By Sarah Kolick, JD Candidate 2022,The George Washington University Law School
*All views expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent those of the Amara Legal Center.

While volunteering with Planned Parenthood’s Get Out the Vote Efforts during the 2020 Election, I braced myself for being called a lot of things, but “pedophile” and “baby-eater” were labels I never thought I would hear. Little did I know at the time that such terms are used by proponents of the QAnon conspiracy that the “deep state,” composed of high ranking Democratic politicians and media personalities as well as Hollywood celebrities, is running the world while engaging in an underground satanic child sex trafficking ring that includes sexual abuse, human sacrifice and harvesting the blood of kidnapped children. Hilary Clinton, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, George Soros, Bill Gates, Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, Pope Francis, and even the Dalai Lama are all accused by QAnon as being a part of this “deep state” human trafficking ring despite the lack of any evidence or victims who have come forward. In the movement, Donald Trump is seen as a messianic hero that will uncover this deep state conspiracy, save the children and send those involved to Guantanamo Bay.

What started as a fringe conspiracy theory is now supported by an estimated 17% of the American population who believe in the deep state’s child sex trafficking ring.[1] High-ranking Republican officials, such as Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and Donald Trump, have repeatedly refused to debunk QAnon’s conspiracies and even have indicated support for such theories.[2]

QAnon’s child sex trafficking conspiracy theory was able to gain mainstream attention, in part, because of the noncontroversial assertion that child sex trafficking and sexual abuse are wrong. By appealing to a noncontroversial issue, QAnon was able to plant seeds of lies in its postings that seemed to comport to their audiences’ preconceived notions of what child sex trafficking is: white suburban children kidnapped from their parents and held in cages.[3] Thus, social media users who were previously politically un-engaged and who were less explicitly pro-Trump were pulled into the strange world of QAnon.[4] Also attracted to the movement are health, wellness, yoga and anti-vaxxer influencers on social media. Because these social media influencers and celebrities post what they believe to be a well-intentioned anti-sex trafficking post, they unwittingly increase attention to QAnon’s problematic use of child sex trafficking as part of its conspiracy theory; namely, that the mainstream media is intentionally ignoring the deep state’s child sex trafficking ring. Even more “ingenious” of QAnon’s use of child sex trafficking in peddling their conspiracy theories is the power it gives to label anyone who criticizes or stands against it as a “pedophile.” As one of the true victims of the PizzaGate conspiracy James Alefantis said, “It’s the worst thing you can call someone, right? If you ignore an accusation of pedophilia, you’re also a bad person. No matter how outrageous the accusation may be in a way. It’s a really good weapon to use…”[5]

The fears of parents were presumably exacerbated during the pandemic since, as more people stayed indoors and were feeling the anxieties associated with COVID, it became easier to get sucked into the strange world of QAnon’s conspiracies.[6] Further, the arrest and suicide of Jeffrey Epstein also contributes to the fear that the rich and powerful are continuing to secretly exploit women and children. As the New York Times reported, from July 2020 to September 2020, there was a 3,000% increase in viewership across 114 groups that hold themselves out to be anti-trafficking organizations but are really dominated by QAnon adherents.[7] Although social media sites have been trying to address the issue of misinformation, the vague and uncontroversial content of QAnon’s anti-trafficking posts makes it hard to differentiate between actual anti-trafficking information and the false reality of Hilary Clinton’s child sex trafficking ring.[8] Thus, concerned parents and others are led down a rabbit hole of lies and conspiracies generated in large part by social media’s algorithms in which their fear of the fictitious Democratic deep state blinds them to the actual trafficking in children that is happening right beneath their eyes.

