NEWS
14/09/2020 8:29 AM AEST | Updated 14/09/2020 1:44 PM AEST

‘It’s Out Of Control’: How QAnon Undermines Legitimate Anti-Trafficking Efforts

The child sex trade is a global crisis. Far-right conspiracy theorists are harassing, distracting and intimidating the organisations fighting to end it.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Hundreds of protests erupted across the United States in recent weeks, purportedly to demand an end to child sex trafficking. From tiny communities such as Poteau, Oklahoma, to Los Angeles, Miami, Denver and other major cities, people stormed the streets, calling for the mass execution of pedophiles and even accusing various public figures of torturing, raping and enslaving children to harvest their blood.

Lurking at the helm of these so-called “Save Our Children” rallies is QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory movement that baselessly claims, with stunning and growing support, that President Donald Trump is secretly battling a “deep state” cabal of Democratic politicians and A-listcelebrities who traffic children for sex.

Child sex trafficking is a dire problem: It happens in all 50 US states, almost always at the hands of people the victims know and trust. But QAnon — in its virulent campaign to expose a supposed underground pedophilia ring run by the liberal elite — is exacerbating the very crisis it claims to be fighting. As the movement appropriates and sensationalises the issue to recruit more followers into its conspiratorial web, legitimate anti-trafficking organisations are suffering significant collateral damage.

HuffPost spoke to employees at child welfare groups across the US and beyond about the burdens that QAnon has placed upon them and their work. For many, debunking viral misinformation, mining through unhinged tips and warding off mob harassment has become part of the job — detracting from their ability to actually help kids in need. 

“It’s out of control,” said one exasperated senior staffer at a national anti-trafficking organisation based in Washington. “It absolutely makes our job more difficult.”

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Targeted Harassment

Since its origins on 4chan in late 2017, QAnon has burgeoned from an obscure online fringe group chasing grassroots donations and digital ad revenue into a powerful (and,attimes, violent) movement that has infiltrated the political mainstream, scored a tacit endorsement from Trump and amassed an enormous following — both online and offline. Now, as it channels its outsize influence to spread false and alarmist trafficking-related conspiracy theories, a handful of anti-trafficking groups have publicly condemned it.

Polaris, which runs the national human trafficking hotline, warned in July that unsubstantiated claims “can spin out of control and mislead well-meaning people into doing more harm than good.” In August, after the century-old charity Save the Children issued a public statement to distance itself from QAnon’s leeched “Save Our Children” front, the nonprofit World Without Exploitation followed suit, casting QAnon promoters as “grifters with a hero complex.” Days later, KidSafe Foundation denounced them as “parasites” who threaten to “tarnish our reputations and harm our good works.”

But QAnon is notorious for launching mob harassment campaigns against its perceived adversaries, and other anti-trafficking groups — having already witnessed or experienced such abuse — have declined to speak out against it.

The potential risk of publicly condemning QAnon and provoking its fury versus the harm of letting its conspiracy theories proliferate unchallenged is the subject of discussions playing out inside child welfare organizations across the country. Severalemployees who spoke to HuffPost declined to comment on the record for fear of triggering a backlash.

“We have had conversations internally about [QAnon], and just threading the needle on trying not to anger a very mobilised group,” said a senior employee at another human rights organisation headquartered in Washington.

It’s exhausting work. It’s traumatic work ... And this just makes it all so much harder.senior staffer at a national anti-trafficking organisation

“What we’ve seen is that QAnon is a force to be reckoned with,” agreed anengagement professional at an international child welfare agency. “For organisations that do choose to speak out about it, it’s going to require a lot of resources to deal with [the fallout] — especially dealing with trolls.”

And when trafficking-related misinformation reaches a level at which it must be condemned or debunked, that can have “a real damaging effect on victims,” said Phil Brewer, a former police officer and the director of intelligence at Stop the Traffik.

“If they reach out for help, there may be a real worry that they won’t be believed.”

QAnon has inserted anti-trafficking organizations into its conspiracy theories.

