For nearly three years, QAnon followers have been feverishly deciphering thousands of cryptic clues and predictions posted online by the shadowy persona of "Q" at the center of a metastasizing movement that experts say is the first far-right extremist conspiracy theory in the modern era to penetrate mainstream American culture and Washington politics.
Yet, a consensus of leading researchers and critics who study and debunk QAnon disinformation told ABC News that a key to identifying "Q" has been hiding in plain sight for years -- on a pig farm south of Manila in the Philippines -- at least until recently.
The rapid online growth of QAnon since early spring -- and a series of trolling incidents that surged through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok before those platforms began banning QAnon groups and hashtags this summer -- has sharpened focus on the forces behind this alternative reality game-like phenomenon.
At least 24 candidates who have "endorsed or given credence to the conspiracy theory or promoted QAnon content" -- 22 Republicans and two independents -- have secured a spot on the ballot in the 2020 congressional elections, according to the media watchdog Media Matters, though it remains unclear how many could actually win their races. Last month, one candidate who pollsters say is almost certain to win her heavily GOP district in Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, appeared to rescind her previous support for QAnon, telling Fox News that "once I started finding misinformation, I decided that I would choose another path."
People who believe in QAnon conspiracies have also been associated with a number of strange and disconcerting real-life incidents in recent years, including a man using an armored truck to block traffic on the Hoover Dam in 2018, and another man accused of fatally shooting alleged New York Gambino mob boss Francesco "Franky Boy" Cali last year because, according to court records, he believed Cali that was part of the "deep state." In June, a New York judge found the suspect mentally unfit for trial and transferred to a mental health facility for further evaluation, the Staten Island Advance reported.
QAnon clothing and posters have turned up regularly at President Donald Trump's campaign rallies since at least 2018.
Trump, his children and several White House staffers have repeatedly retweeted QAnon-linked content online, according to researchers who track the spread of QAnon. As of late August, Trump alone had amplified social media accounts promoting QAnon content at least 216 times, Media Matters reported.
Last month, Trump made his most extensive comments to date when asked about QAnon during a press briefing at the White House.
"Well I don't know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much -- which I appreciate," he said, adding, "I've heard these are people that love our country."
A reporter pressed him about "this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals -- does that sound like something you are behind or a believer in?"
"Well, I haven't ... heard that," Trump replied. "But is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, you know, if I can help save the world from problems, I'm willing to do it. I'm willing to put myself out there."
Puzzles, prophesies and 'Q drops'
In its broadest outlines, the QAnon conspiracy theory rests on the baseless belief that Trump is secretly battling a global network of billionaire pedophiles, devil-worshipping Democrats and baby-eating Hollywood stars and their "deep state" counterparts embedded in the U.S. federal government's sprawling bureaucracy.
Numerous top Democrats, party supporters, Hollywood stars and other Trump critics have been dragged into QAnon's web and slandered with false and heinous allegations. Last week, Trump fanned these flames when he retweeted a video clip of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden that falsely suggested the former U.S. vice president is a pedophile.
Party affiliation is no shield. After Vice President Mike Pence told CBS News on Aug. 21 that he "doesn't know anything" about QAnon but "dismisses it out of hand," he was accused by many QAnon adherents of being a "deep state" agent. Earlier this month, Pence canceled a campaign fundraiser after an Associated Press (AP) report revealed that the couple hosting the event had publicly expressed support for QAnon.
QAnon's messaging is laced with religious allegory, prophesies, puzzle-solving and an emboldening sense of belonging to the right side of an epic battle of good versus evil.
The user "Q Clearance Patriot," known to followers as "Q," purports to be a high-level military intelligence official who leaves clues about the secret battle behind the scenes with "Q drops" -- messages first posted in late 2017 on the anonymous imageboard 4chan, and later on 8chan and its successor, 8kun.
The "chans," as they are known -- where the messages are posted -- are low-trafficked anonymous imageboards populated largely with hate speech, pornography and rhetorical violence.
