It wasn’t long ago that QAnon—the now-popular conspiracy theory that suggests that a ring of political and Hollywood elite are kidnapping, sexually abusing and torturing children in order to steal their adrenaline and use it to make a drug called Adrenochrome—was something one could only find within the deep fringes of the internet. But once the conspiracy theory re-appropriated the #SaveOurChildren movement on social media, it found its way into the mainstream through eye-catching carousel infographics and sepia-toned protest shots on Instagram.
A single dive into any form of #SaveOurChildren or #EndHumanTrafficking hashtags on Instagram will likely wield a combination of eye-catching posts created by hundreds of thousands of young women—many of them proud mothers themselves—and posts that push the QAnon messaging. The two movements collided earlier this summer when a viral conspiracy theory that Wayfair, the online home goods retailer, was secretly selling kidnapped children by marketing them as various pieces of expensive furniture.
Once the Wayfair scandal—which has now been debunked—went viral, several human trafficking awareness organizations used the virality of the story to expose millions of now-panicked social media users to the horrors of human trafficking.
The timing was perfect, since much of the country was entranced in a constant carousel of newfound activism surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Those that were in-favor of the protests began dedicating their Instagram presence to activism, using it as a platform to educate themselves and share their findings with their followers virtually. This allowed people to feel that they were part of the movement without physically getting involved in a protest, but also created a tense online space where anyone not participating in this new virtual activism was suddenly faced with backlash for posting a normal summer photo to their Instagram grid or documenting a trip to the beach on their Instagram story.
As silly as all of this sounds, it made a lot of people feel disenfranchised from social media for simply not participating in the discourse. Then came another cause: human trafficking.
The objective truth is that much of the information circulating social media about human trafficking today is misleading or false. The heavy presence of disinformation about what human trafficking is—such as guides about how to “spot a trafficking victim” or a viral social media story about dozens of “trafficked” children being rescued from a trailer in Georgia—does little more than contribute to a false moral panic. While the movement to end human trafficking via in-person demonstrations or Instagram posts might not be contributing to any positive discourse on how to actually help victims of human trafficking, it is providing a sense of community for the people—many of them young women—that felt left out of the Black Lives Matter movement but pressured not to post anything else. In short, #SaveOurChildren gave them a sense of community, and a purpose. It also exposed them to QAnon—a far-right conspiracy theory labeled as a domestic terror threat by the U.S. Government.
“Savethechildren movement has shown me so much I never knew was possible,” says one Instagram user that participates in the online #SaveOurChildren movement via Instagram. “I never thought it was as huge of an issue as it is until I started researching and learning the numbers and statistics of how many children are sold into sex trafficking. As a new mother and especially the mother of a daughter it scares me more than anything to have her grow up in a world where men are constantly trolling to find young girls to have sex with. It’s really shown me just how sick people are and how they can do and will do almost anything to get what they want,” she says. Like this young mother, the movement has exposed thousands of women to the injustices of the world in ways that they never paid attention to before.
In learning about human trafficking from many of the popular nonprofits that latched onto the Wayfair scandal as a way of teaching about the problem, many of the women that post about the movement have felt a new sense of empowerment where they didn’t before. “After becoming involved in this movement (primarily Operation Underground Railroad’s Rise Up for Children movement) I’ve been exposed to a lot of harsh realities regarding human trafficking,” says another Instagram user that utilizes the #SaveOurChildren hashtag. “Firstly, how real it is and how common it is. And secondly, how easy it is to notice signs of human trafficking. I knew a little about Human Trafficking before getting involved from TV shows and social media, but it wasn’t until I did an online course provided by OUR that my eyes were really opened. Specific things like tattoos, body language, clothing, and physical location can be clear indicators of human trafficking, and SO many children are victims not just in foreign countries, but also in our neighborhoods,” she says.
