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QAnon Explained: Q Returns After 18 Months of Silence

The pro-Trump, dangerous, and utterly false conspiracy theory is back.

QAnon
QAnon still hasn't gone away. 
Getty Images

QAnon -- the far-right, pro-Donald Trump, false conspiracy theory that asserts the former president was in a secret war against a cabal of pedophile satanists in Hollywood and the Democratic party -- appeared to be lacking direction after the mysterious figure named Q went silent in December 2020. Last week, the account started posting again. 

The post, also referred to by QAnon believers as a Q drop, that marked the return happened on July 24 on 8kun, the anonymous image board formerly known as 8chan

"Shall we play a game once more," the post read. Two more posts were made soon after. 

QAnon researchers believe the person posing as Q this time around is either Ron Watkins, the former admin for 8kun/8chan who's currently running for Congress in Arizona; his father Jim Watkins, who owns 8kun; or someone in cahoots. As evidence, the researchers point to the site's use of a tripcode, a unique identifier on the image board that's tied to a certain account. 

Frederick Brennan, the creator of 8chan, tweeted Wednesday saying he was able to confirm via the site's code that Jim Watkins was behind more posts from Q that same day. Both Ron and Jim Watkins have in the past denied being Q. 

QAnon believers have put their faith in the Q hoax. It's already provoked violence in the real world, with numerous Q followers participating in the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.

QAnon Shaman

Jacob Chansley, known as the QAnon Shaman, was part of the mob that stormed the Capitol building on Jan. 6 and has been sentenced to 41 months in prison.  

Getty Images

If you have questions about QAnon, we have answers. 

QAnon sounds nuts. What can you tell me about it? 

QAnon is an online conspiracy theory that claims Trump is waging a secret war against a deep state of Democratic elites and Hollywood stars who are pedophiles and Satan worshipers. Cannibalism is in there someplace too. Really, that's what they believe. 

The conspiracy theory dates back to October 2017, when an anonymous post on a message board said extradition agreements had been struck with several countries "in case of cross border run" by Hillary Clinton, Trump's Democratic rival for the White House in 2016. (That run still hasn't happened.) The person or group behind the post eventually came to be known as "Q," which is where the conspiracy theory's name comes from. 

The first QAnon post. 

Archive.4plebs.org

Since then, the conspiracy theory has gotten wider and weirder. It's now folded in former President Barack Obama and billionaire philanthropist George Soros, both of whom, among other well-known figures, are frequent subjects of online conspiracy theories.

By the way, Q is a reference to the highest security level clearance at the Department of Energy. That's the department that oversees nuclear weapons. Q claims to have worked in close proximity to Trump and the inner circle of his administration. 

Didn't Joe Biden's presidential win stop this conspiracy theory? 

QAnon believers tuned in to Biden's inauguration expecting a last-minute military takeover or an order for martial law from Trump before the noontime transfer of power. That, obviously, didn't happen, and many followers took to various social media platforms such as Gab and Telegram to share in their confusion. 

The more prominent names within the movement continue expressing their faith that something will change to remove Biden from office. 8kun, the anonymous message board where Q posts, saw a brief meltdown by one of the moderators who deleted all the content from its "Q research" forum shortly after the inauguration. Some hours later it returned back to "normal" with posts from users who continue to believe and from others who mock them.

The nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute -- a nonprofit that researches the intersection of religion, culture and public policy -- released a study in February showing that nearly 16% of Americans believe the core QAnon conspiracy

Who is Q?

Other than Q, we can't say for sure. 

Of course, more than one person has claimed to be Q, with one theory saying the mysterious figure is a time traveler. (Even some QAnon followers, who have proved they'll believe just about anything, think that's a bit too crazy.)

Paul Furber, a conspiracy theorist from Johannesburg, South Africa, has been identified as possibly being the original Q poster because of an appearance he made on the Alex Jones-hosted InfoWars TV show a few months after the first post. The appearance on the conspiracy-minded program, which has a following among Trump supporters, was key to bringing QAnon from online message boards to a more mainstream audience. 

Jim Watkins, the owner of the 8kun message board, is another person often speculated to be the mysterious figure because Q's posts migrated to his site not long after they first appeared. Fredrick Brennan, who created 8chan, the predecessor of 8kun, says the message board's authentication system, known as secure tripcodes, could prove who's using the handle. In the case of 8chan and 8kun, a secure tripcode is verified by the site's server and can identify a user via a specific number within a post, even though the message boards let users stay anonymous. Jim Watkins has administrative privileges at 8kun and could use the Q-specific tripcode at any time.

