The posts often beg followers to speak out, “get loud,” or wake up. Some feature bold text on a colorful background, matching the aesthetic of many Instagram slideshows this year. Others show photos of beloved children, laughing with their parents.
Some are posted by small accounts with few followers, while others have gotten more than 100,000 likes. But all share the same message: Child sex trafficking is out of control in the US and around the world, and no one is paying attention. And they end with the hashtag #SaveTheChildren.
The hashtag, which started to gain popularity this summer, seems hard to argue with. Ending human trafficking and protecting children, after all, are uncontroversial goals, barely even political.
But in reality, many say, QAnon adherents are trying, via the hashtag, to use the real issue of trafficking to spread their ideology — which includes the bizarre, untrue claim that liberals like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Chrissy Teigen are all part of a vast pedophile ring. While such outlandish theories may not be palatable for many, more general fears about child sex trafficking are easier to get behind. And so social media posts about saving the children have, for some, become a way “to launder QAnon into the mainstream,” as Whitney Phillips, a professor of communication and rhetorical studies and co-author of the book You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape, put it to Vox.
The QAnon movement — a growing network of conspiracy theories involving a supposed war between President Trump and a shadowy cabal of powerful liberals sometimes known as the “deep state” — got its start on message boards in 2017. It then gained followers on mainstream social networks like Facebook, and eventually garnered the support of far-right congressional candidates, and even Trump himself. And in the past year, the network has amplified and promoted the seemingly innocuous #SaveTheChildren to gain greater reach, and spread fear and suspicion around Democrats as well as support for Trump, as the election approaches.
And it might be working. The hashtag has spread far beyond the traditional reaches of QAnon, catching the attention of celebrities including Kelly Dodd of The Real Housewives of Orange County and sparking in-person rallies like one in August in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where marchers held signs with slogans like “Real men don’t buy kids.”
The celebrities and influencers using #SaveTheChildren may not even be aware of the QAnon connection; many have posted uncontroversial content about the problems of child abuse in the US and the world. But their posts have helped drive the popularity of the hashtag, pulling in people — like younger women and those who aren’t particularly politically engaged — who may be far outside QAnon’s orbit. And once those people start searching for #SaveTheChildren content, they may encounter more and more QAnon theories, perhaps eventually becoming believers themselves.
But the possible consequences go beyond outlandish beliefs about Hillary Clinton or Chrissy Teigen. By broadening the reach of QAnon, #SaveTheChildren could also broaden distrust of Democrats and the supposed “deep state,” giving Trump an excuse to challenge the results if he should lose the election in November. And even the most innocent uses of the hashtag could compromise the country’s ability to fight actual trafficking.
“When we dive into these conspiracy theories, we really miss and misunderstand that we can actually address this problem,” Kate D’Adamo, a consultant with the group Reframe Health and Justice, told Vox.
QAnon helped fuel the rise of the #SaveTheChildren hashtag
To understand the rise of #SaveTheChildren, it helps to know that QAnon has traded in conspiracy theories about child molestation from the very beginning. It goes back to Pizzagate, a completely false theory that emerged in 2016 that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chair, John Podesta, operated a child sexual abuse ring in the basement of the DC pizzeria Comet Ping Pong (which does not have a basement).
QAnon didn’t gain traction until the following year, when someone eventually nicknamed “Q” started posting ominous, cryptic messages on 4chan about President Trump and a coming reckoning with high-level Democrats, as Vox’s Jane Coaston explains. But one of QAnon’s strengths has always been its ability to absorb a variety of conspiracy theories, and it soon incorporated Pizzagate into its network of beliefs.
“Suddenly, central to QAnon was this idea of these pedophiles and Satanists and child sacrifice, and that’s been basically at the core of it ever since,” Phillips said.
Today, the QAnon conspiracy landscape includes the idea that “a vast child trafficking ring” around the US and the world is “kidnapping children and torturing them to harvest a drug called adrenochrome,” which they claim has both psychedelic and healing properties, Annie Kelly, a PhD student who studies the far right and is the Britain correspondent for the podcast QAnon Anonymous, told Vox. Adrenochrome is a real chemical, but the QAnon idea that it could be used as a psychedelic drug comes largely from the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and is not supported by scientific evidence.
