The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To boost voter-fraud claims, Trump advocate Sidney Powell turns to unusual source: The longtime operator of QAnon’s Internet home

Sidney Powell (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

In her legal quest to reverse the reality of last month’s election, President Trump’s recently disavowed attorney Sidney Powell has gained a strange new ally: the longtime administrator of the message board 8kun, the QAnon conspiracy theory’s Internet home.

Powell on Tuesday filed an affidavit from Ron Watkins, the son of 8kun’s owner Jim Watkins, in a Georgia lawsuit alleging that Dominion Voting Systems machines used in the election had been corrupted as part of a sprawling voter-fraud conspiracy.

Powell has claimed that a diabolical scheme backed by global communists had invisibly shifted votes with help from a mysterious computer algorithm pioneered by the long-dead Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez — a wild story debunked by fact-checkers as a “fantasy parade” and devoid of proof.

No real evidence was included in Watkins’s affidavit, either. But Watkins, who said in the affidavit that he lives in Japan, nevertheless speculated that — based on his recent reading of the Dominion software’s online user guide — it may be “within the realm of possibility” for a biased poll worker to fraudulently switch votes.

The QAnon conspiracy theory faces a post-Trump identity crisis

Since Nov. 4, President Trump has repeatedly claimed his election loss a result of massive fraud. The following is a round-up of his claims. (Video: The Washington Post)

Watkins’s affidavit marks one of the first official connections between a notable player in the QAnon conspiracy universe and Trump’s muddled multistate legal campaign, which some of the president’s allies have labeled, in the words of Chris Christie, a “national embarrassment.”

Many similar Trump-QAnon overtures have already played out on TV and social media since the election nearly one month ago. Watkins made similar allegations in an unchallenged segment on the far-right One America News network, which Trump retweeted to his 88 million followers last month.

Powell and her client Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, are effectively celebrities to QAnon loyalists, who posit online that both will soon help “release the Kraken” and expose a bombshell that could salvage a Trump second term, vanquish his enemies and unveil the hidden machinations of a communist conspiracy.

Since claiming to have resigned last month from 8kun, Watkins has devoted much of his online activity to claims about unfounded suspicions regarding Dominion, an 18-year-old voting-technology company whose computer programs, ballot printers and other products are used by elections officials in 28 states. Trump and his supporters have loudly attacked the Denver-based company as having contributed in some unproved way to steal the vote.

Swing state counties that used Dominion voting machines mostly voted for Trump

In a lengthy rebuttal last week, Dominion said that Powell’s claims were nonsensical: Manual recounts, machine tests and independent audits had reaffirmed that the voting systems had given accurate, undistorted results. Her “wild and reckless allegations,” the company added, were “not only demonstrably false” but had “led to stalking, harassment, and death threats to Dominion employees.”

In his affidavit, Watkins called himself an information security expert with nine years of experience as a “network and information defense analyst” and security engineer. But he did not mention that his experience had come largely through 8kun, the site once called 8chan that was knocked offline for nearly three months last year.

The message board is infamous for its anonymous threads of racist bile and extremist threats, and the site was used by gunmen to announce and celebrate three fatal attacks last year — at an El Paso Walmart, a San Diego-area synagogue and a New Zealand mosque.

Major web-services providers that form the Internet’s backbone have refused to work with the site, with one executive telling The Washington Post last year that Watkins’s site had facilitated “mass shootings and extreme hate speech with intolerable consequences.”

Ron Watkins holds an exalted role in QAnon’s online sphere of influence: He and his father are among the few people who can verify posts from Q, the conspiracy theory’s unnamed prophet (and a self-proclaimed government agent with top-secret clearance) who claims to post solely on 8kun. (The strange arrangement has fueled unproved theories that the Watkinses have helped write Q’s posts, or are Q themselves, which both men deny.)

Q has posted more than 4,000 times since 2017, but only three times since the election, sparking a mix of anxiety and faith-based recommitment among QAnon believers.

From helicopter repairman to leader of the Internet’s ‘darkest reaches’: The life and times of Jim Watkins

Attorney General William P. Barr said on Tuesday that investigators with the FBI and Justice Department hadn’t “seen anything to substantiate” the claims of mass voter fraud.

But Watkins and his supporters have continued to hunt for clues to support the unproven claims of a secret Dominion scheme.

Shortly after midnight Tuesday, Watkins posted what he called “a smoking-gun video” of a Dominion worker manipulating Georgia voting data by “plugging an elections USB drive into an external laptop … then suspiciously walking away.”

The undated video — which was recorded at a distance and includes a man and woman offering ongoing commentary of the “nerd boy” as he works inside an election office — shows nothing even remotely conclusive of voter fraud: The man uses a computer and a thumb drive, all of it very obviously caught on camera.

But Watkins’s messages nevertheless kicked QAnon-echoing accounts and online Trump supporters into conspiracy-theory overdrive. Many began sharing the name of a Georgia man they believed had been captured on the video, after they’d zoomed in on the man’s identification badge. A number of accounts on Twitter, 8kun and other pro-Trump websites shared links to the man’s possible LinkedIn profile, phone numbers, home address and personal details, including a photo of him as a groomsman in a friend’s wedding in 2018.

Gabriel Sterling, a Georgia state election official, on Dec. 1 slammed President Trump for not condemning threats of violence against election workers. (Video: Reuters)

A Dominion representative said the company wouldn’t comment on alleged employee matters or safety issues, but that it was working to report all threats to law enforcement.

Watkins did not respond to questions, and a woman he had thanked on Twitter for sharing the original video said she had “no comment about anything.”

The man’s name and identifying information is still bouncing around the Web, with some people calling for his imprisonment, torture or execution. For several hours on Tuesday, just typing in the first two letters of his name into Twitter would automatically complete the rest of his name. One tweet includes his name and said he is “guilty of treason” and added, alongside an animated image of a hanging noose: “May God have mercy on your soul.”

Gabriel Sterling, a top official with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, addressed the threat in a fiery news conference Tuesday afternoon and called out Trump and Republican senators for not condemning the violent language. Sterling said the man caught on camera had been transferring a report to a county computer so he could read it.

“It’s all gone too far. All of it,” he said. “This 20-year-old contractor for a voting system company [was] just trying to do this job,” he added. “His family is getting harassed now. There’s a noose out there with his name on it. And it’s not right. … This kid took a job. He just took a job, and it’s just wrong.”

Alice Crites and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Read more:

Barr: no evidence of election fraud that would swing the race for Trump

For Trump advocate Sidney Powell, a playbook steeped in conspiracy theories

Dominion: What you need to know about the voting company Trump claims “stole” the election

QAnon conspiracy theory faces a post-Trump identity crisis

Giuliani’s fantasy parade of false voter-fraud claims

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