“Open your eyes,” the online post began, claiming, “Many in our govt worship Satan.”
That warning, published on a freewheeling online message board in October 2017, was the beginning of the movement now known as QAnon. Paul Furber was its first apostle.
The outlandish claim made perfect sense to Mr. Furber, a South African software developer and tech journalist long fascinated with American politics and conspiracy theories, he said in an interview. He still clung to “Pizzagate,” the debunked online lie that liberal Satanists were trafficking children from a Washington restaurant. He was also among the few who understood an obscure reference in the message to “Operation Mockingbird,” an alleged C.I.A. scheme to manipulate the news media.
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As the stream of messages, most signed only “Q,” grew into a sprawling conspiracy theory, the mystery surrounding their authorship became a central fascination for its followers — who was the anonymous Q?
Now two teams of forensic linguists say their analysis of the Q texts show that Mr. Furber, one of the first online commentators to call attention to the earliest messages, actually played the lead role in writing them.
Sleuths hunting for the writer behind Q have increasingly overlooked Mr. Furber and focused their speculation on another QAnon booster: Ron Watkins, who operated a website where the Q messages began appearing in 2018 and is now running for Congress in Arizona. And the scientists say they found evidence to back up those suspicions as well. Mr. Watkins appears to have taken over from Mr. Furber at the beginning of 2018. Both deny writing as Q.
The studies provide the first empirical evidence of who invented the toxic QAnon myth, and the scientists who conducted the studies said they hoped that unmasking the creators might weaken its hold over QAnon followers. Some polls indicate that millions of people still believe that Q is a top military insider whose messages have revealed that former President Trump will save the world from a cabal of “deep state” Democratic pedophiles. QAnon has been linked to scores of violent incidents, many of the attackers who stormed the Capitol last year were adherents, and the F.B.I. has labeled the movement a potential terrorist threat.
The forensic analyses have not been previously reported. Two prominent experts in such linguistic detective work who reviewed the findings for The Times called the conclusions credible and persuasive.
In a telephone interview from his home near Johannesburg, Mr. Furber, 55, did not dispute that Q’s writing resembled his own. Instead, he claimed that Q’s posts had influenced him so deeply that they altered his prose.
Q’s messages “took over our lives, literally,” Mr. Furber said. “We all started talking like him.”
Linguistic experts said that was implausible, and the scientists who conducted the studies noted that their analyses included tweets by Mr. Furber from the first days Q emerged.
Mr. Watkins, in a telephone interview, said, “I am not Q.”
But he also praised the posts. “There is probably more good stuff than bad,” he said, listing as examples “fighting for the safety of the country, and for the safety of the children of the country.” His campaign signs in the Republican primary refer to the online name he uses in QAnon circles, CodeMonkeyZ, and he acknowledged that much of the initial support for his campaign came from the movement. Relying mainly on small donors, Mr. Watkins, 34, trails the primary’s front-runners in fund-raising. (Two other Republicans who have expressed support for QAnon were elected in 2020 — Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado.)
The two analyses — one by Claude-Alain Roten and Lionel Pousaz of OrphAnalytics, a Swiss start-up; the other by the French computational linguists Florian Cafiero and Jean-Baptiste Camps — built on long-established forms of forensic linguistics that can detect telltale variations, revealing the same hand in two texts. In writing the Federalist Papers, for example, James Madison favored “whilst” over “while,” and Alexander Hamilton tended to write “upon” instead of “on.”
Instead of relying on expert opinion, the computer scientists used a mathematical approach known as stylometry. Practitioners say they have replaced the art of the older studies with a new form of science, yielding results that are measurable, consistent and replicable.
Sophisticated software broke down the Q texts into patterns of three-character sequences and tracked the recurrence of each possible combination.
Their technique does not highlight memorable, idiosyncratic word choices the way that earlier forensic linguists often did. But the advocates of stylometry note that they can quantify their software’s error rate.
The Swiss team said its accuracy rate was about 93 percent. The French team said its software correctly identified Mr. Watkins’s writing in 99 percent of tests and Mr. Furber’s in 98 percent.
Machine learning revealed that J.K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, had written the 2013 mystery “Cuckoo’s Calling” under another pen name. The F.B.I. used a form of stylometry to show that Ted Kaczynski was the Unabomber. In recent years, such techniques have helped detectives in the United States and Britain solve murder cases involving a forged suicide note and faked text messages.
The teams studying Q got in touch with each other after the Swiss scientists released an earlier, preliminary study showing that the writing had changed over time. Each team applied different techniques. The Swiss scientists used software to measure similarities in the three-character patterns across multiple texts while comparing the complexity of vocabulary and syntax. The French team used a form of artificial intelligence that learns the patterns of an author’s writing in roughly the same way that facial-recognition software learns human features.
The teams shared text samples, including more than 100,000 words by Q and at least 12,000 words by each of the 13 other writers they analyzed.
Gerald McMenamin of the University of Nevada, Reno, a renowned forensic linguist critical of the machine-learning techniques, said he doubted that software could pick out the telltale individual variations from the quirks of the distinctive voice assumed in the Q messages — full of short sentences, cryptic statements, military jargon and Socratic questions.
To counter the danger that texts spanning different forms or genres might confuse the software, the scientists said, they compared other writing samples that were all of the same type: social media posts, primarily tweets. And the writings by Mr. Furber and Mr. Watkins stood out over all the others in similarity to Q’s.
David Hoover, an English professor at New York University and an expert in author identification, said the scientists seemed to effectively address the potential problem of Q’s distinctive voice. He found the work “quite persuasive,” he said.
“I’d buy it,” said Patrick Juola of Duquesne University, a mathematician who identified Ms. Rowling as the author of “Cuckoo’s Calling.”
“What’s really powerful is the fact that both of the two independent analyses showed the same overall pattern,” Dr. Juola added.
Neither team ruled out the possibility that other writers had contributed to Q’s thousands of messages, especially during what appears to have been a period of collaboration between Mr. Furber and Mr. Watkins around late 2017.
But the scientists relied on other facts to narrow the list of feasible writers to test. That evidence, the scientists said, increased their confidence that they had unmasked the main authors.