The wild, discredited and deadly far-right conspiracy theory known as QAnon began rather quietly in October 2017 with a series of anonymous, cryptic messages referencing major political figures and asking odd questions about George Soros. It ends with the phrase, “God bless fellow Patriots.” Over the next few years, the winding and unfounded conspiracy theory — which posits that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media” — quickly caught fire and ballooned into a global mass delusion. It eventually stretched from its purported roots in upper echelons in Washington to sizeable numbers of followers in foreign countries as far as Germany and Japan.
The roots of the QAnon phenomenon, as shown in the new docuseries from HBO and filmmaker Cullen Hoback, “Q: Into the Storm,” can be traced to the notorious, mostly lawless web communities 4chan and 8chan, which have become known for their ride-or-die ethos regarding unfettered free speech. In the years leading up to the rapid rise of the Q theory, 8chan, the site where its “drops” of supposed “intelligence” regarding the so-called deep state appear, was routinely embroiled in some of the web’s darkest moments. It was a meeting place to egg on a churlish anti-feminist harassment campaign and a preferred megaphone for mass shooters; the site at one time hosted suspected child pornography and recently, helped spur January’s deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol.
After first appearing on 4chan — the popular but often controversial web message board that gave the world lolcats, Rickrolling, and the term "alt-right” — the person or people posting as “Q,” who claims to be a high-level military intelligence figure, soon decided to exclusively post its “drops” of intel to 8chan. Both 4chan and 8chan are imageboards, or user-generated message boards; threads in this style of board typically consist of an image with user discussion around an array of topics.
In 2013, when 20-year-old Fredrick Brennan conceived 8chan from Brooklyn — apparently while under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms — he envisioned an unpoliced, "free-speech-friendly" alternative to 4chan, where he’d been an active member for years.
“I wondered what it would be like if there were a Reddit-style imageboard where anyone could make a board without express [administrator] approval,” Brennan said in a 2015 interview with the website Know Your Meme. “Gone are the days where [moderators] are gods, and the rules keep getting more and more strict on 4chan, even though there is no legal requirement for them to do so.”
In 2014, amid the Gamergate harassment campaign against several women in the video game industry, 4chan administrators decided to ban discussion of the topic as the misogynistic movement rapidly spiraled. Soon, 8chan saw a massive influx of users and quickly became a hotbed of sexist vitriol that included doxing, threats of rape, and death threats against specific women. According to the Washington Post, it was around this time that 8chan became the web's second-most popular imageboard online.
Very quickly, 8chan became the preferred online home and breeding ground for conspiracy theories, white supremacism, neo-Nazism, racism, and anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate speech. The site also became entangled in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, numerous swatting attacks, and was the de-facto hosting site for the manifestos of mass shooting suspects, including the alleged white nationalists accused of attacking a synagogue in Poway, California in 2019 and a Walmart store in El Paso the same year.
After its surge in popularity and in the wake of child pornography controversies, which led to the site’s delisting by Google, as well as the loss of its domain and Patreon account, Brennan decided to accept an offer from a fellow imageboard operator. Manila-based businessman Jim Watkins, via his N.T. Technology, offered up domain services and hardware to keep 8chan afloat. So in October 2014, Brennan moved to the Philippines, relinquished the site to Watkins, and began to work as the site’s administrator while he gradually grew disillusioned with the platform he created as it spun out of control.
In the end, the partnership with Watkins didn’t last. The two had a falling out in 2018 and Brennan called for the site to be removed, telling the New York Times that “it’s not doing the world any good.” Brennan decided to move to California, where he lived until 2020 when he apparently moved back to the East Coast. Now, he actively works to have 8chan taken offline and has become a prominent opponent of QAnon.
His former platform, meanwhile, rebranded itself toward the end of 2019 as 8kun in a bumpy relaunch after Watkins was called before Congress and the board was dropped by its technical services provider. After Trump lost the 2020 election, Q went quiet. Soon, however, the site became an online space to organize the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, with some users even planning which politicians to attack.
But the election overturning that Q followers had hoped for that day never arrived, and the mass arrest of Satan-worshipping, baby-eating pedophile elites never came to fruition. Brennan, speaking with NBC News, said that the assault on the government may have been the death knell for the movement — or maybe not.
“This week has been hugely demoralizing so far and that will be the final straw,” he said. “Even though Q is, at the moment, based on Donald Trump, it is certainly possible for a significant faction to rise up that believes he was in the deep state all along and foiled the plan.”
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