While there is little evidence to prove that these organizations are effective at helping victims of forced sex work or trafficking stay out of it long-term, believers of the #SaveOurChildren movement are confident that simply spreading awareness about the problem will help eradicate it. “I would 100% say that the way women have been portrayed in Hollywood as dumb, hot bitchy type of people has been a turn off to me,” says another Instagram user. “Automatically if she’s hot she’s dumb or if she’s a mom, she has to be super conservative, or if she’s a woman she has to be super skinny etc… all of these things are the way Hollywood has shaped the minds of women and made them insecure if they don’t fit that exact mold. It’s one of the reasons I’m so worried about having a daughter and making sure she’s raised right,” she says.
For many women, the movement has also opened their eyes to the different ways in which men can act as predators toward young women—especially in Hollywood. “I definitely believe grooming starts at a young age, especially with some of the Disney film content I’ve seen and innuendos I’ve heard in their movies that now, as an adult, I would say are incredibly inappropriate for children,” says one Instagram user. “I feel like another grooming tactic that I grew up always hearing was that you listen to teachers, coaches, etc. and obey them because they’re adults,” she says.
Though the movement doesn’t explicitly push any single political agenda, much of the content and information surrounding human trafficking that you see online today centralizes the conversation about why tighter immigration and a border wall would help prevent human trafficking. “I always knew that pornography and over-sexualized media weren’t recommended from a religious standpoint, but I never understood how much pornography was tied to human trafficking,” says one Instagram user that saw ties to the call to end human trafficking and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ call to ban pornography. “OUR’s director, Tim Ballard, talks in Operation Toussaint about how the human trafficking industry is being funded by the pornography industry in a way,” she says. Ballard, who famously centered himself and his organization Operation Underground Railroad, suggests that tighter immigration laws would prevent children from being trafficked into the United States.
The problem with disseminating misinformation about something like human trafficking is that it often envelopes itself into ideas that are hard to unravel with a single fact. The claim that a border wall would put a stop to human trafficking is hard to disseminate among demographics that believe it to be true because it would require convincing them that a slew of other facts they’ve been given are also false—such as the claim that thousands of children are trafficked or exploited sexually each year.
For someone like Ballard, who runs a nonprofit valued at over $30 million that rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, the layered misrepresentation of these statistics is a gold mine—especially in the hands of young Christian mothers on Instagram. Neither Ballard nor Operation Underground Railroad are explicitly pushing ideas presented by QAnon, but they don’t have to. The sensationalized nature of the human trafficking movement operates hand-in-hand to expose millions of new people to QAnon through social media. Of each of the women I spoke with to gather information for this report, only one of them denied that #SaveOurChildren had any affiliation with QAnon. The others both confirmed my question and welcomed the conspiracy theory in with open arms, reveling in its supposed ability to expose predatory men in power.
“Firm supporter of QAnon and truth,” wrote one woman that I spoke with on Instagram. But where these women do believe, for the most part, in QAnon, they don’t believe in feminism. For them, ending human trafficking is more or less about saving children and less about unraveling the patriarchal systems that give power to predatory men and leave women without the necessary resources to get themselves out of an exploitative situation. There is a disconnect, among both QAnon and #SaveOurChildren believers, that does not leave room for overlap with the #MeToo movement despite the fact that both #SaveOurChildren and #MeToo aim to put an end to sexual abuse.
“I wouldnt consider myself a feminist in the regard where I think women are equal to men in every aspect,” says another Instagram user on the #SaveOurChildren hashtag. “It simply isn’t true biologically, physically or mentally. As genders, we both have different strengths and weaknesses. Things were better and worse at. My husband doesn’t spend even 1/4 of the amount of time working out like I do and yet he’s still physically stronger than me because he is a male. There’s a reason men and women are separated in sports, it has everything to do with the biology not being the same and therefor the competition not being fair. However, feminism in the respect that I believe we should be paid equal and not sexually harassed in the workplace, I’m definitely all for that,” she says.
Other users that I spoke with agree that they wouldn’t call themselves feminists, arguing that the term implies a movement that does not align with their values, but many do agree that they are in favor of equality. “Feminist is a pretty loaded word. I would consider myself to be more of an egalitarian. Or simply someone who believes in equality in all forms,” says another user.
Each of the women quoted in this article have chosen to remain anonymous. The profiles linked within the photos of this piece did not contribute to the article.