But mulling Q’s identity is in fact the easiest question to ask about the so-called QAnon movement. It’s also the wrong one.
Given the damage QAnon has done to individuals and families, it’s far more important to determine what might bring individual adherents to their senses. And for society at large, the task ahead is to find a way to restore a shared sense of reality and agreed-upon tools for determining what’s true and what’s fake.
The temptation and dangers of focusing narrowly on Q’s identity are at the heart of “Q: Into the Storm,” a new HBO documentary series that concluded on Sunday. Filmmaker Cullen Hoback runs down various candidates out of a belief that “Q derives its power from anonymity. From myth,” and that unmasking the person behind the account would strip the movement of its power.
That’s a dubious thesis. And in pursuit of it, Hoback ends up acting a lot like the so-called bakers who try to turn the enigmatic posts that Q writes on disreputable Internet forums like 4chan, 8chan and 8kun into actionable information. In hours of interviews, Hoback parses pictures of pens, photos of watches, geolocation data, technical expertise, public timelines and inconsistent statements. He considers suspects including Jim and Ron Watkins, the father-son duo behind 8chan and 8kun, and even former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon.
Toward the end of the final episode, during a video call with Ron Watkins, Hoback interprets a rather vague admission by Watkins as definitive proof that the younger Watkins is Q. To Hoback, who’s spent years deep inside this quest, the conversation seems like a revelation. But from the outside, it feels more like Hoback has become captive to the very mode of thought that drives QAnon. When the smallest things take on inflated significance and a quest for knowledge becomes its own justification, even someone with the best intentions can wind up in a distorted place.
And what would the documentary have accomplished even if Hoback succeeded in proving who Q is? It’s a mistake to treat Q’s identity as simply another literary or Internet mystery, where figuring out the puzzle is significant unto itself. Sure, it’s interesting to know who the authors behind the Luther Blissett and Wu Ming personas are, or that journalist Joe Klein wrote “Primary Colors.” But both the questions and the answers in those cases never rise above the level of amusement.
With Q, I can imagine narrow circumstances where knowing becomes useful. If it truly were a high-ranking military official such as disgraced retired general Michael Flynn, that would be important to know. Were it to emerge that QAnon was a foreign intelligence operation, that could, and should, affect U.S. policy toward the nation that perpetrated this attack on our social fabric.
But outside those possibilities, the utility of knowing becomes much more doubtful.
For the scores of families who have lost relatives to obsessions with QAnon’s paranoid worldviews, a Q revelation might give them someone to blame. But that doesn’t mean it would provide any real accountability. What are grieving people going to do? Sue someone for spinning a fantasy on an anonymous message board?
Unmasking Q might not even be a point of leverage in arguments with believers. After all, this is a movement that believes many powerful people have been replaced with body doubles, either because they actually died years ago or have been arrested as part of Trump’s crusade against the “deep state.”
In this context, Hoback’s hope that QAnon followers will stop choosing “to devote their lives to a cause propagated by a cynic, who treats the whole world like it’s a game” seems sweetly naive.
For devotees, there’s always a way around inconvenient facts, no matter how big. Certainly, some believers peeled themselves away after Jan. 6 turned into a debacle rather than a triumph. But like apocalyptic cults before it, QAnon believers keep moving back the date for their day of reckoning. When preserving the ability to embrace a delusion becomes an end unto itself, making the case for reality becomes a lot more complicated.