Instead of registering users, the sites issue users a tripcode -- a unique sequence of code that allows a user's identity to be recognized without storing personal data, a practice that researchers say protects free speech but fuels the spread of disinformation.
It's "Q"'s unique tripcode that allows followers to verify the messages are coming from the same user account -- even as "Q" has migrated from one imageboard to the next.
The "Q drops" are then swiftly interpreted by so-called "Q influencers," archived in searchable databases and disseminated to a much wider audience on aggregator websites like QMap -- which went offline earlier this month after the site's developer was identified as an IT expert living in New Jersey.
From there, the QAnon message spreads into the wider social media ecosystem. In August, the Guardian newspaper tracked 4.5 million aggregate QAnon followers worldwide on Facebook and Instagram alone, though the paper also acknowledged “likely significant overlap among these groups and accounts.”
It remains unknown whether the “Q drops” are authored by one or several people or whether they live within or outside the U.S., burnishing the mystique at the heart of the phenomenon.
In 2018, NBC News disinformation beat reporters tracked the initial spread of the QAnon phenomenon to a handful of conspiracy theorists from YouTube and 4chan who banded together and used social media to amplify an obscure thread of political conspiracy to a far larger audience.
What began in 2017 as a political conspiracy theory has since morphed into a meta-conspiracy movement that in sum aims to account for much of the evil in the world, sweetened by the promise of evil's swift demise with "The Storm" -- the perpetually imminent arrest of tens of thousands of "enemy" Americans -- and "The Great Awakening" -- the subsequent, Rapture-like new beginning for the world where believers' faith is recognized and rewarded.
Who is Q?
The two Americans most clearly associated with the author of thousands of "Q drops" dating back to October 2017 are James Arthur Watkins, 56, who gained control in 2015 of the controversial anonymous message board 8chan, and his son, Ronald Watkins, former 8chan administrator and current administrator of its successor, the Watkins-owned 8kun.
Since 2001, Watkins has been living in the Philippines, according to Philippines immigration records obtained by ABC News.
"If he's not 'Q' himself, he can find out who 'Q' is at any time," said Fredrick Brennan, the creator of 8chan and Watkins' former business partner.
"And he's pretty much the only person in the world that can have private contact with 'Q.' He's the only person that -- through the board that 'Q' started on 8chan – can send 'Q' a direct message and get into private contact with basically the leader of this political cult that everybody wants to hear from right now."
Brennan created 8chan in 2013 when he was living in New York City, he said, after dreaming up the idea during a trip on psychedelic mushrooms.
He moved to Manila in 2014 to work with James and Ron Watkins and in 2015 he cut a deal that turned over ownership of the site to the elder Watkins. He continued to work on other Watkins projects until 2018 before splitting entirely and to date remains embroiled in a bitter personal dispute with the family.
Watkins and his son, Ron, who have previously denied being "Q," declined repeated ABC News interview requests and did not reply to a subsequent list of questions from ABC News submitted through his U.S. attorney and in letters delivered to his home and businesses in Manila.
A day after the letters were delivered in Manila and ABC News spoke briefly with Watkins' brother-in-law, an ABC News reporter was blocked from accessing Watkins' primary Twitter account.
'This is not a drill’
Brennan has been actively tracking Watkins-connected or owned businesses and -- when he finds them -- urging internet service providers to deny Watkins a platform.
Late last month, Brennan caused a stir among QAnon researchers when he posted an image of an IP address in a tweet that he said proved that Watkins’ 8kun was sharing the same IP address with QMap, one of the largest dissemination websites on the internet for "Q drops," with 10 million visitors a month in recent months, according to the web analytics site SimilarWeb Ltd.
"Oh my God," Brennan declared in an Aug. 23 tweet. "This is not a drill, people. Jim Watkins is the owner of QMap.pub."
Brennan told ABC News that the image suggested for the first time that Watkins is profiting from both "Q"'s original posts on 8kun, as well as from QMap.
