CORRECTION: Fredrick Brennan says he left the Philippines not because he was afraid of being detained in jail— instead, he says he left because he was afraid of being detained at the Bureau of Immigration Bicutan Detention Center. The center has been accused of human rights abuses and rarely offers bail.
From Gimlet, this is Reply All, I’m PJ Vogt.
Two weeks ago I talked to a man named Fredrick Brennan for the first time.
FREDRICK BRENNAN: Hello?
PJ VOGT: Hey, how's it going?
FREDRICK: Yeah, it's going okay. Sorry we had a little trouble connecting this morning.
PJ: That's OK. Um are you...You're in Los Angeles?
FREDRICK: Uh yeah. It's still morning, technically, for another half hour. [laughs]
It takes about 3 seconds of small talk with Fredrick to understand his point of view. Which is that the world is a shitty place, and the consolation you get is just being relentlessly candid about that.
PJ: Where in L.A. are you?
FREDRICK: Uh, Van Nuys.
PJ: I've been to L.A. for a bit but I've never been to Van Nuys. Is it nice?
FREDRICK: No, it's the shitty area. That's why you've never been there.
P: Why...How come you're there?
FREDRICK: Uh...I'm poor. Okay. Anyway…
PJ: [Laughs] Nice to meet you.
I really didn’t know what to expect from Fredrick. Cause he’s known for having done two very extreme but opposite things — he started the imageboard 8chan, a notorious internet cesspool. He defended it for years, but then very publicly repudiated it. Like he actually fought to get it taken off the internet.
PJ: What do you do with that though like this was this thing that you spent a ton of time working on that you built, how do you look back at that now?
FREDRICK: Well I was just wrong you know, and obviously I think that those of us who are kidn of at the beginning of internet history I guess we can call it are going to make a lot of mistakes. And obviously, unbridled free speech does not work. It does not make a positive community in any sense of the word.
Fredrick left 8chan when he was 22. But the reason he’s talking about it now, four years later, is that he believes he’s uncovered a secret. The identity of Q-Anon, 8chan’s most infamous account.
Q-Anon obviously is the internet troll who pretends to be a highly placed government leaker, whose posts have sparked a massive, paranoid, occasionally violent movement.
If 8chan is the biggest mistake Fredrick’s ever made, QAnon is like that mistake’s malevolent idiot child. And he wants Q stopped.
Fredrick is saying that as the creator of 8chan, the person who originally wrote the code for the site, he can see all sorts of clues pointing him to the identity of Q-Anon.
Frederick’s story is a journey through multiple circles of internet hell. These are places I usually try to avoid. I think most people do. But listening to Frederick I realize that the problem with doing that -- it means the people who run those hells remain much less accountable than they would otherwise.
So today--that’s where we’re going.
Fredrick’s story starts in 2013. Nobody in the world had ever heard of 8chan. Frederick was just a very broke young man living alone with a disability.
FREDRICK: My name is Frederick Brennan, I’m 19 years old, I am a computer programmer and I live in Brooklyn, New York.
This is from a 2014 documentary.
FREDRICK: I have Osteogenenisis imperfecta, which is a bone condition, it’s commonly known as brittle bone disease.
Fredrick says at this point, he’s already broken his bones 120 times. He sits in his wheelchair, he’s very small, looks a lot younger than his age.
FREDRICK: I spend a lot of time you know doing somewhat dangerous things, like cooking is not really safe for me, because a pan of boiling water is about as big as I am, so I have to be careful to not spill on myself.
Fredrick didn’t like the documentary. He felt like they were just trying to gawk at how difficult his daily life was. How he had to use a special tool to press the elevator buttons, how he struggled to open the front door of his building.
He’d only agreed to do it because he says that they’d promise to mention his new image board.
FREDRICK: I tried to get them to include it in their piece. And they didn't. Oh, I was so pissed when they didn't, because they promised that they would and when they didn't, it didn't even get one second. I was really mad, but—
PJ: Were you just participating in that documentary to promote 8chan?
FREDRICK: Yes. Correct. That’s why. Yes.
Back then, Fredrick wanted to make the best, most popular image board that had ever existed. After all, e’d spent half his life in these places.
I talked to journalist Dale Beran who’s known Fredrick for years.
DALE: He was one of the first incels. He was like, deep into the incel community, so.
PJ: Oh, I didn’t know that.
DALE: Yeah … he ran an incel board, like, and the philosophy there is, “We’re doomed to be on 4chan and 8chan forever, that we’re born this way, and we’re never gonna escape.” That’s the philosophy.
PJ: He like, found every available hell on the internet.
DALE: Yeah. I mean, that’s the hell of 4chan. That’s the worst part of it, where you’re kind of doomed. It’s called the black pill, the nihilist pill, uh, where you say, you know, “I’m not even a conservative. I’m not even a fascist. I’m just a nihilist.”
Fredrick was very angry about the circumstances of his life. He was angry that his Mom, who had the same condition he did, had chosen to have him in the first place. He was angry that his parents had split up and he’d been left in a foster care system. 4chan was the place where he’d found people as angry as he was… but now he wanted 8chan, his website, to surpass it.
In 2014, he gets his chance. 4chan decides they’ve had enough of Gamergate, they shut down their board. And the Gamergate audience travel the chans, looking for someone willing to set up a new board for them. Most everybody turns them down... except Fredrick.
Overnight, he’s gone from maybe 100 posts a day to over 10,000 an hour. Traffic is surging, so much so that Fredrick actually can’t afford to pay for the bandwidth. He announces, that unless someone can step in and help, his board’s going to go down.
FREDERICK: It would have been over. Like I could not get a loan. Are you joking? They don't give loans to people in wheelchairs. So, um, who would even give a loan to 8chan anyway?
