On March 18th, just before lockdown was announced in the UK, I received a long (600 words or so) text from a family member. I have no idea where they had got it from, and I suspect they hadn’t read it; they certainly hadn’t read it carefully.
Despite having been declared a potential violent threat by the FBI more than a year ago, there’s still a common assumption that the QAnon conspiracy is something that lives exclusively on the outskirts, relegated to dark basements on the fringes of the Internet. By now - as more and more news outlets are beginning to draw attention to the fact that QAnon’s ability to influence the U.S. election may be grossly underestimated - it should be clear that the movement’s reputation as a mostly benign oddity is a dangerous misconception. Just last week, an investigation by Facebook revealed that QAnon supporter accounts on their platform numbered in the millions. Since then, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a supporter of the movement, won the Georgia Republican primary and received an endorsement from President Donald Trump, who called her “a future Republican Star”. QAnon’s attempts at using information warfare to sway political opinion and results are not new, and the group’s fight against the ‘shadowy cabal’ of baby-eating elites supposedly running an international child trafficking ring has, so far, mostly taken place on the Internet. That, however, could be changing faster than we think.
Since its inception, QAnon’s M.O. has been to shield itself with a humanitarian cause—ending child trafficking— giving them carte blanche to respond to any criticism thrown their way by calling their critics ‘pedophile protectors’ - or worse - pedophiles themselves. This has led to journalists receiving torrents of abuse for their work debunking unsubstantiated theories such as the claim that furniture website Wayfair uses its website to sell children. Just this week, QAnon followers hijacked the #savethechildren movement hashtag in an effort to push their agenda, which more often than not drowns out any kind of humanitarian effort with conspiracy theories and conservative talking points.
A Logically investigation discovered Facebook groups and events planned in dozens of cities in the U.S. and many more around the world in August and September—the lead up to the U.S. election—all under a common banner: ending child trafficking. A closer look revealed that, though some of these organizations claimed to be apolitical and attempting to unite citizens across the political spectrum, many of the organizers actively push the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory on event pages as well as their personal pages, espousing various QAnon and QAnon-adjacent talking points such as COVID denial, the dangers of 5G, the dangers of vaccines, Pizzagate, Wayfair’s involvement in child trafficking, and more. Photos from some of the events already having taken place reveal signs promoting many of the same views.
After monitoring these groups and events, Logically reached out to one of these organizations, US-based Freedom for the Children, which is planning over 30 events worldwide on August 22nd. When asked about the organization’s position as well as views endorsed by many of their Facebook event administrators, co-founder Tara Nicole did not deny that her beliefs aligned with those of QAnon. Nicole told Logically: “In order to hold true to the integrity of the movement, I cannot confirm or deny my personal political, religious or health regulation beliefs, as a representative of the movement.” Both founders of Freedom for the Children, as well as their UK counterpart, have shared content promoting the aforementioned conspiracy theories, but Nicole added in her comment to Logically that “social media platforms that are open to public discussions aren’t a credible source of information about Freedom For The Children” and noted that “[c]ovid denial is an individualistic belief that doesn’t represent Freedom For The Children as a whole.” Organizations such as Freedom for the Children raise money by selling t-shirts and accepting donations on crowdfunding sites; in December 2019, Freedom for the Children’s other co-founder Bhairavi Shera sought to raise $220,000 via a GoFundMe campaign after ‘hearing the calling of her Spirit to purge all earthly possessions, relocate and establish a healing community in Sedona’.
Nicole also told Logically that she believed that human trafficking and child exploitation weren’t ‘right or left issues - but right or wrong’ issues. Though that certainly is something very few would disagree with, organizations such as Freedom for the Children not only refuse to address an unsubstantiated and highly politicized spin on child trafficking that has led to targeted attacks in the past, but many of their members also actively endorse these politicized takes on what they say themselves should not be a partisan issue. That’s hardly apolitical. The solutions to a problem as serious as human trafficking are obviously more complex than QAnon discourse allows for—where one cannot be on the 'right' side without buying into baseless conspiracies.
These events, which are planned over the course of the coming weeks and in the lead up to the US election, come at a time when reports show that foreign agents may already be using “information laundering” techniques to interfere in the election race by fabricating stories related to the disorder caused by protests. It should also be noted that the Trump administration has already been accused of indulging QAnon conspiracies, with many claiming that the recent move to allocate $35-million in aid to victims of human trafficking is an obvious dogwhistle to Trump’s QAnon followers. QAnon’s endeavour is more virtue-signalling than it is humanitarian cause, more about using children for political ends than it is about saving them.
Statistics around child trafficking are disputed territory; many organizations make large claims about the numbers of children trafficked around the world, but the data is difficult to pin down. Journalist Michael Hobbes notes that organizations like the US Institute Against Human Trafficking claim that the number of people “trapped in the world of sex trafficking” in the United States is “potentially over a million,” but data from the Department of Homeland Security shows that only 428 victims were identified in the US in 2019. The QAnon movement, and the anti-child trafficking organizations with links to it, are able to exploit the murkiness of the statistics surrounding child trafficking to distort perceptions of the issue and drum up support for their cause.
Without accurate information on how widespread these problems are and how they manifest, disinformation actors are free to step into the gap in our understanding and push claims of widespread trafficking operations run by Hollywood stars, and children sold under the guise of expensive cabinets. Campaigns around child trafficking are by definition emotive, but should you choose to attend a walk or donate any money to the cause, it’s worth taking a minute to consider who - and what - it is you are actually supporting.
(When reached for comment, the charity organization Save the Children told Logically: "Save the Children has been protecting children around the world for over 100 years. While many people may choose to use our organization’s name as a hashtag to make their point on different issues, we are not affiliated or associated with any of these campaigns.")