Another key tenet for many QAnon adherents is support for President Trump, who, according to the network’s ideology, is engaged in a battle with the liberal “deep state.” And while QAnon may have started as a fringe group of conspiracy theorists, it’s now been endorsed by 20 current congressional candidates, and by Trump himself, who said in an August interview, “I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.”
It’s hard to know exactly how many people buy into QAnon ideology, since the conspiracy theories are so various and shifting. But a recent analysis by Facebook found that together, some of the most popular QAnon groups and pages have more than 3 million members (though there may be some overlap between groups). And 47 percent of respondents in a recent Pew poll said they had at least heard of QAnon, compared with just 23 percent in March.
Still, QAnon has encountered problems as it grows, including social media platforms’ efforts to combat misinformation. Amid worldwide lockdowns earlier this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Facebook and other companies began cracking down on QAnon conspiracy theories, Kelly said. Adherents had to find new code words and ways of spreading their message.
That’s where #SaveTheChildren (and a related hashtag #SaveOurChildren) came in. Since QAnon is so decentralized, it can be hard to track exactly when and where a certain term or trend emerged. But the hashtags started to spike on Facebook in late July, according to the Tampa Bay Times. They gained popularity in QAnon groups before migrating outward to more mainstream conservative circles, and then going global. The spread may have been aided by the popularity of #Wayfairgate, another conspiracy theory-oriented hashtag making false allegations that the online furniture company Wayfair was involved in child trafficking.
Over the summer, Dodd and several other celebrities and influencers with large Instagram followings have posted about #SaveTheChildren. And the hashtag has, to some degree, become a real-world movement, with in-person rallies in cities from Los Angeles to Idaho Falls, Idaho.
That movement may be feeding on the anxiety parents are experiencing in a time when families are stuck at home with many schools remote or operating on a hybrid model, leaving parents (disproportionately moms) to balance work, child care, and the ever-present risk of Covid-19. “A lot of moms are freaked out about what might happen with their kids, and their kids not doing so great with the pandemic,” conspiracy theory researcher Mike Rothschild told Rolling Stone. “They’re too worried, too online, and have a lot of time on their hands.”
The hashtag could pull new people into the QAnon orbit
Some posts on the hashtags — and signs at the rallies — explicitly reference QAnon slogans like “dark to light” or “wwg1wga” (which stands for “where we go one, we go all”). But others are more generic calls to save children from sex trafficking. Many people using the hashtag or attending events may have no idea of the links between #SaveTheChildren and QAnon.
That’s one thing that makes #SaveTheChildren so concerning, conspiracy experts say. “Because it sounds so innocuous, and in fact it sounds like a valiant goal to aspire to, people who otherwise wouldn’t be looking for QAnon-related material could be exposed to those materials,” Phillips said. From there, because of the sheer volume of QAnon posts out there, and the way algorithms like those used by Google tend to direct people to more and more related content online, “people could get sucked into a rabbit hole before they even realize that that’s what’s happening,” she said.
In particular, #SaveTheChildren could pull more women into the QAnon fold. Women have always been involved with QAnon to some degree, as Kelly wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed — several of the congressional candidates who have expressed support for the ideology are female, for instance. But recently, #SaveTheChildren appears to have attracted a new demographic. At an August rally in London, Kelly noticed “lots more young women,” many of them dressed in a stylish, Instagram-ready aesthetic, she told Vox.
Indeed, Instagram influencers have been a big part of the hashtag’s spread, as E.J. Dickson reports at Rolling Stone. For example, model Helen Owen posted a picture of herself and her boyfriend in July with their mouths covered, holding a sign that read “Speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.” Accompanying the picture were statistics about trafficking and the hashtag #SaveTheChildren.
There’s also been significant overlap between the rise of #SaveTheChildren and the growth during lockdown of anti-vaccination communities online, Kelly said — communities that are also often dominated by mothers. Of course, it’s unlikely that everyone who shares an influencer’s post about saving kids is going to become a full-fledged QAnon devotee. But in addition to younger women, #SaveTheChildren seems to be pulling in people who weren’t previously active in politics. At the London rally, “lots and lots of people said to me, this is the first protest I’ve ever been to,” Kelly said.
