On October 18, 2018, film executive Franklin Leonard’s phone started vibrating and would not stop. His eyes grew wide as his screen filled up with Twitter alerts from strangers hurling vicious, baffling insults at him, hundreds of tweets at a time. He was a rent boy for billionaire Democratic donor George Soros, they said, or he ran the Muslim Brotherhood alongside Huma Abedin. Some said they were eager to see him killed.

Leonard was no stranger to threats: in 2005, he launched “The Black List,” an annual publication highlighting Hollywood’s most popular unproduced scripts. It drew attention to the then little-known screenplays that would become Oscar-winning movies like Spotlight, Argo, and Slumdog Millionaire. As his profile as a Hollywood tastemaker grew, Leonard periodically faced down a few furious screenwriters who felt he had snubbed their work, but he always got an apology in the end.

Leonard had never experienced anything like this Twitter storm before, though. It seemed this time, through no fault of his own, a large group of people on the internet had decided to try to destroy his life. But these weren’t failed screenwriters coming for him. Leonard had no idea at all why they had chosen him as their target.

“Clearly, somebody has this fixation on me,” Leonard thought.

Leonard quickly noted that the people attacking him on Twitter were all using the same hashtag, one he had never seen before: WWG1WGA. After a little online research, Leonard realized that the acronym meant he had become a target for QAnon, but he still had no idea why. He knew other Hollywood figures were harassed by QAnon. Thousands of believers on Twitter had mobbed model Chrissy Teigen and her husband, singer John Legend, convinced that they abused children in Satanic rituals. Tom Hanks, once the universal ideal of a nice guy, had been transformed by QAnon into a ghoul who drank children’s blood to keep up his boyish good looks.

“But they’re famous,” Leonard said. “I’m not. I’m just some random guy.”

At first, Leonard told me, he treated the internet attacks on him like a big joke. They insisted that he was a sort of sexual plaything for Soros, or a CIA operative, two allegations Leonard couldn’t take seriously. But as the death threats continued to pour in, Leonard started to worry about his safety. He remembered Pizzagate and the gunshots at Comet Ping Pong two years earlier. Not wanting to panic, but well aware of the risk, Leonard had to admit to himself that a single crazed QAnon supporter might make an attempt on his life.

It was a feeling I knew well. Q would post one of my tweets or articles, giving the signal for their followers to descend on me. First they’d come in the form of thousands of menacing tweets and messages.

“Hopefully one day you die via mass shooting or pressure cooker bomb,” one Q supporter wrote to me on Facebook. “Dumb pedo supporter.”

Then, more worryingly, some pro-QAnon accounts published my address and the names of my family members. As long as the more dangerous threats stayed on fringe social media platforms, I didn’t want to take any action against them for fear of drawing attention to them and encouraging more harassment. And besides, what could I really do?

I knew the likelihood that anyone would try to hurt me in person was small. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that many people had said, directly to me, that they wanted me dead. I had to adjust in ways that felt scary and foreign, but necessary. When I moved to a new house, I installed a security system and worked to scrub my new address from online databases. When I reported on QAnon events in person, I wore hats and sunglasses to make it harder for people to recognize me from across a crowd. Those precautions could seem overdramatic, even to me, but I spent my days reading these people’s violent fantasies. I knew what they thought themselves capable of.

After sifting through more messages from QAnon supporters, Leonard realized that the mysterious online attacks weren’t directed by Q himself. Q had never posted anything about him. Instead, they were inspired by just one person: a popular QAnon promoter whose legions of fans knew him only by the alias “Neon Revolt.”

Hundreds of thousands of accounts on Twitter and Facebook have promoted QAnon online, but only a few of them can match Neon Revolt’s reach. He writes rambling essays about QAnon targets like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and gun control activist David Hogg, assuring his followers that the world will soon be rocked by revelations only hinted at by Q. For instance, Neon Revolt once predicted that a long-hidden video of Barack Obama wielding an AK-47 and dressed in “full Muslim garb” would soon hit the internet, showing Obama either shredding an American flag with bullets or executing a captive American soldier.