But then, he gets a message that would change his life, almost entirely for the worse.
It’s from a man named Ron Watkins. An 8chan user based in the Philippines.
He tells Fredrick that he and his father could help. His father owned 2channel. This is the original chan, Japan’s biggest imageboard. A website Fredrick had always looked up to.
FREDRICK: That was the reason I had so much trust in him, because I knew, you know, that's basically a very powerful brand in this space of anonymous communities. And I figured, well, if he's running 2channel, certainly he can handle this site.
What Fredrick did not know at the time that the creator of 2channel was claiming online in Japanese, a language that Fredrick did not yet speak, that this man -- Jim Watkins -- had actually stolen 2channel from him.
Jim and Ron Watkins did not agree to be interviewed for this story, so you won’t be hearing from them. Jim Watkins has disputed the characterization that he stole 2channel.
Of all the mistakes that Frederick has made, besides maybe starting 8 chan, trusting this father son duo, Jim and Ron Watkins, this is the one that plagues him.
Fredrick agrees to Jim Watkins’ offer. Jim will host and eventually own 8chan, Fredrick will run the site as his employee. In the years to come, Watkins’ 8chan will inspire mass shootings, it will morph into essentially a compound for the paranoid political cult of its famous poster, QAnon. But back in 2016 -- all Fredrick knew was that these two seemed like his saviors.
Plus they told him one additional thing that clinched the deal. They’d seen that documentary about him. And they said:
FREDRICK: “We live in the Philippines, nursing care is really cheap here. You know, medical care in general is really cheap here.” They offered to hire a nurse, hire this. Because they know, they can pay someone a 100, 200 dollars a month to stay with me all the time … so they knew that physical access to somebody like me was control.
[JIM WATKINS SINGING]
Even in the world of chan-board operators, Jim Watkins is unusual. He’s 56 years old. A helicopter repairman for the US army who moved to the Philippines in 2001.
There he ran N.T. Technology, a company which these days, he claimed hosted websites with photos of Asian women in bikinis -- which isn’t true, it hosted porn.
There are a few profiles of him -- and they always sort of hit the exact same wacky beats. The weird videos he posts of himself singing hymns, or unboxing expensive fountain pens. They usually mention his pig farm.
It’s a little frustrating. Cause you start to feel like those eccentricities are a smokescreen to seeing what his actual motives are.
Fredrick didn’t do much homework on Jim Watkins. He checked some stuff on Wikipedia, and then he packed two suitcases, flew to the Philippines to begin a new life.
PJ: Did they pick you up at the airport? When’s the first time you actually meet them?
FREDRICK: Yeah. Jim did that. So I flew to Manila via Hong Kong. And Jim flew from Manila to Hong Kong. To pick me up in Hong Kong and bring me to Manila.
PJ: What was he like in person?
FREDRICK: Yeah I mean...when I first met him the first time I was like “Wow. This guy is really a stereotypical pornographer guy.”
PJ: [laughs] What do you mean?
FREDRICK: The first day I met him he is like waddling up to me chain smoking this cigarette hitting on all the flight attendants. In between going from the airport to our gate, we stopped to eat something. And he’s hitting on the lady behind the counter, “hey gorgeous hey beautiful.” Most of them are Chinese and don't even know what the hell he’s saying. It was just creepy.
They arrive in Manilla and there, he meets Jim Watkins’s son Ron. The guy who’d originally messaged him. And the two of them get along way better. He and Ron, it turns out, they both have the same excitement and affinity for just nerding out about image boards.
PJ: What did he actually look like? Like what did Ron look like?
FREDRICK: Yeah, back then hmm-- he’s very good looking. Honestly. He could be a model. HIs hair was very, you know, well-kept. He -- just looked like the guy who would be in charge of 2channel. You know.
PJ: So he just looked like a handsome tech guy?
Online, there are countless, countless hours of videos of Jim Watkins, but there is very little on his son Ron. You see the same two photographs over & over. Frederick said there was actually an internal rule, he was told that Ron did not want to ever be recorded. And even just talking to him in person, he was cagey. Like basic facts about his childhood were very hard to come by.
PJ: So he just wouldn't talk about his youth with you?
FREDRICK: He wouldn’t, or he would tell you outrageous lies that just sounded so dumb. Like he told me after high school he went to become a monk and studied in a monastery, and I never believed that.
It’d be that story one day, and then it would be a story about being a playboy in China the next. Both of the Watkins came across as very unreliable narrators.
But Fredrick was getting what he wanted. Jim Watkins had set him up with an apartment to live in. He had a health aide, he had steady work. For a couple years, things were good. Here’s Dale, the journalist.
DALE: He likes his life in the Philippines. He finds a wife there. He gets a little more religious and goes to church, and finds a community.
PJ: Oh wow.
DALE: Yeah. and during this time, he’s working over there, uh, for Watkins, and he’s – and he realizes, the chans are toxic. And so he says, “just put me, I’ll run 2channel and I want nothing to do with 8chan.” He leaves 8chan, uh, to- to Ron.
So April 2016 Fredrick has quit 8chan, he doesn’t work there, he doesn’t post there. But he’s still working for the Watkins family. He’s in the office with them, he’s in the same Slack.
And he says at the time he tries to get Jim Watkins to shut the site down. But it doesn’t work.
And it’s starting to become more clear what Jim Watkins actually wants out of 8chan. It’s not money. Cause this site continues to repulse advertisers.
PJ: Is 8channel supposed to be a moneymaking endeavor? Like do they care if they run it at a loss?
