The bizarre pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory has burst from fringe websites into the real world this week, as dozens of attendees at two recent Trump rallies in Florida and Pennsylvania promoted it.
“It’s a movement, man. It’s the shift. I can feel it coming,” one Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania rally-goer told CNN on Thursday. “Some call it the great awakening,” he added.
The theory, which originated from anonymous messages posted online, purports to explain everything from the sinking of the Titanic to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, weaving them into a grand narrative where President Donald Trump is a secret mastermind – and hero.
QAnon’s online clues — called “breadcrumbs” — are so vague, they can be hard to follow. But there has been no evidence to prove them.
At a press conference on Wednesday White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders denied that Trump supports the group, “The President condemns and denounces any group that would incite violence against another individual, and certainly doesn’t support groups that would promote that type of behavior,” she said.
Footage from Trump’s rally in Tampa on Tuesday and a rally in Pennsylvania on Thursday shows attendees wearing T-shirts and carrying posters with the letter “Q” — a shorthand to identify followers of the conspiracy theory.
Here’s what experts say you need to know about QAnon and why the conspiracy theory has spread.
How did QAnon’s theories spread?
Conspiracies take off because the world is complex and people like things to make sense, according to Brooke Binkowski, former managing editor at the fact-checking website Snopes.com, which frequently debunks online theories.
“Conspiracy theories offer a neat package that wrap up all these events,” she says.
Sometimes, conspiracy theories can be debunked before they draw national attention. This is especially true when the source of the false information is identifiable and can be approached and corrected, Binkowski says. But when theories explode on platforms with anonymous posters — like 4chan, one of the sites where QAnon started — Binkowski says they can be much harder to stop.
“You don’t know who is spreading [the conspiracies] and why, or who is picking them up and why,” she says. “You can’t really confront the…