Parenting influencers have embraced sex-trafficking conspiracy theories — and it’s taking QAnon from the internet into the streets
With her bouncy, honey-streaked hair, tastefully pastel-and-beige-hued grid and effortless ability to wear such garments as shapeless khaki rompers, Ciara Chanel Self, a Dallas, Texas-based interior designer and parent of a toddler, appears on Instagram to be the prototypical mom influencer. She regularly posts aspirational photos of cream-colored nurseries, 2-year-olds’ birthday parties, and apple-cheeked toddlers gallivanting by ocean sunsets. Only one highlight on her Instagram stories would seem to indicate otherwise: a tab labeled “woke,” where she has compiled conspiracy theories about Ghislaine Maxwell and the “global elite pedophile ring” afflicting our nation. “Child trafficking, torture, rape, and murder…we should be rioting in the streets you guys. Yet NO ONE is talking about this,” she writes, concluding with the hashtag #SaveTheChildren and the exhortation “dark to light.”
Both of these mantras are linked to QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory positing that President Donald Trump is lying in wait to bust a left-wing Deep State cabal that, among other things, runs an underground pedophile ring. Self, who emphatically declined to comment for this story, is just one of many mom influencers who have leaned into the conspiracy theory, promoting it alongside nursery decorating tips, minimalist birthday cakes, and dimple-kneed baby photos in posts that garner thousands of likes. The #SaveTheChildren hashtag, and numerous #SaveTheChildren marches across the country, have played an outsized role in bringing lifestyle influencers in general into the conspiracy theorist fold, but particularly moms, many of whom are drawn to the child redemption narrative inherent in QAnon ideology.
Those who cover the parenting space (what is derisively referred to as the “mommy blogosophere”) are hyper-aware of this shift. “Over the past few weeks, we have seen an uptick in conspiracy theory posts across our channels,” says April Daniels Hussar, managing editor of the parenting website Romper, adding that she’d started noticing this increase at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Mostly, we receive an influx of comments when we feature celebrities and political figures who are believed to be ‘child traffickers.'” She says these comments have primarily been showing up on Instagram and Facebook, with the hashtags #SaveTheChildren and #SaveOurChildren and “links to dubious websites about child trafficking and QAnon.”
Just as platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been cracking down on QAnon content, with Facebook removing hundreds of groups last week, influencers have been drawn into conspiracy theorists’ orbit. Jalynn Schroeder, a prominent mom influencer with more than 50,000 followers, has been vocal about her “awakening” to the word of Q, as has influencer LuvBec, who has more than 121,000 followers. “I’m a mama of two, I have a lot of mamas following me, and this stuff has been very, very, very hard for me to digest,” Schroeder says in an IGTV video captioned “I’M AWAKE” and hashtagged “#truthwins,” “wwg1wga” (“where we go one, we go all”), and “#thegreatawakening,” her lavender hair pushed back with a leopard-print headband.
Reality TV stars have also reposted conspiracy theory content and QAnon-adjacent content. Lyndi Kennedy, a star of Bravo’s Below Deck franchise with more than 260,000 followers, recently attended the #SaveTheChildren march in Huntington Beach, California; in between sponsored posts for dry shampoo and selfies from Cabo San Lucas, she reposts content from QAnon influencers like gossip columnist-turned-conspiracy theorist Liz Crokin. Avery Warner, a star of the TLC’S 90-Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days — who describes herself as a “proud patriot” on her Instagram and had one of her sponsorships revoked for claiming the Black Lives Matter movement was “terrorizing” white people — has been vocal about #SaveTheChildren, starting an organization called S.P.E.A.K., or, Stopping Predatory Enslavement and Kidnapping, which seems to consist so far of a private Facebook group.
The primary turning point in the evolution of the conspiracy theory has been the explosive popularity of #SaveTheChildren, an anti-child trafficking hashtag unwittingly used by many prominent lifestyle influencers that has been hijacked by the QAnon community. On Facebook alone, the hashtag has garnered more than three million interactions in the past month, according to Crowdtangle data, in part due to the proliferation of #SaveTheChildren rallies in cities across the country starting on World Trafficking Day on July 30th, many of which have prominently featured QAnon messaging on signs and fliers. (There is an anti-trafficking organization called Save the Children, which has distanced itself from the protests.)
Part of what has been so seductive about the #SaveTheChildren protests is that it starts from an irrefutable premise (who in their right mind would be opposed to saving trafficked children?) and gradually umbrellas into a wide-ranging, increasingly unhinged conspiracy theory (not only are children being trafficked, but they’re being trafficked by the Clintons and Chrissy Teigen). And this is intensely problematic, not because QAnon is a crackpot conspiracy theory, but precisely because it is far more than that: there is a bounty of evidence suggesting that it has pushed people to commit acts of violence, from a Nevada man blocking the Hoover Dam with an armored truck and ammunition in 2018, to the 2019 killing of a Staten Island mob boss, to a Seattle man accused of killing his brother with a sword. The threat posed by QAnon is so legitimate that it prompted the FBI to deem it a domestic terrorism threat, according to an unpublished bulletin that surfaced in May of last year.
#SaveTheChildren has succeeded in mainstreaming the QAnon movement by representing its most sanitized aspects, pushing its more unsavory facets to the back burner. “The mom aspect of QAnon has really blown up in the past few weeks with the on-the-fly rebranding Q is going through with the #SaveTheChildren movement,” says conspiracy theory researcher Mike Rothschild, author of the book The World’s Worst Conspiracies. “A lot of moms are freaked out about what might happen with their kids, and their kids not doing so great with the pandemic. They’re too worried, too online, and have a lot of time on their hands.”
