| Arizona Republic
Followers of the baseless QAnon narrative believe President Donald Trump has been actively investigating a global child trafficking ring operated by powerful politicians and celebrities. Adherents to this theory have posted anti-trafficking messages on social media and have started in-person Save The Children rallies.
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But, according to the letter, those efforts, fueled by falsehoods, are not helping matters.
In the letter, the groups say they “are alarmed and deeply disturbed by the intentional spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation about sex trafficking aiming to sow fear and division in order to influence the upcoming election.”
“Anybody — political committee, public office holder, candidate, or media outlet — who lends any credibility to QAnon conspiracies related to human trafficking actively harms the fight against human trafficking,” the letter reads. “Indeed, any political committee, candidate, public office holder or media that does not expressly condemn QAnon and actively debunk the lies should be held accountable.”
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Besides the McCain Institute, the letter is signed by the Arizona State University Office of Sex Trafficking Research and the Phoenix Dream Center.
Brian Steele, the head of the Phoenix Dream Center, which provides shelter to women leaving the life of selling sex, said that it was his understanding that the McCain Institute drafted the letter. He said the fact so many organizations across the country signed the letter was testament to Cindy McCain’s respected work on the subject.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for President, has called the QAnon theory “bizarre,” “dangerous” and “embarrassing.”
Trump has claimed to not know much about QAnon other than that its followers are supporters of his and that they are against people having sex with children. “I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard,” he said during a nationally televised town hall event this month. “But I know nothing about it.”
Cindy McCain had asserted during a September meeting of the Arizona governor’s Human Trafficking Council that the spread of QAnon theories, which paint Democrats as child predators, is being amplified for political reasons.
“Their whole point is to affect the election,” she said. “It’s the lowest common denominator. But that’s exactly what’s going on and they’re doing it on the backs of trafficked children.
She called such actions “despicable.”
The letter, posted on the McCain Institute website and other locations online, echoes that sentiment.
“You don’t score political points on the backs of human trafficking survivors,” the letter reads, “and you don’t lie about human trafficking to scare voters. We are in this together.”
Anti-trafficking organizations have seen a rise over the past year in interest in the cause.
Steele, of the Dream Center, said he has seen an uptick in volunteers over the past few months. But he was not sure why. He said he has not had to disabuse his volunteers of any conspiratorial beliefs.
One group of new volunteers, the Mama Army, was helping renovate 30 rooms this week, he said, allowing his center to treat as many as 40 more women.
“I never sat with them asking them, ‘What inspired you to come here?’” he said.
Steele said his organization has seen a 5,000% increase in traffic coming from ads on Google, triggered by certain search terms. Steele said over the past six months, the traffic has come from people searching for general information about human trafficking or child trafficking — not QAnon, he said.
“Our ads are not being put in front of people who are putting in Save the Children or QAnon,” he said.
January Contreras, CEO of ALWAYS Arizona, told The Republic this month she had to disabuse some of its new volunteers of QAnon-type theories.
“We now have this responsibility to myth-bust like never before,” she said.
Adel Belgaied, who organized a Save The Children rally in Phoenix in August, told The Republic in an interview this month that he was not motivated by the QAnon movement specifically. Though, he said, he did believe there was a group of powerful people who traffic in children for sex, occasionally abducting them off the street.
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Belgaied said that he believed spreading any information about child trafficking was helpful, even if it was false. “Anybody fighting it is doing the right thing,” he said. “If you say two words, you’re doing something.”
Longtime foes of sex trafficking have a narrative based on interviews with survivors and police accounts. Those paint a picture of vulnerable women conned into selling sex for money, sometimes by strangers, but often by boyfriends or relatives.
As the letter released Wednesday reads, “The majority of trafficked youth have been abused or neglected, have run away or don’t have stable housing, or are immigrant children fleeing violence in their home countries to seek refuge in the United States. They are the youth that we as a society have failed.
“They are not abducted by strangers or Hollywood elites — they are abandoned by failing and under-resourced systems. There is not a deep state cabal of Democratic politicians and Hollywood celebrities who traffic children for sex. No major political candidate or party supports or condones pedophilia or human trafficking.”
These advocates have worked for years to change the way the issue has been viewed. Law enforcement had viewed prostitution as a nuisance crime and the women involved criminals who needed to be arrested or swept away from an area.
The issue has become one law enforcement sees the women involved as victims in need of help. In the mid-2010s, Phoenix had experimented with a program that offered women, upon arrest, a diversion program rather than jail time. The American Civil Liberties Union and others criticized the program for only offering help under the coercion of arrest.