FREDRICK: They don't care. What they want out of 8chan is power. And they don't care if it runs at a loss, as long as they kind of get the same level of power in the West that they've managed in Japan. That's what they want.
In 2016, 8chan went very hard on MAGA, and when Trump won. Jim Watkins tried to convince people that his site had been a part of it. He told Buzzfeed News,
“I think the users of 8channel helped get Trump elected. You’ve got a million people a day looking at 8channel, on a good day. It’s huge.”
After Trump won, Jim Watkins essentially tried to get into the Breitbart business. He figured that on 8chan, he had this audience of Trump-loving conspiracy theorists… why not build them their own news site. So he tried. He made this far right conspiracy news website called the Goldwater, filled it with stories about stuff like the Clinton Body count, Trump's secret war on pedophiles.
ANCHOR: It’s no surprise to find out that FBI agents have discovered evidence of the Clinton Foundation sending wire transfers to organizations affiliated to the terror group ISIS...
In the site’s videos, Jim has hired local women from the Phillipines to read scripts written by freelancers. In others, Jim Watkins has cast himself as the broadcaster.
JIM: Good morning, I’m Jim Cherney, and this is Hardline.
I don’t know why he calls himself Jim Cherney in these, but he’s in front of a bookcase wearing an ill-fitting suit.
JIM: How about the Clinton Foundation pay for play debacle, the FBI actually deleted that when they gave immunity to the aides of Clinton and agreed to destroy the laptops that the deletion took place on.
The Goldwater failed. It turned out the young internet trolls of 8chan did not want to hear conspiracy theories from its 50-something year old owner. Mainly the Goldwater just became a punchline.
But what would happen later would convince Fredrick that everybody including him, had underestimated
Jim Watkins and his ambitions.
PJ: You, you see his power as almost like a dark, twisted Internet version of like Rupert Murdoch or like...succession or something else.
FREDRICK: Yes, exactly. Correct. Yeah.
PJ: But he's like a Rupert Murdoch no one's ever heard of. And when people write about about him, they're just like, "oh, he's a he's a weirdo. He's a weird guy."
FREDRICK: I hate when they do that, because it's like, they miss the entire story. And it's easy to just focus on the wacky guy running 8chan at a loss. Oh the wacky business dude, and he looks so silly. He reads hymns and plays with his pens. But, you know. If you really peel back the layers of what this is and where he wants it to go, because in Japan, you know, the far right is ascendant and very powerful there. And that's what he wants for the U.S. too.
Fredrick said that in the office, Jim Watkins would plot about this stuff with Ron.
FREDRICK: I really thought sometimes that they were deluded when they would talk about, like, their kind of strategies to, like, use 8chan to seek power. Because, you know, I just never thought it could come true. Like Q totally came out of left field and surprised me.
Q of course is Q-Anon. The whole reason Fredrick and I were talking in the first place. The most successful, damaging political hoax of this century.
Fredrick believes that Jim Watkins would see the rise of Q on 8chan and then hijack control of the account for himself.
And the story of how that may have happened, it took us back to the scene of something I’d never thought I’d see -- to the room where a bunch of liars and trolls had first invented Q. The room where Q took his baby steps. After the break, the birth of a lie.
I need to tell you a story about what things were like on 8chan during the very first days of Q. Going back even before Fredrick believes Jim Watkins ever took over the account.
I’m telling you about this for a couple reasons. First, because the most compelling evidence for who started Q, all of it lies in the mechanics of just how this message board works. Once you can read 8chan, you can watch the Q show and see all the special effects. You can watch as the stagehands accidentally get in the shot sometimes. The people behind this are going to make mistakes, and some of those mistakes are frankly very funny.
But also, because before I got all this, something like Q-Anon was inevitable. Every year, like the flu, some new conspiracy theory sweeps through America, involving pedophiles or Hillary Clinton. What is the point of understanding the mechanics of something that’s inevitable? But once you really get the story of Q, you understand that it involves a bunch of people who--while they’re bumbling when it comes to telling the lie, they’re really savvy when it comes to spreading it. And knowing that people did this on purpose, and how they did it, that feels important to me in a way that goes beyond Jim Watkins or anybody else. OK. So. In the very beginning, Q-Anon sounded unremarkable. It was just one more lie being told by an anonymous liar on a message board that was full of them. Fredrick did not take it seriously.
FREDRICK: Yeah, I mean, so when I first like heard about Q I just thought that it was a troll basically, and that it was just somebody having a laugh and kind of tricking people. You know what I mean? And posting vague Nostradamus-like messages. I didn't take it as seriously as I should have in the beginning. I don't think a lot of people did. You know what I mean?
Back then, a lot of people on 8chan were actually already doing a similar stunt.
When I talked to that journalist Dale Beran, he told me he’d spent a lot of time on 8chan, he wrote a book about it. The way he explained it to me, back in 2016, this was a game people on the boards they would play together. One person would LARP-- they’d pretend to be some highly placed government official leaking secrets. Like one guy claimed that Thomas Jefferson had actually been a foreign spy, and that while it was true that he’d written the Declaration of Independence, quote “He was brought into the process by American intelligence that knew he was a traitor and were working him all along.”
There was HighlevelAnon, FBI-ANON, CIA-Anon...
DALE: There was White House Insider Anon. Like they all had goofy names. And they were all doing the exact same role play. So Q –
PJ: It’s like they were having a costume party. But it sounds like in those early days, everyone knew it was a costume party, or no?
DALE: Yeah. Everyone knew. I- I mean, very few people, I think, were true believers.
In October 2017, a user calling themselves QAnon – Q referring to their Q-level security clearance – posted their first message.
It was a response to a different bullshit message someone else had posted, where they claimed that Hillary Clinton would be arrested the following Monday. Actually, Q informed everybody, her extradition had already begun. According to Q’s post:
HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am.
