Ron Watkins appears on One America News (OAN)
Back in May, Ron Watkins announced that he was launching a new venture called Alien Leaks. Essentially, Watkins wanted to make WikiLeaks, but for information about UFOs. The site was a complete and utter failure. In fact, it attracted so few leaks that Watkins had to post his own close encounter three months later when he claimed to have seen an alien craft flying over his apartment in Sapporo, Japan—at a moment he just happened to be filming the right part of the sky.
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.
When I contacted Watkins about Alien Leaks, I took the opportunity to ask him about what appeared to be his admission in Cullen Hoback’s HBO documentary that he had in fact posted on 8chan as Q, the mysterious leader of the QAnon movement.Rather than answering my questions directly, Watkins sent me a video of himself in the Japanese wilderness dressed as some sort of cowboy samurai. The video made little sense, especially since Watkins was speaking on camera but the sound came from a voiceover track he had recorded separately.
At the time, with former President Trump out of office and Q gone silent, many people believed that this was the beginning of the end of QAnon, and of Watkins’ moment in the spotlight.But on Thursday, Watkins showed his ability to reinvent himself once again, announcing that he’s planning to run as a Congressional candidate in Arizona—where he claims he now lives.How did we get to the point where one of the people who’s most responsible for the rise of QAnon believes that running for public office is a viable option?Waktins was born in the late 1980s, after his father, Jim Watkins, met a South Korean woman while he was serving in the U.S. military. Watkins moved around a lot as a child due to his father’s job as a helicopter engineer with the army.
After his parents divorced when he was a teenager, Watkins lived mostly with his mother and attended high school in Mukilteo, Washington, where he graduated in 2005.Meanwhile, Jim Watkins had retired from the U.S. military and had established a Japanese porn website hosted in the U.S. to circumvent Japan’s strict pornography laws. Then, in 2014, he seized an opportunity to take control of a hugely popular online imageboard called 2channel, the precursor to 4chan and 8chan. The founder of the site claims Watkins stole it from him. The younger Watkins decided to get involved in his father’s businesses, and in 2014 suggested that they contact Fred Brennan, who had founded 8chan as a a "free speech friendly” 4chan alternative in the wake of the Gamergate controversy.Brennan was at the time struggling to manage the site, and so the Watkinses swooped in and took control, keeping Brennan on board as an employee in the Philippines, where the Watkinses were based at this point.The partnership between Brennan and Jim Waktins broke down and the father-and-son duo took full control of the site. Then, in early 2018, the nascent QAnon movement moved from 4chan to 8chan, and everything changed.The mysterious Q began posting on 8chan exclusively, and as the conspiracy movement grew so did traffic to Watkins’ website. However, at the time, the person who was in control of the 8chan board where Q was posting said that the account was hijacked and that someone else began posting as Q.
For many, this was evidence that Ron and Jim Watkins had decided to take control of the QAnon movement for their own benefit. Analysis of the “Q drop” before the move to 8chan and after it, clearly show there were two distinct authors, but aside from Waktins’ own “admission” on Hoback’s documentary, there is no conclusive proof that Watkins was behind the posts.In fact there is evidence that due to his location in the globe and the timing of certain Q drops, Watkins could not have been Q.
As well as QAnon, 8chan gained notoriety for hosting child abuse imagery, and several mass shooters posted manifestos on the site prior to beginning their killing sprees. In the space of six months in 2019, the perpetrators of the Christchurch mosque shootings, the Poway synagogue shooting, and the El Paso shooting all used 8chan to disseminate their respective manifestos.The result was that 8chan was deplatformed for several months, but it soon returned under a new name, 8kun. But whether or not Ron Watkins was Q is moot. As administrator of the site, he facilitated the QAnon movement to grow to an unprecedented scale, helping it move from the obscure website into the mainstream.
