How a far-right conspiracy theory hijacked an international campaign
If you have a Facebook, the internet or an especially fast carrier pigeon, you couldn’t have missed the waves of human trafficking advocacy attached to the hashtag SavetheChildren. What may play like an innocent and even powerful movement to raise awareness for child trafficking has in fact been spurred on by the alt-right group QAnon.
So how did a children’s advocacy group and their message of protecting the young and vulnerable get targeted for political gain? How have so many people, on both sides of the political aisle fallen victim to believing viral posts filled with baseless statistics and accusations? We’ll find the answers to these questions and look at why sharing information under this hashtag is actually antithetical to the mission of children’s advocacy groups.
Save the Children isn’t a new movement, it’s actually the name of an organization founded in 1919 out of London. It was the first ever children’s advocate group in Great Britain, with a focus on helping kids combat hunger, gain access to education and receive protections. The organization is still up and running, and they are struggling to distance themselves from the hashtag that has taken the internet by storm and the groups who helped surface that hashtag.
The connections between the Save the Children organization and the online movement pretty much end there: they both center their narratives around protecting children. However, the online campaign has a very dark and conspiracy-ridden foundation.
This all started on 4chan, an anonymous messaging site, right around the time of the 2016 presidential election. While most of 4chan is dedicated to fan pages of anime and music groups, there was one chat that started posting some incredibly disturbing information.
According to the New York Times, a member, under the name of FBIanon (subtle) began sending cryptic posts into the message board about Hillary Clinton abusing trafficked children right in time for election season.
FBIanon continued to send out more and more messages, promising users that they were a member from the inside, that they had proof of Clinton’s crimes, all the while they were lighting a fire under the bellies of thousands of trolls to begin sharing the unproven and highly subject information all over the internet.
Then came the Anthony Weiner investigation. Anthony Weiner is a convicted sex offender and former politician: now the trolls had their straws, and boy did they start grasping. Weiner, from New York’s 9th congressional district had few ties with Clinton, except that they both had a history of working in politics in New York. But, on the same computer where Weiner had an inappropriate picture of a minor, authorities also found an email from Clinton (among several thousand other inconsequential documents).
That’s all it took. Soon, those thousands of trolls and conspiracy theorists who were growing frustrated by FBIanon’s inability to deliver had the littlest bit of nothing to run with. A computer with a professional email from Clinton (because they worked in the same state) was all it took to prove that there was an underworld of evil, sex-trafficking politicians who wanted to eat, yes eat, children.
This new propaganda was now coming from a member, Q, who claimed that they were a White House insider and that Trump was on a divine mission to, you guessed it, save the children. Now, I don’t know about you, but perhaps there is reason so suspect someone who claims to be a White House insider using 4chan to speak to the public, claims to have evidence that TV court shows would laugh off and suggests there is an entire secret society where rich people eat children.
Alas, ‘Q’ still spread, now onto other platforms like Reddit and Facebook, and an organization slowly formed under the name QAnon. This was all taking place around 2017. An entire year went by with nothing more than the crappy email connection, meanwhile QAnon did what it has always done: fear-mongered.
The group was posting pro-Trump conspiracy theories. Maybe you’ve heard of ‘Pizzagate’ or ‘Pedogate’. This was a QAnon theory that there was a ring of satanic child-molesters in the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant. It got so bad that one man, Edgar Welch, showed up to the restaurant and set off shots to, “Stop the pedophiles,” only to learn the restaurant in question didn’t even have a basement.
At this point, the actual F.B.I. cited QAnon as a potential domestic terrorist threat, which can be found on their website. Social media sites after a year of unfounded conspiracy and toxic blather decided to delete QAnon accounts. Reddit deleted all Q sub-forums, Twitter deleted thousands of Q fanpages or Q accounts and Facebook put blocks on key phrases used by the organization.
If you’re still left wondering how this alt-right conspiracy group, with an embarrassing history of failure and lies ended up kickstarting a campaign strategy using child-trafficking as a front, the answer comes in the form of a pandemic. The pandemic has given a lot of people free time to look at what’s going on around them; protests all over the country, the death count for coronavirus passing 180,000 and millions of Americans out of work, Trump isn’t looking so good.
So what did QAnon do with all their free time? They got to work by digging up their oldest trick in the book: conspiracies surrounding children.