Now Neon Revolt was obsessed with Leonard. On his blog, Neon Revolt portrayed Leonard as a globe-spanning puppet-master, running the Muslim Brotherhood with an attachment of Iranian allies, in between visits to a “Cabal-affiliated” hotel in Los Angeles. Leonard’s Black List wasn’t just an industry cheat sheet and a hot topic on the Beverly Hills cocktail party circuit, Neon Revolt wrote; it was a tool to weaken America’s social fabric by highlighting the most divisive, demoralizing movies. Among the films implicated in Leonard’s plot: the children’s science fiction film A Wrinkle in Time and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing biopic, The Imitation Game.

“The man is a Rabid Marxist/Leftist, with deep, subversive instincts, Radical Islamic sympathies, and a profound Anti-white bias,” Neon Revolt wrote in the blog post where he first sicced his fans on Leonard.

Leonard wondered about his security as Neon Revolt kept up the attacks. He reconsidered whether he was safe in his ground-floor apartment, and worried that someone might attack his fiancée to get to him. Leonard became more nervous walking on the street in Los Angeles, fearing that each stranger he passed on the sidewalk was a QAnon believer coming to kill him in Q’s name.

To the people who knew him in the real world in the spring of 2018, Robert Cornero seemed to be going nowhere. In his early thirties, he lived with his parents and had just lost a position as a grocery store clerk in the same New Jersey strip mall where he got his first job in middle school. The height of drama in Cornero’s life had been a feud with his bosses over whether he could run the store’s frozen food section. He met a woman online who lived thousands of miles away in Canada, but she dumped him after her father called him a loser.

When Cornero turned on his computer, though, he was a star. Tens of thousands of people were waiting to hear what he had to say. Just by setting up a website in February 2018, Robert Cornero had become Neon Revolt, a powerful QAnon blogger able to shape how millions of people saw the world.

Before, Cornero’s life had been in a long-term decline. His troubles began in his last months at a prestigious medical high school in 2004, when he tried to impress a girl by listing the ways he would murder his classmates. Police raided Cornero’s locker; he was banned from prom.

In his final years in high school, Cornero developed a fascination with movies. The passion grew, Cornero claimed, after a doctor told him he was too handsome to work in medicine, urging him to go to Hollywood instead. After narrowly avoiding prosecution in the shooting threat incident, Cornero moved to Los Angeles to sell his screenplays.

But as with so many hopefuls before him, Hollywood success eluded Cornero. He scored some minor accolades, winning second place in an online screenwriting contest with an action-comedy script he billed as “Clerks meets Army of Darkness.” But Cornero felt like a failure in a town that, as far he could see, was full of winners. While rival screenwriters earned mentions in Leonard’s Black List, Cornero was stuck in L.A. traffic driving a car with a broken air conditioner.

Leonard, who often spoke about using the Black List to promote diversity in Hollywood, was a symbol of the forces that Cornero thought had stopped him from succeeding, even though the two men never had any direct interaction.

“The industry, even during that time, had grown increasingly hostile to ‘straight, white men,’ ” Cornero recalled later.

In time, Cornero gave up on Los Angeles and moved back to his New Jersey hometown. But he still seethed at the industry that had rejected him—at one point, he tweeted that someone should BURN THE WHOLE DEGENERATE TOWN DOWN!

With seemingly endless amounts of time to spend on the internet after his grocery store shifts, Cornero began to cycle through political ideologies. He embraced Ron Paul’s libertarian presidential bids, then moved on to Gamergate. All of his rage at his Hollywood failures pushed him onto 4chan’s /pol/ in 2014, frequenting a place where users attempted to radicalize one another into extremist ideologies with “redpills.” They would show each other a depressing, often skewed statistic—say, the long odds millennials faced to buy a house or figures purporting to show that the deck was stacked against white men. The posts were meant to make people angry, and they worked on Cornero.

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“I was surrounded by a vampiric culture of death, knee-deep in the dead, and I was determined to fight my way out, even if I had to slog through the bowels of hell itself to get there,” Cornero recalled later.

Inspired by 4chan, Cornero launched a Facebook page to share more negative memes. Soon, Cornero recalled, he had 70,000 followers and 4chan’s nihilism “coursing through my veins.” Cornero was delighted by how quickly he had seized some level of internet prominence, and devoted himself to making more memes.

