The final episode of HBO’s documentary series Q: Into The Storm depicts the infamous riot on Capitol Hill as something akin to the “season finale” of QAnon, the culmination of years of collective delusion.
QAnon, for those who are unfamiliar, is a baseless conspiracy theory which proposes that a cabal of powerful pedophiles (mainly composed of members of the Democratic Party and Hollywood elites), are ritualistically slaughtering and abusing children, and that former President Trump is secretly waging war against them, sending secret signals to observant “patriots.”
The movement was created by a mysterious individual, or perhaps a team, claiming to be a government insider known as “Q,” who would regularly post vague, conspiratorial ramblings online that faithful followers would decode into a branching narrative.
The bulk of the series explores the conditions that led to the rise of this absurdly implausible theory, the niche internet subcultures that thrived in hateful bigotry and paranoia, and the melodrama between the oddballs that controlled 8Chan, the site that eventually became the exclusive home of “Q.”
The founder of 8Chan, Fredrick Brennan, originally envisioned his website to be a bastion of free speech, and has some fascinating insights into the hateful culture he helped create, and becomes the closest thing the series has to a protagonist.
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Ownership of the site was passed to Jim Watkins, a man who radiates some seriously sinister energy, and spends much of his time staring blankly into the camera, feigning wide-eyed ignorance over events he was directly involved in.
His son, Ron Watkins, is heavily implied by the series to have hijacked and possibly controlled the “Q” account after it moved exclusively to 8Chan.
As the rabidly racist and anti-Semitic culture of 8Chan is implicated in a series of mass shootings, Brennan seeks to distance himself from the negative publicity by attempting to take down the site and mocking Jim and Ron Watkins on Twitter.
The friction between these three larger-than-life characters, interviews with Q-cultists, and the mysterious question of Q’s true identity, makes for compelling viewing.
But despite taking up so much screen time, the real identity of “Q” hardly matters; the fact that a few cryptic, anonymous posts proved capable of radicalising millions of alienated individuals, is the most unsettling aspect of this story.
Indeed, QAnon almost ran out of steam, until the arrest and death of Jeffrey Epstein injected some adrenaline into the movement. Epstein, charged with sex trafficking involving underage girls, was connected to two former U.S. presidents and a member of the British royal family; it’s easy to see how conspiracy theories can be strengthened by real-life corruption.
As the series shines a light on the darkest depths of the internet, it highlights the terrifying power of social media. As the series points out, the Christchurch mosque shooter was encouraged by hateful 8Chan users, but was actually radicalized through YouTube and Facebook – he even livestreamed his massacre on the latter.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that with Trump’s electoral defeat, the world narrowly avoided going down an unfathomably dark path. We should be thankful that Trump seems to want to spend the rest of his days lounging around in Mar-a-Lago; we should be even more thankful that he longer has access to Twitter.
There’s a particularly revealing moment, just before the Capitol riot, when Jim Watkins forlornly mutters that Trump was supposed to lead the charge, rather than abandon his followers to wander aimlessly toward the Capitol.
Once they arrived there, they didn’t really know what to do, having been led by a movement with no ideology beyond destruction of their perceived enemy.
Watkins’ final appearance on screen sees him trudging forward, desperately trying to convince himself that he is part of a righteous army poised to seize power, instead of a group of terminally online trolls smearing poop inside the halls of the Capitol, filming themselves committing crimes.
QAnon hasn’t fully disappeared, yet – the sunk cost fallacy ensures that some believers still cling on to some semblance of hope – but the movement certainly seems to have lost its momentum.
It’s troubling to consider that the simple act of banning Trump from Twitter might just have secured his defeat, having delivered a crushing blow to the QAnon movement.
One wonders what else could have been avoided, if social media companies had cared to take action earlier.