Relatively unknown before 2020, the conspiracy theory QAnon has now thrust itself into the cultural mainstream, largely due to the Capitol invasion on Jan. 6 and the rise of Covid denialism. Now, the broader culture is scrambling to understand a conspiracy theory that is increasingly relevant and influential — there are even elected federal representatives who spout Q-Anonsense.
“Q: Into the Storm,” a documentary series currently being released episode by episode on HBO Max, is not a desperate ad-hoc rush to understand Q, the anonymous online prophet of the conspiracy. The documentary project began in 2017 when Q was just a whisper on the internet, and its biggest media connection was PizzaGate. That leads to the series having, at times, a slightly odd, unserious tone, because QAnon just wasn’t as relevant back while the documentary was being made.
But despite that, the series manages to weave a fascinating story about the rise of Q, his connection to the message board 8chan, the characters behind all of it and the documentarian’s investigation around who Q is. The most compelling characters in the series aren’t the QAnon believers. Their ideas are so radically, wildly wrong, their perception of reality simultaneously far-fetched and banal, that they are little more than context. The truly interesting story is about 8chan, the messaging board that hosts Q and his messages, called “Q drops.”
Most of the screen time of the six episodes is devoted to Jim and Ron Watkins, a father-son duo that owns and operates 8chan. Their foil is Fredrick Brennan, the original creator of 8chan, who became sharply critical of the website, which he relinquished control of in 2019 because of the mass shootings associated with it, most notably the Christchurch shooting. The killer posted his manifesto on the site and garnered significant support from the site’s neo-Nazi factions.
8chan is a free-for-all imageboard. The website operates through message boards, which anyone can start, and where anyone can anonymously post messages and images. The site is facetiously dedicated to free speech. They refuse to take down anything that isn’t explicitly illegal, such as child pornography. They left up the message thread concerning the Christchurch shooting — where many individuals were expressing their support and admiration for the violence — for 24 hours, until the thread got to the maximum number of messages. If it isn’t illegal, it goes.
This is, as the documentary explores, a perfect breeding ground for the blood-libel, baby-eating obsessed conspiracy theory QAnon. Many Q supporters do find 8chan broadly distasteful — often for the same reasons that most people do — but they couldn’t survive without 8chan. And 8chan couldn’t survive without Q. The site’s popularity is almost entirely tied to Q’s posts.
“Q: Into the Storm” spends a lot of time exploring the connection between 8chan and Q, and the Watkins’ personal philosophies — or their lack thereof. They profess a kind of apoliticality, but they clearly delight in the fact that Q is on their site. Both of them seem to have strange, reactionary tendencies. Ron Watkins is largely unphased with the personal toll of the Christchruch shooting. The lives of these characters are the stories that the documentary weaves particularly well. In that respect, the documentary is a success: It engrossingly tells the tale of Q and the individuals that aided its rise.
But the biggest problem with the show might not be its construction, but its very existence. Many have criticized “Into the Storm” for offering a megaphone not only to conspiracy theorists but also to the self-interested trolling of the Watkins duo. After all, attempts to report on and debunk Q have repeatedly proven ineffective. But at this point, with QAnon having already penetrated the mainstream I can’t help but feel that this criticism comes not from a place of fear that QAnon might spread further, but a hesitancy and unwillingness to confront what a large portion of Americans now believe. This single documentary isn’t platforming Q believers in any way that the invasion of the Capitol and our complicit former president haven’t already.
The hesitancy, or perhaps arrogant unwillingness, to look at what people in our country actually believe is part of the reason we’ve gotten into this situation. Mostly, Q caught America by surprise. There were some journalists, at places like the Right Wing Watch and the Daily Beast, who have been reporting on Q for years, but the mainstream media had largely ignored Q before its 2020 explosion into the mainstream.
America has already made the mistake of ignoring the problem. Now we need to critically examine how Q arose and thrived. “Into the Storm” is a step in the right direction. To complain that this documentary series is giving undue preference or respect to the conspiracy theory is not only wrong, but ignorant. The conspiracy is relevant. We can’t keep ignoring Q. The best solution to ignorance isn’t ignorance: It’s keeping a careful watch on the lies, making sure they can’t spread and ringing the alarm bell when they do. Journalists need to be on the frontline of that. “Q: Into the Storm” isn’t an alarm bell: It’s a retrospective. And it’s only necessary because we failed to understand what our fellow citizens believe.