Not only that, Q also said anyone who didn’t believe him to locate a local National Guard member and ask to see their deployment orders. Because the National Guard, obviously, had been tasked with bringing Clinton to Justice.
I talked to a guy named Mike Rothschild, he’s an author who studies conspiracy theories. And he says that when that first Q drop appeared, you could tell the audience on the board wasn’t actually buying it. But within 10 to 15 posts, it was just like the mood in the room had already started to change.
MIKE ROTHSCHILD: You know, they’re starting to get into the idea of Hillary Clinton being arrested, and of like, of John Podesta getting arrested. And, you know, again, you’re never quite clear if they’re just sort of like, “Here’s a new game. We’re gonna start playing it,” or if they really think, “Yeah, he’s going down.” You’re never 100% sure what’s real and what’s a goof in a place like this.
PJ: Right. ‘Cause you have no context, and the difference between someone who is playing the character of a credulous interviewer versus someone who’s just like, being duped, there’s no way to tell.
After a month on the site, in November 2017, Q announces that 4chan had been quote “infiltrated,” and moves the whole operation to what would become their permanent home: 8chan. The way I think of it, it’s like, 4chan was where Q piloted the show, but 8chan, 8chan is where season 1 really starts.
And on 8chan, Q posted exclusively on a sub board called cbts — calm before the storm — owned by a middle-aged man from Johannesburg named Paul Furber.
PAUL FURBER: So I was the board owner there and Q actually started posting there on the 2nd or 3rd of December.
Paul Furber seemed to take Q completely seriously. He wouldn't talk to us, but this is from an interview he gave to another Q believer.
PAUL: We had spectacular predictions by Q on the board. Um he told us all sorts of things about how the world works. It was amazing. The most incredible intelligence leak in history.
So, who is Paul Furber, this man whose board was home to the greatest intelligence leak in history? According to his Twitter bio, he is QUOTE “a journo, programmer, artist, musician, pilot, teacher, luthier, biker, Christian, medicine seller.”
The Q who lived on Paul Furber’s board was becoming a hit, he was gaining a small following of believers. But there was a problem: 8chan was not designed for the government superspy. Most people on the site didn’t have usernames, they posted completely anonymously. And if like Q, you wanted to post as yourself every time, the problem was that cracking passwords on 8chan was notoriously easy.
Q’s first password, I can tell you, because it was cracked, was Matlock. And once it was cracked, anybody could post as Q — on 8chan, or on 4chan, it worked in both places.
Dale Beran, the journalist, he told me about it.
DALE BERAN: Even today, I could put in, um, Q@Matlock. And then if I wanted to put a post on 4chan, it would appear exactly under Q’s old tripcode, which I did, to test it while I was writing the article. [laughs]
PJ: Whoa, so you’ve also posted as Q?
DALE: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, I mean, who hasn’t, really, at this point? [laughs]
PJ: I mean I haven’t. What did you say?
DALE: I don’t like looking at 4chan, ‘cause it’s full of gross stuff, so I, uh – there’s /pol/, which is the- the fascist board, and then there’s /po/, the paper, craft, and origami board. Uh, I went to /po/, um, and someone posted a nice piece of origami, and I posted as Q. I said, “Looks good.” [laughs]
PJ: But now I definitively know one person who has been Q.
PJ: Which is you.
DALE: [laughs] Sure. Well, you know, who hasn’t indulged?
A lot of people indulged. On 8chan, once you have a username and password, you can’t actually change the password. So when Q got cracked, they had to make a new account.
And it was Paul Furber’s job to verify that the person posting as Q today was the same person who had been posting the day before. As board owner, he could do that, he had access to user login information, he could see scrambled versions of their IP addresses.
According to Paul it was a lot of work, but it was something he’d been called to do.
PAUL: This has been a full time job for me, but it hasn't paid anything. I'm doing it for personal reasons, because I want to do the right thing and also because I’ve, I’ve researched child trafficking and ritual abuse and the elites for many years now so when this all started happening I thought “oh you need to get involved here because you have knowledge that can help the cause. “
Paul Furber, a man who had been marinating in conspiracy theories since the 1990s, he seemed like an ideal superspreader for Q nonsense. The world’s most credulous disciple had fallen in love with a perfect charlatan. And Q actually loved Paul Furber right back. He shouted him out personally in Q Drop 393:
“Board owners [that’s Paul] mods, and other patriots, sincere thanks for all you do. You are true heroes.
There will be a day (within the next few months) that a scary but safe personalized message finds its way to you on multiple platforms recognizing your contributions.”
This drop is the equivalent of Q is telling Paul Furber that he’s gonna send him his own fruit basket.
Fredrick Brennan has a slightly different take on this cozy relationship.
PJ: Did you have theories or instincts about who the actual person might have been assuming there was an original Q?
FREDRICK: Yup. I think it's Paul Furber. Yeah.
FREDRICK: I think Furber is most likely Q. The original Q.
Fredrick believes that the man writing the original Q drops was Paul Furber himself.
Paul Furber has denied this. And I will say, this is the part of Fredrick’s theory that he has the least evidence for — there’s a ring of disciples around Q, could’ve been any or all of them. Part of the reason I relay it is because it is extremely fun to imagine the pickle that Paul Furber may have ended up in, if he was Q. Because in Fredrick’s telling, once Q started to take off, Paul Furber would have had a problem. His own ego. He would’ve wanted to take credit, but he wouldn’t have been able to, because Q was supposed to be a secret government superspy, not some luthier in Johannesburg.
