"Q: Into the Storm," a six-parter that launches on Sunday (HBO, 9 p.m.), explores one of the most controversial phenomena of the recent Internet Age.
In a word (or letter), that would be Q.
Who was this mysterious figure who dropped occasional clues or hints — most relating to the actions of former President Donald Trump — on an internet platform (or "imageboard") known as 8-Chan?
Who were his equally mysterious followers, the so-called Q-Anons?
Three years ago, veteran filmmaker Cullen Hoback (2013's "Terms and Conditions May Apply '') began traveling to the Philippines in search of answers. While there he interviewed 8-Chan co-founders, Fredrick Brennan and Jim Watkins, and later traveled to Japan to interview meet Watkins' son, Ron.
Hoback delivers both a scoop — he says he knows who Q is — and a terrifically entertaining film. .
He spoke recently with Newsday:
How would you define QAnon?
It's part interactive game, part religion [run] by this anonymous figure named Q who posts 'drops' and has convinced [followers] that he is a government insider relaying information about a secret plan to take down an evil cabal that is ruling the world. And yes, a core idea is that [members of the cabal] are pedophiles and baby eaters.
How did or do you process that last bit?
Part of why it's been so successful is because it generates new theories daily and [followers] can be part of that theory generation. As a result, it's been co-authored from the further reaches of the internet.
Why did you go down this rabbit hole?
I was intrigued by these platforms [first 4-Chan, then 8-Chan] shutting down and a Streisand Effect [an attempt to hide, remove, or censor information has the unintended consequence of further publicizing that information] set in — why are [governments] banning them and what ideas could be so dangerous that they warranted being banned? And of course I was curious about this mysterious figure operating in the shadows and building this digital army.
Your film has no interest in debunking QAnon. Why?
There is so much out there that I decided to go to origins instead — look at the mechanics and see if we could see who is behind it. There were many points along the way where I had incredible doubt [then] decided the best way to find out who was behind Q was to get closest to the source. I just figured they were the ones who had the technical data.
Why did Watkins and Brennan talk to you?
There was this emerging rivalry between the Watkins and [Brennan] and I don't think they wanted Fred to have the final say. But their motive for participating in the beginning was different from the motive in the end. You feel this transition from absurd whimsy to serious consequences of QAnon — from game to reality. … At first they may have thought it would be fun to screw with a journalist. In the later episodes, their motives may have been operating at a higher level — as perhaps these shadowy operators advising the president of the United States — and they wanted some documentation of this.
Is the takeaway here that smart people can marshal the forces of the internet to their own sinister ends?
I tried really really hard to be as objective as I could to understand the mechanics and personalities and I think the answer that emerges here is much more complicated than just getting rid of 8-Chan and others like it … In fact, what's changed [with the internet] over the last 10, 15 years are the algorithms [computer programs that automatically prioritize content for billions of users]. Q wouldn't have been successful without those. They drove people to increasingly sensational content [and] perhaps we need to take a hard look at the underlying technology and say maybe it's the algorithms that need seat belts.
The $64,000 question: Did you find out who Q was?
I do think the series makes a strong case for who was behind [QAnon] as well as the origins.