Two independent linguistic studies identify Paul Furber and Ron Watkins as the likely authors
Who is the person hiding behind QAnon’s messages? Several news investigations have already shortlisted a dozen potential authors. Now, computational linguistics can help narrow it down: two independent stylometric studies from the company OrphAnalytics (Switzerland) and researchers at the École des chartes – PSL (France), point to the same two suspects, namely the web programmer and right-wing activist Paul Furber and the far-right imageboard website administrator Ron Watkins.
While relying on two completely different technologies, both stylometric analyses could establish that QAnon’s early period on the 4chan forum, from October to December 2017, was likely the result of a collaboration between Paul Furber and Ron Watkins. Afterwards, QAnon migrates to a new forum named 8chan, owned by Watkin’s father Jim. From that point on, and until the last message from QAnon on November 13, 2020, Watkins appears like the sole most likely author.
Two approaches lead to the same result
Both studies rely on computing technologies to decipher the personal style of a given text. But the similarity stops there. OrphAnalytics’ approach relies on statistical analyses, counting and comparing short strings of characters to extract an individual signature. Its method has been used in several criminal affairs. Researchers at the École des chartes, on the other hand, have developed an artificial intelligence approach: they feed a machine learning model with fragments extracted from the writings of a given person until it learns to identify its unique individual style. They have used their method in a few notable studies in the literary field.
Both teams have used an identical corpus comprising all posts from QAnon. They compared it to a massive amount of texts from a series of potential authors identified as such in several news investigations, as well as personalities mentioned by QAnon supporters.
“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,” says Claude-Alain Roten, CEO of OrphAnalytics.
“While we cannot exclude that QAnon’s author is simply not part of our shortlist, our results are remarkably clear in both our study and Orphanalytic’s. In the second period, an accidental stylistic resemblance between Watkins and a still-to-be identified author seems quite unlikely,” says Florian Cafiero, a researcher at CNRS and a visiting scholar at Columbia University who co-authored the study with colleague Jean-Baptiste Camps from the École des Chartes.
Moreover, the scenario arising from these two linguistic analyses corroborates several established facts. For example, Furber’s style is not detected after December 1st, 2017, when QAnon moves to 8chan, administered by Watkins and owned by his father. Besides, Furber has repeatedly deplored the lesser quality of QAnon’s messages after its migration to 8chan.
“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,” says Lionel Pousaz, a co-inventor at OrphAnalytics.
Pousaz L, Roten C-A, A Short Linguistic Meta-Analysis Of Qanon Authorship: Confirming Ron Watkins As The Most Likely Author. This brief overview of two linguistic analyses is available for download: PDF
Roten C-A, et al, Stylometric analyses reveal who in QAnon's publication management group writes with a personal style closest to QAnon's Socratic style. This second OrphAnalytics whitepaper about QAnon is available for download PDF
Cafiero F, Camps J-B, Who could be behind QAnon? Authorship attribution with supervised machine-learning
This first OrphAnalytics whitepaper of 2020 about QAnon is available for download: PDF