First published by Daily Maverick 168
A Johannesburg-based former technology journalist has been identified as one of the key figures behind the spread of the global conspiracy theory QAnon.
Paul Furber, a former writer for ItWeb and Brainstorm, has been fingered by US media in the past as having played a prominent role in the popularisation of QAnon. But Furber’s involvement is now believed to have extended beyond helping spread the bizarre web of theories that make up the QAnon movement.
One of the world’s most popular technology podcasts, Reply All, this month aired the strong possibility that Furber might in fact have been the individual responsible for creating the QAnon myth in 2017.
Furber declined to comment on these allegations, saying he does not speak to the media.
Furber, whose LinkedIn profile records that he was educated in Zimbabwe, worked as a journalist covering the local tech industry from around 2006 to 2017. He is also a web developer.
According to media sources speaking off record, in recent years he appeared to be increasingly consumed by conspiracy theories. In a 2019 interview, Furber boasted about living off the grid on a “reasonably large property”, saying he had amassed “fuel, solar, lots of ammo”.
QAnon disciples have already been linked to murder and kidnapping, driven by a misplaced belief that they are acting against the sex-trafficking cabal.
The QAnon movement was born on message board 4Chan in October 2017 when an anonymous individual called “Q” began to publish posts predicting global events. The name Q is a reference to top-secret security clearance within the US government and the 4Chan user claimed to be leaking information from the highest levels.
These public posts — or “Q drops” – have become the basis for a digital movement which now boasts millions of adherents worldwide.
QAnon beliefs are based largely on recycled far-right conspiracy theories which have at their heart the notion that a Satanic cabal of politicians, business leaders and celebrities are seeking global domination while running an international sex-trafficking syndicate. US President Donald Trump is presented as the only individual capable of thwarting these dark intentions.
The movement has gained significant traction in recent months during the Covid-19 pandemic and has growing links to real political power. Trump and his family members have on multiple occasions retweeted QAnon posts and videos and more than 70 US Congressional candidates have been identified by US organisation Media Matters as QAnon supporters.
As the movement has spread from the fringes of the internet to the mainstream, concern has grown over its followers’ propensity for violence.
In August 2019, the FBI in the US classified QAnon as a terror threat, with an accompanying memo warning that the movement’s beliefs will “very likely emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts”.
QAnon disciples have already been linked to murder and kidnapping, driven by a misplaced belief that they are acting against the sex-trafficking cabal. In one of the most high-profile incidents to date, a heavily armed QAnon supporter seized a bridge over the Hoover Dam in Nevada in June 2018 to make demands of authorities on the basis of a Q drop.
Predictions contained within the Q drops have repeatedly been revealed to be nonsense. The first of such posts, in October 2017, falsely stated that Hillary Clinton was to be arrested the following day.
Q’s string of fake prophecies has exposed the absurdity of the notion that these are real leaks from the top echelons of the US government, but have done nothing to deter the movement’s followers.
The evidence that Paul Furber may have created the Q character and made the initial predictions is complex — and technical in parts. But the less arcane parts of the argument are based on the fact that Furber controlled the message board within 4Chan on which Q exclusively chose to post; that Furber alone claimed to be privy to private messages from Q; and that Furber seemed to have a unique ability to decode Q’s cryptic posts.
Among those who are convinced that Furber created Q is the founder of the message board 8Chan, Fredrick Brennan. Brennan told Reply All this month: “I think Furber is most likely Q. The original Q.”
After a lengthy interview conducted with Furber in 2019, fellow QAnon supporter Estéban Trujillo de Gutiérrez also concluded that “Furber’s mastery of historical conspiracy theory” makes him “the most likely contender” for the true identity of Q.
If true, this must rank as one of the more bizarre developments of an already surreal year: that a little-known tech journalist from Johannesburg could give birth to a dangerous global conspiracy theory already making its influence felt on US politics.
QAnon’s spread to South Africa
QAnon is no longer the sole province of the American far-right. Its popularity has been growing worldwide – and South Africa is no exception.
“QAnon in South Africa is definitely growing,” says research assistant for the Digital Forensic Research Lab Tessa Knight.“It’s certainly not the behemoth it is in the US or other parts of the world, but it is growing. If we have a look at Google Trends for the last 12 months, there has been a marked increase in searches for QAnon originating from within South Africa.”
Knight cautions that the increase in Google searches is not in itself evidence of burgeoning support, since users may simply be seeking to understand the term “QAnon” or one of its related hashtags, such as #WWG1WGA: “Where We Go One We Go All”, a QAnon rallying cry.
She notes, however, that there has also been an increase in South African Twitter accounts referencing QAnon or “QArmy”, together with the establishment of local QAnon supporter groups on Facebook and Telegram in recent months.
Reports of genuine kidnapping or trafficking incidents have been circulating, but these are almost always several years old.
“There is a noticeable overlap between QAnon followers and those who protest against farm murders and the alleged white genocide in South Africa,” Knight said. She added that Q drops and related QAnon information are also posted to pro-white South African Facebook groups.
QAnon’s presence in South Africa has also recently been visible beyond the digital sphere. In early September, the local Move One Million march against corruption saw protesters in Cape Town marching with posters bearing the Q logo of QAnon.
But beyond those South Africans consciously identifying as QAnon supporters, there are indications of others unwittingly being drawn into wider QAnon campaigns. During September, a form of hysteria has been spreading on South African social media in response to a perceived sudden increase in incidents of human trafficking locally. Fearful posts have been accompanied by hashtags like #StopHumanTrafficking, #SaveTheChildren and #SaveOurChildren.
Reports of genuine kidnapping or trafficking incidents have been circulating, but these are almost always several years old. The South African Police Service has repeatedly denied that the country is in the grip of a sudden human trafficking epidemic. Gauteng SAPS this week issued an irate statement condemning “the continued peddling of fake news related to human trafficking and/or kidnapping of women and children” and an “incessant promotion of such malicious untruths”.
The police also stated: “In some instances that are not necessarily from social media, some members of the public have taken to mainstream media with allegations of human trafficking and kidnapping, claiming to know victims or to have witnessed incidents personally. However, when police reach out to determine specific cases, incidents or police stations for purposes of investigation, no such detail can be provided by the same people.”
Hashtags currently in use on local social media drawing attention to human trafficking are, in fact, QAnon hashtags related to the movement’s obsession with the false belief in the snatching of children by global elites for purposes including paedophilia, cannibalism and the harvesting of a little-known compound called adrenachrome.
It is doubtful that many local social media users are aware they are helping to articulate the bizarre preoccupations of the QAnon movement. Of concern, however, is how neatly this false narrative dovetails with growing xenophobic sentiment in South Africa – in itself being artificially fomented on social media. In tandem with the fears expressed about human trafficking, has spread the false belief that Nigerian nationals are responsible for the upsurge in this crime.
Stef Snel of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change – which has helped expose how a Twitter account called uLerato_Pillay was used to spread online xenophobia – says there is already clear evidence of “a network of accounts that are busy with narrative media manipulation”.
Snel says South African issues around which “latent social sensitivity” already exist are being exploited by these accounts to foment social dissent.
“Essentially what they are searching for are our deepest fears, which they then try to agitate as much possible to start presenting in real offline life.
“So we’ve now got complete hysteria going on around human trafficking, which is now being completely megaphoned out of proportion on social media.”
Stoking social panic around issues like crime and immigration is a move straight out of the QAnon campaign’s playbook, where adherents see themselves as preparing for full-blown war.
As one local QAnon supporter recently wrote on Telegram: “We are digital soldiers a worldwide militia against evil.” DM168