Brennan said that a loss for Trump in November could have significant ramifications for the QAnon movement. "If Trump loses, I think that how a lot of people are going to view it is: the deep state has won. Trump has lost. Our god, essentially, has been crucified," he said. Because, "Trump is -- for many of them -- a god, and they are going to punish Democrats on the other side with political violence. That's what I see happening." Brennan said that QAnon followers believe a second term for Trump will trigger “The Storm,” followed by the “Great Awakening.”
The men behind QAnon
Experts and researchers said the key to "Q" is hiding in plain sight.
For nearly three years, QAnon followers have been feverishly deciphering thousands of cryptic clues and predictions posted online by the shadowy persona of "Q" at the center of a metastasizing movement that experts say is the first far-right extremist conspiracy theory in the modern era to penetrate mainstream American culture and Washington politics.
Yet, a consensus of leading researchers and critics who study and debunk QAnon disinformation told ABC News that a key to identifying "Q" has been hiding in plain sight for years -- on a pig farm south of Manila in the Philippines -- at least until recently.
The rapid online growth of QAnon since early spring -- and a series of trolling incidents that surged through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok before those platforms began banning QAnon groups and hashtags this summer -- has sharpened focus on the forces behind this alternative reality game-like phenomenon.
At least 24 candidates who have "endorsed or given credence to the conspiracy theory or promoted QAnon content" -- 22 Republicans and two independents -- have secured a spot on the ballot in the 2020 congressional elections, according to the media watchdog Media Matters, though it remains unclear how many could actually win their races. Last month, one candidate who pollsters say is almost certain to win her heavily GOP district in Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, appeared to rescind her previous support for QAnon, telling Fox News that "once I started finding misinformation, I decided that I would choose another path."
People who believe in QAnon conspiracies have also been associated with a number of strange and disconcerting real-life incidents in recent years, including a man using an armored truck to block traffic on the Hoover Dam in 2018, and another man accused of fatally shooting alleged New York Gambino mob boss Francesco "Franky Boy" Cali last year because, according to court records, he believed Cali that was part of the "deep state." In June, a New York judge found the suspect mentally unfit for trial and transferred to a mental health facility for further evaluation, the Staten Island Advance reported.
QAnon clothing and posters have turned up regularly at President Donald Trump's campaign rallies since at least 2018.
Trump, his children and several White House staffers have repeatedly retweeted QAnon-linked content online, according to researchers who track the spread of QAnon. As of late August, Trump alone had amplified social media accounts promoting QAnon content at least 216 times, Media Matters reported.
Last month, Trump made his most extensive comments to date when asked about QAnon during a press briefing at the White House.
"Well I don't know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much -- which I appreciate," he said, adding, "I've heard these are people that love our country."
A reporter pressed him about "this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals -- does that sound like something you are behind or a believer in?"
"Well, I haven't ... heard that," Trump replied. "But is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, you know, if I can help save the world from problems, I'm willing to do it. I'm willing to put myself out there."
Puzzles, prophesies and 'Q drops'
In its broadest outlines, the QAnon conspiracy theory rests on the baseless belief that Trump is secretly battling a global network of billionaire pedophiles, devil-worshipping Democrats and baby-eating Hollywood stars and their "deep state" counterparts embedded in the U.S. federal government's sprawling bureaucracy.
Numerous top Democrats, party supporters, Hollywood stars and other Trump critics have been dragged into QAnon's web and slandered with false and heinous allegations. Last week, Trump fanned these flames when he retweeted a video clip of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden that falsely suggested the former U.S. vice president is a pedophile.
Party affiliation is no shield. After Vice President Mike Pence told CBS News on Aug. 21 that he "doesn't know anything" about QAnon but "dismisses it out of hand," he was accused by many QAnon adherents of being a "deep state" agent. Earlier this month, Pence canceled a campaign fundraiser after an Associated Press (AP) report revealed that the couple hosting the event had publicly expressed support for QAnon.
QAnon's messaging is laced with religious allegory, prophesies, puzzle-solving and an emboldening sense of belonging to the right side of an epic battle of good versus evil.
The user "Q Clearance Patriot," known to followers as "Q," purports to be a high-level military intelligence official who leaves clues about the secret battle behind the scenes with "Q drops" -- messages first posted in late 2017 on the anonymous imageboard 4chan, and later on 8chan and its successor, 8kun.
The "chans," as they are known -- where the messages are posted -- are low-trafficked anonymous imageboards populated largely with hate speech, pornography and rhetorical violence.
Instead of registering users, the sites issue users a tripcode -- a unique sequence of code that allows a user's identity to be recognized without storing personal data, a practice that researchers say protects free speech but fuels the spread of disinformation.
