David Reinert holds a large "Q" sign while waiting to see President Donald Trump at a rally in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 2, 2018. "Q" represents QAnon, a conspiracy theory group that has been seen at recent rallies.Rick Loomis / Getty Images
In November 2017, a small-time YouTube video creator and two moderators of the 4chan website, one of the most extreme message boards on the internet, banded together and plucked out of obscurity an anonymous and cryptic post from the many conspiracy theories that populated the website's message board.
Over the next several months, they would create videos, a Reddit community, a business and an entire mythology based off the 4chan posts of “Q,” the pseudonym of a person claiming to be a high-ranking military officer. The theory they espoused would become Qanon, and it would eventually make its way from those message boards to national media stories and the rallies of President Donald Trump.
Now, the people behind that effort are at the center of a fractious debate among conspiracy enthusiasts, some of whom believe the three people who first popularized the Qanon theory are promoting it in order to make a living. Others suggest that these original followers actually wrote Q’s mysterious posts.
While the identity of the original author or authors behind “Q” is still unknown, the history of the conspiracy theory’s spread is well-documented — through YouTube videos, social media posts, Reddit archives, and public records reviewed by NBC News.
NBC News has found that the theory can be traced back to three people who sparked some of the first conversation about Qanon and, in doing so, attracted followers who they then asked to help fund Qanon “research.”
Qanon is a convoluted conspiracy theory with no apparent foundation in reality. The heart of it asserts that for the last year the anonymous “Q” has taken to the fringe internet message boards of 4chan and 8chan to leak intelligence about Trump’s top-secret war with a cabal of criminals run by politicians like Hillary Clinton and the Hollywood elite. There is no evidence for these claims.
In addition to peeking into the mainstream, the theory has been increasingly linked to real-world violence. In recent months, Qanon followers have allegedly been involved in a foiled presidential assassination plot, a devastating California wildfire, and an armed standoff with local law enforcement officers in Arizona.
Part of the Qanon appeal lies in its game-like quality. Followers wait for clues left by “Q” on the message board. When the clues appear, believers dissect the riddle-like posts alongside Trump’s speeches and tweets and news articles in an effort to validate the main narrative that Trump is winning a war against evil.
There are now dozens of commentators who dissect “Q” posts — on message boards, in YouTube videos and on their personal pages — but the theory was first championed by a handful of people who worked together to stir discussion of the “Q” posts, eventually pushing the theory on to bigger platforms and gaining followers — a strategy that proved to be the key to Qanon’s spread and the originators’ financial gain.
Before Q, there was a wide variety of “anon” 4chan posters all claiming to have special government access.
In 2016, there was FBIAnon, a self-described “high-level analyst and strategist” offering intel about the 2016 investigation into the Clinton Foundation. Then came HLIAnon, an acronym for High Level Insider, who posted about various dubious conspiracies in riddles, including one that claimed Princess Diana had been killed because she found out about 9/11 “beforehand” and had “tried to stop it.” Then “CIAAnon” and “CIA Intern” took to the boards in early 2017, and last August one called WH Insider Anon offered a supposed preview that something that was “going to go down” regarding the DNC and leaks.
Qanon was just another unremarkable part of the “anon” genre until November 2017, when two moderators of the 4chan board where Q posted predictions, who went by the usernames Pamphlet Anon and BaruchtheScribe, reached out to Tracy Diaz, according to Diaz’s blogs and YouTube videos. BaruchtheScribe, in reality a self-identified web programmer from South Africa named Paul Furber, confirmed that account to NBC News.
“A bunch of us decided that the message needed to go wider so we contacted Youtubers who had been commenting on the Q drops,” Furber said in an email.
Diaz, a small-time YouTube star who once hosted a talk show on the fringe right-wing network Liberty Movement Radio, had found moderate popularity with a couple of thousand views for her YouTube videos analyzing WikiLeaks releases and discussing the "pizzagate" conspiracy, a baseless theory that alleged a child sex ring was being run out of a Washington pizza shop.
As Diaz tells it in a blog post detailing her role in the early days of Qanon, she banded together with the two moderators. Their goal, according to Diaz, was to build a following for Qanon — which would mean bigger followings for them as well.