"These were previously thought to be two separate entities," Brennan said.
Earlier this month, the fact-checking website Logically identified QMap’s developer, or operator, as an IT expert living in New Jersey. The IT executive denied any association with Watkins to Daily Dot, a tech-centric website.
Until it went offline, QMap was hosted by the same content delivery network (CDN) service as 8kun. The CDN only hosts two other domains: Watkins' domains and The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website.
The host service company “was started right … at the end of October, 2019,” Brennan said. 8kun launched weeks later.
Numerous QAnon researchers interviewed by ABC News said that Brennan's evidence is a compelling new twist and a further indication of long-suspected ties between Watkins and "Q."
They stressed that it was the access to "Q" -- not the authorship of the posts -- that most interests them about Watkins' role in the QAnon phenomenon.
"Regardless of whether he is doing any direct posting, or encouraging what the content is, the Watkins family and the 8kun crew have a remarkable amount of control over what's turning into an international movement," said Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Affairs, who studies the impact of political disinformation from alternative media and anonymous groups.
Friedberg said that in recent months he has devoted nearly all his time to the QAnon movement, because it has become a "major amplifier of both political and medical disinformation."
Researcher Mike Rains said he has long believed that Watkins is at least in direct contact with "Q" and said that Brennan's tweet appears to be yet another indication of the degree to which the Watkins family controls the QAnon posts dispatched on 8kun.
"It doesn't really matter who is writing the 'Q drops,'" said Rains, a Massachusetts-based researcher who posts frequent critiques of QAnon conspiracies and hosts the podcast "Poker and Politics." "Watkins is the publisher. He is the only source of information that is allowed to get out there."
Brennan, 26, said that he moved from New York City to Manila in 2014 at Watkins' invitation to build out 8chan from the Southeast Asian island nation and the two formed a partnership.
The Watkins had learned about him from an Al Jazeera documentary about the challenges Brennan faced living in New York City with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, which has confined him to a wheelchair for most of his life, he said. Brennan said he relinquished his role as 8chan's administrator in 2016 and fully broke with the Watkins family two years later, disillusioned, he said, over personal disputes with the family and the increasingly violent and subversive content on 8chan's boards.
In a series of recent interviews, Brennan said that last year's trio of mass shootings -- at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart; two New Zealand mosques; and a San Diego synagogue -- perpetrated by alleged 8chan users finally forced him to reckon with the real-world consequences of anonymous online hate.
Since then, he has been a vocal online critic of the 8chan culture, which he acknowledges that he helped spawn, particularly the growth of QAnon — which he said is dominating the larger far-right extremist landscape online.
"We're seeing [8kun] kind of morphing away from white supremacy and neo-Nazism and into QAnonism," Brennan told ABC News this week. "And Watkins fully endorses that. He has totally backed the 'Q' movement."
Brennan said that a loss for Trump in November could have significant ramifications for the QAnon movement.
"If Trump loses, I think that how a lot of people are going to view it is: the deep state has won. Trump has lost. Our god, essentially, has been crucified," he said. Because, "Trump is -- for many of them -- a god, and they are going to punish Democrats on the other side with political violence. That's what I see happening."
Brennan said that QAnon followers believe a second term for Trump will trigger “The Storm,” followed by the “Great Awakening.”
"Even if 99% of them can come up with a new narrative and still think 'Q' is true, I think it's very likely that much more than 1% are going to feel betrayed, duped and deceived by not only Watkins but everyone involved in Q[Anon]."
In August, 2019, 8chan went offline after the site's hosting platform withdrew services in the wake of the El Paso mass shooting. Watkins was called to testify before Congress.
Brennan publicly called on Watkins to shut down 8chan once and for all. Watkins refused, and continued to defend himself and 8chan on his social media accounts and in interviews.
Brennan went on to repeatedly describe Watkins on social media as "senile,” and in October, 2019, Watkins filed cyber-libel complaint against Brennan in the Philippines, according to Philippines court records provided by Brennan.
