Have we finally solved the mystery of who is Q?
Sunday's conclusion of the six-part HBO docuseries Q: Into the Storm suggested that the individual whose cryptic messages have sparked a movement — allegedly someone in the government with high-level security clearance — is actually the person who administers the message board 8kun, where Q posts.
Meet Ron Watkins, who seemed to give away his identity during a conversation with Cullen Hoback, the director of the docuseries, during one scene. Watkins was explaining how he spread former President Donald Trump's claims of election fraud, even though there was no proof.
"It was basically three years of intelligence training, teaching normies how to do intelligence work," he said in the final moments of the doc. "It was basically what I was doing anonymously before, but never as Q."
Hoback reacted as though Watkins had slipped up, but Watkins added, "Never as Q. I promise. I am not Q."
Watkins restated this to 150,000 subscribers on Sunday: "Friendly reminder: I am not Q. Have a good weekend."
Still, for Hoback, who previously directed the 2013 doc Terms and Conditions May Apply, it marked an end to a long journey. It was all sparked in when Reddit banned Q-focused messages "due to repeated violations of the terms of our content police," the company said at the time.
Hoback ended up delving into the mystery of why QAnon followers believe conspiracy theories, such as there's a global ring of Satan-worshipping pedophiles led by Democratic officials. He was especially curious about the identity of Q, the anonymous figure who dropped messages. Though the movement began on lesser known message boards, the it's since found its way to more mainstream places, such as YouTube and Facebook. QAnon followers participated in the January riot at the U.S. Capitol that left five people dead, and they've been charged with other violent crimes.
"I was fully committed to trying to unmask who is behind QAnon, but I had no idea where that would take me," Hoback tells Yahoo Entertainment. "When I started, I didn’t realize that the guys who run [chat site] 8chan were in the Philippines and Japan. I didn’t know that I would really be on a globe trotting hunt around the world, that I would go to South Africa, Italy, Czech Republic, Manila, Macau, Sapporo ... and this is what was really necessary to figure out who was, who was behind it. When you start to see who these guys are, not only does it take away some of the mystery but you realize that there is just … it’s incredibly absurd how much influence these absurd characters have on society as a whole."
And while the final installment of Hoback's series has ended, QAnon is still very much alive.
"Everyone is going to have someone at their Thanksgiving table who used to or still believes in Q, and so I think we have to figure out a path forward where we can co-exist," Hoback says. "You know, people are allowed to believe in crazy shit, but it's when that crazy shit becomes dangerous action, that's the threshold, right? And that's where we're always trying to figure out, 'OK, well, how do you prevent the crossing of that line into a dangerous action without punishing somebody for a quote unquote dangerous thought?' Because, you know, one person's dangerous thought might be another person's liberating thought."
He has some advice for handling such situations.
"I would say don't argue with someone who believes in QAnon on their beliefs or try to disprove their beliefs," Hoback says. "Focus less on the past and more on the future. Try to find things that you do agree on and just ignore the rest. If there's even one idea that you agree on, one philosophical idea, I think that finding common ground and considering new ideas to discuss rather than rehashing old ideas is the best path forward."
Hoback warns that we are all closer than we think to being exposed to these theories, because of the industry that's grown up around the internet, which is based on giving people more of what they want.
"What we saw with QAnon was that people were being driven to increasingly sensational content, because the algorithms were tuned for max attention, max clicks, max eyeballs," he says. "So someone might be looking at a video of Tom Hanks on, you know, a Toy Story video, and be only three clicks away from a false video of someone who's a QAnon believer claiming that Tom Hanks is a pedophile. You know, always three clicks away from something like that."
He lays the blame at the failure to secure the internet.
"If there had been meaningful privacy protections in place on the internet, our data would not have been scraped up, our every click, move and thought would not have been scraped up on us, and these companies would not have been able to target us with specialized campaigns, driving us into echo chambers, where our ideas became increasingly extreme and where society became increasingly polarized," he says. "I think that’s a direct byproduct of the lack of privacy online. So it should come as no surprise then that, as people are driven into echo chambers, that the speech becomes more and more hostile, the ideas more extreme."
Q: Into the Storm is available to stream on HBO Max.
Read more on Yahoo Entertainment: