Hello. It looks like you�re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

My hunt for the person behind QAnon

My hunt for the person behind QAnon

Nicky Woolf writes about his year-long investigation into the conspiracy theory that’s become a cult – and how he identified the person he believes is behind it

On 13 January 2021, I got a message on Twitter from a source. “I will tell you something for my own safety,” he wrote. “On Friday at 2 I will meet with FBI in my mom’s house.”

The source’s name is Fred Brennan, and this was big news. He’s the creator of a website called 8chan. It’s what’s known as a “chan site”, a type of site notable for the roiling, nihilistic and often truly horrible content that proliferates on them. On 4chan, the largest English-language chan site – from which 8chan was spun off – there are message boards specific to certain interests, where people can anonymously post and comment on other people’s posts. The more comments a post gets, the higher up the board it gets pushed, so there’s more incentive to say something outrageous. Almost anything goes, but there are moderators – “janitors” – who can remove illegal content.

8chan has almost no moderation, and users can create their own message boards. It’s where the perpetrators of the 2019 Christchurch and El Paso shootings posted their manifestos. 

It has another claim to fame, though. 8chan is the home of QAnon.

At its core, the QAnon conspiracy theory holds that a shadowy cabal of satanist, baby-eating paedophiles – led by Hillary Clinton – are secretly controlling the world; and that Donald Trump is leading a movement to overturn it. What makes it so dangerous is how organic it is. QAnon absorbed other conspiracy theories – the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, anti-vaccine movements, and more – digesting and integrating them into itself as it grew.

In fact, it’s not really accurate any more to call QAnon a conspiracy theory. It’s a conspiracy ecosystem; an all-encompassing conspiracy worldview. In scores of interviews I have done with people who’ve lost family members to QAnon radicalisation, almost all of them used the word “cult” – though sometimes it seemed almost like a nascent full-scale religion.

QAnon believes in a coming day of judgement called, interchangeably, “the Storm” or “the Great Awakening”. And at the core of it there is this enigma. Treated by believers with mythical reverence, there is an anonymous figure at the heart of QAnon, purportedly a senior US government insider. Taking the name from the US Department of Energy’s equivalent of top-secret security clearance, the poster called themselves “Q”.

‘It’s not accurate any more to call QAnon a conspiracy theory. It’s a conspiracy ecosystem; an all-encompassing conspiracy worldview.’

Q communicated his ideology via a series of cryptic posts – known by his followers as “drops”. There were 4,953 Q drops in all, appearing, first on 4chan and then on 8chan, between October 2017 and December 2020 – though in summer 2022 someone purporting to be the original Q posted again, apparently half-heartedly. 

A community of influencers, some of them grifters and some true believers, spread the message to more and more people. Their earliest successes were among right-wing political groups, primed to accept almost any pro-Trump message. But it also spread into wellness groups and religious communities. “It was tailor-made for the type of theology that the American evangelical church has been fed for the last 40 years,” Kristen Park, whose church community had been infected by QAnon, told me. 

“Especially the fact that, you know, they view people in two groups… and you’re either on the good team with President Trump or you’re on the evil team with the Democrats. I mean, I think that very much falls in line with that kind of understanding of scripture.” 

“It’s devastating. I’ve lost all these friends,” she added. “I miss the people that I loved.”

For more than a year I investigated the origins and nature of QAnon for Tortoise, an investigation that became the Audible Original podcast Finding Q: My Journey into QAnon. I set out to understand what its evolution means for the future of American politics – and also to find the person behind the drops. It was never going to be easy. How do you look for someone anonymous, pretending to be someone anonymous, on an anonymous site?

As good a place as any to start, I figured, was with the earliest Q influencers back at the beginning in October 2017 – the first people to bring QAnon off 4chan and into the wider world. There are three of them: Tracy Diaz, a small-time YouTuber; Coleman Rogers, a 4chan moderator; and Paul Furber, a South African tech writer. All of them have been suspected of being Q at some point or other, though all have denied it. I reached out to all three, but only Furber agreed to speak. 