On Nov. 3, 2017, just six days after the first 4chan post from “Q,” Diaz posted a video entitled “/POL/- Q Clearance Anon - Is it #happening???” in which she introduced the conspiracy theory to her audience.
“I do not typically do videos like this,” she said, but citing Q’s “very specific and kind of eerie” posts, Diaz explained that she would be covering the 4chan posts, “just in case this stuff turns out to be legit because honestly it kind of seems legit.”
That video, which has been viewed nearly 250,000 times, made Diaz one of the earliest people to seize on “Q” posts and decipher them for a conspiracy-hungry audience. Diaz followed with dozens more Q-themed videos, each containing a call for viewers to donate through links to her Patreon and PayPal accounts
Diaz’s YouTube channel now boasts more than 90,000 subscribers and her videos have been watched over 8 million times. More than 97,000 people follow her on Twitter. Diaz, who emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, says in her YouTube videos that she now relies on donations from patrons funding her YouTube “research” as her sole source of income.
Diaz declined to comment on this story.
“Because I cover Q, I got an audience,” Diaz acknowledged in a video that NBC News reviewed last week before she deleted it.
Building a movement
To reach a more mainstream audience (older people and “normies,” who on their own would have trouble navigating the fringe message boards), Diaz said in a blog post she recommended they move to the more user-friendly Reddit. Archives listing the three as the original posters and moderators show they created a new Reddit community called CBTS_Stream, short for Calm Before The Storm, where subscribers soon gathered to talk all things Q.
Their move to Reddit was key to Qanon’s eventual spread. There, they were able to tap into a larger audience of conspiracy theorists, and drive discussion with their analysis of each Q post. From there, Qanon crept to Facebook where it found a new, older audience via dozens of public and private groups.
That audience then started to head to 8chan to check out the original source and interact directly with the posts. (Q posts moved from 4chan to its more toxic offshoot 8chan in November after a post claiming the original board had been “infiltrated.” 8chan became notorious for having no rules, and even hosting child pornography.)
8chan’s owner’s official Twitter account marveled at the influx of older, less internet-savvy visitors to his site, drawn by Qanon. “We joked about it for years, but #Qanon is making it a reality: Boomers! On your imageboard.”
Meanwhile, Diaz kept making videos, racking up hundreds of thousands of views. Over the next several months, Diaz and the two moderators picked up tens of thousands of followers on Reddit and YouTube and added even more moderators to their 8chan and Reddit boards.
They also began to break into what might be considered the mainstream of the conspiracy world. Conspiracy theorist Dr. Jerome Corsi, an Infowars editor and a best-selling author of books about the “deep state,” had taken an interest in Q and was decoding the messages on the Reddit board. In December, Pamphlet Anon and BaruchtheScribe even made an appearance on InfoWars.
Corsi has since disavowed the Qanon conspiracy and called the current Q poster “a fraud,” citing a supposed takeover of the channel by someone posing as Q in April. But last week, facing backlash from his base, Corsi tweeted that he supports the Qanon movement and its supporters’ “excellent research.”
Soon, as Diaz explained on her blog, their expanding crew was spending all their waking hours in chat rooms on the gaming-focused forum Discord analyzing and decoding Q messages and planning for a larger dissemination of Q’s message.
In March, their Reddit board, which boasted some 20,000 subscribers, was shut down by Reddit for “encouraging or inciting violence and posting personal and confidential information,” and the moderators — Diaz and the rest — were banned from the site. Furber had already been booted from the site for allegedly threatening to reveal the personal details of another user, and was pushed out of the private Q discussion groups he had helped form.
“I was very definitely banished,” Furber said, noting that he believes Q’s board has been taken over by imposters.
By then, Pamphlet Anon, whose real name is Coleman Rogers, had developed grander plans. (NBC was able to determine Rogers’ identity through property records that link the address where his business is registered to his parent’s home and to photos from his personal social media account. Those photos show him to be the same person who appears on YouTube as Pamphlet Anon.)
Rogers did not respond to calls seeking comment, but acknowledged his receipt of messages from NBC News via his website’s Twitter, writing in part, “WE DO NOT TALK TO FAKE NEWS.”
