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."