QAnon’s online mob has also inserted anti-trafficking groups and staff into conspiracy theories. “Q” — the anonymous entity at the center of the movement, whom supporters believe to be a top government insider leaking coded intel to the public — once suggested that Polaris engaged in sinister activity with The Clinton Foundation.Since then, Polaris has fielded online accusations of facilitating sex crimes against children.

Two anti-trafficking organisations even told HuffPost that they had been contacted by mysterious activist groups, later revealed to be “Save Our Children” organisers, who requested to be put in touch with victims for public speaking events.

“We find ourselves having to be increasingly protective of the survivors we work with,” said the senior staffer at a national anti-trafficking organisation in Washington. “There’s almost a voyeuristic aspect to this issue. People are drawn to it. ... They like to hear the gruesome details.”

When she and her team fought in 2016 to pass a California law decriminalising child prostitution — protecting young victims of commercial sexual exploitation from being arrested for selling sex — misinformed trolls who neglected to research the law turned them into vile memes calling them perverts and predators. It was a scary experience, she said, but had it happened today, at a time when QAnon’s army of supporters blindly threatens violence against its perceived enemies, they would have feared for their lives.

“It definitely impedes our work when we’re getting harassed and trolled over misinformation campaigns,” she said. “It’s exhausting work. It’s traumatic work. It’s something that all of us do because there’s such an extreme need in our communities and around the country. And this just makes it all so much harder.”

Stephen Maturen via Getty Images

Diverting Resources

For the many established organisations that have spent years or decades combating the sexual exploitation of children, QAnon’s insidious surge in popularity and the endless trafficking-related conspiracy theories it circulates have created a dangerous distraction.

“I’m constantly having to take time out of my day to debunk these things,”said Shea Rhodes, the director and co-founder of the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation. Her team, which works closely with legislators and policymakers, just launched a digitalcampaign to fact-check the deluge of misinformation QAnon promotes.

“It doesn’t stop. It just doesn’t stop,” Rhodes said. “It’s been exhausting.”

As a result of QAnon’s conspiracy theories, “our staff is now busy correcting falsehoods and lies instead of handling the important work that they would otherwise be doing,” said the engagement professional at the international child welfare agency.

When it comes to educating the public, we’re now starting at a deficit. We have to focus on unlearning rather than starting from zero.engagement professional working at an international child welfare agency

Viral conspiracy theories traceable to QAnon have also incited hordes of people to flood human trafficking tip lines with false information. In July, QAnon supporters spread the unfounded allegation that the furniture company Wayfair was selling missing children through shipments of expensive cabinets and pillows. As the hoax erupted online, hundreds of panicked reports poured into the national human trafficking hotline.

“Handling these redundant reports was extremely time-consuming and meant that other people, reporting new, actionable information or seeking emergency assistance or other services, were forced to wait for longer than was acceptable,” said Caren Benjamin, the chief communications officer for Polaris, which operates the hotline.

This kind of misinformation“takes attention and resources away from real [trafficking] cases,” said Borislav Gerasimov, the communications and advocacy coordinator at the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. And trying to reason with people who have been conditioned to believe that child sex trafficking is a crime committed by a “shadowy cabal” of high-ranking public officials is often a fruitless endeavor to begin with, he added. “How can you prove something that doesn’t exist? It’s mind-boggling.”

There’s also concern that the absurd nature of QAnon’s conspiracy theories — such as the assertion that Satan-worshipping elites are extracting adrenaline from the blood of children to oxidise into adrenochrome, a psychoactive drug — is trivialising sex trafficking and diverting serious concern away from the crisis.

“When you have these very extreme narratives, there’s always pushback in the opposite direction,” said Haley McNamara, the director of the International Centre on Sexual Exploitation. “We have even seen some people saying that sex trafficking itself a myth.”