Kicked off Reddit, Rogers hatched a new plan. He would replace the mainstream media — often a target of Q’s posts — with a constantly streaming YouTube network made up of the self-described “researchers” who were putting together Q’s clues.
Within a month, Rogers, 31, and his wife, Christina Urso, 29, had launched the Patriots’ Soapbox, a round-the-clock livestreamed YouTube channel for Qanon study and discussion. The channel is, in effect, a broadcast of a Discord chatroom with constant audio commentary from a rotating cast of volunteers and moderators with sporadic appearances by Rogers and Urso. In April, Urso registered Patriots’ Soapbox LLC in Virginia.
Rogers and Urso use their channel to call for donations that are accepted through PayPal, cryptocurrencies or mail.
It was a natural progression for Rogers. A review of Rogers’ Facebook page shows he had been active in internet politics and a staunch supporter of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign, self-identifying as part of the “meme war” — the creation and dissemination of images and internet-style commentary that internet agitators on the chans and Reddit credit with Trump’s win. Rogers often posted memes about “liberal tears” as well as the ludicrous claims that Democrats murdered children and worshipped Satan — details similar to those that would eventually form the Qanon theory.
Rogers’ Facebook updates waned after Trump took office but started up again in the fall, when he began posting “Q” messages to both confused and supportive family and friends.
Rogers has publicly denied that he is the author of the “Q” posts, though his last visible Facebook post, published on Aug. 2, hinted that he might someday be associated with the theory.
“Ten bucks says you see my face on national news within a few weeks, saying that I'm ‘the mysterious hacker known as #Qanon,’” Rogers wrote, a reference to a CNN segment that mistakenly referred to the website 4chan as a hacker.
Following a request for comment from NBC News, Rogers deleted every post on his Facebook profile after 2014. Following another message from a reporter informing him that NBC News had archived his page, he deleted his Facebook account entirely.
As Qanon picked up steam, growing skepticism over the motives of Diaz, Rogers, and the other early Qanon supporters led some in the internet’s conspiracy circles to turn their paranoia on the group.
Recently, some Qanon followers have accused Diaz and Rogers of profiting from the movement by soliciting donations from their followers. Other pro-Trump online groups have questioned the roles that Diaz and Rogers have played in promoting Q, pointing to a series of slip-ups that they say show Rogers and Diaz may have been involved in the theory from the start.
Those accusations have led Diaz and Rogers to both deny that they are Q and say they don’t know who Q is. There is no direct proof that the group or any individual members are behind it.
Still, Qanon skeptics have pointed to two videos as evidence that Rogers had insider knowledge of Q’s account. Some YouTube channels, like one named Unirock, are mostly dedicated to poring over Patriots’ Soapbox livestreams and dissecting purported slip-ups.
One archived livestream appears to show Rogers logging into the 8chan account of “Q.”The Patriots’ Soapbox feed quickly cuts out after the login attempt. “Sorry, leg cramp,” Rogers says, before the feed reappears seconds later.
Users in the associated chatroom begin to wonder if Rogers had accidentally revealed his identity as Q. “How did you post as Q?” one user wrote.
In another livestreamed video, Rogers begins to analyze a supposed “Q” post on his livestream program when his co-host points out that the post in question doesn’t actually appear on Q’s feed and was authored anonymously. Rogers’ explanation — that Q must have forgotten to sign in before posting — was criticized as extremely unlikely by people familiar with the message boards, as it would require knowledge of the posting to pick it out among hundreds of other anonymous ones.
In part because of the mounting claims against Patriots’ Soapbox, the web’s largest pro-Trump community has banned all mentions of Qanon. Reddit’s 640,000-member community r/The_Donald set up an autodelete function for mentions of Qanon’s claims, two moderators confirmed to NBC News, believing the group of YouTubers is making posts as Q.
Still, Patriots’ Soapbox 24-hour livestream remains live on YouTube, broadcasting to its 46,000 subscribers. And despite the growing skepticism of the group, they still have their supporters who ardently believe in the Qanon theory.
“The funniest thing about those who try to discredit Q. They focus on whether Q is real or not, instead of the information being provided,” tweeted one follower. “NO ONE cares who Q is. WE care about the TRUTH.”