The actual harm caused by QAnon’s Save the Children campaign is demonstrated through two specific conspiracy theories: PizzaGate and WayfairGate. The dangers of the spread of misinformation at the hands of QAnon came to life on December 4, 2016 when a gunman opened fired at Comet Ping Pong in Washington, D.C., falsely believing the conspiracy theory that children were being held captive as sex trafficking victims in the basement. Although no one was physically harmed by the gunfire, employees continue to suffer lasting trauma from the violent incident.[9] Despite QAnon’s allegations, not only was there no child sex trafficking ring at Comet Ping Pong, but the pizzeria does not even have a basement.[10]

The PizzaGate conspiracy began in November 2016 when the email account of John Podesta, the Clinton Campaign manager, was hacked and its contents published on WikiLeaks. One of the messages published was between Podesta and Alefantis, owner of Comet Ping Pong, in which they discussed Alefantis hosting a fundraising event for the Clinton Campaign. Soon after this email was published, 4Chan users latched on to it and began spreading rumors that Comet Ping Pong was a front for the fictitious child sex trafficking ring run by the Clintons.[11] Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there: Comet Ping Pong’s Facebook and Instagram feeds filled up with death threats, photos of customers’ children were posted as “proof” of the conspiracy, protestors demonstrated outside the restaurant and people began showing up to investigate. All of these events preceded and even foreshadowed the ways in which the Save the Children conspiracy theory morphed into physical acts of violence to further the righteous cause of ending a mythological child sex trafficking ring.

Although the events of December 2016 should have debunked the conspiracy theory that Comet Ping Pong was a front for child sex trafficking, the lies did not end and PizzaGate was reborn. In 2019, Ryan Jaselskis walked into the pizzeria and set fire to the curtains, presumably to Save the Children.[12] Trump’s inner circle lends implicit and, at times, explicit support for the PizzaGate conspiracy, as demonstrated through Michael Flynn Jr.’s tweet that “Until #Pizzagate [is] proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many ‘coincidences’ tied to it.”[13] Similarly, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn Sr.’s tweets accusing Hilary Clinton of running a child sex trafficking ring continue to fuel the belief in PizzaGate.[14] During the 2020 election, #PizzaGateUncompromised surfaced, and #SaveBieber began to trend when Justin Bieber touched his beanie after a user posted a comment asking him to touch his hat if he was a victim of PizzaGate.[15] Despite the lack of evidence that Bieber had even seen the post, searches for Pizzagate on Google and TikTok subsequently increased, and the video was translated into multiple languages, amassing millions of views.[16] As one researcher commented, teenagers and young adults who are just forming political beliefs are now being pulled into the strange conspiracy world of QAnon.[17]

Then, WayfairGate hit and illustrated how QAnon’s Save the Children conspiracy continues to inflict harm upon real people. Beginning on June 14, 2020, social media sites began exploding with allegations that the online home goods company, Wayfair, was engaged in child sex trafficking after QAnon supporters matched the names of arguably overpriced furniture to posters of missing children. Within 72 hours, there were 1.2 million tweets speculating and accusing Wayfair of engaging in sex trafficking.[18] What initially originated in the QAnon community in a post highlighting the fact that a self-storage cabinet on Wayfair entitled “Samiyah 5” had the same name as a 17-year-old girl in Ohio who had gone missing (but had subsequently identified herself as being found and safe on Facebook Live) eventually morphed into a widespread conspiracy theory and internet sensation after a Reddit group “r/conspiracy” began exploring the “connection” between the furniture names and (formerly) missing children.[19]

 Despite the lack of evidence and alleged victims taking to social media to say that they were not victims of child sex trafficking, social media influencers amplified the conspiracy theory.[20] Fashion, home décor, makeup and mommy influencers all shared their opinions over Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and BuzzFeed regarding the fictitious Wayfair sex trafficking scandal, commenting that “it’s shameful that the media won’t touch this story” (@indyblue_) and that other influencers should recognize that children’s lives matter just as much as Black Lives Matter (Rebecca Pfeiffer founder of LuvBec[21]).[22] Maddie Thompson (@madluvv21) even went so far as to order a table from Wayfair: “My husband @justindthompson brought a $17k table from Wayfair today. We will be live around 9:30pm PST to debrief you on our findings. Please SHARE THIS to raise awareness. We will not stand for one more child to be trafficked. Not on our watch…”[23]