It’s not just far-right conspiracy theorists feeding into these harmful narratives. Over the past several weeks, as QAnon’s base has been revealed to be far larger and more influential than previously believed, Trump and his reelection campaign have made increasingly brazen attempts to capitalise on misinformation-fuelled hysteria surrounding child sex trafficking. The president even referred to QAnon supporters in a recent press conference as “people that love our country.”

The Trump campaign didn’t respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

“For many years, child trafficking has been a bipartisan issue — especially on the Hill; we’ve had amazing champions on both sides. But it’s no secret that this administration has tried to appropriate this issue and politicise it, which has been very, very distressing,” said the senior staffer at the national anti-trafficking organisation in Washington. 

“When Trump speaks to those things and gives [groups such as QAnon] his stamp of approval, it emboldens those folks. And for this group in particular, it gives them a sense of legitimacy and purpose and incentivises more members of his base to join that fray.”

Stephen Maturen via Getty Images

Propagating Harmful Myths

The QAnon-perpetuated myth that kids are being snatched off the streets en masse and forced into sexual slavery by a network of deep state cronies is not just ludicrous — it’s dangerous, experts and advocates said, because it obscures the real way that children in the US are trafficked. 

“You’re not going to protect your kids from trafficking by listening to what QAnon says, because that’s not the way child sex trafficking works at all,” said Taina Bien-Aimé, the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. 

In the vast majority of sex trafficking cases involving minors, victims are not kidnapped or held captive, and they typically have existing familial or romantic relationships with their abusers. In the approximately 29,000 cases of missing kids that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children investigated in 2019, non-family abductions accounted for less than 1%.

“Most of us imagine trafficking as a movie scene instead of knowing what the real red flags are,” said Rebecca Bender, an activist who works with survivors and trains law enforcement officers and prosecutors dealing with sex trafficking cases.

I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh well, at least [QAnon] is raising awareness.’ But you know, we don’t go telling everyone cancer is contagious in the name of awareness.Rebecca Bender, anti-trafficking expert

Very few people understand the realities of the sex trade as well as she does: Bender was pimped for sex as a teenager in Las Vegas by the man she was dating at the time and remained trapped in that life for nearly six years.

“There are victims of trafficking that go home to their parents for dinner every single night, and their mothers don’t notice because they’re taught to look for stranger abductions,” Bender said. “We’ve made so much progress raising awareness that human trafficking is very rarely about ‘stranger danger.’ But with all the conspiracy theories going on right now, it feels like all our work is being undone. It’s heartbreaking for those of us who dedicate our lives to this cause.”

Bender rejected the idea that the visibility QAnon brings to child trafficking, even if misplaced, is at all worthwhile. 

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh well, at least [QAnon] is raising awareness,’” she said. “But you know, we don’t go telling everyone cancer is contagious in the name of awareness.”

Teaching the public what sex trafficking actually looks like and how to identify it are crucial parts of advocacy workers’ efforts to prevent more people from becoming victims. But now, like Bender, many find themselves having first to undo the extensive damage QAnon has caused.

“This misinformation has really blown up even in the past few weeks, and it’s setting people backwards,” said the engagement professional working at an international child welfare agency. “When it comes to educating the public, we’re now starting at a deficit. We have to focus on unlearning rather than starting from zero.”

Social media platforms have been a major lifeline for QAnon to propagate falsehoods about child sex trafficking, especially as millions of Americans spend more time online than usual due to COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Everyone’s on their screens all the time and just absorbs whatever pops up,” said Bien-Aimé. “The finger-pointing should also go to the social media companies that allow these conspiracy theories to flourish. It’s corporate irresponsibility.”

When the Wayfair hoax went viral on social media, Bender — who is now running an online “myth-buster” campaign using the hashtag #TraffickingTruths — felt compelled to speak out. She opened up on Instagram about her own story, even sharing copies of the ads that were once used to sell her, and cautioned against “spreading untruths.”

Before long, people parroting QAnon rhetoric swarmed her post, dismissed her lived experience as an outlier and questioned her motives for sharing it.

“This is the danger,” she said. “This is why real trafficking cases go unnoticed every day.”