A month before the sacking and looting of the United States Capitol on January 6, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee asked the FBI for an updated assessment of the threat posed by QAnon. At a hearing on Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray assured the committee that the report would be available shortly.
A lot has happened since 2019, when the bureau flagged QAnon as a threat after a number of sensational QAnon-related crimes, including an armed assault on a pizzeria, a blockade of the bridge over the Hoover Dam and the murder of a mob boss. QAnon went on to back Donald Trump's Big Lie of a stolen election. Worse came to worst when insurgents in full Q regalia fought their way into the Capitol in a bid to throw out a free and fair election. Q hasn't been heard from since December 8, but the FBI has plenty of material to incorporate into its new QAnon threat assessment.
Another development in this sordid saga was the March release of Cullen Hoback's documentary Q: Into the Storm, which strongly suggests that the impresario of QAnon is Ron Watkins, the degenerate failson of the owner of the notorious 8kun message board. Which is … more or less what most knowledgeable observers thought all along.
The documentary lays out a strong circumstantial case that Watkins wrested control of QAnon by establishing his board, then known as 8chan, as Q's exclusive online home, booting the original Q, and assuming the old Q's digital identity. Hoback follows Watkins and his father Jim to the Capitol on January 6. The filmmaker shows how Watkins reinvented himself as a bogus "election security" expert and fomented voter fraud conspiracy theories on right-wing media. It was Watkins who seemed to bring down the curtain on Inauguration Day, urging the conspiracy's faithful to go back to their lives and focus on the "friends and happy memories" they'd made along the way.
What sets the documentary apart is that Hoback extracts the closest thing to a confession from Watkins that we're ever likely to get. Watkins tells Hoback that he's been anonymously posting on the QResearch message board for the last three years, teaching ordinary people to do intelligence work—which is exactly what Q did. Watkins hastily adds he never did so as Q. Hoback obviously doesn't believe him.
I leave it to the reader to decide if a "confession" from a professional liar is any more reliable than a denial from a professional liar. Either way, Q: Into the Storm has solidified the conventional wisdom that Ron Watkins is the main architect of Q.
The Watkins' main antagonist in the film, Frederick Brennan, is now calling for the arrest of Ron Watkins and Jim Watkins for their role in the QAnon conspiracy. United States Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, may have been inspired by the documentary when he asked Wray whether Watkins and his father could face charges for their role in promoting a conspiracy theory that inspired an insurrection against the United States and numerous acts of violence. To his credit, Wray said the FBI was focused on investigating violent plots, rather than policing speech online.
Even if it could be proven that Watkins is the ringleader of QAnon, he doesn't seem to have broken any laws. LARPing1 is not a crime, except perhaps against good taste.
The central theme of QAnon ideology is the glorification of political violence. The anons are awaiting "The Storm," a cleansing political purge in which the military will liquidate tens of thousands of Q's enemies and seize control of the government. As repellent and toxic as this belief is, it's legally protected speech. The First Amendment protects the right to wish that the military would overthrow the government someday.
A speaker only crosses the line if they're inciting imminent lawless action—i.e., telling people to violently overthrow the government right this minute. QAnon was crucial in popularizing the Big Lie that spurred the insurgency, but Q's writings are far too elliptical and non-directive to count as an concretely inciting. To put it more bluntly, they don't make enough sense. For the most part, Q spits out a bunch of riddles, acronyms and leading questions, and his fans read what they want into them.
A big part of running a site like 8kun is fielding requests from law enforcement to take down illegal content that users have posted, such as child porn and death threats, so Watkins probably has a solid grasp of the boundaries of free expression online.
The Watkins' nemesis, Frederick Brennan, argues that Ron Watkins and Jim Watkins should be arrested for impersonating federal agents. This legal argument seems far-fetched. Q certainly invited the inference that he was a national security big-shot, but Q was as vague about his fictional credentials as he was about everything else.
Moreover, the federal law against impersonating an officer of the United States is designed to be used against impostors who usurp the authority of the federal government to coerce their victims. Classic examples include the kidnapper who flashes a fake FBI badge to convince his victim she's under arrest, or the con artist who poses as an IRS auditor and demands a pensioner's Social Security number. Implying you're a government agent for internet clout probably doesn't cut it, even if said clout helps you raise money or sell ads. That's because the suckers are forking over that cash freely, and not because you ordered them to do so in the name of the state.
As satisfying as it would be to see Ron Watkins and Jim Watkins in handcuffs, it wouldn't solve the underlying problem, namely, that millions of Americans remain in the grip of right-wing conspiracy culture, including most of the GOP. Prosecuting the architects of this pathetic scheme would only validate their sense of persecution.