystem was pretty representative.
And I’ve heard from a number of people now on Twitter — many, many people actually — that, for the first time in a long time, people who have QAnon family members or friends have opened up a line of communication. I’ve heard this from some who are QAnon believers as well, so it’s kind of working in both directions. And I think that that can be attributed to a number of things: this project really aimed to demystify the mechanics of QAnon and show the forces that are behind it — and for those who were following Q and for those who were wondering why they were following Q, it answered a lot of questions and it took away a lot of its power. I think it softened some perspectives and helped give people a common language and some things to discuss moving forward — among them, these shifty characters who were basically trolling the hell out of them.
In terms of how the film has been critically received, there’s been praise from journalists and researchers who study QAnon, but also some negative reviews in a few places — the crux of which is basically that you give Q-sympathizers airtime and that may end up in some way aiding their project. How do you respond to these criticisms of your investigative methods?
I think now that the whole series is out, we can see that those concerns were misguided. And the proof is in the pudding, right? It was a little challenging at first, trying to get around it because these more negative reviews sort of set the table and then you might have other critics watch it and think “Oh wow, this really broke the whole thing down and these reviews are totally at odds with the experience that I just had watching this.”
I was perplexed. I expected there to be some pushback because here was this person coming out of the woodworks who none of them really knew. There were a lot of people who had built careers as experts on QAnon — there’s a whole ecosystem that’s emerged on the anti side as well — and to some extent, I was jumping into their playground, at least in their minds (even though I had been quietly working behind the scenes on this series for many years). So that was a bit of a challenge.
I think part of it was also that mainstream outlets found it impossible to get access to any of these sources. The people who are featured in this documentary wouldn’t have talked to them. Every journal on the planet, for example, tried to get a hold of Ron Watkins, and he would just refuse to talk to them. I think part of why they agreed to talk to me is that I produced this whole thing independently. HBO came on at a very late stage in September, 2020. This thing mostly involved me running around with cameras and audio equipment, and I think they appreciated that DIY approach, which was part of what helped me get access as well.
Another part of it is that a lot of these outlets had already picked their angles. They’d written stories about what they thought and chosen what they could write about, which was stuff like the fallout of QAnon — which is an important thing to write about, certainly — and the effect that it’s having on families and whatnot. But this project was about something different. It was about breaking it all down and showing the actual forces that were behind it, and I don’t think showing people doing bad things perpetuates them. I think the antiseptic of sunlight can be quite effective, and there’s a lot of historical evidence to show that revealing the mechanics of something is one of the best ways to reveal it for what it is (rather than saying that it’s dangerous and to look the other way).
Even though your film pinpoints a particular figure as a potential source for Q’s posts, at least over the past couple of years, the actual center of QAnon — the main causal force behind it — seems really difficult to pin down. Viewed holistically the whole thing is such an intricate web of earnest belief, irony-poisoning, online misinformation run amok, straight up nihilism, grift, etc. You mentioned a few moments ago that, in its earlier stages, it was almost a role-playing game and to some extent later assumed a more serious character. In some ways it’s also merely a continuation, a hodgepodge, of existing right-wing conspiracy theories.
So as someone who spent years observing it up close, how do you account for the Q-phenomenon among its influencers and its rank-and-file supporters? Where, ultimately, did it come from — that is, beyond the literal sources that you speculate about in the series?
There’s also been a lot of great reporting done on that subject, and to that point, a lot of the journalists and researchers who have been covering Q have mentioned to me that they’ve appreciated having a lot of the holes filled and seeing a lot of what was going on behind the scenes. I’ve talked with them at length about QAnon’s origins, the nature of belief, and what it is that draws in QAnons.
I’ve personally talked to QAnons themselves for countless hours: oftentimes they would call me in the middle of the night just to talk, and I found over time that for a lot of them, I was kind of an anchor or maybe a grounding force. Because I think what happens is that when QAnon draws in people they become really absorbed in the worldview, and then there’s both an emotional and a social toll. It drives a wedge between friends and family, and then they find themselves rather isolated, turning more and more toward a community of other people who are online.
What draws people to QAnon? I think it’s obviously a mixture of things. But QAnon gives people a sense that all the evils in the world can be summed up in a really easy way. It creates this black-and-white heaven and hell — this all or nothing mentality. It’s a super reductive oversimplification that tries to address things that are really hard to understand. The evils surrounding the banking crisis, for example, aren’t easy to understand (I’ve watched the Big Short five times, and I still struggle to understand the exact mechanics of what went down there!). I look at the Iraq War and the lie that was told to draw us into that, which ultimately cost trillions of dollars and God knows how many lives lost.
So people start turning away when they see these kinds of evils happening. They start turning away from expertise. They start turning away from these institutions and looking to other sources. The banality of evil isn’t sexy. It’s hard to understand and this just kind of repackages it in a way that’s easy to follow. There also have to be existing fissures in American society for something like this to work.
I think we’re kind of lacking a common narrative right now as well, and so people are looking for a story they can believe in. And it’s one of the oldest stories in the world (i.e., one that explains the bad things in the world) — which is convenient because it allows Q to paint anyone they want as a bad guy. It’s complete nonsense most of the time, but it becomes a powerful weapon. It speaks to a religious desire, too, that a lot of people have. Religious thinking and the kind of thinking that draws someone into Q are similar. QAnon just takes heaven and hell and puts them right here on earth.