Ultimately, an arrest warrant was issued for Brennan, forcing him to flee the country, leaving his Filipino wife behind, to avoid being jailed in Manila.
"With my [medical] condition, I wouldn't survive in the jail they would send me to there," he said.
Experts in Philippines law told ABC News that cyber-libel cases are rare in the Philippines, with only 15 or 20 cases brought annually. In June, public prosecutors used the same statute to convict Maria Ressa, a prominent Filipino investigative reporter whose news website had been critical of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's administration.
"It was absolutely crazy," Brennan said. "I had to drop everything and leave everything, and I only escaped with a few hours to spare."
Brennan said he is currently living on the U.S. West Coast as he fights the Manila charges.
A month after filing the cyber-libel complaint that would drive Brennan back to the U.S., Watkins relaunched 8chan as 8kun.
'Disarm the Deep State'
Watkins and his son have long denied any direct association with "Q."
“Nobody from our team has had private contact with Q,” Ron Watkins told Playboy.com via Twitter direct message in March.
Yet according to researchers, including Brennan, the elder Watkins has been teasing out his association with "Q" -- and profiting from it -- with a growing insouciance in the past year.
Last fall, Watkins arrived to testify before a closed-door session of the House Homeland Security Committee wearing a "Q" pin on his lapel.
He peddles his own "Q" merchandise online and cross-promotes a shape-shifting core group of QAnon influencers who profit through books, videos and other QAnon merchandising, while assisting the wider spectrum of followers in deciphering the posts.
In March, Watkins registered a super PAC in Mississippi called "Disarm the Deep State," which pledges in its mission statement "to educate citizens across the country about the dangers of the Deep State, produce effective campaigns against politicians in the pockets of the Deep State, and support candidates and legislators that will work with us to end the Deep State."
To date, the PAC has raised less than $4,000 and spent less than $500.
Watkins has vigorously defended his imageboards in the past. Prior to his testimony in the House, Watkins released a lengthy statement outlining his defense of 8chan.
Watkins contended that "8chan is the only [online] platform featuring a full commitment to free speech -- a one-of-a-kind discussion board where anonymous users shared tactics about French democracy protests, how to circumvent censorship in repressive regimes, and the best way to beat a classic video game. In this hodgepodge of discussion, down-home recipes are traded, sorrows lifted, and a small minority of users post hateful and ignorant views."
Watkins said in the statement that "moderation is mostly done by volunteers."
"There are no algorithms for content moderation in place. All 8chan moderation relies on human volunteers and one automated 'bot' account ... to remove illegal content or spam, automated or human, based only on keywords," he wrote.
Watkins said that by the fall of 2019, when his statement was composed, 8chan had banned nearly 48,000 users, deleted more than 132,000 posts and 92 discussion boards -- which organize discussion topics by subject matter. The letter also noted that 8chan had complied with 56 U.S. law enforcement requests at that point in 2019.
James Watkins was born in November 1963 in Dayton, Washington, according to public records.
He grew up on a family farm north of Seattle, the son of a mother who worked for the aerospace giant Boeing and a father who worked for the local phone company, according to an interview he and one of his executives gave in 2016 to news site Splinter, then a Fusion Media Group website.
Watkins joined the U.S. Army at 18, serving in the Army Reserve from 1982 to 1985 and the U.S. Army from 1985 to 1999, according to military records. He first worked as a helicopter mechanic and later as a recruiter. He was promoted to sergeant first class in 1994.
Watkins told Splinter that the Army sent him in 1987 to computer training school in Virginia, and while still working for the Army in the 1990s he launched what a fellow executive described in the interview as a pioneering Asian porn website.
Watkins noted in the interview that he informed the U.S. Army at the time that he was launching a website but did not specify what kind.
Business filings show that N.T. Technology Inc. was founded by 1998 in Washington state by Watkins and two Japanese men, Yoshihiro and Yumiko Nakao. The firm initially sold advertising and later expanded into web hosting. The corporation lapsed in 2003 and business filings for the company appeared again in Nevada in 2005, where the company is currently headquartered. He launched a second company, Race Queen Inc., in Manila in 2005, according to corporation filings.