In the US, people who go to #SaveTheChildren rallies aren’t necessarily going to vote for Trump. But a broadening reach for QAnon could benefit him.
“You can see that Trump is leaning more and more explicitly on these narratives” in recent weeks, Phillips said. He’s started to use the phrase “deep state” specifically, tweeting that “the deep state, or whoever, over at the FDA is making it very difficult for drug companies to get people in order to test the vaccines and therapeutics” for Covid-19. And during the Republican National Convention, he and his surrogates referenced his supposed work fighting human trafficking, with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes calling him a “warrior” against the practice. Intentionally or not, such comments may have served as a dog whistle to QAnon and #SaveTheChildren adherents.
Trump’s embrace of a QAnon narrative “lays the groundwork for contesting the election,” Phillips said — if he loses, “he’s going to blame the deep state.” And among his supporters, “that’s going to activate a reluctance or refusal to accept the outcome of the election.”
So while calls to #SaveTheChildren may seem apolitical, they could actually help Trump construct a rationale — however irrational — to stay in power past November and incite more division.
It could hamper real efforts to fight trafficking
These calls could also hurt real-life efforts to help children — and adults — escape trafficking situations.
Obviously, conspiracy theories like Pizzagate paint a false picture of trafficking in America — Hillary Clinton is not using a DC pizza restaurant to traffic kids. But even more innocuous #SaveTheChildren posts can contain misinformation, like the idea that “300,000 American children are lured into the commercial sex trade every year,” that there are more missing children in the US than there have been deaths from Covid-19 worldwide, or that wearing a mask as a coronavirus precaution makes children more vulnerable to trafficking. All these claims are false.
There is actually no reliable data on how many people are trafficked in the US each year, D’Adamo, the Reframe Health and Justice consultant, said. And although the narrative of children being trafficked into sexual abuse gets the most attention, trafficking often takes the form of forced labor or wage theft. At the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, a Los Angeles-based organization, for example, the most common industry for reports of trafficking is agriculture, followed by domestic work, D’Adamo said. Sex work comes in third.
And contrary to the idea of a shadowy cabal plucking children from their families — or targeting children who are wearing masks — those at the greatest risk of being trafficked are “people who are already vulnerable, who are already experiencing different forms of social violence or state violence,” D’Adamo said. That can include people who are homeless or in unstable housing, youth in foster care, and LGBTQ+ youth who have been kicked out of their homes or otherwise neglected or abused by family. It can also include migrant young people who may be “dependent on someone acting as a caregiver” and who “don’t have a lot of other resources to go to,” she explained.
“We know exactly who gets exploited; it is not rich kids in the suburbs,” she said.
And spreading misinformation about trafficking can hamper real efforts to prevent it. “We treat it as this irrational stranger danger, there’s someone lurking around every corner, when that’s just not the case, and it means that we no longer pay attention to the very obvious things that lead to trafficking,” D’Adamo said.
Most of those factors — from threats to the safety of LGBTQ+ youth to anti-immigrant policies that threaten refugees and migrants — have grown worse, not better, under the Trump administration, despite claims that the president has been “a warrior against human trafficking.”
“Every single population that was vulnerable to trafficking has gotten worse over the last four years,” D’Adamo said. In fact, the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, a coalition of anti-trafficking groups with a variety of ideologies, issued a statement in June raising a host of concerns about the US government’s approach, from increased barriers to obtaining visas for survivors to complicity by the Department of Homeland Security in labor trafficking inside immigration detention facilities.
The Trump administration disputes this view. “Immediately upon taking office, President Trump made combating the scourge of human trafficking one of his Administration’s top priorities,” assistant White House press secretary Karoline Leavitt told Vox in an email. “Over the last four years, the Trump Administration has provided unprecedented federal support to help human trafficking survivors and prosecute perpetrators of this heinous crime.”
But what people vulnerable to trafficking need right now — especially in a pandemic that has driven many further into poverty — is economic stability, D’Adamo said. Access to housing is crucial, as are labor protections, unemployment insurance, and other programs to make sure people’s needs are taken care of.
And none of that will happen if too many Americans buy into the narratives pushed by #SaveTheChildren and QAnon, D’Adamo said. “If we completely misunderstand how trafficking works, then we’re never actually going to address what could prevent it.”
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