The Troll Who Created “Qanon”
In 2017, someone began posting on an anonymous message board as a mysterious character called Q. They claimed to have inside information that Donald Trump was secretly on a righteous mission to save the world from an evil cabal of satanic Democrats. And they offered readers a chance to be a part of it, with a front row seat to watch this holy war unfold.
Over the next 4 years, it spawned a movement that continued to gather steam. Observers watched with mouths agape, as more and more people fell under its spell with astonishing rapidity, until it had captivated millions, indelibly changing the face of politics.
Understanding who is behind it will not make it magically disappear, or necessarily dissuade the believers. But it is important for a number of reasons. There needs to be accountability. This thing has traumatised people. Radicalised them. It has devastated families and friendships, and shaken our shared notions of truth so severely that democracy itself came (and remains) dangerously close to collapsing. Those responsible need to answer for the harm they have caused. And crucially, we need the blueprint to be able to take steps to inoculate ourselves against it happening again. And if none of that matters, you can call it an exercise in intellectual curiosity.
It’s not an easy task. This thing is like a jungle, shrouded in layers upon layers of disinformation, swamped with trolls and webs of deliberate lies and deceit. We don’t have all the details. But there are some things that we do know. We have Q’s posts, and we have they way they have been promoted. So let’s sharpen our machetes to have a look and see how far we get:
We know that Q is a fascist, with delusions of grandeur, who likes internet puzzles, pretending to be a super spy, claims to be apolitical, has a New Age streak, posted on 4Chan, has some kind of relationship with the Watkins and 8kun, and has promoters like Tracy Beanz, Robert David Steele, and Lisa Clapier to thank for a lot its success.
We also know it protects Michael Flynn and his agenda:
And we know that Flynn brags about using “citizen journalists” to fight insurgencies as “digital soldiers”:
“We have an army… as a soldier and as a retired general… we have an army of Digital Soldiers. Because this was an insurgency folks. This was irregular warfare at its finest. We have what we call Citizen Journalists.. the American people decided to take over the idea of information. And they did it through social media”
The Q movement has indisputably been a central part of the “Fight like a Flynn” defence fund, and Flynn is of course one of the driving voices behind the ongoing election hoax which led to the the January 6 insurrection.
So, knowing all that, let’s now turn our attention to a guy called Thomas Schoenberger:
He says he’s “just a pianist”, but there is lot more to his story than that. To start with, he’s always been into manipulating people’s minds.
He claims to be “apolitical”, but is also clearly a fascist:
His main schtick appears to be swindling women out of their money by telling them he’s working on some super secret project that will help humanity, then whittling it away on gambling and other scams. It is the focus of this deposition, for example, which gives us some fascinating insights into some details of his life leading up to 2015:
“I was attempting to start a business. I went into Turkey, and I was attempting to pull together former military people who have been involved in special ops who would then train Kurdish forces in an effort to exterminate and eliminate ISIS. Because, as Ms. Gauthier can tell you, I was concerned that ISIS was metastasizing and would end up going into Europe to do soft terrorism and then coming into America to do soft terrorism. I met with — with Kurdish resistance fighters in Turkey (in 2014). […]
I had contacts in Naval intelligence, and I was hoping that I could put together people with military backgrounds who could train the Kurds and that our company would act as a third — as a broker putting together money, talent and fighters. […]
I was charged with putting together a program that was going to be the basis for clandestine activities near the border of Iran…. Myself and another individual were going to go meet with the Governor of the province of a place near the border of Iran with an idea of doing a concert… I was involved in operations that had to do with national security… The person is no longer at The Pentagon. The person’s name is Bijan, B-i-j-a-n, Kian, K-i-a-n.”
Bijan Kian is Flynn’s business parter. He hosted an event called the Nowruz Gala in 2013, which the newly nominated Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency Micheal Flynn attended.
Shortly after that dinner, Flynn started getting suspiciously close to Russian contacts and generally acting weird, so was fired in 2014. He and Bijan quickly started their own lobbying company together, called Flynn Intel Group, selling consulting and advisory services to foreign businesses and governments, mostly Turkey and Russia.
They were paid to influence American opinion in Turkey’s favour, by writing and publishing articles in The Hill, for example:
Now look, who among us hasn’t been sent to Turkey by Micheal Flynn’s business parter to recruit special ops . But there is also a guy called Nasser Kazeminy. His company, NJK holdings, paid Michael Flynn $140,000. Thomas calls him a “dear friend”, and is an investor in a company called Amadeus Holdings, with a woman called Rhonda who is also invested in 5 other companies with him.
