The Secrets of QAnon's Appeal

Source: Politico | April 18, 2021 | Derek Robertson

Here’s what QAnon documentaries reveal about how conspiracies flourish.

A media suddenly bereft of the eye-popping right-wing extremism once peddled daily by the 45th president has found its methadone: a seemingly endless stream of QAnon-centric documentaries, books and essays.

There’s Vice’s “The Search for Q” series; CNN’s “Inside the QAnon Conspiracy”; Daily Beast reporter Will Sommer’s announcement of his forthcoming book based on the topic; and the buzziest of them all: “Q: Into the Storm,” HBO’s six-episode documentary miniseries produced by Adam McKay, the Oscar-winning auteur of ripped-from-the-headlines cinema.

It’s been three months since the nearly four-year-old conspiracy theory reached its violent climax, with QAnon believers joining forces with militia members, white nationalists, and just generally crazed Trump supporters to storm the Capitol in an attempt to flip the election for their preferred candidate. In the aftermath, cable networks and publishers are doubling down on Americans’ potential interest in how such a sprawling, byzantine online community could so thoroughly distort both personal lives and national politics. Central to QAnon’s mystique is the lingering mystery about the identity of the “Q” himself — the anonymous web forum poster whose cryptic missives about “deep state” pedophilia opposed by a heroic Trump galvanized a complete subcultural ecosystem of fear, apocalyptic interpretation, and dogged amateur sleuthing from supporters and critics alike.

Critics accuse QAnon’s chroniclers in the media of failing to learn Trump-era lessons about the role mainstream media plays in amplifying disinformation and extremist content. And more than any behind-the-scenes revelation about the conspiracy itself, “Into the Storm” is most striking in what it reveals about how the beliefs and language of the paranoiac far right have spread like wildfire through our culture and politics — and the role the media has, or hasn’t, played in that phenomenon. (As if illustrating this point, documentarian Cullen Hoback uses once-esoteric terms like “red-pilled” and “Q-drops” as casually as if they were policy lingo and he were a surrogate trying to sell the Biden infrastructure package on the Sunday shows.)

Hoback provides a unique insight by gaining extensive access to not just QAnon’s followers, but its likely creators. And depending on your perspective, what he learns might be a relief, a cause for alarm, or both.

Where Vice’s “The Search For Q” takes a traditionally gonzo approach to its subject material, filtering “Tales of the Weird”-style encounters with QAnon followers through the audience-surrogate reactions of its hosts and their interview subjects, Hoback takes a different tack. He adopts for himself the almost-frightening investigative intensity of the true believer, spending endless hours with characters like Jim and Ron Watkins, the proprietors of the web forum 8chan (and its successor, 8kun), where QAnon largely propagated; Frederick Brennan, the spurned founder of 8chan who became a perpetual thorn in the Watkinses’ sides; and the small network of vapid YouTube personalities who hitched their personal fortunes to the conspiracy theory.

On a deeply human level, we see the social hierarchy under which QAnon flourished. It’s a pyramid, with the enigmatic Watkins duo at the top and a tribe of influencer-Pharisees in the middle, where they compete for “likes” and subscriptions from the wayward true believers at the bottom. By shining a light on this shadow media ecosystem, Hoback shows how human nature and the incentives of social media combine to form a powerful engine for conspiracy. We see the hollow minds and naked opportunists at the heart of QAnon, as well as the simplicity of what it took to sideline them after years of online peacocking: quite simply pulling the plug.


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