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With super PAC, QAnon's con chases mainstream — and money

Disarm the Deep State is run by the owner of the web forum that has served as a platform for the pro-Trump conspiracy theory.

A person holding a QAnon sign

A new super PAC called Disarm the Deep State aims to fund QAnon-friendly candidates.

Photo: Maddie McGarvey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

With the unveiling of a super PAC aimed at getting like-minded candidates elected to Congress in 2020, the pro-Trump conspiracy theorists of QAnon have made another move into the offline world, seeking to wade further into the American political bloodstream while finding another way to profit off the whole affair.

"It's the next evolution of QAnon," said Mike Rothschild, a QAnon researcher and author of the book "The World's Worst Conspiracies." "Q is moving toward something more mainstream. Watkins is taking the movement away from the lurid stuff like executions and baby eating and sex trafficking, and focusing it toward more mainstream conservative activism."

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The super PAC, calling itself Disarm the Deep State, is run by Jim Watkins, the owner of the web forum 8Chan that has served as a platform for QAnon, along with the manifestos of at least three recent mass shooters. 8Chan was taken offline last August by its web hosting company after the suspect in the El Paso mass shooting published his manifesto on the site. The site reappeared in November, renamed 8kun with a new Russian hosting service.

Watkins has openly declared his intent to take the movement out of the dark corners of the internet on the website of the PAC. "In order to remove power from Deep State members … we need to take the movement offline and out of the shadows," the PAC's mission statement reads.

A record number of open QAnon backers have declared their candidacies for Congress in 2020. According to one count by Media Matters disinformation researcher Alex Kaplan, 28 candidates in 14 states are running this year while sympathizing with a movement that the FBI identified in a leaked document last May as a potential domestic terrorism threat. (In New York, a QAnon adherent was arrested last year for murder.)

At least two of those candidates are running unopposed in Republican primaries, among them Joanne Wright, who received an endorsement from the California Republican Party, and Matthew Lusk, who is running in Florida and devoted a page to Q on his candidate website."That there is now a super PAC launching in support of this movement is another red flag to me about the growth and influence of this conspiracy theory," Kaplan said.

Watkins' lawyer, Benjamin Barr, said the super PAC would spend its money on voter education, engagement and outreach on behalf of candidates. "It's a way for folks to exercise their First Amendment right to associate together, to band together and form a group, and share their vision with other folks," Barr said. "And let that be tested among the American public, good or bad, foolish or wise."

The super PAC's launch comes a week after the last post by Q, in which he made a rare direct reference to the 2020 elections. "This is not another 4-year election," Q said in the post. A prominent Q watcher, who tweets anonymously under the handle Dapper Gander, said, "the QAnon movement is being shifted into a get out the vote effort."

Whether a super PAC is effective at mobilizing QAnon adherents is another matter. After all, railing against super PACs has been a mainstay of the movement. The Q research community also keyed in on the fact that none of the most prominent QAnon promoters on Twitter immediately came out in support of the new PAC.

"Within the community's ideology or lore, they don't believe in super PACs, it's not something that is going to resonate well," said Marc-Andre Argentino, a doctorate candidate and Qanon researcher at Concordia University in Montreal.

For seasoned QAnon watchers, perhaps the biggest significance behind the unveiling of the PAC is that it seems to cement the connection between Watkins, 8Chan's owner, and the Q poster himself. It's been one of the most hotly discussed and debated questions within the world of Q researchers, Q watchers and Q debunkers.

"Watkins always made it seem like there was distance between him and Q, that Q was just this guy posting on his forums, that he let Q post because he's a free speech absolutist. By launching this PAC he is fully admitting that he is working with whoever is posting as Q and he is now part of the grift that is QAnon," said Mike Rains, a QAnon researcher who is behind the Poker and Politics Twitter feed, which follows the Qanon movement and debunks many of its claims.

Argentino has studied the changes in Q's syntax, grammar and selection of topics over the past three years since the first post in 2017, and believes Watkins has been posting as Q since last fall.

"There are similarities between the type of religious content that Watkins posts on his own Twitter account that echoes very closely to what Q has started posting in his drops," Argentino said. "The echoes are a little too close for it to be accidental."

The debate over the PAC underscores a bigger issue: Q is not just a fringe, right-wing conspiracy theory but a money-maker. Q drives significant traffic to 8Chan, the exclusive platform for the posts, a fact that has long puzzled Q watchers.

"It would be very easy for the Q poster to use another forum or provide a cryptographic key to prove his authenticity on some other site, but instead they wait to post on this rickety version of 8Chan," Rothschild said. "The only reason to keep Q on 8Chan is because Watkins is personally connected to him."

