We analyzed every message ever posted by 'Q,' the enigmatic persona that started the QAnon conspiracy theory

  • The QAnon conspiracy theory started on 4chan in 2017, when a self-described "government insider" with Q-level security clearance posted a false prediction that Hillary Clinton would be imminently arrested.
  • Since then, "Q" has posted nearly 5,000 cryptic messages, known as "Q drops," that a growing number of followers study for clues.
  • Insider analyzed every Q drop posted to 4chan, 8chan, and 8kun to investigate hypotheses about Q's identity.
  • We reviewed Q's use of language and compared the timestamps of Q's posts to the social-media activity of individuals widely speculated to be responsible for Q.
  • Reporters and researchers have speculated about Q's identity for years. Our findings support the plausibility of the popular theory that Jim Watkins, the owner of 8chan, may be behind the account. Watkins told Insider he is not Q.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

America's biggest newfangled conspiracy theory began with a failed prediction. Hillary Clinton would be imminently arrested, the prediction said, widespread riots would follow, and a contingent of elites would flee the US.

The prediction appeared on October 28, 2017, in a post on the /pol/ board of 4chan, an anonymous forum associated with incendiary memes and unmoderated drivel. The author claimed to be a high-ranking "government insider" who possessed a Q-level security clearance at the Department of Energy, the federal agency in charge of nuclear policy. That level of clearance provides access to highly-restricted information about the country's nuclear arsenal.   

The author would launch the extremist right-wing QAnon conspiracy theory, which contends that a cabal of Satan-worshipping, child-trafficking Democrats — the so-called deep state — is plotting against President Donald Trump.

Since then, "Q" has posted nearly 5,000 messages, and amassed a significant following that includes Roseanne Barr and dozens of candidates for Congress. Proponents of Q have carried out violent attacks, leading the FBI to describe QAnon as a domestic-terror threat. At the same time, some of Q's ideas have migrated into the mainstream of the Republican Party.

To better understand the emergence of the QAnon phenomenon, and to examine prevailing theories about Q's identity, Insider analyzed the entire corpus of messages posted by Q—known as "Q drops"—since Q first materialized three years ago. Q's writing has evolved in complexity and content, we found, and has maintained a third- to fourth-grade writing level for most of its existence. We also found circumstantial evidence supporting the theory that attributes QAnon's authorship to the reclusive entrepreneur Jim Watkins.

We reviewed the timestamps and language of 4,940 messages, totaling nearly 150,000 words

Our analysis found that Q is typically active between 9 a.m. and 1 a.m., Pacific Time. Q has published drops on 523 days of the past three years, disappearing when 8chan shut down for three months last year. The names Q mentions most frequently are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, whom Q refers to as "Hussein." As with the rest of the far right, Q is preoccupied with grand ideas of God and country, but also has an interest in pens and clocks.

Q drops are only one small piece of the QAnon puzzle, and our investigation does not include information such as images and thread context; but our analysis allowed us to take a deeper dive into hypotheses surrounding Q. The findings raise further questions about who is, and has been, behind the cryptic account.

Q posted 5,940 messages between October 28, 2017, and October 28, 2020, to the message boards 4chan, 8chan, and 8kun.

Hillary Clinton has remained the primary object of interest for Q since day one. At least 261 Q drops mention Clinton's name or initials — more than that of any other named individual.

Former US President Barack Obama was referenced 161 times, typically by his middle name, Hussein. Q drops mentioning Obama often raised questions about the origins of his Secret Service nickname, "Renegade".

8chan shut down for three months in 2019 after a string of mass shooters distributed their manifestos on the site. Q ceased posting during the outage, leading many observers to believe the site’s owner and administrator, Jim Watkins and his son Ron Watkins, were behind the account.

Business Insider analyzed the social media activity of the Watkins family and compared their posting times to Q’s. Ron Watkins’ Twitter activity, which occurred during normal hours in the Philippines, where the two were based, suggests that unless he regularly skipped sleeping, he did not personally post as Q.

Jim Watkins was more active on YouTube. An analysis of his video upload times shows that he was often online during the same times of day as Q. During a one-month period when Q was silent in June 2019, Watkins’ channel experienced a flurry of activity.