And Fredrick believes that explains why Paul starts emphasizing how he REALLY gets Q. It was like Bruce Wayne running around Gotham talking about Batman always does sleepovers at his house.
FREDRICK: The Anon's didn't really like him very much because he was getting...the way my mother would put it, is too big for his britches. So he was posting things like, "I serve at the pleasure of the President. You know, I serve at the pleasure of Q."
PJ: You’re, people were feeling jealous, basically.
FREDRICK: Yes, they were jealous because he was saying that he was having private communication with Q and that he was filtering it basically out to them. And one of the big things, especially in early Q, was that it's a research movement and nobody is higher than anybody else. So by Furber saying that he was having private contact with Q, which might have been true, nobody knows, right?
PJ: He was violating the spirit of their thing.
So there’s a growing perception that Paul Furber is using Q to promote himself. And then -- Paul goes on TV.
Ok so not TV actually. INFOWARS. And not with Alex Jones, this was their spin off show, with a different host, their dinky TLDR version. But still, December of 2017, there’s Paul Furber. And he’s doing the thing he usually does, which is he’s acting as Q’s interpreter, Talmudically decoding Q drops on air. Like there’s this one that mentions the Lord’s prayer.
HOST: Why don’t you break that down, as we were going into break… you were kinda getting into that … why is it so important that he go into the Lord’s prayer at the end of this?
PAUL: Yeah Rob, so yeah you’re absolutely right, so good questions from Q to make us think, go do research, and then he types out the Lord’s prayer. And yeah I didn’t get it. I thought ok Q is a Christian...
But then, Paul explains. A month later the Pope made a completely mild tweak to how the lord’s prayer was translated from Latin to English. To Paul, this was proof to anyone with eyes to see that Q was legit.
PAUL: Here’s an individual who has inside knowledge of the inner workings of one of the most closely guarded places on earth, which is the vatican. That was very very impressive, that was amazing, that was the most spectacular proof I’ve ever seen.
You get the idea. No I’m sorry I have to do one more, ok, so the host has another question for Q’s foremost global scholar.
ROB: Um, he mentioned Snow White let's see I don't know maybe 20 times in his posts He also mentioned the Godfather 3. What does that represent? He mentions the Godfather 3 almost as many times as Snow White. Go ahead, what does that represent?
PAUL: These are the lovely little cryptic clues that we love to spend hours and hours trying to unravel. So Snow White Is the CIA super computer called HAMR and it’s hosted at amazon data center. And snow white and the 7 dwarves is the CIA’s -- we believe -- again this is not confirmed -- we believe its their supercomputer infrastructure to conduct domestic surveillance.
The reason I'm making you listen to this lunacy is because this Infowars segment will have enormous consequences. Personally, for Paul Furber, for reasons we’ll get into later.
But much more importantly, this is actually the moment that Q is going to break out and reach a much older, more mainstream audience. Which is not an accident, this was the explicit goal of Paul Furber’s infowars appearance. To draw in the Boomers. On the show, Paul’s fellow disciple makes the pitch.
PAMPHLETANON: There’re a lot of people out there who can’t function on the chans but they’re a massive untapped resource themselves, they have all sorts of connections, a lot of them could be retired intel or military, there’s so many people out there from older generations that are not involved in this fight.
And the good news, Paul Furber explains, is that they’ve made it super easy to get involved. They’re inviting older Americans to come visit the new user friendly Q-Anon subreddit they’ve built especially for them.
PAUL: The story behind Q-Anon is so big, we need to get it out to as many people as possible, which is why we’re going wider, we’re talking to Youtubers, we’re talking to Infowars, we’re talking to everybody, not mainstream media, we don’t care about them.
This call to action -- it works. Here’s conspiracy theory researcher Mike Rothschild.
MIKE: When it crosses over into Reddit, it’s like the fire break has been jumped. And it’s like this inferno has gone from contained to out in the real world. And when it goes out into the real world, it could really hurt somebody.
Like, this internet conspiracy stuff wasn’t ever geared toward that. And especially the meme culture. Like, people who are older than like, 25 are not – don’t – just aren’t supposed to get that stuff. But it’s– it dovetailed with this big new audience of people who just really weren’t great at discerning fact from fiction. MUSIC
CLIP: That’s what Q wants us to do is to dig, find out about the information, make it our own. Please keep the faith.
And pretty soon, these new mainstream Q followers, they will spread the message themselves, they’ll tell their friends.
This is the beginning of Q, Season 2.
CLIP MONTAGE: In today’s video, i'm going to give you a brief overview of how to find posts by Q on the internet, and a little bit about reading them
Q uses a lot of abbreviation: H C means Hillary Clinton, you know what I mean, so there’s a lot of those going on...
Snow White.. Whatever he’s talking about, Snowden, Snow White and seven dwarfs, which are the CIA’s secret massive computer system..
And I know we’ve discussed it a lot of times and we’re like I don't know if I believe that part of it, but I don’t think he’s lying to us whoever he is
Trust… there’re words I never freakin’ heard of before this whole world
I am 100% behind Q. He’s working for the president, he’s working for our country.. There’s things that have been going on since the assassination of JFK...
Q is the best thing that has ever happened me. So remember, remember this moment.
MIKE: People look at this as a story that they get to be part of.
It’s not just a relentless drumbeat of, “The bad people are gonna do things to you, and you can’t do anything about it.” It’s, “Stay tuned to what happens next.”
MIKE: And it’s like, every- every so often, there’s a cliffhanger. Like, if it wasn’t so horrible, and- and isolating, and terrible for the people who believe in it, it would be kind of an interesting example of 21st century storytelling.
For most of 2018, Q was growing in popularity, but quietly. Non-believers weren’t yet noticing. But Fredrick says he knew one person who caught it very early.
