Swiss start-up claims to have identified authors of QAnonVish Gainon February 21, 2022 at 10:43 Silicon RepublicSilicon Republic

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The authors of the QAnon conspiracy theory that played an integral role in the 6 January riots at the US Capitol last year have long been shrouded in mystery. For the first time, however, two separate studies claim to have used linguistic technology to unravel their true identities.

A study conducted by Swiss start-up OrphAnalytics has identified known right-wing activists Paul Furber and Ron Watkins as the two individuals most likely to be the authors of QAnon messages on the 4chan forum in late 2017.

Interestingly, another French study by researchers at the École des Chartes based in Paris also found the same two individuals most likely to be responsible for the viral conspiracy theory.

Both studies were conducted by teams of forensic linguists who used computational technology to analyse the writing styles of “a series of potential authors” taken from a massive amount of text and compared it with QAnon messages on 4chan and, later, 8chan.

These series of potential authors include those narrowed down to by news organisations as well as those mentioned publicly by QAnon supporters, who have been subject to multiple online bans by big social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

“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,” said Lionel Pousaz, a co-inventor at OrphAnalytics.

Who are they?

The two men identified, Furber and Watkins, are both known right wing activists involved in the tech business.

Furber, described by The New York Times as the “first apostle” of the QAnon movement, is a South African software developer and tech journalist. Watkins, on the other hand, is a US website administrator who is running for Congress in the US state of Arizona.

The two studies found that messages posted on the QAnon page on 4chan between October and December 2017 under the name of ‘Q’ are most likely the result of a collaboration between Furber and Watkins, with Furber playing a lead role. Both have denied writing as ‘Q’.

According to OrphAnalytics, when QAnon moved to the new forum 8chan, owned by Watkins’ father Jim, Watkins was likely the sole author of the message board. Traces of Furber’s style of writing dwindle around this time – which can corroborated by Furber’s own criticism of QAnon messages on 8chan.

In an interview with The New York Times, Furber did not deny that his writing resembled the messages posted by ‘Q’ on the 4chan boards. Instead, he argued that posts made by ‘Q’ had influenced him to the extent that his writing style was altered to match ‘Q’.

How were the studies performed?

While both studies use computing technologies to analyse the personal writing styles of many potential authors, the similarity stops there.

The Swiss study by OrphAnalytics relies on statistical models that count and compare short strings of characters to extract an individual signature of the person. This method, according to OrphAnalytics, has been used in “several criminal affairs”.

Meanwhile, the French study at École des Chartes used AI and machine learning to feed a model with fragments of writing extract from the works of the potential authors until the model learned the unique writing style of each individual – a method used in literary studies.

Florian Cafiero, a French researcher who co-authored the study with colleague Jean-Baptiste Camps from the École des Chartes, said that it is possible the actual author of the QAnon messages is “simply not part of our shortlist” but added that the results of the both studes are “remarkably clear”.

“In the second period (2018 onwards), an accidental stylistic resemblance between Watkins and a still-to-be-identified author seems quite unlikely,” added Cafiero, who is based at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and also a visiting scholar at Columbia University.

Claude-Alain Roten, CEO of OrphAnalytics, shared the same confidence in the results. “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.”

Last week, details emerged of the new social media platform Truth Social created by former US president Donald Trump, which may soon be available for download to the public. Trump was banned from major social platforms last year after his alleged role in inciting the US Capitol riots.

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