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Unpacking The QAnon Conspiracy Theory

DON GONYEA, HOST:

If you saw TV coverage of President Trump's rally this week in Florida, you may have noticed some people in the crowd wearing T-shirts and carrying signs with the message, we are Q. That letter signified allegiance to QAnon, a pro-Trump conspiracy theory about the president supposedly battling a cabal of liberal elites. One of the people who's been following the QAnon phenomenon is Alex Goldman, host of "Reply All," a podcast about the Internet. And Alex Goldman joins me now to help us understand what this represents. Welcome, sir.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Thank you for having me.

GONYEA: So, first, what or who is QAnon? And what do QAnon's followers believe?

GOLDMAN: Q is a person who started posting on the website 4chan last fall and had posted mostly in rhetorical questions about current events. And, through those rhetorical questions, people who were following their posts started to develop something of a worldview. And the biggest belief that that worldview turns on is that the Mueller investigation is not, in fact, a investigation into collusion with the Russian government by Donald Trump. Rather, it is an investigation into nefarious activities, including child molestation and a variety of other crimes, perpetrated by the Clintons, Barack Obama and a variety of people who work in the deep state. So, essentially, it's all a big canard.

GONYEA: OK. And are these the same people who propagated the Comet Ping Pong pizza conspiracy? That one claimed that top Democrats were running a child trafficking and sex ring out of a D.C. pizzeria.

GOLDMAN: It's definitely within the same orbit of people. I would say that the Venn diagram of those two groups of people is close to a circle.

GONYEA: So we're talking about it because of the T-shirts and signs that showed up on camera at the Donald Trump rally in the past week. What is the relationship between QAnon and Donald Trump?

GOLDMAN: I don't know that there is a relationship. Donald Trump has never commented on QAnon directly. And when Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked at a press briefing the other day about QAnon, she basically deflected and said, we don't condone anybody who supports violence, which doesn't really have much to do with QAnon. However, everything that Donald Trump says is interpreted by members of this conspiracy theory or believers in this conspiracy theory as proof that QAnon exists and is real.

For example, a couple days ago, he was talking about how, before he became president, he had visited Washington, D.C. at most 17 times. Well, the 17th letter of the alphabet is Q. So him repeating the phrase 17 times over and over again was proof to the conspiracy theorists that he was just signaling to them, hey, look. I'm saying 17 times over and over again because Q is real, and this conspiracy is all true.

GONYEA: Since President Trump's election, several conspiracies have popped up within at least a segment of Trump's supporters. It's not just the Comet pizza story but also that groundless story that DNC staffer Seth Rich was murdered because he leaked DNC emails - the ones our intelligence community says were hacked by Russians. Why do you think we're seeing so much of this kind of thinking now?

GOLDMAN: I think that there's a certain wish fulfillment component to it, certainly. More than that, I think that there is a real fear on the part of Donald Trump supporters that this victory that they had in 2016 is going to be taken away from them. Donald Trump didn't win the popular vote. So the conspiracy theory is, oh, well, there is massive voter fraud. And then the Mueller investigation seems like this thing that could seriously derail his presidency, and, like, this is a huge victory. That might be taken away. So the idea that the very investigations into Donald Trump are actually not about him at all I think is very seductive

GONYEA: And it justifies attacks on the media or whatever because it all plays into part of that line of thinking.

GOLDMAN: Well, the president himself has a really antagonistic relationship with the media. And if the media is telling you this conspiracy theory you believe in is false, and the president's telling you, do not trust the media, and you're a supporter of the president, it is a confirmation of the conspiracy itself.

GONYEA: Alex Goldman is the host of "Reply All."

Alex, thanks for talking with us and shedding some light on this.

GOLDMAN: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.