Instead of helping missing children and child sex trafficking victims, WayfairGate proved to be harmful to the teens and young adults whose photos were circulated. For example, Samara Duplessis was 13-years-old when social media users began to post her missing person’s poster next to the $9,999 Duplessis pillow to support their conspiracy theory.[24] Although Samara ran away in the summer of 2020 after a fight with her mom, she was found safe two days later. However, social media users did not fact check this and were largely ignorant of the fact that approximately 92% of all children reported missing in the United States are found.[25] As the allegations that Wayfair was trafficking Samara circulated around social media, Samara and her parents began receiving frantic texts and phone calls from family and friends.[26] This subsequently increased their anxiety and fear that Samara was being targeted for sex trafficking.[27] Today, Samara hopes that when she googles her name, she will longer be finding herself wrongly depicted as a child sex trafficking victim but instead will find her many accomplishments.[28]

Similarly, Cameron Dziedzic was 16-years-old when he was reported missing after going to stay with a friend without telling his family.[29] At a Walmart, an employee recognized Cameron as the boy in the picture next to the $9,999 Dziedzic pillow.[30] Despite Cameron’s assurances that he was safe, the employee called the police to report who she believed to be a victim of child sex trafficking at the hands of Wayfair.[31] Another incident of believers’ refusal to listen to alleged victims was demonstrated after an 18-year-old young woman went on Facebook Live to plea with the community to stop saying that she was being sold.[32] Viewers alleged that she was being forced to say that she was safe, and some viewers even chastised her for being ungrateful.[33] Not only did WayfairGate spread misinformation on the reality of child sex trafficking, but it also invaded the personal lives of these victims and robbed of them their agency to portray themselves as people rather than runaways and victims.

Using my sole social media account (@SarahKolick_PatriarchySlayer), I searched the following hashtags on Instagram: #SaveOurChildrenfromPedophiles, #Pizzagateisreal, #Pedowoodisblockedbyfacebookpedohiles, #childtraffickingmuststop, #ChildLivesMatter. As you can observe from the list, despite Instagram’s attempts to remove misinformation pertaining to trafficking, the conspiracy theory is still able to reinvent itself to bypass Instagram’s monitoring mechanisms. While many of these hashtags may not be directly attributed to QAnon, they still, in my mind, represent the lasting effects that the movement’s conspiracy theory has on a mainstream social media site like Instagram. Common themes I observed included pictures of white children with tape/hands over their mouths, sharing of alleged pedophile symbols and allegations that specific celebrities and/or politicians are involved in child trafficking. The narrative that the mainstream media is using COVID to protect the rich and famous from being exposed as child traffickers was also a common message.

In my opinion, the most disturbing element of these posts was the users’ ability to connect ANYTHING to child sex trafficking. For example, certain users used child trafficking to support their anti-mask and anti-vaccination stances as evident by one user posting “You’re asking, ‘Where is your mask?’ I’m asking ‘Where are the children…’” Even more offensive were posts accusing Black Lives Matter and other progressive movements as being involved in child sex trafficking. As one user posted, “Do you not realize that by supporting BLM or Antifa You are also support Pedophilia… Wake up People!” Another user seemed to have appropriated racial justice activists’ calls to tear down Confederate monuments in her post demanding that we tear down the Hollywood sign: “Why not tear down this monument, which represents decades of systemic exploitation, rape, pedophilia and ritual abuse of women and children.” The continued reinvention of QAnon’s Save the Children campaign has thus created a distorted reality of what child sex trafficking is which undermines actual anti-trafficking efforts.

Although QAnon’s conspiracy theories are often written off as being absurd, the sympathetic appeals to sex trafficking have resulted in dire consequences for the anti-trafficking movement. As the PizzaGate and WayfairGate cases illustrate, QAnon’s child sex trafficking conspiracies have resulted in physical acts of violence and harm to teens and young adults misidentified as victims of trafficking. Additionally, QAnon’s #SaveTheChildren campaign undermines the work of actual anti-trafficking efforts in the following ways. First and perhaps what is most alarming about QAnon’s conspiracies are the ways that they continue to feed into a distorted image of what child sex trafficking is: that of an affluent white suburban child kidnapped from the playground by a stranger and help in physical bondage. This image is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we overlook the ways that lower income children, BIPOC children, children in foster care, undocumented children, LGBTQ children, children involved in the juvenile justice system and children who run away from home are disproportionately victimized by people they know and trust. This warped image of who is most affected by human trafficking not only results in the diversion of resources away from youth who are most vulnerable to trafficking, but it also results in the failure to see how xenophobic, racist, homophobic and transphobic policies fuel the very factors that drive many vulnerable young people into the arms of traffickers.

