QAnon has become a nearly inescapable part of politics. The conspiracy is organized around an anonymous figure called Q, who was supposedly operating inside the Trump administration. Using anonymous online message boards, Q has sent a string of cryptic messages about a plan to mass-arrest Democratic politicians and celebrities, who are supposedly kidnapping and murdering huge numbers of children. (They are not.) Q has now spent three years promising imminent arrests, while the QAnon group has become a kind of super-conspiracy theory attracting people from across the world, built around cheering for mass executions and martial law.
On paper, then, unmasking the person (or people) behind Q sounds like a big deal. And that’s the goal of Q: Into the Storm, an HBO documentary series from director Cullen Hoback. Hoback tracked down some of the people who have supported and popularized QAnon, seeking what HBO calls the “mastermind” behind the theory.
Unfortunately, Into the Storm isn’t a deconstruction of QAnon so much as a grimy mirror of it. The six-hour series tediously and obsessively charts an alleged inner circle of the movement, while glossing over the myriad reasons that Q’s messages appeal to people, as well as QAnon’s effect on believers and the people around them. It embodies all the ways that idealistic journalistic values — a devotion to humanizing subjects, a goal of exposing powerful wrongdoers, and a belief that exposing truth will set people free — fail in the face of extremist movements.
Imagine ‘Tiger King’, but about forum trolls checking Twitter
Earlier this month, a teaser trailer for Hoback’s series drew criticism from anti-disinformation researchers, who worried it could become a QAnon recruiting tool. The bad news is that Into the Storm breaks several best practices for reporting on extremism. The good news (I guess?) is that it’s almost so boring it’s unwatchable. Instead of a big-picture 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 interminable slice-of-life scenes. Imagine Tiger King, but about forum trolls checking each other’s Twitter feeds.
Into the Storm is largely about the operators of 8chan (later relaunched as “8kun”), the anything-goes message board where “Q drops” are posted. Hoback spent years visiting the Philippines to speak with 8chan’s creator Fredrick Brennan; its current owner Jim Watkins; and Watkins’ son Ron, the site’s former administrator. Brennan has publicly — and fairly believably — accused the Watkins family of being potentially behind Q, and Hoback got what appears to be unprecedented access to all of them. For people who study QAnon, gleaning new details from his interviews will be the show’s main draw.
But Into the Storm is too aimless to make that access compelling. After the first episode, it becomes mostly a documentary about 8chan in general, including a bitter feud between Brennan and the Watkins family fueled by 8chan’s role in several far-right mass shootings. While some of its subjects claim they’re apolitical, they’re enmeshed in right-wing politics, prone to supposedly ironic bigotry, and extremely cavalier about racist violence.
‘Into the Storm’ takes an approach anti-extremism researchers have warned against
The series halfheartedly gestures at how these events tie into larger right-wing politics, including the Watkins’ interactions with QTubers. But huge chunks are devoted to Hoback just hanging out with the trio — covering their blow-by-blow interpersonal drama, lobbing softball questions about 8chan’s many controversies, and letting them pontificate about free speech and their favorite hobbies. The series could be hours shorter if it cut supposedly entertaining scenes like Jim Watkins making fart noises with his hands or explaining how to fill a fountain pen.
Into the Storm is seemingly trying to make QAnon’s best-known players look absurd. Taking that outcome for granted, Hoback barely bothers to rebut their statements or offer outside context, a tactic researchers have spent years discouraging. What some viewers might see as crassness or a bad argument, others could easily buy as charming foibles or a rhetorical triumph. And compared with extremism documentaries like Alt-Right: Age of Rage, Into the Storm barely acknowledges that there are forces taking QAnon seriously and trying to counter it — or at least providing support for the people it’s hurt.
The approach also makes Hoback’s hunt for Q seem bizarrely ineffectual. Into the Storm implies that if you just talk to a bunch of internet trolls for long enough, they’ll slip up and reveal their secrets. So the series’s visible research basically involves training a camera on people who are known to enjoy tricking and manipulating journalists, then asking if they’re Q.
QAnon is, at its core, a grift
Into the Storm touches on one compelling thesis: QAnon is, at its core, a grift. Jim and Ron Watkins admit QAnon is the only thing keeping 8kun afloat, and they have a huge incentive to keep Q on the platform. QTubers seem to truly believe some Q claims, but they also describe being enticed by how QAnon 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 figures like Alex Jones.
But in addition to being padded by hours of 8chan drama, this is all wrapped in a needlessly conspiratorial framing. The series ominously emphasizes officials’ military ties or their links to “psyop” research, when all that often seems necessary is a good handle on viral marketing. It seems remarkably willing to buy subjects’ self-aggrandizing stories, so when a detail does seem weird and alarming, it’s hard to separate that from the hype.
Hoback touts a big reveal about Q’s identity, or at least the name of one person who has allegedly operated the account. His claim echoes a fairly well-known theory about QAnon, and it’s based on parsing some cagey and noncommittal statements by an interview subject. For the reasons mentioned above, Into the Storm makes it incredibly hard to evaluate this big reveal — because there’s little to indicate that, say, the subject hasn’t just been messing with him.
Does exposing Q actually matter?
Into the Storm also elides a major issue: exposing Q probably wouldn’t stop QAnon. The movement appeals to long-standing mistrust of powerful institutions, and it’s notoriously resistant to fact-checking or debunking. Since Q’s original posts, it’s insinuated itself into Christian churches, anti-sex trafficking campaigns, wellness communities, and New Age spirituality, sometimes in ways that don’t even reference Q as a person. The people promoting QAnon ideas aren’t hidden in the shadows; they’ve been speaking on Fox News and other right-wing networks, while Q goes months without posting. The series references all this — but only as a quick recap of other reporters’ work.
Grasping for a master manipulator sounds like a compelling idea. But if Into the Storm is any indication, it’s far less interesting than the mundane structures that made QAnon so popular. (Also, a six-hour series should have room to delve into both.) As a documentary about pro-Trump online extremism, Hoback’s work is adjacent to last year’s film Feels Good Man, which used the Pepe cartoon frog meme to incisively chronicle modern politics’ chaotic weirdness. By contrast, Into the Storm simply tries to answer a false conspiracy by finding a true one — subjecting viewers to some of the world’s dullest political crusaders along the way.
Q: Into the Storm premieres March 21st on HBO and HBO Max.