Note: Time zone in Pacific Standard Time

Source: 4chan; 8chan; 8kun; qresear.ch; qagg.news

Chart: Sawyer Click/Business Insider

 

Any number of people could have role-played as Q, at first

During Q's brief tenure on 4chan's /pol/ board, any number of people could have posted messages as Q. By default, the board assigned a thread-level identification number to each poster — meaning that Q in one thread could've been another individual in another thread.

"In the very beginning, there is no way to say how many Q's there were. People were just playing a character," said Fredrick Brennan, the founder of 8chan, the message board that Q moved to soon after.

Despite a handful of individuals who have come forward to claim authorship behind the original posts, Brennan told Insider there was no way to prove their claims. "It's impossible to figure out who started Q just because the people who started Q didn't do anything to identify themselves," he said.

Insider ran Q's 4chan posts through a Lexile analyzer, a tool created by the education company MetaMetrics to assess the complexity of a text. The results suggest that Q's writing level varied remarkably at the outset. Initially, Q's posts were characterized by long sentences, with an estimated Lexile range of 810 to 1,000, comparable to a fifth- or sixth-grade reading level. By the end of the month, Q's messages were shorter, with less complex vocabulary, generating a Lexile range of 210 to 400, akin to a first- or second-grade reading level.

Since the 4chan days, Q's messages have found a middle ground: staying relatively consistent between a third- and fourth-grade reading level.

Q drops are short, and fixated on government figures

In spite of the missives that characterized Q's initial posts, the average Q drop is brief. The median length of a Q drop is shorter than a typical tweet, at 105 characters and 12 words long. Most Q drops are under 29 words long.

On June 29, Q published the longest message to date: a 761-word copied-and-pasted excerpt of the Catholic Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò's supportive letter to President Donald Trump earlier that month.

Q's word choices suggested an author obsessed with lofty ideas of patriotism, truth, and higher power.

Which words Q uses the most

Hedge-fund founders connected to Millennium

Active hedge fund

Inactive hedge fund

Dot size represents number of years active

Source: 4chan; 8chan; 8kun; qresear.ch; qagg.news

Chart: Sawyer Click/Business Insider

The individuals Q has mentioned most often are alleged members of the so-called deep state. Insider found that Hillary Clinton's name came up in at least 261 Q drops, more than any other person. Former US President Barack Obama was mentioned 161 times — usually by his middle name, Hussein — followed by Robert Mueller, with 101 references. Other frequently mentioned people included both supposed cabal operatives and figures in the Trump administration considered to be allies to Q's cause. Mentioned dozens of times each were James Comey, Jeffrey Epstein, Nancy Pelosi, George Soros, and Huma Abedin (in whom Q lost interest after 2018).

Q's writing style and interests have shifted

Q moved to the 8chan forum, which had gained notoriety for absorbing 4chan's bad behavior, on December 1, 2017, claiming in a message 4chan had been compromised. Shortly after, Q's password was leaked. By then 8chan had changed ownership, from Brennan to an American expat in the Philippines named Jim Watkins.

Q made a first home on 8chan, on a board called /cbts/, or Calm Before The Storm — a signature Q slogan that alludes to a coming cataclysm when the deep state will finally be brought to justice — managed by a Johannesburg, South Africa-based programmer named Paul Furber.

But again Q's tenure on the board was short, and foiled by a second leaked password. On January 6, 2018, Q took up a permanent residence, on another 8chan board, known as /qresearch/, with Ron Watkins — the administrator of 8chan and Jim Watkins' son — facilitating the creation of the board. Furber has publicly suggested that the Watkins family took control of the Q account.

At that point researchers and observers also began to take notice of changes to Q's writing style. In a September episode on QAnon, which popularized the theory that the Watkins family was behind Q, the "Reply All" podcast described a shift in Q's language, noting that Q began posting with "more capslock" and "fewer coherent sentences."

An Insider analysis of the ratio of uppercase letters to lowercase letters in Q's posts found that the average capslock ratio increased dramatically during that period, from an average of 28% capitalized letters in the last week of December 2017, to 40% in mid-January 2018 (but has since lowered to pre-/qresearch/ levels).