In the HBO docuseries Q: Into the Storm, director Cullen Hoback claims Ron Watkins, Jim Watkins' son and former admin for 8chan/8kun, is the person behind Q. Hoback covered both Watkins and Brennan over the course of three years since they were the core people who ran 8chan back in 2018 where Q began posting messages. In his final interview with Ron Watkins, Hoback believes Watkins revealed a bit too much. 

Ron Watksin

Ron Watkins' reaction after claiming he wasn't Q. 

HBO

"Yeah, so thinking back on it, like, it was basically ... three years of intelligence training teaching normies how to do intelligence work. It was basically what I was doing anonymously but before, never as Q," Ron Watkins said in the video call, before breaking into a big grin. Hoback goes on to say that this is when Watkins slipped up, and they both knew it. 

The last Q drop, before the ones posted on Friday, was on Dec. 8, 2020, and consisted of a YouTube link to a pro-Trump video featuring the song "We're Not Gonna Take It" from '80s heavy metal band Twisted Sister. It's since been removed but then uploaded to BitChute

Around the same time as that Q drop, Ron Watkins began appearing on right-wing news programs and spreading conspiracy theories about the presidential election while also tweeting misinformation similar to Q. Twitter banned his account after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Since the show's premiere, he has posted denials of his involvement with Q on his Telegram account

Ron Watkins filed paperwork to run for Congress representing Arizona last October. He will be one of the candidates vying for the Republican nomination in August. 

Neither Furber nor either of the Watkins responded to requests for comment. 

How did QAnon jump from online to the real world? 

Since Furber appeared on InfoWars, Q followers have taken to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even TikTok to generate huge followings with their attempts to decipher the arcane messages. Q followers, who refer to themselves as "anons," are regulars at Trump rallies, even though they get turned away by security. They've also formed their own rallies with the message of "#SaveTheChildren," co-opting a hashtag used by legitimate organizations combating child trafficking. A poll from Yahoo News/YouGov published in Oct. 2020 showed 50% of Trump supporters falsely believe top members of the Democratic party are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings. 

The fanaticism over QAnon has also fostered criminal acts. In June 2018, a Q follower blocked traffic on the Hoover Dam with an armored vehicle before being apprehended by police. He pleaded guilty to terrorism charges in Feb. 2020. A man accused of killing a New York mob boss in March 2019 identified himself as a follower, appeared in court with the letter Q drawn on his palm. His lawyer said he was fascinated with QAnon and other far-right conspiracy theories, and he was later found unfit to stand trial. Multiple women who identify as Q followers face charges of kidnapping their own children, believing that they're saving the youngsters from trafficking. In August 2021, a man who killed his two children claimed he was a Q believer. 

The riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 put QAnon in the spotlight again, with the death of Ashli Babbitt, a 14-year Air Force veteran who had posted on social media about her belief in the conspiracy theory. Babbitt was in Washington as part of the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol building while Congress was counting electoral votes, and she died after being shot by law enforcement near the barricaded door to the Speaker's Lobby. Four other people died during the riot, including a Capitol police officer. Approximately one in 10 arrested from the riot had a connection to QAnon, according to a 60 Minutes report on Feb. 21, 2021. 

Concern about QAnon has grown so great that the FBI said in 2019 that the movement represents a domestic terrorist threat. The agency is looking for suspects who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill. A US Defense Department internal threat assessment dated Dec. 21, 2020, mentioned QAnon as part of a post-election increase in "the potential for civil disturbance activity" and "level of civil disturbance activity," as reported by The Intercept last January. The National Counterterrorism Center, the Justice and Homeland Security Departments sent a bulletin to law enforcement agencies warning of domestic violent extremists who took part in the Jan. 6 insurrection and were QAnon believers, 

The House of Representatives has also condemned the unhinged theory, though a handful of lawmakers voted against the resolution.

Nonetheless, the popularity and influence of the conspiracy theory continue to grow. Dozens of self-identified QAnon believers ran for office in 2020. Of the numerous candidates, two were successful

Lauren Boerbert, a Republican from Colorado, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, took their oath at the House of Representatives on Jan. 3, 2021, after winning their respective races. Both women posted QAnon content to their social media accounts prior to taking office. 