His boss, Jim Watkins. Owner of 8chan, a man with recently dashed dreams of running a right wing conspiracy news site... of course Jim took notice.
FREDRICK: Jim was very interested in Q, I know. Very interested. We had this private Slack thing and it had all these different channels on it. I could see what he was saying. And I could see that he really understood how powerful Q could be for him and that he told his son, "Ron, you need to make sure these people stay," you know? And I'm sure that Ron would understand what he meant by that. You know, what does that mean? You need to make sure Q can't leave. Right?
According to Fredrick, this exchange, it would have happened around the same time that Paul Furber went on Infowars.
FREDRICK: Furber was seeking his own fame in the opinion of many of the users of his board. And Ron was afraid that the Q people were going to leave. There had been, you know, ideas floated of a Qchan. And he wanted to stomp those out.
To be clear … Frederick does not have screenshots of these private slack conversations. All we have to go on is Fredrick’s word.
But we do know what happened next, because it happened out in the open on the board. So remember how people were always breaking into the Q account, claiming to be Q, and then Paul Furber would have to sort out who was the real one? On January 5th, about a week after Infowars, that happens again.
Somebody logs in as Q and they post what seems like a pretty normal drop.
“Follow the MONEY.
Loop Capital Markets.
BIG NEXT WEEK.
And Paul Furber pipes up... says, the guy’s fugazi. Quote “not Q. Q’s second trip” as in password “has been cracked as I thought it might be.”
But then, this Q doubles down.
Drop 471: False. Did they get to you? Board compromised.
And then he calls in for backup. “Test. CodeMonkey please log and confirm IDEN”.
Codemonkey, is Ron Watkins. As 8chan’s admin, he’s the only person other than Paul Furber who can look up Q’s login info. He’s never done it before, but he does it now. And he tells everyone — Paul Furber is wrong. This Q is the real deal.
Here’s Journalist Dale Beran.
DALE: And then the next thing that happens is Q says, “I’m leaving Paul Furber’s board. I don’t like it here anymore. Ron Watkins, help me set up a new board, and you can – you and me. It’ll just be you and me.”
PJ: Oh my God.
Dale Beran: “Like, you’ll help me.” Um, and –
PJ: It must’ve – if you’re Paul and you did invent Q, [laughter] it would hurt my feelings so much for someone to take my invisible friend from me –
DALE: Yeah. Yeah.
PJ: … and have my invisible friend tell everyone they didn’t like me anymore.
DALE: Yeah, that would be pretty devastating. [laughs] Yeah, that’s true.
PJ: And you can’t say anything about it. You can’t be like, “No, I made up this lie."
Whether Paul Furber was Q, whether he was just a very enthusiastic disciple -- this is the point where he loses Q. For good.
Because now that Q has left Paul’s board, Paul no longer has the ability to verify their identity. The only person who can do that from now on is Ron Watkins.
Which means Q is now under the control of the Watkins family.
And what Frederick believes is what that really means, is that Q belongs to Jim Watkins.
FREDRICK: I'm making a very specific claim. Basically the way I put it very succinctly, he's not a maker, he's a taker. He took 2channel. He took 8chan. And now he's taken Q. It's a pattern with him. If you look at the Wikipedia article on 2 Channel, you'll see he appropriated it. My pinned tweet is all about it, too.
Fredrick has spent the last few months desperately campaigning to Wikipedia editors, screaming from the rooftops on Twitter, trying to make people understand that Jim Watkins is behind Q.
He’s not saying for sure that Jim Watkins actually writes the posts himself.
FREDRICK: What can never be proven is that he has actually logged on and posted a Q drop. That cannot be proven. But it is known that he has control over the Q account.
And Fredrick is the first to tell you, he is not unbiased regarding Jim Watkins.
His whole reason for telling this story is motivated by anger at Jim Watkins, and as far as I can tell, a sincere belief that the only thing more dangerous for the world than a hoax like Q, is a hoax like Q that has Jim Watkins in the driver's seat.
I’ve talked to a number of journalists who cover Q about this theory. Some of them think it’s likely. Everyone agrees it’s more than plausible.
And Frederick says if you just pay attention to Q’s public posts, you will see a bunch of points where the Watkins had the ability to grab the account. The first one, obviously, is that moment where Paul Furber loses it.
Ron Watkins, for his part, denies that anything untoward happened that day. Dale Beran has DMed with Ron at length, and Ron made it abundantly clear that he’s just not interested in Q. Not only that, Ron wants you to know that he, Ron Watkins, is not an interesting person. He’s not political. He’s just a simple guy, running a website, taking orders from his dad.
In fact, he barely even works on the website. He spends most of his time on his real passion, professionally translating Chinese literature. No, you can’t look it up, he does it under a different name.
Anyway, Dale did get to ask Ron about that moment where he anointed a new Q. And Ron’s answer was very interesting.
DALE: So at first, Ron Watkins told me, “Oh yeah, this- this moment with- with Paul Furber and the fake Q – well, you know what? I have an – I- I promised another journalist an exclusive.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” [laughs] He’s like,
“There was a film crew there, uh, filming all my events when this occurred. And I’m 100% sure I got it right. I chose the right Q. But I can’t talk details because I promised an exclusive to this other film crew.”
Dale Beran: [laughs] That’s what he told me.
PJ: So he claimed there’s a full documentary film crew just filming him moderating 8chan in 2018.
PJ: Did he – was he able to put you in touch with the document –
DALE: No. [laughs] No. He did not. Um, uh, he said it was a small production. Um. I was like, “did you sign a contract They- they paid you?” And he’s like, “No, no. Just a favor.”