Tom Riedel, N.T. Technology Inc.'s current president, told the digital site Splinter in a 2016 email that Watkins was a porn pioneer, who "figured out a loophole in Japanese censorship rules," according to Splinter. "Adult material in Japan has to be censored, but ... Japanese people could access content that resides outside of Japan. Bingo."
Riedel and other N.T. Technology executives did not respond to ABC News requests for comment.
An Army spokesperson did not dispute that Watkins was sent to computer training school -- but said that no immediate record was available.
Philippines immigration records obtained by ABC News indicate that Watkins arrived in Manila in October 2001, weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks and has lived there ever since.
In the wake of growing controversy last fall surrounding the El Paso mass shooting, the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Philippines National Police (PNP) both launched investigations into Watkins, as first reported last year by WIRED magazine.
An NBI official told ABC News last week that the bureau's investigation into Watkins was closed, and the findings turned over to the PNP. Philippines police officials said their investigation into Watkins remains open but has not to date resulted in any criminal charges.
Yet, in a previously unreported development in January, the Philippines Bureau of Immigration's (BI) Investigations Division determined that James Watkins was a risk to the public interest, a designation called an "undesirable alien," according to Philippines immigration records obtained by ABC News.
Watkins "is the owner and operator of 8chan, a hate filled forum/website which hosts trolling and serves as go-to resource for violent extremists and white supremacists," the bureau of immigration's charging sheet states.
The designation is administrative, not criminal and "it basically means you're deportable," said Jathniel Shao, an Ohio-based immigration attorney with an office in Manila.
"Being deemed undesirable by the [Philippines] Bureau of Immigration is not uncommon," Shao said. "Even if you do something stupid when you're drunk or get in a fight with the wrong people, anyone can file a claim with the BI about any alien. It's the BI commissioners' discretion whether to pursue further action."
Immigration documents show that Watkins sought authorization to return to the U.S. and was given a travel window of Aug. 27, 2020, through Jan. 31, 2021, before he is expected to return to appeal the undesirable alien designation. He departed for the U.S. on Sept. 4, though it's unclear where he is currently living. Benjamin Barr, Watkins' U.S. attorney, did not reply to an ABC News email last week requesting information about Watkins' current whereabouts.
Reached earlier this month at Watkins' home in a gated community in the Pasig City section of Manila, a man who identified himself as Watkins' brother-in-law confirmed to ABC News that Watkins had returned to the U.S., following his son Ron's earlier return stateside. The brother-in-law also said that in June, Watkins sold the pig farm south of Manila where he'd been living with his family for years.
While officials with the bureau of immigration declined to specify what prompted the Watkins investigation, Brennan told ABC News last week he thinks he knows what happened.
"Wow, it worked," Brennan said, when notified of Watkins' immigration designation.
He went on to explain that after Watkins filed a cyber-libel complaint against him last fall, Brennan hired a local Manila attorney to accompany Brennan's wife to repeatedly complain in person about Watkins to one of a handful of commissioners at the bureau of immigration's Manila headquarters, arguing that Watkins' history of web hosting Asian pornography and anonymous forums like 8chan from the Philippines should compel his designation as an undesirable alien.
"We were basically playing his own game back at him, because he chased me out of the country first," Brennan said.
Brennan said he bets Watkins stays in the U.S.
"I would be shocked if he really ever returns now that this immigration case is going," Brennan said.
"If you're a foreigner there you really have to prove you're not undesirable," he said. "The bureau of immigration can deport anyone for any reason or no reason and the only person who can overturn it is Duterte."
"And that'll never happen."
Immigration records show that Watkins must return by Jan. 31, or he would be placed on a blacklist and barred from reentry to the Philippines.
ABC News' Nicholas Tucker contributed reporting from New York and Luis Martinez contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.