The movement has torn families apart, driven people to conduct acts of horrific violence, and helped fuel the widespread belief that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. QAnon conspiracies have also now become deeply intertwined with mainstream GOP politics.Ron’s transformation from QAnon facilitator to Congressional candidate began on Election day 2020.On that day, he announced that he was resigning from 8kun. In the days and weeks that followed, as former President Donald Trump began his long and seemingly-never-ending campaign to discredit the election results, Watkins saw an opportunity.Using the Twitter account where’d amassed hundreds of thousands of followers as the Q facilitator, he began tweeting about Dominion Voting Machines and obscure election processes, claiming—without evidence—that there was mass vote rigging taking place.Such claims quickly got the attention of right wing networks like One America News and people in Trump’s orbit, like “Kraken” lawyer Sidney Powell and Trump’s former personal attorney Rudy Guiliani.
Soon, Watkins was appearing on TV as a cyber security expert, even though he had no experience in this area.After the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, Watkins was banned from Twitter, but seamlessly moved to Telegram, where he amassed an even greater following. Here he began to drive his followers’ attention to Maricopa County, Arizona, where a bogus election “audit” had been authorized.In between founding his Alien Leaks website—and launching a career as an NFT artist—Watkins continued to boost election conspiracies. He appeared virtually at the Cyber Symposium of MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, where his presentation was interrupted when he was told he might be breaking the law by talking about data taken from machines in Mesa, Colorado.Like Lindell, Watkins loved to tell his followers that something huge was just around the corner, whether it was Trump’s return to office or some explosive lawsuit that would expose widespread vote rigging. But in the end, just like the mysterious Q, Watkins never delivered.And so it was with the Cyber Ninjas report in late September. Watkins and many others on the right predicted it would provide vindication for their claims of vote rigging. In the end, all it did was further confirm that the election in Maricopa County was run properly and President Joe Biden won it.
But rather than retreating to the dark corners of the internet, Watkins clearly felt that now was the time for him to come into the light.And so last week he landed in Arizona, weeks ahead of his appearance at a big QAnon conference in Las Vegas. He has spent his time showing how completely unathletic he is, repeatedly failing to get a meeting with Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, and hobnobbing with some of the state’s most prominent Republicans.And on Thursday the transformation was complete: Watkins announced he was running for the House seat in Arizona’s first district, where he will have a crowded primary as Republicans try to unseat incumbent Democrat Rep. Tom O’Halleran. And like so many other Republican candidates running in 2022’s midterms, he pegged his decision to run on the baseless belief that the election was a fraud.“We must stay vigilant and keep up the pressure, both here in Arizona, and throughout the country to indict any and all criminals who have facilitated election fraud,” Watkins said in a video posted to his Telegram channel.“President Trump had his election stolen, not just in Arizona but in other states too. We must now take this fight to Washington, D.C. and vote out all the dirty Democrats who have stolen our Republic.”
Watkins’ candidacy has already garnered the support of many of the biggest influencers in the QAnon community, but he’ll need more than that in order to secure the Republican nomination.And Fred Brennan, who worked alongside Ron when Jim Watkins took over 8chan, believes he is missing something vital to win an election.“Charisma is not optional for a politician,” Brennan told VICE News, adding that he felt the additional scrutiny on Watkins will turn out badly for him and his father.“I actually welcome him submitting himself to the political process because all it's going to do is just create greater scrutiny into the fact that he has no legitimate source of income and his entire persona in Q is based on lies,” Brennan said.But not everyone is convinced. Cullen Hoback, who spent a lot of time with Watkins believes that he does have charisma and that his online skills could be enough to get him elected.“Elections are a popularity contest where facts no longer seem to matter,” Hoback told Vice News. “He’s got a base of followers who he’s strung along with wild promises. Nothing needs to come true. In fact, the more he tricks his followers, the more clever they think he is. Maybe his ability to read from a script isn’t great, but he’s playing a different game. He’s highly skilled at memetic warfare, trolling, and has a passionate army of ‘digital soldiers’ on the ready. In person, I think even Fred would begrudgingly admit Ron can be quite charming. Assuming Ron maintains the steam to keep up the act, he could find himself in a similar situation as Trump—a troll who gets memed into a position of power.”