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How ‘Save the Children’ Became a Conspiracy Grift

Child trafficking conspiracies blur the lines between real life and fringe extremism — and the clicks continue to roll in

The marchers arrived at the headquarters of CNN in Hollywood on Friday afternoon, buzzing with righteous energy and looking to make a point to one of America’s biggest news networks.

They spilled into the small lobby hallway of the building, chanting “SAVE THE CHIL-DREN!” and waving signs with all sorts of messages: “CHILD LIVES MATTER.” “Pedophile is NOT a sexual orientation.” “END Sex Trafficking.”

But despite it being the U.N.’s World Human Trafficking Awareness Day, there were decidedly stranger signs and ideologies being shared, too. Countless signs at the CNN rally and the ensuing march referenced #Pizzagate, the widely debunked conspiracy theory that claims to pin Hillary Clinton and longtime ally John Podesta to a child sex ring. Others featured some take on the phrase “Child trafficking is the REAL pandemic,” seemingly downplaying the importance of COVID. Others yet were even more violent in their rhetoric, as with one woman who toted around a sign screaming “F*CK VACCINATIONS. EXECUTE ALL PEDOPHILES!” The marchers even stopped on the Walk of Fame to vandalize Tom Hanks’ star with a black Sharpie marker, based on the belief that he is a trafficker.

Human trafficking has been a crisis all throughout American history, but the advent of the internet and online socializing has made trafficking and abusing kids an especially profitable venture, in the U.S. and abroad. But the Jeffrey Epstein sex abuse case, plus new developments about the involvement of socialite Ghislane Maxwell, has made child trafficking the source of fuel for a cottage industry on social media that promotes, above all, saving the children. Much of the content appears benign, yet the movement is carried on the backs of QAnon conspiracy theorists and MAGA stans.

They blame progressive activists and the “mainstream media” for perceived sins ranging from mass ignorance to a concerted agenda to sexualize children and normalize pedophilia. They believe the biggest crisis that must be addressed in 2020 is child trafficking, rather than the economic collapse or America’s reckoning with a racist justice system. And amid all this fury and righteousness, “Save the Children” has become social media’s hottest new issue to co-opt. Meanwhile, the muddying of a legitimate tragedy makes it hard to contain the spread of fringe theories, with people unknowingly sharing posts from authors who have a questionable grasp of the facts.

I was surprised to find this in my own life, with friends sharing anti-trafficking posts from accounts that espouse #Pizzagate logic elsewhere in their timelines. As it turns out, clicking on any assortment of innocuous-seeming hashtags, whether it’s #SavetheChildren or #EndTrafficking, puts you straight into an insane spectrum of ideologies and analyses, whether it’s anti-porn Christian voices or those who proclaim that Trump is about to liberate the world by rounding up pedophiles. There’s a subtle grift here, too — one in which lifestyle influencers rapidly transition to blaring messaging about child trafficking as a cornerstone of their brand, despite no educational background or experience.

I stumbled across one organization, dubbed Child Abuse Resistance Education (or “CARE”), that was apparently born in mid-July as the brainchild of two women in Orange County, California; their very first post notes their mission is “to tell the story the media refuses to cover.” They’re courting donations on PayPal despite no formal agenda and a completely unfinished website (including no projects under the “Projects” tab). And despite a superficial lack of conspiracy rhetoric on their image posts, you can find it right in the hashtags of a caption: “#LolitaExpress,” “#PedoClinton,” “#PedoEllen” and “#PedowoodIsReal.”

Elsewhere, I found another IG page called the “Save Our Children Initiative” that is fighting to “end sex trafficking” by… asking for sponsorships and selling a $35 T-shirt. The group claims that the revenue from the shirts will go to an unspecified “charitable organization” that is “supporting funding towards increasing the survivors [sic].” Their stated long-term goal is to create “rehabilitation centers” for victims. Again, the founders don’t appear to have any experience in child advocacy work; one is a Trump-supporting fitness and lifestyle influencer, while the other runs a custom apparel-printing shop.

Sometimes, the goal isn’t creating a new organization but rather shifting your entire brand to revolve around human trafficking. I found one woman named Kate J. Oseen, whose Instagram account rapidly shifts from reposts of vaguely inspirational tweets (“Don’t adapt to the energy in the room. Influence the energy in the room”) to a full-on blitzkrieg on child trafficking, starting on July 13th. How and why does a nondescript lifestyle influencer and self-professed “social media expert” end up transitioning from selling kids’ clothes and starting a podcast on female entrepreneurs to straight-up posting conspiracy videos about how Anthony Bourdain is linked to Pizzagate?

“No media has covered this. Nobody has covered it. No one. Why? You need to ask yourself those questions,” she warns viewers in one long clip.

It’s not that I’m convinced someone like Oseen is actively trying to run a grift on her audience. (The others, I’m not so sure about.) But it’s hard to ignore how so many people are aggressively pivoting to the issue of child trafficking in 2020, claiming to fill some important need while demonstrating very little ability and even fewer fresh ideas. These accounts generate traffic with breathless claims that child trafficking is the biggest priority of the year, repeating claims that they’re reporting things the “mainstream media” won’t touch (no matter that a quick Google News search proves otherwise). It’s the justification for posting all kinds of fringe content, under the guise of being open-minded. It’s why a so-called professional advocacy group would tag “#PedoChrissy” (as in… Chrissy Teigen) under a post of smiling kids with signs at a rally.