Second, QAnon’s conspiracy theories result in trafficking hotlines, law enforcement and anti-trafficking organizations receiving calls demanding an investigation of the Clintons or Wayfair which diverts resources away from actual victims and survivors. The Washington Post describes a story where an advocate for a survivor of sex trafficking was placed on hold when trying to contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline and was forced to write a written request for assistance.[34] The reason was largely because of the influx in false tips and demands to investigate Wayfair two months after #WayfairGate was trending.[35] Similarly, the Polaris Project reported that they could have responded to 42 additional cases instead of addressing false reports about WayfairGate.[36]

Third, QAnon’s conspiracies lead to the election of politicians who do not support anti-trafficking efforts and whose polices reinforce myths about who victims of human trafficking are. For example, former President Trump repeatedly accused Mexican and Latinx immigrants of raping and killing (presumably) white United States citizens.[37] This rhetoric, coupled with the administration’s outward stance of being hard on immigration, inflicted tangible harm on actual trafficking victims, especially immigrant and BIPOC victims. For immigrant victims of trafficking, the constant threat of deportation by the former administration as well as repeat ICE raids deterred undocumented victims from reporting human trafficking, especially since traffickers are known to threaten their victims with deportation or arrest for “breaking” immigration laws. Many victims of color who have had negative encounters with law enforcement are also fearful of reporting sex trafficking. Thus, increasing resources for ICE and policing adversely affects these survivors’ ability to liberate themselves from their trafficker’s control. Although QAnon supporters portray Trump as the savior of children kidnapped from white suburbia and forced into sex work, human trafficking prosecutions and charges fell during 2018 and 2019.[38] By buying into a false narrative of what trafficking looks like, we elect politicians who repeatedly fail to protect and even criminalize actual trafficking victims and survivors.

In order to combat QAnon’s misinformation warfare and in order to support actual anti-trafficking efforts, I suggest we do the following.

  • Fact check posts before you share them on social media. Although the issue of child sex trafficking triggers passionate emotions, QAnon and other social media users’ use of false statistics and narrative accounts often provides a distorted reality of what trafficking is and looks like. Make sure that the information you receive and share comes from an actual anti-trafficking organization.
  • Volunteer with and/or donate to trusted organizations in your community that provide assistance to human trafficking survivors. Although awareness raising is essential, non-profit organizations that provide resources and services to actual victims and survivors need volunteers and donations in order to continue to serve and fight for survivors.
  • Support candidates who actually promote measures that eradicate the causes of trafficking. This means voting for candidates whose policies promote the dignity of LGBTQ youth, seek to reduce police brutality in communities of color and protect undocumented immigrants. Although politicians like Trump may claim to be strong on anti-trafficking efforts, we must look beneath their rhetoric to see if they are actually implementing policies that promote the rights of trafficking survivors, provide resources to survivors and account for the diversity among those who are victimized by human trafficking.

By addressing the vulnerabilities that lead to the sexual exploitation of children at the hands of their traffickers, we can empower ourselves and the young people in our lives to create a world free from trafficking.

[1] Kevin Roose, What is QAnon, the Virtual Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory, N.Y. Times, September 3, 2021; See also Anjana Rajan et al., Countering QAnon: Understanding the Role of Human Trafficking in the Disinformation-Extremist Nexus, Polaris, February 2021 (estimating that 21% of adults in the United States self-identify as QAnon believers and 41% of adults in the US believe that the elites are involved in a global pedophilia ring).

[2] See, e.g., Kevin Roose, What is QAnon, supra note 1; Julia Carrie Wong, QAnon Explained: The Antisemitic Conspiracy Theory Gaining Traction Around the World, The Guardian, August 25, 2020; Kaleigh Rogers, Trump Said QAnon ‘Fights’ Pedophlia. But The Group Has Made It Harder to Protect Kids, Five Thirty Eight, October 15, 2020; Erica Evans, Child Sex Trafficking is a problem, but QAnon isn’t helping, Deseret, October 17, 2020.