PJ: He lies like a person who is used to people believing him.
It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong. In 2021, a film crew could show up and publish their exclusive footage showing that Ron Watkins did exactly what he said he did but...
Look, I know that there’s a madness to all this. To trying to fact check these baroque lies, lies made by people who are used to talking to gullible audiences, you can go in thinking that you're going to really understand something, and pretty soon you feel like, oh you just have a more a slightly more rareified version of the disease that every Q follower has — you’re obsessed with a bunch of bullshit.
But the thing is I genuinely believe that once you know that someone reliably doesn't tell the truth? At that point, you can actually start to learn from their lies — they will give themselves away. The things they choose to lie about, it tells you what they think is important. It tells you how they want the world to see them.
After Ron Watkins identifies a new Q, Q’s writing style changes noticeably. More caps lock … fewer coherent sentences.
This Q is the one that will amass real power, over already distressed people, and his posts will compel them to do things.
Here’s Mike Rothschild, the conspiracy researcher.
MIKE: The Q crimes started, uh, really before anybody was paying attention.
This guy blockaded Hoover Dam holding up, uh, a sign with QAnon hashtags on it.
HOOVER NEWS TAPE
A month later, Q was in the national news, after his followers swamped a Trump rally in Florida.
NEWS CLIP: They wore shirts and signs emblazoned only with the letter Q.
MIKE: It was before the Secret Service had stopped letting Q paraphernalia into Trump rallies. Uh, so it was just – it was like, everywhere.
NEWS CLIP: Do you think there are a lot of other QAnon supporters here at this rally?
This is the Q that some Republicans will run for office in support of. That Eric Trump will make winking gestures of support towards. Mike has interviewed a lot of people whose families have been wrecked by this stuff.
MIKE: So, I mean yeah - It’s a lot of, “I don’t talk to my mom anymore. I don’t talk to my sister. My friend won’t stop harassing me.” But it’s also like, deluges of death threats and actual crimes.
This is the Q we all have to deal with, the one that doesn’t seem to go away.
Jim Watkins is clearly reveling in being the man whose website this Q lives on. Later, when Congress subpoenas him over 8chan, he’ll fly to DC wearing a Q pin. He tells people his favorite drop, like it’s scripture.
Back on the board, throughout all of this, the Q-Anon account is still getting perpetually broken into. It wasn’t just hackers cracking the password … there were times where Q would just screw up and accidentally post their own password onto the board.
DALE: He just, inst- instead of in the name field, it’s his special tripcode, it’s his tripcode with his password.
PJ: And what – was – what did he change it – what – the first one was Matlock. What was the second one?
DALE: He changed it to M, um, ampersand, uh, Lock. And then exclamation point.
PJ: Oh my God.
And so in August of 2018, this highly trained Matlock-loving super spy finally takes advantage of a Ron Watkins innovation that will make Q’s account more secure.
Q will use a more secure tripcode, it’ll be unhackable, but the trade-off is — unlike the one they’ve been using, which would let them login as Q not just to 8chan but also 4chan and any other imageboard — this one will only work on 8chan.
For the next year both Q and 8chan are thriving. That is, until Fredrick Brennan re-enters the story. By this point he’d fully quit working with the Watkins family but he was living in the Philippines.
And now, there’d been a series of mass shootings, by 8chan users, who announced their plans on the board before they happened and were cheered on by board members, Frederick felt like now, even Jim and Ron would have to see that the site had gone too far.
FREDRICK: You know, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. And I sat there and I, you know, watched intently to see what changes they were going to make to make sure that that didn't happen again. And they completely blew it. They did not handle it well at all. I mean, they didn't even delete the original Christchurch shooter's thread. It got to the maximum number of posts and fell off the board by itself. And they tried to call that a deletion. That's not a deletion. The software did that. It got to 750 posts, the maximum. So..tchuh...which is crazy to think about.
Frederick decided he was tired of asking Jim Watkins to shut down the site. So this time he publicly called for 8chan to be taken offline, and afterwards their web security company dropped them. Then, Frederick calls everyone else who he thinks could offer them service and talks them out of it.
Fredrick says this whole campaign, it was just about 8chan. But he says that what happened next is what FULLY convinced him that the Watkins family had taken over Q.
FREDRICK: 8chan went down for 3 months. And during those 3 months all the other communities left because it was such a long time. You know, in Internet terms, three months is a long ass time. No neo-Nazi is sitting around for three months thinking, "Oh well, guess I can't talk to my friends today. Maybe tomorrow." You know, it's not, it's not how it goes. You know, they are already using 4chan again. And the videogame guys, they all left, too.
The only people that couldn't leave and that needed Jim were the QAnon people because as long as 8chan was down, QAnon could not post and give them another place to find Q drops.
But there were a lot of people trying to do that when it was down. A lot of people are posting on 4chan saying, "I'm Q, you know, and here's a drop."
But nobody could believe them because Q had locked himself into 8chan, where the only person that could validate a Q Drop became Jim Watkins.
Which meant that if Q was independent of the Watkins family, the moment the site came back online, obviously the first thing they would do is post a backup. Some new place people could reach them, since it wasn’t clear 8chan was going to be around anymore.
So, fall 2019, Ron Watkins is able to get a very ramshackle version of his site to flicker to life. It’s called 8kun right now -- in the first couple weeks, it’ll go up for an hour here or there & then go back down… And when it is up, Fredrick is trying obsessively over and over just trying to get a single post through.
FREDRICK: So I couldn't get anything through but Q could. And that's how I know they're not a third party just because I know since I wrote 8chan software, that if you have an admin account, your posts are prioritized. They go through a special way and they appear when nothing else will go through. So, I mean, I know they took over Q just because of that. I know it.
