You've probably heard about QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory that has emerged from dark corners of the internet and broken into the mainstream. Republican candidates running for Congress have embraced it, and President Donald Trump has praised its adherents as people who "love our country." The conspiracy itself is a dangerous one; it's inspired real-world violence. But UMass Amherst Professor Ethan Zuckerman, a scholar and pioneer of the internet, says the scariest thing about QAnon may be what it augurs for our future. Zuckerman spoke with WGBH All Things Considered host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Arun Rath: Can you give us the broad outlines of QAnon?

Ethan Zuckerman: I think the big thing to say about QAnon is that it's a big tent conspiracy theory, which is to say there are people who believe pieces of it, but not necessarily all of it. There are really themes that hold it together. The biggest thing to understand about QAnon is that they believe that President Trump is leading a revolution against a cabal of the "deep state" Democrats, as well as the elites in the entertainment industry, in business, possibly even in academia and public radio. They believe that members of the cabal are engaged in many heinous practices, including everything from child trafficking, cannibalism, you name it.

But the heart of the conspiracy is really mistrust. It's mistrust of people in traditional positions of power. They believe that there is a secret person within the military intelligence establishment who is known as Q, which is short for "Q Clearance Patriot," and for some unexplainable reason, Q has decided to start communicating with the world through posts on the 8chan message board, now the 8kun message board. These posts are cryptic and, QAnon is this large, loose community of people who are interpreting these small bits of information, these drops, and trying to construct them into a coherent pro-Trump, anti-"deep state" narrative.

Rath: Some of these are very old conspiracy theories, age-old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Zuckerman: At this point, QAnon includes all of those anti-Semitic threads, but it also has merged in many ways with a lot of anti-vaccination threads, it has taken in many of the people who are worried about 5G, and in a funny way, COVID-19 has provided this sort of metastasis for the movement. COVID-19 has sort of brought together people who are very afraid of medical technologies. Now there's a way to say COVID-19 is a plot both to stop Trump from cleaning out the deep state, but also as an opportunity for Bill Gates and whatever nefarious villains could be found to inject us all with microchips.

What's been so remarkable about QAnon is that it doesn't really have a central orthodoxy. It's incredibly open. And what it really is, it's a participatory conspiracy theory and that's what makes it so powerful for the internet age. There's no sort of central text. There are Q's drops, but then there are thousands and thousands of people who run podcasts or YouTube channels where they're basically doing commentary on the day's events, much in the same way that you and I are doing commentary on QAnon. This model of talking about and explaining the day's events, that is the model that anon's participate in. They take the day's events and they try to interpret it through the lens of Q. The only barrier to entry is learning a little bit of the mythology and then being a talented talker.

Rath: Bringing this back to politics, Pizzagate, which goes back four years — if I recall correctly, President Trump's then-adviser, General Michael Flynn, was was tweeting that. Now we have multiple Republican candidates for Congress who have more than idly winked at QAnon. What do you make of this convergence?

Zuckerman: It's really hard to get your head around. We have figures like Marjorie Taylor Green, who looks like she has a good chance at making it into Congress. She has amplified any number of conspiracy theories associated with QAnon. There's 11 candidates, nominees in total. Not all of them are likely to make it to office, but it is quite possible that we will have a significant QAnon presence in Congress.

One of the things that's interesting is that I think these candidates may understand that QAnon has not yet reached the mainstream. What will be very interesting is to see whether QAnon takes it a step further and turns into something like a next generation of the Tea Party, where you have something which is considered part of the Republican big tent, some people will look at them as if they're crazy, others will say they're part of our base and we have to appeal to them.

I don't know that QAnon is big enough yet, but that does seem to be the direction that this is heading, and that's very disturbing, because within QAnon believers, they are simply not playing in the same reality that the rest of us are. They are playing in a reality where many or most of the people who have political power in the United States have those positions because they're saying this or because they want to drain the blood of young children. And that is, whatever you think about Washington, simply not an accurate picture of what's going on.

Rath: I want to ask you this because you do ponder big picture questions. Just in considering all of this, I'm just so shocked to be having this thought. I've always been, as I'm sure you are, somebody who's believed in the wonderful power of the free-flow of information that we've seen with the Internet. So it shocks me to be asking the question in this context, but is the internet bad for democracy?

Zuckerman: I think democracy is in real trouble right now, and I think the internet is not making things easier. But I do think it's worth remembering that Richard Hofstadter wrote about the paranoid style in American politics in 1964, five years before the first packets were transmitted on the internet. He was looking at the John Birch Society, he was looking at other conspiratorial movements that were taking advantage of print. I don't think this is something we can uniquely blame on the internet.

On the flip side of it, I do think the internet has made it so much easier to find your way into these sorts of conspiracies, and I think that topics that people might not have encountered unless they went to some very esoteric bookstore or had been dragged in by friends are really now a mouse click away. So I do think democracy is in trouble. I think reality is in trouble. I think what's really going on is that through this participatory medium, we have people jointly authoring a parallel reality. And even at moments of conspiracy theories in the past, I'm not sure the conspiratorial reality has been able to threaten our collective reality to the extent that is capable of right now.