There were 54 million tweets with QAnon-related hashtags between Q's first drop in 2017 and February 2020, according to a count by Argentino. A 270-page book published last year called "QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening" spent a stretch near the top of Amazon's charts. The book, authored by a 12-person medley of QAnon amplifiers, pushed a slew of conspiracy theories and outlandish claims. And then there's QAnon merchandise, such as bumper stickers and T-shirts.

"Q is big business," Rothschild said. "And this PAC is just another way for the big Q influencers to keep the money flowing in. These people are monetizing mental illness and loneliness."

Barr, Watkins' lawyer, said funds raised by the PAC would not go to subsidizing 8Chan, though Barr did say Watkins and others who work for the PAC would be entitled to draw a salary, as is customary with the administration of such committees.

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Watkins' PAC comes as he's stepping up his scrap with his former partner, 8Chan founder Fredrick Brennan, who has emerged as an outspoken critic of 8Chan and Watkins. Watkins sued Brennan for libel in October after Brennan tweeted that Watkins was "senile" and "incompetent." Last week, a court in the Philippines, where Watkins and Brennan both live, issued an arrest warrant for Brennan under the country's 2012 cyber libel law. Brennan fled the country hours before the arrest was issued and is now trying to fight the warrant from Los Angeles.

"Watkins wants Q to become a mainstream political thing," Brennan told Protocol, "so that he can call on people in Congress when inevitably there is another terrorist attack that gets 8Chan back in the news."

Protocol | China

Everything you need to know about the Zhihu IPO

The Beijing-based question-and-answer site just filed for an IPO.

The Zhihu homepage.

David Wertime/Protocol

Investors eager to buy a slice of China's urban elite internet will soon have the chance. Zhihu, a Beijing-based question-and-answer site similar to the U.S.-based Quora, has just filed for an IPO to sell American Depositary Shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

What does Zhihu do?

Zhihu is China's largest online Q&A platform — the name comes from the expression "Do you know?" in classical Chinese. It was founded 10 years ago by Yuan Zhou (周源), a former journalist, and spent two years as an invite-only online platform. It quickly built a reputation as a source for quality answers and has drawn a community of elite professionals, including ZhenFund managing partner Bob Xu and venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee, also an early investor.

Over time, the Chinese-language Zhihu has become more mainstream, and now says it hosts 315.3 million questions and answers contributed by 43.1 million "creators." (Quora, about one year older than Zhihu, had almost 61 million questions and 108 million answers by the end of 2019). The website has grown into a content platform where people also keep diaries, write fiction and blog as social media influencers.

Zhihu users do not look like China as a whole. Most than half are men, most live in "Tier 1" cities and more than three-quarters are under 30 years old.

Zhihu continues to emphasize the quality of its content. "Zhihu is also recognized as the most trustworthy online content community and widely regarded as offering the highest-quality content in China," its prospectus says.

Zhihu's financials

Zhihu registered for its IPO via the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, a.k.a. the JOBS Act, which has reduced disclosure requirements for companies with less than $1.07 billion in annual revenue. Zhihu's revenue doubled from 2019 to 2020, but still only reached $207.2 million, and the company is short of profitability with a 2020 net loss of $79.3 million. The company says it's "still in an early stage of monetization" with "significant runway for growth across multiple new monetization channels."

Trend lines are good. Zhihu has managed to double revenue while keeping expenses largely constant, with selling and marketing aimed at growing Zhihu's user base as the biggest single expense.

The company is trying to diversify its revenue streams. In 2019, 86.1% came from advertising. 2020 saw advertising account for 62.4% while "content-commerce" — meaning native advertising — took in 10%. The rest was mostly paid memberships.

What's next for Zhihu

After years of evincing a relaxed attitude toward monetization, Zhihu is putting itself in the hot seat to do just that. Zhihu is betting that monetizing Chinese web users will get easier over time. The prospectus describes "significant growth potential" in China's "online content community market" and says average revenue per user in China is expected to more than triple from about $55 in 2019 to about $199 in 2025, with revenue in the overall market reaching a projected $200 billion in 2025.

The company looks like it will basically try everything to monetize, and see what sticks. It plans to "ramp up our online education service" and to "continue to explore other innovative monetization channels, such as content e-commerce and IP-based monetization."

The prospectus also mentions AI frequently, touting Zhihu's AI content moderation tool wali as well as a "question routing system" and "feed recommendation and search systems." However, the depth and quality of content remains far more important to Zhihu's success. Users have joked on Zhihu about the poor quality of its wali filter.

What could go wrong?

Zhihu could fail to turn a profit. Like most content platforms, Zhihu has found it hard to monetize its traffic and the vast amount of free content at its core. The platform was built on the premise that anyone can acquire professional knowledge easily, which means users are not inclined to pay.