It's "Q"'s unique tripcode that allows followers to verify the messages are coming from the same user account -- even as "Q" has migrated from one imageboard to the next.
The "Q drops" are then swiftly interpreted by so-called "Q influencers," archived in searchable databases and disseminated to a much wider audience on aggregator websites like QMap -- which went offline earlier this month after the site's developer was identified as an IT expert living in New Jersey.
From there, the QAnon message spreads into the wider social media ecosystem. In August, the Guardian newspaper tracked 4.5 million aggregate QAnon followers worldwide on Facebook and Instagram alone, though the paper also acknowledged “likely significant overlap among these groups and accounts.”
It remains unknown whether the “Q drops” are authored by one or several people or whether they live within or outside the U.S., burnishing the mystique at the heart of the phenomenon.
In 2018, NBC News disinformation beat reporters tracked the initial spread of the QAnon phenomenon to a handful of conspiracy theorists from YouTube and 4chan who banded together and used social media to amplify an obscure thread of political conspiracy to a far larger audience.
What began in 2017 as a political conspiracy theory has since morphed into a meta-conspiracy movement that in sum aims to account for much of the evil in the world, sweetened by the promise of evil's swift demise with "The Storm" -- the perpetually imminent arrest of tens of thousands of "enemy" Americans -- and "The Great Awakening" -- the subsequent, Rapture-like new beginning for the world where believers' faith is recognized and rewarded.
Who is Q?
The two Americans most clearly associated with the author of thousands of "Q drops" dating back to October 2017 are James Arthur Watkins, 56, who gained control in 2015 of the controversial anonymous message board 8chan, and his son, Ronald Watkins, former 8chan administrator and current administrator of its successor, the Watkins-owned 8kun.
Since 2001, Watkins has been living in the Philippines, according to Philippines immigration records obtained by ABC News.
"If he's not 'Q' himself, he can find out who 'Q' is at any time," said Fredrick Brennan, the creator of 8chan and Watkins' former business partner.
"And he's pretty much the only person in the world that can have private contact with 'Q.' He's the only person that -- through the board that 'Q' started on 8chan – can send 'Q' a direct message and get into private contact with basically the leader of this political cult that everybody wants to hear from right now."
Brennan created 8chan in 2013 when he was living in New York City, he said, after dreaming up the idea during a trip on psychedelic mushrooms.
He moved to Manila in 2014 to work with James and Ron Watkins and in 2015 he cut a deal that turned over ownership of the site to the elder Watkins. He continued to work on other Watkins projects until 2018 before splitting entirely and to date remains embroiled in a bitter personal dispute with the family.
Watkins and his son, Ron, who have previously denied being "Q," declined repeated ABC News interview requests and did not reply to a subsequent list of questions from ABC News submitted through his U.S. attorney and in letters delivered to his home and businesses in Manila.
A day after the letters were delivered in Manila and ABC News spoke briefly with Watkins' brother-in-law, an ABC News reporter was blocked from accessing Watkins' primary Twitter account.
'This is not a drill’
Brennan has been actively tracking Watkins-connected or owned businesses and -- when he finds them -- urging internet service providers to deny Watkins a platform.
Late last month, Brennan caused a stir among QAnon researchers when he posted an image of an IP address in a tweet that he said proved that Watkins’ 8kun was sharing the same IP address with QMap, one of the largest dissemination websites on the internet for "Q drops," with 10 million visitors a month in recent months, according to the web analytics site SimilarWeb Ltd.
"Oh my God," Brennan declared in an Aug. 23 tweet. "This is not a drill, people. Jim Watkins is the owner of QMap.pub."
Brennan told ABC News that the image suggested for the first time that Watkins is profiting from both "Q"'s original posts on 8kun, as well as from QMap.
Earlier this month, the fact-checking website Logically identified QMap’s developer, or operator, as an IT expert living in New Jersey. The IT executive denied any association with Watkins to Daily Dot, a tech-centric website.
Until it went offline, QMap was hosted by the same content delivery network (CDN) service as 8kun. The CDN only hosts two other domains: Watkins' domains and The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website.
The host service company “was started right … at the end of October, 2019,” Brennan said. 8kun launched weeks later.
Numerous QAnon researchers interviewed by ABC News said that Brennan's evidence is a compelling new twist and a further indication of long-suspected ties between Watkins and "Q."
They stressed that it was the access to "Q" -- not the authorship of the posts -- that most interests them about Watkins' role in the QAnon phenomenon.
"Regardless of whether he is doing any direct posting, or encouraging what the content is, the Watkins family and the 8kun crew have a remarkable amount of control over what's turning into an international movement," said Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Affairs, who studies the impact of political disinformation from alternative media and anonymous groups.
Friedberg said that in recent months he has devoted nearly all his time to the QAnon movement, because it has become a "major amplifier of both political and medical disinformation."
