QAnon has become an almost inevitable part of politics. The conspiracy was organized around an anonymous figure named Q, who allegedly operates within the Trump administration. Using anonymous online message boards, Q sent a series of cryptic messages about a plan to massage democratic politicians and celebrities, who presumably kidnap a large number of children. (This is not the case.) Q has now spent three years promising imminent arrests, while the QAnon group has become a kind of super-conspiracy theory that attracts people from all over the world, built around cheering for mass executions and martial law .
On paper, the unmasking of the person (or people) behind Q then sounds like a big deal. And that is the purpose of Q: In the storm, an HBO documentary series directed by Cullen Hoback. Hoback tracked down some of the people who supported and popularized QAnon and searched for what HBO calls the ‘mastermind’ behind the theory.
Unfortunately, In the storm is not a deconstruction of QAnon as much as a dirty mirror of it. The six-hour series records a supposed inner circle of the movement boring and obsessive, while highlighting the myriad reasons why Q’s messages resonate with people, as well as the effects of QAnon on believers and the people around them. It contains all the ways in which idealistic journalistic values - a commitment to humanizing topics, a goal to expose powerful transgressors, and a belief that exposure to truth will set people free – fail in the face of extremist movements.
Earlier this month, a preview of Hoback’s series drew criticism from researchers against anti-information, who were worried it could become a QAnon recruitment tool. The bad news is that In the storm breaks several best practices for reporting on extremism. The good news (I think?) Is that it’s almost so boring that it’s invisible. Instead of a big overview of QAnon or a meticulous argument for Q’s identity, the series focuses on a handful of feuding message board operators and YouTube (or ‘QTube’) influencers, documenting them with a combination of formal interviews and endless cut- of life scenes. imagine Tiger King, but about forum trolls checking each other’s Twitter feeds.
In the storm is largely about the operators of 8chan (later re-introduced as “8kun”), the all-go message board where “Q drops” is placed. Hoback visited the Philippines for many years to speak with Fredrick Brennan, the creator of 8chan; its current owner Jim Watkins; and Watkins’ son Ron, the site’s former administrator. Brennan spoke in public – en fairly credible – accuses the Watkins family that they were possibly behind Q, and Hoback found unprecedented access to all. For people who study QAnon, recording new details from its interviews is the main draw of the program.
But In the storm is too purposeless to force that access. After the first installment, it mostly becomes a documentary about 8chan in general, including a bitter feud between Brennan and the Watkins family fueled by 8chan’s role in several extreme right – wing mass shootings. While some of his subjects claim to be apolitical, they are entangled in right-wing politics, prone to supposedly ironic trifles and extremely rude about racist violence.
The series half-heartedly hints at how these events align with larger right-wing politics, including the Watkins’ interaction with QTubers. But big chunks have been devoted to Hoback just hanging out with the trio – discussing their interpersonal drama-by-beat drama, wrestling softball questions about 8chan’s many controversies and letting them talk about freedom of speech and their favorite hobbies. The series can be hours shorter if it presumably cuts entertaining scenes like Jim Watkins making farts with his hands or explaining how to fill a fountain pen.
In the storm apparently trying to make QAnon’s most famous players look absurd. When this outcome is taken for granted, Hoback hardly cares to refute or disprove their statements, which has discouraged a tactical researcher for years. What some viewers may see as shrewdness or a bad argument, others can easily buy as charming foibles or a rhetorical triumph. And compared to extremism documentaries like Alt-right: Age of Rage, In the storm barely acknowledges that there are forces that take QAnon seriously and try to counter it – or at least provide support for the people it hurt.
The approach also makes Hoback’s hunt for Q seem bizarrely inefficient. In the storm implies that if you just talk to a bunch of internet trolls long enough, they will slip up and reveal their secrets. The visible research of the series therefore basically involves training a camera for people who are known for misleading and manipulating journalists, and then asking if they are Q.
In the storm touches on one compelling thesis: QAnon is, at its core, a grip. Jim and Ron Watkins concede that QAnon is the only thing to keep 8kun going, and they have a big incentive to keep Q on the platform. QTubers seem to really believe some Q claims, but they also describe being seduced by how QAnon has boosted their traffic. Hoback outlines how the theory spread from an obscure forum post through a right-wing influence machine, including former Trump officials like Michael Flynn and prominent media people like Alex Jones.
But apart from being filled with hours of 8chan drama, it’s all wrapped up in an unnecessary conspiracy framework. The series ominously highlights the officials’ military ties or their links to ‘psyop’ research, while all that is needed is a good deal of viral marketing. It seems remarkably willing to buy topics’ self-explanatory stories, so as a detail do seems strange and worrying, it’s hard to separate it from the hype.
Hoback mentions a major revelation about Q’s identity, or at least the name of one person who allegedly ran the account. His assertion reflects a fairly well-known theory about QAnon, and it is based on the analysis of some cagey and noncommittal statements by an interviewer. For the reasons mentioned above, In the storm makes it incredibly difficult to evaluate this great revelation – because there is little to suggest that the subject did not just mess with him.
In the storm also an important issue: exposing Q will probably not stop QAnon. The movement appeals to years of mistrust in powerful institutions, and is notorious for fact-checking or debunking. Since Q’s original reports, it’s been insinuated Christian churches, anti-sex trafficking campaigns, wellness communities, en New Age spirituality, sometimes in ways that Q does not even mention as a person. The people promoting QAnon ideas is not hidden in the shadows; they spoke on Fox News and other right-wing networks, while Q months without posting. The series refers to it all – but only as a quick summary of other reporters’ work.
Grabbing a master manipulator sounds like a compelling idea. But if In the storm is an indication, it’s far less interesting than the everyday structures that made QAnon so popular. (Also, a six-hour series should have room to dig into both.) As a documentary on Trump’s online extremism, Hoback’s work is adjacent to last year’s film Feel a good man, who used the Pepe cartoon frog meme to put the chaotic strangeness of modern politics at the forefront. In contrast to, In the storm simply try to answer a false conspiracy by finding a true one – and subject viewers to some of the world’s most boring political crusaders.
Q: In the storm going on HBO and HBO Max on March 21st.