The authors of the QAnon conspiracy theory that played an integral role in the January 2021 riots at the US Capitol have long been shrouded in mystery. For the first time, two separate studies now claim to have used linguistic technology to identify those behind it.
A study conducted by Swiss start-up OrphAnalytics has identified Paul Furber and Ron Watkins as the two individuals most likely to be the authors of the first QAnon messages that appeared on a 4chan forum in late 2017.
Meanwhile, a French study by researchers at the École Nationale des Chartes in Paris also found the same two individuals most likely to be responsible for the viral, right-wing conspiracy theory.
Both studies were conducted by teams of forensic linguists who used computational technology to analyse the writing styles of a series of potential authors who had been narrowed down by news investigations. Writings from massive amounts of text were compared with QAnon messages on 4chan and, later, 8chan.
QAnon is an online group started by an anonymous figure called Q, focusing on unfounded ‘deep-state’ conspiracies such as US public figures engaging in child exploitation and Satan worshipping. QAnon content has faced bans from big social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
“QAnon is going to fuel social studies for a long time, and maybe even history, as one of the most singular and concerning movements of our time. As such, identifying its authors and their motivations is of great importance to orient future debates,” said Lionel Pousaz, a co-inventor at OrphAnalytics.
Who are they?
The two men identified, Furber and Watkins, are both known right-wing figures involved in tech. Furber, described by The New York Times as the “first apostle” of the QAnon movement, is a South African software developer and tech journalist. Watkins is a US website administrator who is running for Congress in the US state of Arizona.
The two studies claimed that messages posted on 4chan between October and December 2017 under the name of Q are most likely the result of a collaboration between Furber and Watkins, with Furber playing a lead role. Both men have denied writing as Q.
OrphAnalytics said that when QAnon moved to the new forum 8chan, owned by Watkins’ father Jim, Watkins was likely the sole author of the messages. Traces of Furber’s style of writing dwindle around this time, according to the researchers, while Furber publicly criticised QAnon messages on 8chan.
In an interview with The New York Times, Furber did not deny that his writing resembled the messages posted by Q on 4chan. Instead, he argued that posts made by Q had influenced him to the extent that his writing style was altered to match Q.
Watkins praised the posts but told The New York Times that he was not Q.
How were the studies performed?
Both studies use computing technologies to analyse the personal writing styles of many potential authors.
The study by OrphAnalytics relied on statistical models that count and compare short strings of characters to extract an individual signature of the person. This method, according to OrphAnalytics, has been used in “several criminal affairs”.
Meanwhile, the study at École Nationale des Chartes used AI and machine learning to feed a model with fragments of writing extracts from the potential authors until the model learned the unique writing style of each individual – a method used in literary studies.
Florian Cafiero, a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research who co-authored the study with colleague Jean-Baptiste Camps from the École Nationale des Chartes, said that it is possible the actual author of the QAnon messages was “simply not part of our shortlist” but added that the results of the both studies are “remarkably clear”.
“In the second period [2018 onwards], an accidental stylistic resemblance between Watkins and a still-to-be-identified author seems quite unlikely,” added Cafiero.
Claude-Alain Roten, CEO of OrphAnalytics, shared the same confidence in the results. “The mere fact that two vastly different approaches point to the same individuals is in itself strong evidence. Because we joined forces, we can be pretty confident in our results.”
QAnon is a pro-Trump conspiracy movement. Last week, details emerged of a new social media platform created by the former US president, which may soon be available for download to the public. Donald Trump was banned and suspended from major social platforms last year after his alleged role in inciting the US Capitol riots.
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