But hey, Flynn is a notorious grifter, I’m sure we all have dear friends who’ve paid him a hundred grand somewhere along the line. But Thomas also knows Erik Prince, the Blackwater mercenary. Erik Prince is famous for his physical military forces, but it would be extremely naive to think that he’s not operating in the digital field too. Several notorious “trolls” have spent time at his facilities. He was instrumental in propagating Pizzagate. The Prince family was also investing heavily in a company called “Neuro Core”, who use “entraining brainwave” technology, to do things like implanting subliminal messages in video (just like Thomas was trying to do with his music back in the Napa days), as discussed in the email on the left below. Which yes, sounds nuts, but you’ll have to take that up with them. In the middle screenshot we see some discussion of using another type technology to create immersive experiences. And on the right we see Prince in Q narratives.
But I mean, Erik is obviously a social guy, he moves in these circles, and given the history of his politics, of course he’s mixed up in this. I’m sure plenty of people know him. But Thomas also started his own company, called ShadowBox.
Their promotional material describes themselves as:
“An elite online reputation management firm … We address smear assaults head-on by custom-creating shadow ‘bot’ campaigns as a counter strategy … use targeted chaos to confuse your opponents… your army … use cyber-guerrilla tactics…. Where your enemies have lied to paint you as the bad guy, we sow the seeds of doubt and present the counter-narrative that they are, in fact, the villains, and you have been unjustly accused… We do this through sophisticated use of internet technology, meme creation, PR, and cyber-guerrilla tactics that stop the bleeding and begin to sway public opinion and the media in your favor.”
Now look, we’ve all dabbled in digital influence agencies that use bot networks to create chaos from time to time. But their first client was Ed Butowsky, the deep-pocketed GOP operative who pushed the Seth Rich theory, and #Pizzagate, along with Erik Prince, the Flynn family, and an anonymous poster posing as a government insider on 4Chan called FBIanon.
Far out. LARPing as a super spy with delusions of grandeur, in a battle with the CIA? Check. He also claims to be the descendant of “St Germain”, and while that is actually relevant to the story, it’s a complicated thread perhaps best left for another article. And look. We all talk a big game when we’re trying to impress girls. But Thomas’s parter in Shadowbox was a guy called Manuel Chavez III, AKA Defango, who claims to have invented Q. He says he found a book by late 20th century Italian anarchist collective Luther Blissett about an anonymous radical fighting a secret revolution. He also took some inspiration from the much loved Star Trek character, and other LARPing threads on 4Chan at the time.
But hey, we all have one of those friends and business partners who claims to have invented something like this, maybe Defango is just making it up. But the two of them also worked closely with a guy called Robert David Steele:
Robert is one of the primary Q promoters. He has relentlessly and prolifically promoted this narrative through his various media platforms, like the ITNJ, which forms the foundation for things like “Save the Children” and the adrenochrome harvesting myth.
But again, RDS says all sorts of crazy things, maybe he was browsing 4Chan one day and just happened to find this thing which perfectly fit the narratives he’d been creating, and decided to run with it. But he also names a network of ex-intelligence people in this post:
“Aided by Vladimir Putin, the soft coup in the USA has collapsed. […] Credit for the defeat has been earned by two men and one group. […] Trump earns most of the credit, bringing to the matter his deep business experience and common sense, he understood that the narrative against Russia was fabricated […] With that Foundation, he was able to listen to Michael Flynn, who’s deep personal experience in the nether world of black special operations and green clandestine and covert action operations informs him[…].
The group has many members [including Larry Johnson, Kirk Wiebe, Kevin Shipp, Michael Scheuer, David Martin, Patrick Bergy, Gary Milefsky, Paul Vallely etc], but three stand out. William Binney, the senior executive who created the NSA capability that has been used against US politicians […] was the first to reveal the leaks were coming from insiders. Ray McGovern, a retired CIA analyst and founder of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, has been a respected voice challenging the false assertions by the CIA against Russia. Finally Steve Pieczenik… was the first to announce the countercoup against Hillary Clinton was being undertaken by insiders. I am proud to stand in support of Donald Trump…”
Those are some pretty specific narratives. But look, they’re not uncommon. I’m sure we’ve all published articles at one time or another talking about how Michael Flynn’s deep personal experience in the nether world of black special operations helped Trump defeat Hillary in a coup announced by our friend Steve Pieczenik which is exactly what Q and FBIanon were talking about. But, Thomas also had a thing for puzzles. Not the board game variety, but long, intricate, cryptographic internet puzzles. The best puzzle going around was Cicada 3301.