Researcher Mike Rains said he has long believed that Watkins is at least in direct contact with "Q" and said that Brennan's tweet appears to be yet another indication of the degree to which the Watkins family controls the QAnon posts dispatched on 8kun.
"It doesn't really matter who is writing the 'Q drops,'" said Rains, a Massachusetts-based researcher who posts frequent critiques of QAnon conspiracies and hosts the podcast "Poker and Politics." "Watkins is the publisher. He is the only source of information that is allowed to get out there."
Brennan, 26, said that he moved from New York City to Manila in 2014 at Watkins' invitation to build out 8chan from the Southeast Asian island nation and the two formed a partnership.
The Watkins had learned about him from an Al Jazeera documentary about the challenges Brennan faced living in New York City with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, which has confined him to a wheelchair for most of his life, he said. Brennan said he relinquished his role as 8chan's administrator in 2016 and fully broke with the Watkins family two years later, disillusioned, he said, over personal disputes with the family and the increasingly violent and subversive content on 8chan's boards.
In a series of recent interviews, Brennan said that last year's trio of mass shootings -- at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart; two New Zealand mosques; and a San Diego synagogue -- perpetrated by alleged 8chan users finally forced him to reckon with the real-world consequences of anonymous online hate.
Since then, he has been a vocal online critic of the 8chan culture, which he acknowledges that he helped spawn, particularly the growth of QAnon — which he said is dominating the larger far-right extremist landscape online.
"We're seeing [8kun] kind of morphing away from white supremacy and neo-Nazism and into QAnonism," Brennan told ABC News this week. "And Watkins fully endorses that. He has totally backed the 'Q' movement."
Brennan said that a loss for Trump in November could have significant ramifications for the QAnon movement.
"If Trump loses, I think that how a lot of people are going to view it is: the deep state has won. Trump has lost. Our god, essentially, has been crucified," he said. Because, "Trump is -- for many of them -- a god, and they are going to punish Democrats on the other side with political violence. That's what I see happening."
Brennan said that QAnon followers believe a second term for Trump will trigger “The Storm,” followed by the “Great Awakening.”
"Even if 99% of them can come up with a new narrative and still think 'Q' is true, I think it's very likely that much more than 1% are going to feel betrayed, duped and deceived by not only Watkins but everyone involved in Q[Anon]."
Jim Watkins, the man behind qanon
Jim Watkins (born November 1963) is an American businessman and the operator of the imageboard website 8chan and textboard website 2channel. Watkins founded the company N.T. Technology in the 1990s to support a Japanese pornography website he created while he was enlisted in the United States Army. After leaving the Army to focus on the company, Watkins moved to the Philippines. Watkins began providing domain and hosting services to 8chan in 2014, and became the site's official owner and operator the same year. Watkins became the operator of 2channel after he seized it in 2014 from its creator and original owner, Hiroyuki Nishimura.
Some journalists and conspiracy theory researchers believe that Watkins knows the identity of, or that he himself is, "Q", the person or group of people behind the QAnon conspiracy theory. In 2020, Watkins created the "Disarm the Deep State" super PAC to support political candidates who promote QAnon.
James Arthur Watkins was born in Dayton, Washington, and grew up on a family farm in Mukilteo, Washington. His mother worked for Boeing and his father worked for a phone company.
Watkins joined the United States Army in 1982 when he was 18 years old, and served until 1998 or 1999. Over his time in the Army he worked as a helicopter mechanic and recruiter; he reached the rank of sergeant first class in 1994. The Army sent him to a technology school in Virginia in 1987, where he learned about computers and the early Internet.
In 1998, while still enlisted, Watkins created a website for Japanese pornography called "Asian Bikini Bar". By hosting it in the United States he was able to circumvent strict Japanese censorship of pornography. He later renamed the venture "N.T. Technology", which according to Watkins was a meaningless acronym meant to make pornography purchases less conspicuous on credit card statements. N.T. Technology, which is based in Reno, Nevada, initially sold advertising, and later also sold web hosting services to other Japanese adult entertainment websites that couldn't be hosted in Japan. In 1998 or 1999, during the dot-com boom, Watkins left the army to focus on N.T. Technology.
Watkins has owned or been involved with many business ventures. He owned an organic food restaurant in Manila, Philippines, which is now closed. In 2005, Watkins opened a Manila-based software business called Race Queen, which has subsequently been listed as the employer on Philippine work visas for several employees of Watkins'. Watkins also runs the Manila-based business Loki Technology. He has been involved with a book narration company called books.audio. He has also created a news organization called The Goldwater, whose content has been described by The Washington Post as "notably conspiratorial and amateurish". He is listed as the chairman of the board of a company called Emerald Pedistal, which sells piglets.