Trump himself has courted QAnon as a virulent but useful part of his fanbase, and the “Hollywood + Democrat Elites = Pedophile Cabal” logic at play surely plays to his favor in an election year. But we also saw how fringe conspiracy theories can lead to actual violence, as with the man who shot up a D.C. pizza shop with a rifle while believing he was freeing child slaves. Perhaps more frightening than the gunshots, though, is how, even despite attempts to limit conspiracy content on social media platforms, this rhetoric just simmered until 2020 arrived and provided the best possible context for everything to boil over. It didn’t take much for “Epstein didn’t kill himself” memes to warp into paranoid rehashes of the “Clinton body count,” with all sorts of alleged ties between politicians, dead people, exploited kids and a retail corporation.

The reality is less about a ring of pedophiles pulling strings all over the world, and more about the sad consequences of a broken social framework that pushes young people into exploitation, says Nola Brantley, an advocate and expert who trains government officials, lawyers and other service providers on child abuse. She is a co-founder and former director of MISSSEY, a nonprofit in Oakland that focuses on getting assistance to trafficked youth. Brantley tells me that she is seeing and hearing about a consistent increase in abuse cases as an effect of the COVID pandemic, which she suggests has made it harder for people to spot and report abuse. But as for the galaxy-brain theories on a global conspiracy to traffic kids?

“I don’t get caught up in it,” she says quickly. “The reality is, people living in poverty, experiencing historical oppression, generational trauma, these are the real roots of what leads people to the commercial sex industry. It’s not necessarily some barbed wire and handcuffs that keep kids in this. It’s circumstance, a lack of opportunity and the normalization of abuse.”

But that’s not as juicy as a pedophile class that’s protected by Dems. It’s not as comforting, either, to know that there’s no mass bust and trial that can solve this crisis. The work of a group like Operation Underground Railroad proves that it takes so much work to free just a few kids from slavery, usually with no name-brand villains to point a finger at when the dust settles. It all reminds me of the gap between our cultural view of rapists as shadowy men in alleys, rather than uncles and mentors and friends. Fittingly, there seems to be a lot of new noise around trafficking, but little fresh insight into what fixing the problem requires. Meanwhile, people with no idea of the harms of fringe theories are being pulled along with talk of child advocacy, only to be left earnestly wondering what QAnon is all about, or whether there’s any merit to stories of pedophiles harvesting young blood for “adrenochrome.”

“Can a trend like this cause issues for people that are doing real work, who need funding and support, who now see problems because that funding and support is getting divided and spent on people who aren’t even doing real work on the issue? Yeah, I do think that could be problematic for legitimate organizations, especially if these new accounts end up getting more reach online,” Brantley tells me.

Meanwhile, the true nature of child abuse and trafficking in 2020 remains complicated, because experts aren’t sure what consequence the pandemic and economic flatlining has. Some reports say that abuse cases are up; others suggest a decrease in reports of abuse, which could merely be a sign that incidents are going unreported. But child abuse isn’t really the issue du jour for the “Save the Children” squad — it’s child sex trafficking, and the rhetoric often focuses on the mental image of kids being snatched up. For Brantley, the tragedy is less pulpy: She’s currently worried about young people who finally found an alternative to exploitative sex work, only to lose their new jobs because of COVID shutdowns, and now have few options to make money other than going back to sex work.

“The news reports on this often sensationalize that this is an issue of children getting kidnapped, and thrown in the back of a van. While that may happen to some victims, it’s not the story,” she repeats once more. “The story is about the conditions in individual lives, in their community and society overall that allows this to happen.”

She remains optimistic that any dialogue around child trafficking will continue to spread awareness, which is key to getting justice for victims (Brantley notes one critical example: How jurors and judges still hold prejudices toward “child prostitutes”). But there are tangible downsides to a conspiracy-laded hysteria around protecting kids, too. Historically speaking, moral panics about child abuse and trafficking have led to more children being separated from their parents, which can have devastating impacts. Given that the child welfare system disproportionately punishes poor families of color, it’s a real concern.

“We have a child welfare system that is particularly, extremely sensitive to the media, so we should be very sure of narratives before we put them out there,” as Emma Ketteringham, managing director of the family defense practice at the Bronx Defenders in New York City, told the Marshall Project

But the energy around “Save the Children” movements throughout the country seem to only be growing with the summer heat. The scary part is, the more you look at all this #QAnon-adjacent rhetoric, the more the fuzzy logic of it all seems to sharpen. That’s the hardest part of navigating the muddy gray of child-abuse discourse — real facts and figures and anecdotes get whisked in extremist views on government, BLM activism, Hollywood and beyond.

It hardly matters that Occam’s Razor exists. People are riveted by the most dramatic, monstrous possible iteration of the crisis of child trafficking, and the clicks continue to roll in. There’s real value to saying, again and again, that the media is “silent.” It creates value to act like you’re doing labor others weren’t brave enough to do.

It’s not a grift to care about kids or make the trafficking crisis go viral. But “Save the Children” is an alluring example of how real life and fringe extremism can blend into something that can capture the attention of people who would never claim to believe in #Pizzagate. Even if the hashtag is right there, for all to see.