We don’t know who started the original Cicada. What we do know is that by at least 2015, Thomas had ‘taken it over’ and and was attempting to develop a TV show out of it. (In April 2017, Cicada released a message saying “Beware false paths”, and gave a trip code by which they could be authenticated, and haven’t been heard from since.)
4Chan was one of their key platforms. But hey, it’s just puzzles. All fun and games. But in September 2017, right before Qanon, Schoenberger’s Cicada suddenly got very “Q”-y
Still, there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, that doesn’t mean there was any connection between the Q in their game and this Q. Except the “Godmother of Qanon”, Tracy Beanz, who took the movement to the wider audience in the very beginning, was talking about it right before she started talking about Qanon.
Right, well, Cicada was a popular puzzle. Tracy was on the internet, that’s not surprising. But Thomas also has a special relationship with a woman called Lisa Clapier:
Well that just sounds like a lovely friendship, there’s not necessarily anything to do with Q. But, Lisa Clapier is also SnowWhite7IAM, one of the primary Q promoters on Twitter:
She also has ties to (ie: “infiltrated”) the Occupy Movement, #Unity4J, Standing Rock NODAPL, Anonymous, and a whole bunch of “conspirituality” based platforms that have been helped push Q narratives (which again, are absolutely relevant to the story, but which are best left for another article). But hey, maybe she’s just a really avid follower of this Q thing, that doesn’t mean that she’s actually involved with creating it. But here she is basically admitting to the whole thing:
Ok. She could just be making that up though. And all these people around them are doing it, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually involved. Except we have a whole bunch of emails with Thomas discussing the “Q” project, and how best to manage it in varying degrees of deniability:
What if those are all faked too? Well, then we’d have to explain who faked them and why. Because obliquely implying they were responsible for this obscure and not-necessarily illegal internet prank is a weird way to smear someone, or a weird thing to try to take credit for, if you otherwise vehemently deny it and attack anyone who suggests otherwise.
But the content of the Q drops is only one part of it all anyway, what really matters is the way that it’s covered by the world of conspiracy websites, like Victurus Libertas. And of course here’s Thomas writing an email to his friends who run that site, pitching an article where he claims to speak for Q:
And here is Thomas trying to get RDS onto Nathan Stolpman’s show “Lift the Veil”. But maybe that’s just clout-chasing. Despite all the fascist, puzzle-based LARPS he did operate on 4Chan, and the republican campaigns he helped spread conspiracies for, maybe this one was someone else’s, and he wanted the credit.
Besides, we all know that “Q is the Watkins”. They’ve got nothing to do with Thomas. Except in 2017, Thomas was in chats with Courtney Tubbs (@IWillRedPillYou), who worked for the Goldwater with Jim Watkins.
Well... Watkins is an entrepreneur, surely we’ve all known someone who works for him. And Tracy Beanz is like a butterfly, there’s probably plenty of people who have been in chats with her immediately prior to Q launching. But she did go on to recently win political office with the support of Michael Flynn.
Ok. But we all know nothing is real until lawyers get involved. So let’s look at SLAPP happy attorney Steven Biss, who represents Flynn’s “best friend in DC”, Devin Nunes. Yes, he’s the one suing cow-based parody accounts, which sounds ridiculous, but does destroy lives. He also represented Flynn’s brother, Jack. He also represented Trevor Fitzgibbon, who started Shadowbox with Thomas, and their colleague Robert David Steele (he also represented Svetlana Lokhova, Kash Patel, Tim Holmseth, and Dan Bongino.) Steven’s wife, Tanya, gives us a great insight into how maddening Thomas is in the email on the right:
But honestly, with the amount of lawyers these people have hired over the last 6 years, it’d be more surprising if Thomas hadn’t worked with one of them. And anyway, wasn’t it Sean Stone who accidentally admitting to “making the Q drops”? Indeed. And Sean works very closely with Shadowbox’s teammate, Robert David Steele.
Alright. Look. That may all be true, but he’s probably a good guy, surely he’d never intentionally do something that caused so much pain. Sadly, he has long history of psychological harassment and abuse:
Ok. Fine. He fits the profile perfectly, and is directly connected to at least 10 of the key people widely acknowledged as being the primary promoters of Q.