A frequent /pol/ user, Cornero encountered Q in its early days, shortly after losing his job at the grocery store. Cornero started posting on Facebook about QAnon, attracting more Q fans to his page. When Facebook banned Neon Revolt, Cornero moved to a group on the far-right social network Gab and launched the Neon Revolt blog, which soon became a hub for QAnon activity online.

As his fame grew, Cornero started crowdfunding to publish a book about his QAnon ideas. His eager fans donated nearly $160,000 to the cause, expecting to hear his proof that QAnon was real and that the Storm would soon arrive. What they may not have anticipated were dozens of pages about Cornero’s own life and his radicalization from little-known frozen food clerk to QAnon figurehead.

Cornero stood out among QAnon promoters because he could write more than a few dozen words at a time. His Neon Revolt persona succeeded where his Hollywood scripts had failed. While others relied on YouTube videos or barrages of tweets, Cornero could hold forth at essay length, tying globe-spanning events and Q clues together in a tenuous logic that nevertheless appealed to QAnon fans. If most Q promoters relied on tweets and short YouTube videos, Cornero’s blog posts, which often ran into multipart series, felt like settling in for an episode of 60 Minutes. He described the blog as a “pressure valve” unleashing his “years of pent-up thoughts and emotions like a torrent upon the world.”

As Cornero grew into his Q-world fame, he became convinced that his Hollywood failures were a blessing in disguise. After all, he recalled in his book, succeeding in the entertainment industry would have meant joining the cabal and participating in unspeakable acts against children. Better to fail there, and spend his time blogging and deciphering Q’s breadcrumbs with fellow 4chan Anons—people with “genius-level” intelligence—than cut deals for Tinseltown success in the way he imagined Leonard had.

In October 2018, Cornero posted his first “investigation” into Leonard, titled “Soros’ Hollywood Rentboy.” Cornero posited that Leonard wasn’t just a Hollywood tastemaker—he was tied into Satanic forces, and using the Black List to undermine humanity. Cornero returned to the theme in later posts and his crowdfunded book. As his armies of fans slammed Leonard online, Cornero rejoiced that Leonard and his other targets couldn’t avoid the masses of Neon Revolt readers harassing them. Cornero had spent more than a decade being picked on everywhere—at school, in Hollywood, even at his grocery store job. Now QAnon gave him the power to be the tormentor.

“They just had to endure it for days and weeks on end,” he wrote.

Cornero didn’t seem to care if his harassment mobs were serving any larger purpose. Instead, he appeared to just delight in attacking people whose politics he didn’t like. The best part of sliming his targets, Cornero wrote, was that “there was really nothing they could do about it.”

Nick Backovic, a researcher for a disinformation research company called Logically, discovered Cornero’s double life in January 2021. Using corporate registration details for the company selling the Neon Revolt book, Backovic traced the account to Cornero. In a blog post on Logically’s website, Backovic tied the Neon Revolt persona to Cornero, identifying him as a failed screenwriter who had often raged against the movie industry online before adopting his QAnon persona. Cornero has never publicly acknowledged or disputed the identification. He did not respond to emails, phone calls, or a letter I sent to his parents’ house.

For Leonard, it suddenly made sense. As he puzzled for years over why so many QAnon believers wanted him dead, he had ignored the most obvious explanation: a vengeful screenwriter fuming over his failed Hollywood dreams.

“If he spent half the time working on his craft of screenwriting as he did on this stuff, he might have had a successful screenwriting career,” he said.

The Neon Revolt blog hasn’t been updated since Cornero was tied to his online alter ego. But other QAnon promoters took his place, picking up the conspiracy theories he had crafted about the cabal’s influence on Hollywood. The people Cornero indoctrinated into QAnon didn’t suddenly leave the movement when his identity was exposed; they just went looking for another Q leader to follow. Cornero’s interpretations of Q’s clues are still referenced on QAnon websites and social media pages. His legacy in QAnon lives on even after he went silent.

As influential as he was, though, Cornero was just one part of an enormous radicalization machine. Leaders like Cornero could take QAnon in their own directions, but they were all just building on the work of its originator: Q himself.

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From the book TRUST THE PLAN Copyright (2023) by Will Sommer. Published on February 21, 2023 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

Order a copy of Trust the Plan here.

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