Combating Lies: QAnon and the Far-Right Portrayal of Human Trafficking
Author: Deanna Wilken
November 7, 2023
Conspiracy theories run rampant on social media, creating an enormous challenge of identifying and combating misinformation and disinformation. What is the truth and what is a lie? While there are individuals, organizations, and government agencies dedicated to stopping the spread of falsehoods, the task is immensely arduous and, combined with the average internet user’s lack of experience in research, seemingly insurmountable. Thus, conflicting information is consumed by millions and open to interpretation by the untrained reader.
As a human rights defender, perhaps one of the greatest perceived threats is when that information damages the hard work of human rights organizations and the populations they serve. Of particular concern, human trafficking has become increasingly highlighted in the media, with conflicting narratives being shared by legitimate organizations and conspiracy theorists alike. In recent years in the United States, QAnon theories have intensified around human trafficking and child exploitation, flooding the internet with wild ideas of abuse and violence at the hands of high-ranking government officials. With such shock value, how does this information affect the work of anti-human trafficking activists and survivor-supporting organizations? How are the victims impacted by misleading tales of their tragic stories?
QAnon and Sav[ing] the Children
In essence, QAnon is a set of internet conspiracy theories falsely claiming that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.” This elite allegedly includes high-profile Democrats, celebrities, and religious figures such as U.S. President Joseph Biden, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, and others. While seemingly outrageous to many, the conspiracies rapidly gained public support: In a December 2020 poll by NPR and Ipsos, 17% of Americans claimed to believe QAnon’s conspiracies as true.
Although being linked to several violent acts beginning in 2018, the introduction of QAnon into mainstream U.S. politics began in 2020, following on the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic. Social media was filled with misinformation and disinformation claiming that Covid does not exist and is a cover-up for child sex trafficking, thus diverting attention away from critical efforts to contain the global outbreak. As QAnon garnered more attention, believers hijacked the hashtag #SaveTheChildren from a legitimate anti-trafficking organization in July 2020, spreading false information and exaggerating claims about a child trafficking conspiracy. Many human rights organizations dedicated to helping trafficking victims reported receiving hundreds of calls from QAnon believers who were passing on false claims regarding child victims. These actions forced human rights organizations to divert resources away from their work to the detriment of the real victims.
Between July and September 2020, when the #SaveTheChildren campaign gained momentum, Concordia University doctoral researcher Marc-André Argentino discovered 114 Facebook groups that described anti-trafficking concerns, but which were completely dominated by QAnon content. These groups grew 3000% in membership and activity during these few months, illustrating the immense reach and impact of the conspiracy theories. However, Argentino noted that it is a challenge to determine who is “genuinely concerned about child exploitation and who is taking advantage of those concerns to sow misinformation.”
In the same vein, Julia Carrie Wong of The Guardian explains that QAnon followers use “a wide range of online tactics to… garner mainstream media coverage, including making ‘documentaries’ full of misinformation, hijacking trending hashtags with QAnon messaging, showing up at Trump rallies with Q signs, or running for elected office.” During the 2020 U.S. elections, at least a dozen Republican candidates who are supporters and promote the ideals of QAnon ran for office. Successes included the election of Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert. Again, in the 2022 election cycle, 73 QAnon-linked candidates ran for congressional office, with both Greene and Boebert being reelected. The significance of these elections has had a huge impact on the political arena in the U.S. Conspiracy theories have gained traction nationwide thanks to government officials spouting their beliefs and support.
Sound of Misinformation
In July 2023, a film called Sound of Freedom was released in theaters in the U.S. with a large far-right and self-proclaimed Christian following. The film is based on the story of Tim Ballard, a former special agent for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and founder of the anti-trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.). While marketed as a religious movie focused on the issue of child exploitation, it was heavily criticized for adding to existing conspiracy theories, primarily those flouted by QAnon. The promotion of the film by QAnon-affiliated individuals like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Tim Scott, and leading actor Jim Caviezel only served to fuel the conspiracies.