The first Q drop – which suggested that the extradition of “HRC” (Hillary Rodham Clinton) was imminent – had Furber hooked. Only a few days after it was posted, he, Diaz and Rogers got together to make a plan to surface Q content from the internet’s depths. Diaz’s first video about QAnon came out just six days after the first drop, and Rogers would later start a 24-hour livestreaming channel devoted entirely to Q.

It’s worth mentioning here two things chan site denizens love. One is LARPing, which stands for live action role play. And the other is trolling – tricking strangers or the media; pretending to be someone else or something else; trying to get people to believe them for a laugh. Before Q, according to Aoife Gallagher, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who specialises in digital extremist movements, 4chan was home to various people posing as government insiders. “There was FBI Anon, there was MegaAnon, High Level Insider Anon,” she says. Q was just the one that caught on.

In November 2017, Furber – by this point a true believer – went to 8chan. He said it was just an emergency back-up home for Q if 4chan ever went down. But it did exactly that a few days later and, on 29 November, Q posted on Furber’s board for the first time. 8chan was Q’s new home.

The posts carried the same “tripcode” Q had used on 4chan. Although chan sites are anonymous, occasionally being identified on one is useful, and that’s what a tripcode is for. On both 4chan and 8chan, you can choose to put in a password when you post. If you do, it gets cryptographically scrambled so the post bears an identifying code only someone with that password, theoretically, can recreate.

Then on 5 January 2018, a Q drop arrived that worried Furber. “The style was wrong. I had a feel from reading all of Q’s posts every day for a good two months what real Q posts sounded like, and this was not it. And I thought, this is rubbish. What’s going on here? Nope. Sorry. You’re not Q.”

The tone and style of the drops do change at this moment. I asked a forensic linguist to take an informal look, and she confirmed the evidence implied a change of authorship. “That’s when all the mantras and different phrases and stuff come into it,” Gallagher said. “And it became more culty, in a lot of ways.” As Furber put it: “The new guy was more into creating a movement.”

So, while the original Q could have been basically anyone, who was behind the drops when it stopped being a funny role-play and started tooling up as a national movement? Furber had a theory for me to chase: the site’s management took it.

Fred Brennan founded 8chan in 2013 but by 2019 wanted it shut down

Fred Brennan was born with a genetic condition that restricted his growth and made his bones so brittle he’d broken them 120 times by the time he was 19. He made 8chan following a magic mushroom trip, but only ever intended it to be a portfolio piece. By 2015, running the site had become too much for him and he sold it to Jim Watkins, the owner of Japan’s largest chan site. Watkins flew Brennan out to Manila, put him up in an apartment, and hired him as the 8chan administrator. 

In 2016 Brennan, feeling sidelined and bored, quit the job and Watkins moved him to another part of the company. But after the 2019 El Paso and Christchurch shootings, Brennan started calling for 8chan to be shut down. By this time, their relationship had broken down completely. Watkins brought a “cyber libel” case against Brennan for calling him “senile” on Twitter. Under Philippine law this carries a six-year jail penalty – and for someone with Brennan’s condition that was close to a death sentence. He fled to California barely in time to escape arrest.

I flew to LA in October 2020 to meet Brennan, who agreed that Q was taken over in early 2018. I asked who at the organisation was in a position to do that. “Jim Watkins is the one with final authority,” he said. 

His theory is that when the posts moved from 4chan to 8chan, Watkins saw an opportunity. “He is the only one that can really post as Q whenever he wants,” Brennan says. “Jim and Ron, but that’s it.” Ron is Jim’s son, who had taken over as 8chan’s administrator. At that time he was still a mysterious figure who shunned the limelight – though that, it turned out, was about to change.

