Recently, an acquaintance posted a photo on her Instagram story showing a map of the United States, filled with bright red dots.
“This is not a map of Covid,” the caption read. “It is a map of human trafficking.”
Under the photo was a hashtag: #SaveTheChildren.
A few days later, I saw the same hashtag trending on Twitter. This time, it was being posted by followers of QAnon, the sprawling pro-Trump conspiracy theory. These people were also disturbed about human trafficking, but with a dark twist: Many of them believed that President Trump was on the verge of exposing “Pizzagate” or “Pedogate,” their terms for a global conspiracy involving a ring of Satan-worshiping, child-molesting criminals led by prominent Democrats.
My acquaintance is not a QAnon believer. And she certainly doesn’t think, as some QAnon adherents do, that Hillary Clinton and her cronies are kidnapping and eating children (yes, eating them) in order to harvest a life-extending chemical from their blood.
But like many social media users in recent weeks, she had been drawn in by the latest QAnon outreach strategy.
QAnon first surfaced in 2017 with a series of anonymous posts on the internet forum 4chan claiming to reveal high-level government intelligence about crimes by top Democrats. It has since spawned one of the most disturbing and consequential conspiracy theory communities in modern history. Its followers have committed serious crimes, and its online vigilantes have made a sport of harassing and doxxing their perceived enemies. The F.B.I. has cited QAnon as a potential domestic terror threat, and social networks have begun trying to pull QAnon groups off their platforms. Dozens of QAnon-affiliated candidates are running for office this year, with at least one expected to win a House seat.
Like any movement, QAnon needs to win over new members. And its most recent growth strategy involves piggybacking on the anti-human-trafficking movement.
The idea, in a nutshell, is to create a groundswell of concern by flooding social media with posts about human trafficking, joining parenting Facebook groups and glomming on to hashtag campaigns like #SaveTheChildren, which began as a legitimate fund-raising campaign for the Save the Children charity. Then followers can shift the conversation to baseless theories about who they believe is doing the trafficking: a cabal of nefarious elites that includes Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey and Pope Francis.
Part of the strategy’s perverse brilliance is that child sex trafficking is a real, horrible thing, and some politically connected people, including the financier Jeffrey Epstein, have been credibly accused of exploiting underage girls. And speaking out against child exploitation, no matter your politics, is far from an objectionable stance.
“It’s probably one of the key things that’s attractive about QAnon,” said Marc-André Argentino, a doctoral student at Concordia University who studies QAnon’s social media presence. “Everyone agrees that child trafficking is very bad, and the argument QAnon makes is, ‘If you’re against us talking about this, you’re in favor of child trafficking.’”
Sometimes, QAnon followers spin factual information in a way that serves their aims. Last week, an Associated Press article about a $35 million Trump administration grant to organizations that house trafficking survivors became one of the most-shared stories on Facebook, after QAnon groups picked it up and cited it as evidence that President Trump’s secret crusade against elite pedophiles was underway.
Other times, the strategy involves latching on to conspiracy theories and inserting QAnon talking points. Weeks ago, influencers on TikTok and Instagram began speculating about baseless allegations that Wayfair, an online furniture site, was trafficking children under the guise of selling expensive cabinets. The conspiracy theory went viral, and QAnon believers began sprinkling in their own supposedly incriminating details. They claimed, falsely, that a Wayfair employee had once been photographed with Ghislaine Maxwell, who has been charged with recruiting underage girls for Mr. Epstein.
These allegations merged in the popular imagination, and soon unsuspecting people were sharing wild conspiracy theories that came straight from QAnon orthodoxy.
“With Wayfair, both accounts on the left and right were amplifying the content,” Mr. Argentino said. “A lot of the yoga moms and juice-cleanse-type circles were sharing it.”
The strategy of seeding QAnon talking points with different audiences appears to be working. In recent weeks, Facebook engagement on human-trafficking-related content has surged, according to an analysis of data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data platform. (Interactions on posts with the #SaveTheChildren hashtag, for example, have grown more than 500 percent since early July.)
Prominent “mommy bloggers” and Instagram fitness influencers have begun posting anti-trafficking memes to their millions of followers. Even the Trump campaign has begun sharing more anti-trafficking content to its millions of Facebook and Twitter followers.
The QAnon strategy of pushing some unobjectionable, often factual content about human trafficking in addition to wild conspiracy theories has blurred the lines between legitimate anti-trafficking activism and partisan conspiracy mongering. Recently, some activists have marched in cities around the country demanding an end to child exploitation. Among them were QAnon believers, toting signs with messages like “Hollywood Eats Babies.”
For established anti-trafficking groups, the surge of support from internet conspiracy theorists has been a mixed blessing. Some activists, such as Tim Ballard, the founder of the anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad, see an opportunity to reach a new, hyper-engaged online audience.
“Some of these theories have allowed people to open their eyes,” Mr. Ballard said. “So now it’s our job to flood the space with real information so the facts can be shared.”
Others worry that QAnon will divert valuable resources from legitimate groups trying to stop trafficking. After the Wayfair incident, the Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, issued a news release saying its hotline had been overwhelmed with false reports. It later published a blog post warning that “unsubstantiated claims and accusations about child sex trafficking can spin out of control and mislead well-meaning people into doing more harm than good.”
I spoke to a number of longtime anti-trafficking activists who were alarmed by QAnon’s recent incursion onto their turf. They had worked for years to expose facts about child trafficking, only to see them distorted and misused by partisan opportunists. And they worried that in addition to clogging hotlines, QAnon believers could undermine the movement’s bipartisan credibility.
Erin Williamson, the U.S. programs director for Love146, an anti-trafficking group, said that in the weeks after the Wayfair incident, the group’s social media traffic had spiked by 30 percent, and that new donations had come in. But it had also been forced to spend time debunking online rumors and myths.
“It’s great that we have an increase in donations,” Ms. Williamson said. “But we don’t want to exploit disinformation for fund-raising purposes.”
The truth about child sex trafficking, these experts told me, is much less salacious than QAnon would have you believe. Many victims are trafficked by relatives, teachers or other people they know. Trafficking usually doesn’t involve kidnapping or physically forcing minors into sex.
“This is not happening in some secret cabal. It’s happening in every single community,” said Lori Cohen, the executive director of ECPAT-USA, an anti-trafficking organization. “But it’s easier to focus on public figures than to think about the reality that trafficking is happening in our midst, among people we know, to children we know.”
Some anti-trafficking experts worried that social networks, in an attempt to clamp down on QAnon, might inadvertently hurt the legitimate organizations working to end trafficking. Recently, Facebook briefly disabled the #SaveTheChildren hashtag after it was flooded with pro-QAnon content. (A Facebook spokesman said: “We temporarily blocked the hashtag as it was surfacing low-quality content. The hashtag has since been restored, and we will continue to monitor for content that violates our community standards.”)
And TikTok has been blocking searches for QAnon-related hashtags. A TikTok spokeswoman said the company was “working to proactively remove misinformation that we find associated with that hashtag.”
Mostly, anti-trafficking activists are just incredulous that QAnon has made their cause its own.
“When I talk to my friends in the anti-trafficking movement, we’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s Pizzagate all over again,’” Ms. Williamson of Love146 said. “And this time, it’s even worse.’”