More Q believers will run for office this year in the midterm elections

Are social media and tech companies doing anything about QAnon?

Like a lot of fringe ideologies, QAnon spreads quickest on social media. The YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok platforms have all played an important role in expanding the number of QAnon followers. 

Social media companies are aware and have begun to take action. 

In Aug. 2020, Facebook removed or demoted thousands of QAnon groups and pages after an internal investigation found they were violating its policies. The company also removed thousands of QAnon accounts from its photo-based social network, Instagram. Facebook ramped up its response on Oct. 6, 2020, saying it would remove all Facebook pages, groups and Instagram accounts representing QAnon. Facebook said that it removed 3,300 pages, 10,500 groups, 510 events, 18,300 profiles and 27,300 Instagram accounts as of Jan. 12 for violating its policies on QAnon. 

Twitter began cracking down on QAnon accounts in July 2020. It removed thousands of accounts that tweeted about the movement, though some have since restarted under different names. That same month, TikTok began banning QAnon-related hashtags, making videos harder to find on the platform.

And YouTube said moderation policies implemented in early 2020 have reduced the views of QAnon videos by 70%. The video platform stepped up enforcement of its policies as it began banning videos featuring the conspiracy theory on Oct. 15, 2020.

A group of banned users filed a complaint against YouTube and its parent company, Google, on Oct. 26, 2020. The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court in the Northern District of California, alleges that the video platform is in breach of contract and in violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. Such protection, under the First Amendment, applies only to the government censoring speech. 

A spokesperson for YouTube said in an emailed statement that the company's policies are updated regularly to meet new challenges, like harmful conspiracy theories that have been used to justify real-world violence. 

Reddit has also taken steps to curb the reach of QAnon posts and subreddits.

LinkedIn, the social media platform focused on professional networking, isn't a stranger to QAnon. Users began posting misinformation and filling their profiles with QAnon slogans, which led to a crackdown by the site. 

Pinterest began its crackdown on QAnon content in Aug. 2018. A spokesperson for the company says it also disabled search results for anything related to the conspiracy theory. 

Triller is a TikTok alternative growing in popularity, and it's started banning QAnon-related videos. 

"In light of the recent addition by the FBI of QAnon to its list of terrorist activity, we have initiated a ban of QAnon content," company CEO Mike Lu said in an emailed statement. "We are a platform that believes in freedom of speech, expression, open discussion and freedom of opinion, however when the government classifies something as a terrorist threat, we must take action to protect our community."

The e-commerce site Etsy cracked down on QAnon, according to a report from Business Insider on Oct. 7, 2020. The company says it'll remove any merchandise related to the fringe movement. 

Even the fitness-tech company Peloton intervened when customers began using QAnon-related hashtags, according to a report by Business Insider. Tags such as #SaveTheChildren, #Q and #WWGOnePelotonWGA showed up on Peloton machines, allowing users to find other Q followers.

"We have a zero tolerance policy against hateful content. We actively moderate our channels and remove anything that violates our policy or does not reflect our company's values of inclusiveness and unity or maintain a respectful environment," a Peloton spokesperson told CNET in an email. The QAnon hashtags have since been removed from the platform. 

The crowdfunding platform Patreon, though not a social media company, has been important for some of the more prominent QAnon members. The company said it's taking action against creators who spread the conspiracy theory, by closing their accounts.

OK, I have to ask: What are some of the other wacky ideas QAnon followers believe? 

Are you sure you want to know? Keep in mind these ideas are completely baseless. 

The core belief is that Trump is working to remove Satanic criminals inside the government, the Democratic Party and Hollywood.

Followers believe notable members of the Democratic party and the Hollywood elite operate pedophile rings. Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres are baselessly named as being participants. (CNET didn't contact any of these celebrities for comment because the accusations are bogus.)

QAnon ropes in a host of other popular conspiracy theories, including flat Earth and anti-vax. Believers have been at the forefront of misinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic Among their wild and unfounded notions: The Chinese government created the virus, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates will use the pandemic to microchip Americans, and the pandemic is a hoax designed to sink Trump's reelection. They've also been vehemently against the COVID vaccine by constantly sharing misinformation about it.