Documentarian Cullen Hoback knew he had stumbled into a compelling story to explore in 2017. The QAnon movement had boiled over into national politics thanks to Marjory Taylor Greene and other figures. Hoback had embedded himself with many of its most ardent fans for several years. Premised on the idea that democratic leaders are a satanic cabal of pedophilic cannibals, QAnon took up residence within the far-right. It expanded its reach across the aisle to disenfranchised leftists. QAnon’s online activities intensified as the election drew near. Their anger over Trump’s loss culminated with his supporters storming the Captial on January 6th. Produced by Adam McKay, HBO, and Hoback, Q: Into the Storm, chronicles the rise of QAnon and its troubling use of disinformation to absorb other theories.
After the 2016 election, a mysterious poster named Q began to gain traction in online communities, including 4chan and 8chan, for positing “insider knowledge” of the Trump administration. Q claimed to have top-secret security clearance while demonizing those opposing Trump. After being booted off of 4chan, Q landed at 8chan. Designed by Fredrick Brennan, 8chan provided no regulation on speech and allowed users to post anonymously. 8chan owner Jim Watkins and his son Ron Watkins (aka CodeMonkeyZ) propped up Q to continue site growth.
Hoback’s unique access to Brennan and the Watkins family outshines the QAnon conspiracy that brings him into their orbit. The three men are larger-than-life characters in terms of oddity and their controversial nature. As a 4chan user, Brennan helped sparked and amplify Gamergate in 2014. His actions in that controversy are the definition of misogyny. His change of heart and efforts to shut down the monster he created becomes a rallying cry for activists exposing the dangers of 8chan.
The Watkins men become caricatures of themselves throughout the series. At times they represent the very worst the internet has to offer. Driven by a love of pornography and a lust for power, they seek to control the narrative at every turn. Hoback captures them in continual spin mode, with each of them telling conflicting lies and stories at nearly every turn. In their own words, they’re apolitical men, ignorant to the actions of Q. Yet time and time again, they show a deft understanding of the nuances of the movement. They are both inextricably tied to Q and his followers yet create a window to an entire other subculture.
Hoback’s insertion of himself into the story has some problematic elements at its heart. He attempts to stay impartial, and his restraint to do so is admirable. Putting the camera in front of these men seems to encourage their outlandish behavior. Hoback’s presence is not directly responsible for Q. Still, he lends credibility to the movement that thousands of anonymous views on YouTube cannot. It’s an assertion from a reputable creator that the story is worth covering.
Some of his actions even directly change the events of the series. His exploration of the dark sides of Q brings him into contact with some unsavory people. It’s a kill or be killed mentality from the Watkins that eventually pushes them to rebel against people once on the inner circle. Angering the two men threatens another subject in the documentary with the equivalent of a death sentence. Hoback’s intervention displays questionable ethics for being an impartial observer but shows his empathy for human life. It puts him in danger from both cops and corrupt governments.
In addition to his actions, the documentarian utilizes a clever narrative structure to add intrigue. The people change and grow over the course of the series, but Hoback never tips his hand. Despite the twists in turns in the series, he stays in the moment and follows the bread crumbs available to him. It means some dead ends, but the end of the series pays off every road taken. The editing adds undeniable energy that plays up the mania of the movement. He also finds a balance between the absurdity of QAnon and the dangers 8chan created in the real world. It’s a difficult narrative to pull off, but Hoback’s lived-in experience shows the empathy he feels towards everyone featured.
Hoback spotlights the internet’s destructive forces while creating a space for meaningful dialogue on the rise of conspiracy theories. The ideas circulating on 8chan have real-world consequences. Q: Into the Storm builds a straight line between the site’s humble origins and the dangerous actions that cross-pollinated on the forms. Even as Hoback chases odd leads and discovers odd corners of this culture, his message is clear. Disinformation has become all too powerful in the age of social media, and it opens our society to dangerous ideologies.