So why isn’t he being talked about? Well, “online reputation management” is his trade. He literally had a company that promised to:
“Address assaults head-on, by custom-creating ‘bot’ campaigns as a counter strategy, to sway public opinion and the media in your favor… Use targeted chaos & cyber-guerrilla tactics to confuse your opponents… Through sophisticated use of internet technology, meme creation… Sow the seeds of doubt and present the counter-narrative that they are, in fact, the villains, and you have been unjustly accused…”
How did they do it? Well, I imagine that’s part of their proprietary secret sauce. But again, there are some things we do know. One of the main accounts telling people not to look into Thomas Schoenberger, is none other than that the guy who invented 8Chan, the board where Q lived. He was a Trump supporting GamerGater who embraced the alt-right ideologies his website had helped fuel, even being represented by #pizzagate promoting attorney Mike Cernovich.
He left 8Chan in December 2018 due to a workplace dispute with his boss, Jim Watkins, and has held a completely justified grudge against him ever since. The hate machine he had built and deliberately maintained, however, remained in full effect. 2019 saw a series of mass shootings — Christchurch in March, the Poway synagogue in April, and El Paso in August, which all linked directly back to 8Chan. White supremacists would post their manifestos, and livestream their massacres, to what has been described as “riotous glee”.
Naturally, as the creator of the board where this kept happening, the media began calling Fred. After Christchurch, he didn’t say it should be taken down. He didn’t even say that he would have removed the link to the livestream if he was still moderating it. But he did say he began to “wonder if creating 8Chan was a good thing”.
Even after the Poway Synagogue shooting a month later, he didn’t say it should be taken down. It wasn’t until after the El Paso shooting, in August 2019, when internet provider CloudFlare pulled their hosting services, that Fred joined the chorus of people calling for it to be removed.
Note that Fred’s primary concern here is not 51 Muslims being massacred in their Mosque by people from the website that he built, nor their many friends and family who mourn them. There is no message of love or regret. His concern is getting calls about it. He has even said that if 8Chan changed the name so that it didn’t tie to him anymore, he would leave them alone. But they didn’t change the name, and he did keep getting requests for interviews about it.
Exiled from the community he built, the company he worked for, and the country he had called home, he used this opportunity to continue his crusade against the Watkins. “The creator of 8Chan calls for it to be taken down” was a compelling story. It particularly resonated among the “Q Watching” community, where Fred quickly found a welcome place:
If letting Fred be an authoritative voice on anything Qanon related isn’t the fox guarding the hen house, then it is a very fox-sympathetic hen house designer telling us how we should view the foxes and their approach to hen relations.
And indeed, he has used this position to explicitly tell people not to look into Thomas Schoenberger and Lisa Clapier, call the people who do look in to him “stalkers” and “unwell”, while keeping the focus firmly on his nemesis, Jim Watkins.
This is perhaps epitomised in this clip from a QAA twitch stream, featuring Atlantic reporter Dale Beran. Knowing what we do now, it’s painful listening, but is important to understand how the coverage of this issue has been shaped:
The transcript here is amazing:
“In group chats, Fred was like “Dale investigated this”, and I was like “it’s bullshit, don’t bother”… Ignore it, don’t give it oxygen, just never report on it… I just listened to Fred… If I had an episode where I claimed that Thomas was Q, I would delete that episode…The people who investigate the origins are delusional.. How about we exclude the foot pic guy who lied about being cicada or whatever… It’s actually dangerous in some ways… To focus on who Q is seems like to do it a disservice”
They make a big deal about how Arturo (who they keep calling Arthur) must be wrong because FBIanon “never posted feet”, but Arturo never said they did — he was talking about MegaAnon. Dale has got it mixed up. They are laughing, loudly and at length, and even dismissing a source entirely, over something Dale got wrong. They mock things as if they are preposterous, when the fact is they are just true. Like Thomas “hobnobbing with the guy who composed the KitKat jingle”. Which is kind of funny, I guess, but it doesn’t mean anything else. It’s just a detail. The guy who Thomas was trying to make a series out of Cicada with was indeed also a commercial composer:
Yes, we know they probably didn’t invent the original Cicada. Yes, he did put graphics on youtube. Yes, he’s a scammer. How does any of that make him less likely to be involved? It all sounds stupid, sure, but it’s not wrong. “Welcome, to the ~Mind Behind Q~”, they say sarcastically. Well yeah, it’s the mind of a manipulative fascist scammer with delusions of grandeur who likes to LARP as a super spy.