Within a week of its release, Vice published an investigation piece about Ballard and O.U.R., stating “a number of OUR’s claims about its work are dramatically overstated or without clear documentary evidence.” Anti-trafficking experts also said that Sound of Freedom provides a “false perception” of child trafficking and promotes so-called “rescue” tactics that could put real victims in danger. Further exacerbating the situation, Ballard’s endorsement of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border to stop trafficking gives the impression that trafficking in the U.S. occurs across the southern border, yet most human trafficking in the U.S. is perpetrated by U.S. citizens on U.S. citizens. Such false claims lead to bad policies and misdirected resource allocation.
Organizations like Polaris have made attempts to counter the false information, but the struggle is palpable. When interviewed by HuffPost, several anti-trafficking organizations agreed that the challenge presented by QAnon and the far-right has taken over their lives and completely disrupted their work. Staff spend much of their time screening calls for legitimate claims of trafficking and debunking the viral narratives being spread by the far-right. At this level, the misinformation becomes extremely harmful, potentially keeping people who need help from reaching out for fear they will not be believed.
QAnon believers have also been misleading in their efforts to “end” human trafficking. Two anti-trafficking organizations reported being contacted by activist groups, later revealed to be “Save Our Children” (formerly “Save The Children”) organizers, who asked to be put in touch with trafficking survivors for public speaking events. Now, not only do staff have to field calls for legitimacy, but they must also be even more protective of the survivors they work with.
“It’s exhausting work. It’s traumatic work ... And this just makes it all so much harder.”
- anonymous senior staffer at a national anti-trafficking organization
Seeking Out Truths
Highlighted in an article by Daniela Peterka-Benton and Bond Benton, QAnon’s portrayal of human trafficking continues circulating myths that anti-trafficking experts seek to rectify. Many of the assertions made by QAnon revolve around the fact that human trafficking is about sex, but this neglects labor exploitation, child soldiers, organ removal, and other forms of trafficking. Further, the singular “focus on child abduction perpetuates the falsehood that most human trafficking victims are kidnapped,” which is not true. However, the QAnon conspiracy theory is spread widely with considerable support online. The amount of misinformation is so large that “tech companies have had to adjust their policies and algorithms in an attempt to slow the extent of QAnon content being shared.”
With the array of readily available information online, the challenge of recognizing what is fact versus fiction can be a daily headache. How does one identify the truth? On this particular issue, it is critical to look to legitimate and reputable anti-trafficking organizations such as Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, Free the Slaves, Polaris, and Stop the Traffik. However, action also must be taken.
Such inspiration for action comes from the Benton article referenced above:
Focus on ‘myth versus reality’ messages rather than messages based on fear. This means questioning the use of shock-based messages, frightening statistics, and gruesome pictures.
Recognize that the QAnon conspiracy has the potential to disrupt advocacy against trafficking unless it is countered. Take a stance against misinformation and disinformation.
Media literacy must be emphasized. While QAnon calls upon people to ‘do their own research’, it is critical to know if your sources are credible, reliable, and reputable. Understanding this can help in approaching trafficking content with a more critical lens.
Glossary of Terms
Arduous: Hard to accomplish or achieve. (Merriam-Webster)
Child trafficking: Child victims of trafficking are recruited, transported, transferred, harbored, or received for the purpose of exploitation. (UNICEF USA)
Credible: Offering reasonable grounds for being believed or trusted (Merriam-Webster)
Disinformation: False or inaccurate information. Examples include rumors, insults, and pranks. (UNHCR)
Exploitation: The action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work. (Oxford Languages)
Human trafficking: The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of people through force, fraud, or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit. (UNODC)
Insurmountable: Incapable of being defeated, overcome, or subdued. (Merriam-Webster)
Laboriously: Requiring long, hard, and sustained effort. (Merriam-Webster)
Misinformation: Deliberate and includes malicious content such as hoaxes, spear phishing and propaganda. It spreads fear and suspicion among the population. (UNHCR)
Rampant: Unrestrained and widespread. (Merriam-Webster)
Reliable: Dependable and trustworthy. (Merriam-Webster)
Reputable: Recognized and respected. (Merriam-Webster)