QAnon’s Chief Enabler Ran a Website Where He Brushed Off Concerns About Pedophilic Content
Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.The QAnon conspiracy has always stood on a morbidly ironic contradiction: “Q,” the pseudonymous poster who claimed to be a government insider batlling elite liberal pedophiles, infamously became a phenomenon by posting on 8chan, a website where users had allegedly established a child porn swapping network.
8chan’s proprietor is Jim Watkins—an American but often Philippines-based pornographer, pig farmer, and internet forum entrepreneur. Over the years, Watkins and his team took special steps to keep the Q posts coming and purportedly verify their provenance, ensuring the poster’s continued access to their followers. While 8chan’s historic association with child sexual abuse material is familiar to close observers of the QAnon conspiracy, Mother Jones has reviewed a little-known archive documenting conversations in the moderation channel of Pink, an earlier internet forum, that capture Watkins, the site’s administrator, pushing for a hands-off approach to the moderation of child porn-related content there. Entries in the archive, created between 2004 and 2018, show he was slow to address concerns about child pornography and sometimes dismissed advice from moderators seeking to stop the spread of potentially illegal content. They repeatedly record moderators of Watkins’ forum coming to him for advice on how to handle issues related to child sex abuse material and pedophilic content, and Watkins responding with blasé indifference.
Fredrick Brennan, the original founder of 8chan, alerted Mother Jones to the logs’ existence and put me in touch with researchers at the QOrigins Project, who have made a more user-friendly backup of the archive. “Ali we probably need to talk,” Brennan, a former associate and now adversary of Watkins, first messaged me on Signal in March, explaining that he had been looking back at Pink records housed on the Internet Archive. “I was investigating Jim for something I thought was innocuous today, helping somebody who makes memes of him find more of his old photos. While doing that I discovered a few things…long conversations from circa 2009 and before between Jim Watkins and the Japanese users of BBSPINK. Almost all of the discussion keeps going back to child porn.”
BBSPINK, or just “Pink,” is a text-only not-safe-for-work bulletin board system that started in 2001 as an offshoot of 2channel—the very popular Japanese precursor of both 4chan and 8chan. Pink was created as a place to divert 2channel users’ lewder content and presented as separate forum, but was run off the same servers as 2channel and managed by an overlapping team that included Watkins. He became the admin of the NSFW forum in 2002, and started hosting both Pink and 2channel on his servers in 2004. Brennan started working as the technical lead of 2channel in 2016, holding the position until departing in 2018.
Parts of the archives do, indeed, keep going back to child porn. Take, for example, a series of posts from the spring of 2009, including one from June, when the logs show no record of Watkins appearing on the board where moderators lodge deletion requests board for a month. A moderator seeking his help handling the sharing of pedophilic content complained about that lack of participation in a post they made searching him out on another discussion thread where he was more active. In that post, the moderator offers several potential courses of action to Watkins, including three different ways to delete the suspect post, along with an option of frankly admitting he doesn’t care if Pink is “viewed as dating service or child porn exchange BBS” because of the consistent volume of pedophilic sharing that keeps happening. Instead of quickly replying to what many would see as an urgent and concerning problem, Watkins responds, “Let me drink some coffee before I read this deeply.”
The logs don’t offer a clear picture of how this exact incident played out. But in subsequent related messages, some users express frustration at Watkins’ seeming indifference to illegal content being shared through the site. Watkins shrugs them off. “I can’t seem to solve this problem,” he responded in Japanese. “Please tell me what I should do.” When a moderator made practical suggestions to Watkins, including proactively deleting any potential pedophilic content, the logs show no response.
Earlier that year, in April, a moderator asked Watkins for permission to delete a thread titled “Rape scene of a primary school student, Sperm have a scene in the vagina of elementary school students, And gang rape etc.. part2.” Watkins’ initial response? “I looked at that thread, and I don’t think it is really what the thread says. There are no links to pictures. Don’t delete it.” After other users, certain the thread contains such links, urge him to look again, Watkins concedes his error and agrees to remove it.
Within hours, another moderator chimed in to note that Watkins’ initial ruling preserving that post was his first appearance in the site’s deletion forum “for a long time”—an assessment again backed up by Watkins’ light presence in the chat archive—and to argue that even if that thread hadn’t meet his criteria, there were other threads with concerning titles that did have links to child sex abuse material. “There are a lot of things which ‘a primary schoolchild / a junior high student / a high school student’ is included in a thread title elsewhere,” he wrote, citing one with a link to a “movie which served a girl of a high school student a sleeping drug. And man is doing an indecent act.”