DALE: This is to me, is one of the fishiest moments in the whole saga, where one of the early things Q does is Q says, um, “Ron, I’m looking at your Twitter, and you’re saying you’re gonna rotate the salt on the tripcodes,” um, which means that all of the tripcodes, my tripcode included – Q’s tripcode – every single tripcode on 8chan is gonna be defunct. So there’s no way to verify Q.
So — just to translate this. Ron is resetting everyone’s log-ins on the site. He’s changing all the locks. Even Q will lose his verification.
Ron tweets this announcement, and very conveniently, Q is able to post on the broken website and chime in saying basically — how will people still know that I’m me?
DALE: And then Ron immediately responds.
He says like, “Well, go to a new board, make your own special Q board, and I will again personally verify your identity.” Um, and that’s what Q does. Q’s happy.
You know, I asked Frederick, and he’s like, “That’s a piece of theater, right?” Like- like that’s Ron saying, “I need to do this technical thing, right? Like, I can’t bring the site back up without hitting the reset button on all the tripcodes. But then there’s no Q.” [laughter] So- so how convenient with – you know, I asked Ron about this. I’m like, “Isn’t it weird, Ron, that you know, you have to do this thing. And if you had just done it, there would be no Q forever. but conveniently, out of the wilderness, Q appears on your site, one of the first people to post, and asks you to help him verify his identity again.”
DALE: “And- and set yourself up on that website.”
And he’s like, “Look, Q’s one of our most popular users. I know it’s a little weird. I don’t reach out – I don’t help that often. But he’s very popular, so I thought I would help, as the site admin.” That was his answer. [laughs] So, yes.
PJ: God. It really reminds me – and I know this is like, a metaphor that people use for things that are fake – but it reminds me of parents talking about Santa Claus. [laughter] Like, there’s something – do you know what I mean?
DALE: It’s just a thin veil laid over the lies that’s like, not – it just has to be there. But it doesn’t have to conceal.
So that is all of Fredrick’s evidence.
And while Frederick doesn’t have proof that Jim and Ron are writing the posts themselves — it could be them, it could be someone working under them, it does seem clear that, at minimum Q-Anon serves at their pleasure.
Jim and Ron Watkins have denied that they’ve taken over Q.
This spring, Jim Watkins announced that he’s started a new Superpac for Q-Anon, that people who want to support Q should donate money to Jim so he can educate more Americans about this brave patriot. So far he’s used the money to buy ads on 8kun.
Meanwhile, the fight between Jim Watkins and Frederick Brennan rages on. Earlier this year, Frederick called Jim Watkins senile on Twitter because Fredrick thinks that’s what he is. And despite his love of free speech, he made an exception in this case. He invoked a criminal cyber libel law against Frederick.
DALE: And according to Frederick, that meant that he would immediately go to jail. And if he goes to jail, he dies. He goes to a notorious Philippine jail that’s in Manila.
PJ: Oh god...I knew about the cyber libel thing. I hadn’t put together, because of his like, condition how- how much even bigger a deal that is.
DALE: Yeah, right. So you know, Ron told me, “Well, he could’ve paid bail and gotten out.” Um, but you know, I- I don’t think he could have. I think, he couldn’t have been in custody for three days. Uh, that would’ve killed him. Um, so he had to leave. He had to leave within three days, in the middle of the night. He said he barely escaped. The authorities actually were like, checking for him, and he had to like, go to another terminal and take a different flight.
PJ: God. No wonder he’s so mad.
At this point, Frederick lives in a place he hates. Van Nuys. He’s alone — he’s separated from his wife, banished from the country he wanted to live in. The only place on the Internet that has felt kind of okay to him recently is Wikipedia. He spends a lot of time there, trying to clean up one of the Jim Waktins lies he feels he can do something about.
FREDERICK: This has become an obsession, to be honest. You know? I worked in the Wikipedia system to get it on the homepage under "Did you know...", did you know that Hiroyuki Nishimura, owner of 4chan, claims 2 channel was stolen from him? And that was so much work to get that. It took me like weeks and weeks of research in, mostly in Japanese, to write the article to the level where it would get approved to go on their homepage.
PJ: And why? Why was it important—why did you want to get the record set straight on Wikipedia?
FREDRICK: Um, you know, I...[laughs] Obviously, you should never look at Wikipedia and trust what's there. But, you know, the way that it was laid out, with the references that were there, was kind of what convinced me to work with Jim Watkins.
Frederick’s not stupid. He’s not optimistic. He knows what he’s doing is like picking up one piece of litter while an open garbage truck flies down the street drunkenly. But you take your consolations where you can find them. Things may be shitty, but at least you can call them what they are.
Reply All is hosted by me PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. Our show was produced this week by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Damiano Marchetti, Anna Foley, Jessica Yung, Emmanuel Dzotsi, and Lisa Wang. Our Senior Producer is Phia Bennin. Our Executive Producer is Tim Howard. We were mixed by Rick Kwan. Fact checking by Michelle Harris. Additional music production by Mari Romano.
We could not have done this week’s story without the excellent reporting of Dale Beran. He has a book about the history of image board culture called It Came From Something Awful, you should check it out.
You can also find more by our conspiracy theory author and researcher, Mike Rothschild on Twitter, he’s working on a book about Q-Anon. And more special thanks this week to Brendan Klinkenberg.
Our theme song is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder.
Matt Lieber is a hoodie in shorts weather.
Also, we are currently looking for spring and summer 2021 interns! The position is open now. Go to our website — replyallshow.com to apply. Applications are due October 5th. If you have any questions, ask Alex Goldman on Twitter.
You can listen to our show on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you in two weeks.