These people are the authoritative voices when it comes to all things Qanon. Collectively, their reach includes just about every journalist who has ever written about it. When they talk, people listen. And now, whenever the topic comes up, people will simply declare it’s “not them”, and call the people who investigate it crazy conspiracists. They tell people not to watch the material, and they don’t.
Then Thomas will invariably descend with various sock accounts to agree, and smear and threaten the people who continue to investigate, which you can find a small sample of here:
This is the part that is perhaps the most startling. Convincing conspiracists on 4Chan to believe a conspiracy on 4Chan — fine, not that hard. But convincing this many seemingly intelligent journalists to completely ignore that’s right under their noses, is astonishing. And seems beyond the abilities of someone as messy as Thomas.
As we can see from all of the connections outlined in this article, he was only ever one part of the machine that made this. And he is far from the only one with an interest in it continuing. There are much bigger players, playing a much bigger game, who were able to support the movement in many ways. The transnational fascist network predates Thomas, and it predates Trump. Legacy institutions like the CNP and the JBS have been hard at work for decades. So has Roger Stone. Russia has famously disseminated disinformation for decades, including the infamous Internet Research Agency. They are quite happy to amplify Qanon and its narratives.
Peter Thiel has been deploying his billions behind the scenes for over 20 years, advancing these agendas through organisations like MAGA3X (featuring Jeff Giesea, Mike Cernovich et al), companies like Palantir, Facebook, and Rumble, groups like the Manhattan Institute, and who knows what else. It’s a massive and frankly somewhat terrifying part of the story we are only going to briefly mention here, but it feels very much like that’s where the next round of reporting will hopefully focus on.
Steve Bannon has of course been working in this space in many ways for many years. Through Brietbart, his buddy Guo Wengui and his suite of disinformation networks, Cambridge Analytica, and his position as Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist.
Then there are people such as Joel Zamel, with his suite of digital influence companies like Psy Group, Black Cube, and WikiStrat. According to the Daily Beast: “Zamel wanted Michael Flynn to be a member of the firm’s advisory board. They spoke about it on multiple occasions around the time Flynn was forming the Flynn Intel Group. “Flynn took a real shining to Joel.” They had been introduced by our old friend Bijan Kian. They have been involved in all sorts of manipulative operations around the world, they pitched the Trump Campaign in 2016, and then signed a memorandum of understanding with Cambridge Analytica.
We don’t know if or how these entities were involved in the creation or promotion or coverup of Q. There are certainly links that should be investigated, but they are beyond the scope of this article. What we do know is that it absolutely aligns with their ideological agenda, they were all working towards the same goal, and it would not be beyond any of their abilities to support and amplify it. Controlling narratives is what they do. They expertly exploit natural sociological and psychological phenomena to their political advantage, covering their tracks while doing it. But like an invisible speed boat cruising over a lake, we can still see their waves washing up on shore.
This is not to say it was all a perfectly planned conspiratorial operation. It’s more like a concept car that took off. It gave them a free shot to create whatever narratives they liked, without being tied to the campaign. We’re so used to “I’m Mr Politician and I approve this message”, that we almost forget to imagine how liberating it would be to not have to say that. The kinds of things you can come out with. And it costs nothing, except maybe a few million in consulting fees.
Q hasn’t posted since December 2020, and is unlikely to post again. But as well as the broken lives and fractured political system it has left in its wake, we also have a legacy of LARPs as political propaganda. It demonstrated a model which is now being replicated: Create a character that captivates people by sharing secret conspiracies through a platform on the internet, and then use that channel to pump them with whatever messaging you choose. Like the “Portal of Divine Knowledge”, which is how an organisation called “The Light System” supposedly chooses to communicate with the world:
Sounds like a cool story. Shame it’s a cover for propaganda. There are many of these things: “Glammis Calling”, “The Intelligence Hub for the Victory of Light”, “The Sisterhood of the Rose”, etc. They all use the same formula, and they are all part of a psychological attack being perpetrated on a population that does not appear to be prepared. They are a big part of why the world is such a mess, and the reason your local yoga teacher has turned into a Trump supporter. It’s not magic. Just sufficiently advanced propaganda. And we must now reckon with that reality.
So yes, Q was a 4Chan LARP, from a handful of people, including a puzzle loving fascist with delusions of grandeur. A narcissistic, manipulative, attention seeking troll, with an affinity for Flynn, who made a lot of it up as he went along. Through a combination of luck, skill, and a significant boost from more polished and professional ideologically aligned entities, it hit the jackpot, and escaped his control to run wild. And his name was Thomas Schoenberger.