Jim Watkins (left) and his son Ron

In November 2020, Ron Watkins abruptly announced he was quitting as site administrator. At the same time, Q essentially stopped posting. There were only four more Q drops after 3 November. 

Throughout my investigation, Ron, who lives in Japan, had been an enigma. But now that dramatically changed. After the 2020 US election he became a figurehead of the emerging “Stop the Steal” movement, pushing voter fraud conspiracy theories. That got him a bunch of Trump retweets, which got him half a million Twitter followers. 

The more he tweeted, the more the similarity between Ron’s voice and Q’s emerged. I started to spot shared verbal tics. For example, Ron often added “(s)” at the end of words to turn them into possible plurals, a formulation that appears in 366 Q drops, and the sarcastic formulation “Coincidence?”, which appears in 145. Ron, like Q, talked gnomically. They both used similar metaphors – one tweet of Ron’s read “a storm is brewing”.

Ron’s tweets next to Q’s final few posts are illuminating to read side by side. On 12 November, at 8.18pm East Coast time, Ron tweeted about “a possible election machine scenario that I just discovered”, beginning a particular voting system conspiracy that would propel him to fame. Just over an hour later, for the first time since election day, Q started posting again – three drops on the same voter fraud conspiracy that Ron was pushing. Through December, Ron’s tweets became more and more Q-like. By 5 January 2021 he’d started referring to the conspiracy theories he was tweeting as “drops”. Reached for comment, Ron insisted to me: “I’m not Q and I don’t agree with the allegations that I am.”

Then, on 6 January, Donald Trump’s supporters invaded the US Capitol.

‘The more Ron tweeted, the more the similarity between his voice and Q’s emerged.’

Ron was banned from Twitter after the Capitol insurrection, but had built a following of more than 250,000 on Telegram. In 2022, the Q drops briefly came back – just before Ron’s bid to become the Republican candidate for Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District failed. By primary day, several sources have claimed, Ron had already left the US for Australia, dogged by money problems having taken on significant debt to fund his campaign. Q hasn’t posted since.

Jacob Chansley, aka the ‘QAnon Shaman’, was jailed for his part in the Capitol riot in 2021

On the appointed Friday, I waited for Brennan’s call about his FBI interview. Eventually it came. They had spoken about QAnon in some depth. Brennan seemed impressed, actually. “It wasn’t like, ‘so what is this 8chan’, right? It was very specific questions about the tripcodes and the workings of the system,” he said. 

“If we want to use the depth of their knowledge to try to draw a conclusion, maybe we can say that the specific agents were trying within the organisation to raise this, right?” speculated Brennan. “But their bosses perhaps were not interested due to, you know, freedom of speech concerns, et cetera. And the [6 January] storming kind of broke those down.”

Social media companies had also finally woken up after the 6th, mass-banning QAnon accounts and content. But the crackdown hasn’t stopped the movement, and may have pushed it into a new, and potentially more dangerous phase – hardened, deeper underground, more difficult to track. In a report to Congress in June 2021, the FBI warned that there was an increasing danger of the “digital soldiers” of QAnon turning further towards real-life violence.

Many of the QAnon adherents I’ve been watching have only increased their conviction, and the movement continues to move towards the Republican mainstream. Trump, who previously only winked at QAnon ideas, is now directly quoting Q posts on his Truth Social account. 

Kristen Park told me in June 2021 that, if anything, QAnon was stronger among her church community than before. One leading QAnon influencer, she said, “continues to talk about how [the Storm] is still going to happen… that Donald Trump is going to come back. He’s continuing to encourage people to keep the faith. He’s continuing to say: ‘We need to trust the plan.’”

Nicky Woolf is a journalist, writer and presenter.

The full story of his investigation into the world of QAnon can be heard in the eight-part Audible Original podcast Finding Q: My Journey into QAnon, a Tortoise Studios production. Listen on audible.co.uk.

Photographs Getty Images, Todd Heisler/The New York Times) / Redux / eyevine