Q's message board history

Oct. 28, 2017

Q's first post on 4chan

Dec. 1, 2017

Q moves to Paul Furber's /cbts/ board on 8chan

Jan. 6, 2018

Q moves to the /qresearch/ board on 8chan, with the help of Ron Watkins

Aug. 10, 2018

Ron Watkins creates a tripcode that locks Q into 8chan

Aug. 1, 2019

8chan goes down, and Q does not post elsewhere

Nov. 2, 2019

8chan comes back as 8kun; Q resumes posting

Source: 4chan; 8chan; 8kun; qresear.ch; qagg.news

Chart: Sawyer Click/Business Insider

Researchers who follow Q also noticed changes. Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy researcher who's writing a book about QAnon, told Insider that many researchers, including himself, believe that the writing changed hands after Q left Furber's board. False predictions were scaled back. "It became more about rhetorical questions, riddles, secret codes, and fake military talk," Rothschild said.

Two subsequent events further led observers to believe that the Watkinses had seized control of Q. In August 2018, Ron Watkins introduced a tripcode (a sequence of characters used to identify authors to readers) that was not verifiable by third parties, thereby locking Q into the platform and making 8chan, or Watkins, the only source of verification.

A year later, in the aftermath of three mass shootings perpetrated by 8chan users, the site went down for three months before reincarnating under the name 8kun. During that period, Q ceased posting altogether — a phenomenon that separately convinced both Brennan and Rothschild that the Watkinses were behind the account.

"Q is supposed to be this military-intelligence insider, and yet, whoever this is, who's feeding this ultrasecret, super-important intel, just decided to take three months off when 8chan went down," Rothschild told Insider.

"This plan to save the world wasn't important enough to keep posting when this rickety message board was down. If whoever posted as Q really thought that this stuff was important, they would have found another way to get the message out without waiting for 8chan to come back."

When asked if he'd noticed any changes in Q content over time, Brennan said that Q developed a sudden interest in yoga and pens, two hobbies Jim Watkins has devoted ample time to in his YouTube videos.

Insider did not find any Q drops with explicit references to yoga, but did find 14 images of a black fountain pen and 10 references to pens, including multiple messages telling readers to "follow the pen," dating to 2018.

Q's posting times rule Ron Watkins out as an author, but not Jim Watkins

Journalists and researchers have long studied time data to better understand mysterious personas and entities, from troll farms to social-media bots. Perhaps most notably, Bitcoin enthusiasts have scrutinized the timestamps of code updates and papers posted by Satoshi Nakamoto, the anonymous founder of the cryptocurrency, determining that Nakamoto was often active during British Summer Time.

To test the widely believed theory that Jim and Ron Watkins are behind Q, Insider analyzed the timestamps of the trove of Q drops published to 4chan, 8chan, and 8kun and compared them to the Watkins duo's social-media activity.

Q typically posted between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m. Coordinated Universal Time, which is roughly normal waking hours for a person based on the US's West Coast, and the middle of the night for the Philippines-based father and son. (Both Ron and Jim Watkins returned to the US in mid-2020, ABC News said. Jim Watkins' Twitter profile says he's in Sacramento, California.)

An analysis of the timestamps of Ron Watkins' tweets indicates that it is unlikely he was directly behind Q. He kept normal hours in the Philippines, and posting as Q in real time would have meant he forwent sleep.

But an analysis of Jim Watkins' YouTube uploads found that the elder Watkins frequently uploaded YouTube videos during periods when Q was active in the last year.

During a month-long Q hiatus, in June 2019, Watkins' YouTube channel saw a burst of activity, with Watkins uploading dozens of videos featuring himself narrating audiobooks, in addition to several fountain-pen ASMR videos, each more than 30 minutes long.

Reached separately by Insider, both Jim and Ron Watkins denied being behind Q's account. "I have no idea who Q is," Ron Watkins said. "I've never had any private conversation with anybody who has seriously purported to be Q."

Brennan told Insider that he believed Jim Watkins was behind some of Q's messages but that the majority were likely written by hired hands.

Watkins, who owns a right-wing website called The Goldwater — a self-professed "news organization" that has long promoted a conspiracy theory called the "Clinton Body Count" — has easy access to a variety of writers to tap for the job, Brennan said.

In the end, most conspiracy researchers agree that Q's identity is marginal in importance compared to the dissemination of the ideas. QAnon believers, they say, will rationalize any explanation of the messengers behind their venerated Q.

"Cult gurus and leaders are unmasked as frauds all the time. Their records are called into question, but people continue to believe," Rothschild said. "Even if the posts are no longer anonymous, the movement is still going to be there."

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