Gabriel Sterling a top Georgia elections official speaks on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, during a news conference in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
A high-profile QAnon influencer orchestrated a Twitter campaign targeting a 20-year-old contractor for Dominion Voting Systems, which led to death threats against him and his family, and a noose being placed outside his home in Georgia.The incident was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Gabriel Sterling, voting systems manager for Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, during an impassioned press conference on Tuesday night. Sterling denounced dangerous and reckless conspiracy theories that are now endangering people’s lives, saying, “It has all gone too far.”
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He called on President Donald Trump and on high-profile Republicans to come out strongly to condemn the conspiracy theories.But just hours later, Trump, rather than condemning the death threats, responded by doubling down on baseless claims that the election had been “rigged” — again without providing any evidence.While Trump has been pushing the rigged-election conspiracy for weeks, he has relied on an army of social media accounts to ensure it continues to trend — and one of the main accounts doing that belongs to Ron Watkins, who spent years running the website where QAnon was founded.On Tuesday morning Watkins uploaded a pair of videos showing a Dominion employee transferring data from a voting machine to a laptop — which Watkins claimed was evidence of voter fraud. Watkins’ tweets have been shared tens of thousands of times.The videos were posted on YouTube by another well-known QAnon influencer, and they’ve been viewed more than 400,000 times. What the videos actually show, as a Gwinnett County Government spokesperson would clarify later, is the Dominion contractor producing a report from one of the machines and using a laptop to read the data, because third-party software cannot be installed on the voting machines.But such details didn’t matter to Watkins, who urged his 325,000 Twitter followers to share the videos. While Watkins didn’t identify the Dominion worker, he likely knew that his followers would do the work for him.
And within a couple of hours, the contractor’s name was being shared on fringe message board 4chan, and from there it was shared widely on Twitter, as well as on numerous right-wing sites like Parler.On the rabidly pro-Trump forum TheDonald, one user posted the contractor’s name with a link to an image of a noose. A comment beneath the post pointed out that the image of the noose was now the number one search result for the contractor’s name on Google images.“The straw that broke the camel’s back today is this 20-year-old contractor for a voting system company just trying to do his job,” Sterling said Tuesday evening. “I talked to Dominion today, and they said he’s one of the better ones they got. His family is getting harassed now. There’s a noose out there with his name on it. It’s just not right.”Sterling pointed out that he and other election officials expect some level of blowback given the high-profile nature of the jobs. “But this kid? He took a job. He just took a job, and it’s just wrong. I can’t begin to explain the level of anger I have right now over this, and every American, every Georgian — Republican and Democrat alike — should have that same level of anger.”Watkins, who didn’t respond to a request for comment about the death threats, announced that he was quitting as the administrator of 8kun on Election Day. Since then he has devoted almost all his time to pushing the debunked voter fraud conspiracies.
As well as speaking to his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers he amassed as the gatekeeper to QAnon, Watkins has also become a regular guest on the pro-Trump TV station One America News Network (and Trump has repeatedly shared these videos to his 80 million Twitter followers). Watkins was even deposed as part of the unhinged — and typo-filled — lawsuits filed in Georgia and Michigan last week by former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell.In recent days, Watkins has also been orchestrating a campaign using the hashtag #DominionWatch, where he is encouraging followers to physically stake out voting locations across Georgia and record what is happening.And many people have responded.
Twitter has labeled Watkins’ tweets linking to the videos of the Dominion contractor, but did not immediately respond to a question about whether further action would be taken against Watkins as a result of the death threats. Since Election Day, the anonymous leader of QAnon known only as Q has posted just three messages, and they haven’t posted an update for almost three weeks — a quiet period that coincides with Watkin’s almost incessant tweeting and retweeting of election fraud conspiracy theories.His timeline is a cesspit of the most unhinged and off-the-wall conspiracy theories, everything from China buying Dominion for $400 million in October to claims that Big Tech is censoring his messages.Many QAnon experts believe that Watkins and his father Jim Watkins, who owns 8kun, are responsible for Q’s posts, either directly or indirectly through a network of people who are allowed to post by pretending to be a deep state whistleblower. But since Trump’s loss, which many QAnon followers saw as a sign that the movement was a hoax, Watkins and many other high-profile QAnon figures have been driving the movement to focus on election fraud. Trump has been encouraging them.“Trump didn’t just prime his audience to be receptive to false narratives of voter fraud, he inspired them to produce those narratives (eg Sharpiegate, suitcases of votes, observers denied, etc.) and then echoed those false claims back to them,” Kate Starbird, a researcher at the University of Washington and an expert in disinformation, tweeted, calling the phenomenon, “participatory disinformation.”