Since 2016, Zhihu has tried many monetization models: paid physical/virtual events, online courses taught by its top creators, premium memberships and paid consulting services. None have been a hit. Zhihu Live, the paid virtual event product, attracted a lot of public attention in 2016 and 2017, but since then its popularity has waned. According to the prospectus, Zhihu currently has 2.4 million paying members, or only 3.4% of its monthly active users.

Zhihu also faces intense competition. Defined narrowly, it has no rivals, with would-be contenders like Baidu Zhidao and Wukong, owned by ByteDance, falling by the wayside. But Zhihu has positioned itself as something more: a community for diverse content. In this regard, it's competing with big public-facing social media platforms such as the Twitter-like Weibo and Bilibili. While Zhihu's 68.5 million monthly active user base is growing fast, Weibo has over 500 million and Bilibili over 200 million. Zhihu differentiates itself with the quality and depth of its content, but maintaining that creates inevitable tension with the business imperative to expand.

Like every content platform in China, Zhihu is subject to rigid state censorship and faces harsh penalties for failing to police speech itself. Politically-sensitive questions are nowhere to be found on the platform, while other topics including transgender rights have been censored in the past. Even so, in March 2018, Zhihu was taken off every mobile app store for seven days at the request of Beijing's municipal Cyberspace Administration. Authorities did not specify why, but the suspension probably related to subtle criticisms of Xi Jinping on the platform; Zhihu promised to "make adjustments."

Zhihu's prospectus is largely mum on the censorship question, perhaps because the company feels it's gotten good enough at doing it. Zhihu says it has a "comprehensive community governance system" that combines "AI-powered content assessment algorithms" with the ability of users to report each other as well as "proprietary know-how." These resemble the same tools most big Chinese social media platforms use to censor content and keep in Beijing's good graces.

Who gets rich?

Here's what we know:

  • Founder, CEO and Chairman Yuan Zhou currently owns 8.2% of Zhihu, with another 8% worth of options, which he can exercise within 60 days of the IPO, held in a separate holding company controlled by a trust of which he is the beneficiary. Following exercise, Zhou will have the vast majority of aggregate voting power.
  • Innovation Works, beneficially owned by Peter Liu and Kai-Fu Lee, owns 13.1% of Zhihu. According to corporate database Qichacha, Innovation Works invested about $153,000 in an angel round in January 2011, then made follow-on investments in the C and D rounds.
  • Tencent owns 12.3%.
  • Qiming Entities owns 11.3%. According to corporate database Qichacha, Qiming invested $1 million in Zhihu's series A, then made follow-on investments in the B, C and D rounds.

Kuaishou, Baidu and Sogou also own stakes, as does SAIF IV Mobile Apps Limited.

Innovation Works' Kai-Fu Lee and Peter Liu, and Qiming Ventures, both of which invested early and often, look like the biggest winners besides founder Zhou.

What people are saying

"Zhihu, if it ever wants to be a truly massive platform, will need to go out of the hardcore knowledge-sharing space, and become more mainstream, more entertaining, and yes, even less intellectual. But to capture that market, who better to partner with than Kuaishou, who built its business on exactly those characteristics?" —Ying-Ying Lu, co-host of Tech Buzz China.

"After separating video content into its own feed, Zhihu is now in competition with Bilibili and [ByteDance-owned] Xigua Video. Education-themed videos used to be one of the important growth drivers for the latter two apps. Now [Zhihu], the app that specialized in educational content, has joined the game." —Lan Xi (pen name), independent tech writer.

David Wertime

David Wertime is Protocol's executive director. David is a widely cited China expert with twenty years' experience who has served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China, founded and sold a media company, and worked in senior positions within multiple newsrooms. He also hosts POLITICO's China Watcher newsletter. After four years working on international deals for top law firms in New York and Hong Kong, David co-founded Tea Leaf Nation, a website that tracked Chinese social media, later selling it to the Washington Post Company. David then served as Senior Editor for China at Foreign Policy magazine, where he launched the first Chinese-language articles in the publication's history. Thereafter, he was Entrepreneur in Residence at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 2019, David joined Protocol's parent company and in 2020, launched POLITICO's widely-read China Watcher. David is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Research Associate at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Contemporary China, a Member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and a Truman National Security fellow. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Diane and his puppy, Luna.

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The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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And so after a year in which millions of people have asked for help from strangers on GoFundMe, and at least $600 million has been raised (that number could be as much as $1 billion or more now, but GoFundMe didn't provide fundraising data past August) just for coronavirus-related financial crises, Cadogan has had enough. On Thursday, he wrote an open letter to Congress calling for a massive federal aid package aimed at addressing people's fundamental needs. In an unusual call for federal action from a tech CEO, Cadogan wrote that GoFundMe should not and can never replace generous Congressional aid for people who are truly struggling.

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