Instead of encouraging the moderator to swiftly delete such threads, Watkins responded, “There are too many threads like that to delete them. When there is a deletion request, it should be deleted.” Watkins’ reply elaborated on this vision of Pink as a venue where no one proactively looks for or removes child porn or other kinds of potentially illegal content: “When a board or BBS is moderated, then the moderator takes responsibility. bbspink is to [sic] big to moderate. It is impossible to see all the posts that are posted daily. So it is Unmoderated, not moderated.”
Around the same time, a Pink moderation volunteer began taking down links to pictures that, while likely not legally child porn, featured non-nude children in suggestive contexts and nude children among nudists. Other users lashed out, complaining to Watkins that the moderator had gone too far. The logs show that Watkins removed the moderator, noting that the content probably was not illegal and that moderators should potentially be laxer in the future.
Later in the same conversation and thread, Watkins responded to another volunteer moderator’s concerns about potentially illegal child porn content being shared through the site, to say that “going to the police is not necessary” and that if a volunteer did so, it would be “overstepping,” since the site only includes text and links to harmful content, not images themselves.
Most of Pink’s users were Japanese, and the logs are in both English and Japanese. Sarah Hightower, a Japanese-speaking independent researcher of conspiratorial movements, reviewed some of them and came across one dual-language exchange in which some users got angry about, as she described it, “a delete team volunteer deleting an upskirt pic that was reported to be of a high school girl.” Watkins only responded to the controversy after being asked twice by his moderators, ultimately saying the post linking to the upskirt picture was “not kiddie porn” and didn’t need to have been taken down.
The moderation logs are filled with as many as a dozen other versions of these kinds of discussions, documenting Watkins’ hand wringing over what kinds of links to content should and shouldn’t be deleted on Pink. Mentions of “child porn” and “kiddie porn” show up 50 times in just one archived thread from 2009. Many of the discussions capture users pressing to address the recurring problem, often questioning and cautiously chiding the site’s operators and sometimes specifically addressing complaints to Watkins for not doing enough.
Watkins does occasionally praise users who directly delete links to pedophilic content. “I delete on all request thread of child porno it entirely,” a likely Japanese speaker told Watkins in April of 2009. “Thank you for your good work,” Watkins replied. But more often, the logs seem to capture him shrugging off users frustrated by the whack-a-mole nature of the problem and those pushing proactive and preemptive measures, generally leaving their calls for more moderators or automated systems largely unaddressed. Overall, the interactions suggest a pattern of Watkins showing indifference to permanently stamping out pedophilic content from being shared through his site, while looking for reasons to retain links to technically legal content popular with pedophiles. I sent Watkins several emails asking to speak, along with a list of questions. He did not respond, aside from posting a screenshot of one emails on his account on a conservative social network, explaining he would only speak with journalists on 8kun, the rebranded 8chan imageboard he still runs.
The logs show complaints persisting. In a 2010 thread, posters expressed concern that continued posting of child porn could trigger an FBI investigation. Jim replies by writing, “We always cooperate with [the FBI], when they contact us. There are rules that are followed. It is the reason we are not moderated.”
This all happened under the direction of the person who would one day, as host of the 8chan, play a key role in the birth and spread of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which purports to be organized around the goal of protecting children from imagined sexual abuse. Watkins may have had an even more direct role in pushing the conspiracy; several outlets have published reports which strongly suggest that Watkins’ son, Ron, was the poster posing as Q.
Brennan, who spent ample time with Watkins over the years when they worked together on 8chan and 2channel and both lived in the Philippines, recalled that Watkins would sometimes defend child porn. “He was very tolerant to pedophiles in a way normal people would not be. He would make arguments about how ‘they can’t help it’ and about how ‘child porn is already made, so it’s not harmful,’” Brennan told me, adding that Watkins would also “say the n-word in public” and would call Filipinos ‘gooks.’”
Over that time, Brennan said Watkins declined to invest in technology that would help automatically take down child porn content on both Pink and later 8chan. “I never understood why he would not pay for the machine learning that I needed him to, and now I do,” Brennan said, explaining that such software would make it much easier to systematically remove pedophilic content from the site. Watkins’ attitudes and inaction made Brennan conclude that “he viewed pedophiles as his users.”