[3] See, e.g., Anna North, How #SaveTheChildren is pulling American moms into QAnon, Vox, September 18, 2020; Kevin Roose, QAnon Followers Are Hijacking the #SaveTheChildren Movement, New York Times, August 12, 2020.

[4] See, e.g., Kevin Roose, How ‘Save the Children’ Is Keeping QAnon Alive, New York Times, September 28, 2020.

[5] Quoted in Michael Edison Hayden, ‘There’s nothing you can do’: The Legacy of #PizzaGate, Southern Poverty Law Center, July 7, 2021.

[6] See, e.g, Kaleigh Rogers, Trump Said QAnon ‘Fights’ Pedophilia, supra note 2; Amanda Seitz, QAnon’s ‘Save the Children’ morphs into popular slogan, AP News, October 28, 2020.

[7] Kevin Roose, How ‘Save the Children’ Is Keeping QAnon Alive, supra note 4.

[8] See, e.g., Kevin Roose, How ‘Save the Children’ Is Keeping QAnon Alive, supra note 4; Brian Friedberg, The Dark Virality of a Hollywood Blood-Harvesting Conspiracy: A centuries-old anti-Semitic myth is spreading freely on far-right corners of social media, Wired, July 31, 2020; Jessica Guynn, QAnon crackdown: Facebook restricts Save the Children hashtag ahead of Election Day, USA Today, October 30, 2020.

[9] Michael Edison Hayden, supra note 5.

[10] See, e.g., Michael Edison Hayden, supra note 5; Mike Wendling, The Sage of ‘Pizzagate’: The fake story that shows how conspiracy theories spread, BBC, December 2, 2016.

[11] See, e.g., Kate Samuelson, What to Know About Pizzagate, the Fake News Story With Real Consequences, Times, December 5, 2016.

[12] See, e.g, Michael Edison Hayden, supra note 5; Mike Wendling, supra note 10; Kate Samuelson, supra note 11; Brandy Zadronzny, Fire at ‘pizzagate’ shop reignites conspiracy theorists who find a home on Facebook, NBC News, February 1, 2019.

[13] Qtd. in Trump aide Michael Flynn Jnr out after ‘Pizzagate’ tweets, BBC, December 7, 2016.

[14] Id.

[15] See, e.g.., Brandy Zadronzny, supra note 12; Cecilia Kang & Sheera Frenkle, ‘PizzaGate’ Conspiracy Theory Thrives Anew in the TikTok Era, New York Times, June 27, 2020; Michael Sebastian & Gabrielle Bruney, Years After Being Debunked, Interest in Pizzagate Is Rising – Again, Esquire, July 24, 2020.

[16] Cecilia Kang & Sheera Frenkle, supra note 15.

[17] Id.

[18] See, e.g., Jessica Contrera, A QAnon con: How the viral Wayfair sex trafficking lie hurt real kids, Washington Post, December 16, 2021; Daniel Funke, How the Wayfair Child Sex-Trafficking Conspiracy Theory Went Viral, PolitiFact, July 15, 2020.

[19] See, e.g., Marianna Spring, Wayfair: The false conspiracy about a furniture firm and child trafficking, BBC, July 15, 2020.

[20] See, e.g., Jessica Contrera, supra note 18; Daniel Funke, supra note 18; Stephanie McNeal, The Conspiracy Theory About Wayfair is Spreading Fast Among Lifestyle Influencers on Instagram, BuzzFeed News, July 13, 2020.

[21] Note: When I searched for @LuvBec, I was unable to find the account cited to in McNeal’s article cited in note 20. However, I suspect @luvbecstyle is the current account’s name since it has content regarding Save the Children and defending conspiracy theories mixed in with lifestyle and family posts. @LuvBec appears to have been taken down by Instagram for what I can only speculate to be the result of the spread of misinformation. To avoid being shut down, it seems that @luvbecstyle uses numbers and other symbols.

[22] Stephanie McNeal, supra note 20.

[23] Id.

[24] Jessica Contrera, supra note 18;

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] See, Polaris, supra note 1.

[37] Abigail Abrams, ‘I Thought I Was Going to Die.’ How Donald Trump’s Immigration Agenda  Set Back the Clock on Fighting Human Trafficking, Time, October 20, 2020.