One of the many weird things about reporting on QAnon is that you inevitably start to think like a conspiracy theorist yourself. To cover a cult as bizarre and perverted as QAnon – its followers believe there is a global cabal of sex traffickers who worship Satan and which an anonymous government insider known as “Q” exposes – is deep esoteric knowledge about movement requires belief system and history, and if you hold this knowledge in your brain you will see meaning and patterns where often there are none.
You can see the thrills and pitfalls of this mindset in Q: Into the Storm, a new six-part documentary that just released its final episode on HBO Max. It does a lot right to document the growth and impact of QAnon over three years in near real time. But it also devotes a lot of time to trying to expose the person who publishes as Q. It is of course questionable who is behind Q, and it is the first question that many journalists and researchers pondered when they first got acquainted with the movement. But the Q no longer matters – what Q did, it does.
In the prologue to the documentary, director Cullen Hoback admitted that tracking this movement is starting to distort your brain. “Whenever I hear ‘plan’ I think, ‘trust the plan’. And when I see number 17, I think ‘Q’,” said Hoback. (Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet, so the number is often interpreted by Q followers to represent the letter.) I myself have often fallen victim to his way of thinking. I once paused a completely unrelated livestream because the person started talking about their preference for a brand of frozen pizza called Lou Malnati, which sounded suspiciously like “Illuminati” to my confused brain. the name of a fictional secret society no unlike the followers of Cabal Q believe that they drink the blood of children. Add that Pizza is one of QAnon’s oldest symbols for pedophiliaI went back to the conspiracy days before Q Pizzagate and wondered if the livestreamer was a Q follower (she wasn’t). Q has often said that there are “no coincidences,” but damn it, there really are plenty of them if you start looking.
The documentary falls victim to this type of puzzle-solving, pattern-seeking mentality that is so prevalent among Q followers. Finally, while previous episodes explore some of QAnon’s broader implications, the documentary narrows its focus to one goal: uncovering who Q is. In the last few episodes, Hoback makes a good argument for someone who has already topped many people’s list of likely culprits. As he tries to solve the riddle, Hoback increasingly exhibits behavior that is almost comically similar to QAnon followers: following clues, making connections, and examining symbols to reveal hidden meanings. He repeatedly refers to pictures that Q has published that include pens and watches, for example, because his prime suspects collect these items by chance. It could be that Hoback purposely mirrored the playful behavior of Q followers in searching for clues as artistic commentary, but if so, he doesn’t specifically point it out on the show. The episodes reach a dramatic climax with Hoback’s prime suspect almost posing as Q. (Or at least that’s how it’s portrayed.)
But even if Hoback managed to get a full confession, it probably wouldn’t have much of an impact on QAnon as a movement. Q followers would do what they always do when faced with conflicting evidence about their belief system: they would either refuse it or find a way to fold the information into their worldview. Even if one admitted that Q’s contributions were entirely fictional, it would not be enough for many followers to step into the harsh outer shell of faith. After all, Q went underground. He (or she or she) hasn’t posted since December 8, 2020. This is the longest amount of time Q first released since 2017.
It’s entirely possible Q will never release anything again, but the movement is as strong as ever. Q didn’t have to post some followers to take part in the deadly attack January 6th on the US Capitol. QAnon has long since taken on a life of its own, with nearly 5,000 Q-posts yet to be investigated and dozens of Q-influencers advancing new theories and reformulating the breaking news within the Q-framework, it has all the ingredients needed to make it long survive after Q disappears.
Aside from his limited potential to influence true believers, focusing too much on Q’s identity means bypassing the more difficult questions. It is fun to examine Q “drops” for revealing clues. It’s less fun, but far more important to summarize why QAnon was able to grow as fast and broadly as it was, or what this says about this moment in American politics, or how we can get around it. QAnon is a lot more than its maker, and it’s more than just some crazy shit that happens on the internet. Treating it as an irresistible puzzle to be solved undermines the real effects of this movement.
I can’t say I really blame Hoback. Q’s identity is a question that many of us have spent time and energy answered over the years. When you’re peeking into a rabbit hole, it’s all too easy just to keep an eye on the rabbit.