Indeed, Brennan can point to what he’s identified as a thinly-veiled overture by Watkins to pedophiles: during the 2009 discussions, Watkins bantered about pizza and “cheese pizza” amid discussions about pedophilic content. “I like cheese pizza like [margarita pizza]” Watkins wrote in one such post, writing “margarita pizza” in Japanese. The context and bilingual repartee are hard to parse, but Brennan believes it’s a subtle, but direct, invitation to pedophiles. “Cheese Pizza” is a years-old and notorious euphemism in chan message boards for “Child Porn.” The term had been used as slang for years prior to Pizzagate, the 2016 conspiracy theory alleging Democrats ran a child sex ring from a D.C. pizzeria basement, and that conspiracy started in part after trolls decided hacked emails from John Podesta about ordering pizza were in fact secret references to pedophilia. Watkins’ use of the term could be something else—perhaps even a hip to the double-meaning joke intended to distance himself from pedophilic material. Watkins declined to comment on the exchange or respond to any other questions from Mother Jones.
Brennan makes no secret that his perspective on Watkins is colored by their contentious relationship, and says that Watkins has unfairly blamed him for his own failures and has publicly misrepresented his work at 8chan. But these incidents from the logs speak for themselves, seeming to show Watkins exhibiting little concern about his site potentially enabling the dissemination of material capturing child sex abuse—a pattern of behavior Brennan says he again witnessed when they worked together in the Philippines on 8chan.
Brennan is the original founder of 8chan, and when he helmed it, users often posted pedophilic content there as well. While Brennan said he didn’t support it—it was also against the site’s rules— he described it at the time as the “cost of free speech.” (Brennan told me in May that he felt this quote was unfair, and insisted that he when he led 8chan, he was more active than Watkins was in trying to stop illegal child sex abuse material from being posted to the site.) After leaving 8chan in 2016 and 2channel in 2018, he’s warned about the harms of minimal content moderation and spent the years since crusading against problems and people associated with his old site. Part of that effort includes having worked with the Q Origins Project to scrape BBSPink forum posts from the Internet Archive.
Others who have deep experience with Watkins similarly doubt his commitment to stopping the spread of pedophilic content on his sites. Mitsuwo is a user of 2channel and successor sites dating back to 2002. When Watkins seized full control of 2channel in 2014, she says he reduced operating staff a bare minimum, including the deletion team, and used it to enrich himself by running ads there for his profit-making porn websites. “Jim never increased the deletion staff no matter how many users complained,” Mitsuwo, who went on to be a volunteer with the sites from 2017 to 2021, says.
She says she never saw Watkins seriously address child porn content until 2020, when he finally took down board on a successor site that was known for being a haven of pornography and (mostly anime) child pornography. Until then, this board had long existed in the open as a known hub for porn and pedophilic content, leading Mitsuwo to a definitive conclusion: “I believe this is proof that Jim Watkins knew that child pornography would be posted and left it alone for many years.”
While the logs provide new and direct insight into Watkins’ attitude towards child porn, they are not his first publicly reported interactions with such material. Not only did 8chan, the site he took over from Brennan, have notorious problems with child porn while under his operation, in 2020, my colleague AJ Vicens and I reported that Watkins had controlled a company that hosted scores of domains whose names suggested they are connected to child pornography. Watkins acknowledged hosting the sites, but denied that the sites contained child sex abuse material despite analysis of metadata from several of the domains showing that they featured filenames suggesting that they harbored pedophilic content like “xxxpreteen,” “children,” alongside sexual references to girls aged 12 to 15.
Notably, 8chan’s child pornography problems persisted while Jim Watkins’ son, Ron Watkins, helped operate the imageboard as a site’s administrator. The younger Watkins is currently running in an Arizona Republican primary contest seeking a U.S. House of Representatives seat—just at a moment when some members of the GOP have leaned in to aggressively accusing their opponents of being child “groomers” and pedophile sympathizers. He did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Jim Watkins’ apparently lax attitude towards pedophilic content on Pink and later 8chan, alongside his control of child porn-themed domain names reinforces one of the dark contradictions that have always belied QAnon: that one of its key enablers seemingly knowingly profited from the internet activity of pedophiles.