Basically, the idea was to use that same army of trolls who were happy to try to solve the riddles sent out by QAnon to create a huge uprising of concern through social media about child human trafficking. TIME magazine recently did a piece showing how quickly QAnon was able to target Facebook parentings groups, Twitter and Reddit with a swell of pseudo-concern under #SavetheChildren.
Then, it was a quick shift from why child trafficking is terrible to what adults were perpetrating these terrible acts. And here they accused everyone from high-level politicians, to Tom Hanks to the pope. Has there been a lick of actual evidence placed against celebrities like Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey or Ellen Degeneres? No, nothing more believable than a basement-less pizza shop at the center of a pedophile ring.
But there doesn’t need to be any real evidence. Individuals accused of this type of behavior are put in the impossible position of living with these false and life-ruining accusations or addressing them and giving them any real credibility.
And why are extremely popular, well-liked celebrities and high-level Democrats being targeted as potential pedophiles and human traffickers? To take attention away from the fact that Donald Trump was a very close personal friend of actual-pedophile, Jeffrey Epstein, a man who did exploit underage girls.
This social media campaign is so brilliant and so disheartening because child sex trafficking is actually happening and it’s disgusting. Anyone with even an ounce of empathy is going to feel real pain at the thought of children being abused and true hatred towards anyone who might be abusing them (rightly so).
However, what people who frequently share #SavetheChildren content don’t realize is that this campaign often hurts organizations that are out there fighting for children who are victims. QAnon has been mixing some truth of human trafficking with wild and baseless lies, making it difficult to decipher legitimate information on child trafficking and discrediting organizations who are actually helping children who are posting the real facts.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline has been overwhelmed by false reports, including accusations against celebrities, tracking home-good sites for furniture named after missing children and sharing uncited posts on Facebook and other sites.
In order to understand how out of control these posts are, just go look at the hashtag on Facebook. You’ll see things like, “Over 2,000 children a day go missing in America,” “400,000 kids are kidnapped for human trafficking and are never recovered every year,” and “It just shows how deep the corruption goes that no news stations are discussing human trafficking but they report coronavirus deaths each day.”
Just in these top three posts alone there is misleading information. 2,000 children don’t go missing each day, that is just the number of reports made, not the number of children going missing. Also, 400,000 kids are not trafficked each year. This is a statistic that has been twisted form the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which reports that this number reflects mostly runaways (and if a kid runs away ten times in a year, that’s ten reports added to the total), the throwaways (mostly LGBTQ+ youth), and then kidnapping, which is overwhelmingly done by a relative.
The media is covering this issue, they’re just doing so accurately and without the inflating numbers people are used to seeing. This is problematic for people so entrenched in the QAnon conspiracy who think that the entire media system is corrupt and that accurate numbers, not the preposterous ones that have been accredited by no one, are in fact proof of this conspiracy.
More than this, these tactics are a way to distract from people dying from coronavirus, making it seem like every number death statistic posted is subject. These false statistics, by making it seem like kidnapping is the biggest cause of concern for children right now, takes away from some of the concern we should be directing towards runaways and LGBTQ+ youth thrown out of their homes, which makes up for 98 percent of children who go missing each year.
Real child trafficking isn’t as sensationalized as movies like “Taken” would have you believe. The Polaris Project, an organization that works to help victims of sex traficking, discussed how it is often family members or individuals familiar with the children whom they feel comfortable with who force trafficking upon them. By making it seem like there is some huge organization of strangers and celebrities stealing children, real traffickers will feel safe in knowing they’re not the image of a perpetrator most Americans have in their minds.
The main takeaway here should be that child sex traficking is terrible and the best way to help bring awareness to this issue is to stop sharing unfounded information from conspiracy sites. This outpouring is actually hurting children, taking attention away from the real issues surrounding human trafficking and is giving more power to sex trafickers, because it’s a lot easier for the public to fixate on celebrities accused on erroneous claims than to track down actual pedophiles.
This is a political move and one the public is meant to play into. If you actually want to save children, visit sites like Polaris, read the story by sex traficking victim Melanie Cholish on Upworthy, support the real Save the Children organization, as well as The International Justice Mission, Love146, The Exodus Road and ECPAT-USA for actual ways to help.