With its emphasis on shareable aesthetics and its lush depictions of mom life, Instagram has been the primary focal point to share and promote such theories. That app is where #SaveTheChildren marches were initially organized, says Brian Friedberg, senior researcher at the Harvard Shorenstein’s Technology and Social Change Project. “The comments sections of Instagram influencers are a huge place where QAnon ideology is disseminated and made more palatable for mainstream audiences,” he says.
QAnon and QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories have also been rapidly gaining ground among young moms on TikTok, which has publicly cracked down on hashtags like #WWG1WGA and #pizzagate but has nonetheless hosted a proliferation of such content. One TikTok featuring a mom creator with 42,000 followers features her waxing enthusiastic about Trump referring to QAnon during a news briefing; another TikTok with hundreds of likes shows a young mother triumphantly tossing her child’s Toy Story bowl in the garbage (per QAnon lore, the star of Toy Story, Tom Hanks, is believed to be enmeshed in the deep state pedophile cabal), with the hashtags #SaveTheChildren and #CancelHollywood and a pizza emoji (a reference to Pizzagate).
The pandemic has had a demonstrable effect on bringing new believers into the fold. There’s been particular overlap between QAnon and the anti-vaxxer communities, which have historically attracted predominantly mothers, says Zarine Khazarian, assistant editor at the Digital Forensic Research Lab. (Indeed, Plandemic, the wildly viral video featuring anti-vaxxer Judy Mikovits, was also widely shared on parenting Facebook pages.) “Once these communities converge, there’s increasingly cross-pollination,” says Khazarian.
The end result has been that, while people typically think of QAnon believers as either far-right, digitally unsavvy boomers, or mouth-breathing male message-board users, QAnon believers have started skewing much younger, more diverse, and more female. “The typical supporter has been white and 30- to 50-years old, but we’ve recently seen it become much broader,” says Khazarian. Rothschild also says that the majority of the attendees he’s spotted at #SaveTheChildren rallies in Los Angeles have been young women, some of whom have been accompanied by small children.
The primary turning point in the evolution of QAnon specifically was the explosive popularity of the #Wayfairgate conspiracy theory earlier this summer, or the unfounded belief that children were being smuggled in high-priced Wayfair industrial furniture. The theory was widely debunked, but thanks in part to amplification from various lifestyle influencers, #Wayfairgate trended on multiple platforms, arguably setting the stage for #SaveTheChildren to start trending a few weeks later.
Conspiracy theorists played a major role in promoting and amplifying #SaveTheChildren: according to NBC News, while QAnon groups made up only about 18% of all Facebook posts using #SaveTheChildren, they accounted for nearly 70% of the engagements. But the hashtag really managed to cross into the mainstream thanks to its use by many prominent lifestyle and parenting influencers, most of whom were white and female, who were captivated by the narrative of participating in the rescue and redemption of small, defenseless children.
Such narratives, which are also reflected in the Satanic Panic of the 1970s and 1980s, are centuries-old, due to heterosexual women in patriarchal societies being tasked with “preserving family honor” and “protecting children from moral dangers,” says anthropologist Laura Agustin, who studies trafficking and the sex industry. “Whether these threats are called abuse, exploitation or trafficking, they are felt as an outsider that endangers family integrity. In doing her job of moral protection, the anti-trafficking woman thus works to keep patriarchy in place.”
In the QAnon movement specifically, women have long played a role, yet they’ve rarely been front-and-center, in part because the movement’s roots are in the 4chan community, which is notoriously hostile to women. The #SaveTheChildren rallies have created space for women in the movement and made them visible in a way that they haven’t been before, albeit within historically more conventional feminine roles. “The idea of women being the protectors of children in a sort of traditionalist understanding of family structure definitely plays a role here,” says Friedberg.
Though #SaveTheChildren was amplified and promoted by QAnon and far-right groups, ostensibly apolitical parenting blog and meme pages also played a huge role; Facebook pages like Loving Mommyhood (165,000 followers) and Life as a mommy & wife (over 2 million followers), shared #SaveTheChildren memes between wine-mom posts and pumpkin-spice appreciation memes.
The past few weeks also saw various uproars in the parenting space, including controversy over a Hasbro Trolls doll with what appeared to be a button on its crotch, which when pressed caused the doll to giggle. Though Hasbro issued a statement saying the button was, in fact, a motion sensor, and was not intended to be pushed, the doll prompted outcry among many parents who accused the toy company of using the product to groom children for abuse, leading to Hasbro yanking it from the shelves. A similar controversy ensued following the release of a lurid poster for Netflix’s film Cuties, which was accused of sexualizing young children and led to #SaveTheChildren trending all over again.
Of course, not everyone who participated in the controversy over the Cuties poster or the Trolls doll was necessarily a conspiracy theorist; many were, undoubtedly, concerned parents outraged by what they perceived to be the systemic oversexualization of children. But QAnon adherents, as well as those who generally believe in the existence of a global pedophile cabal, caused both stories to trend, viewing them as confirmation of their preexisting views. “They helped reinforce the belief structures of these people, and perhaps recruited new members because of the commentary around it and the use of the specific slogans and hashtags in that general commentary,” says Friedberg.
Similarly, not everyone who participated in #SaveTheChildren rallies or used the hashtag on World Trafficking Day was necessarily aware of its roots in conspiracy theorist circles. But it undoubtedly also served as a gateway drug of sorts for well-intentioned users of the hashtag, in part due to the interconnectedness of conspiracy theories and social algorithms taking people further down the rabbit hole, says Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University.
“If somebody is brought into the QAnon orbit for a good cause, and they think this is a worthy narrative and it has this positive element to it, it’s not a far stretch to think that someone might be then convinced by additional Covid disinformation, or the really vile and vicious elements of the QAnon narrative, such as the anti-Semitism, that have nothing to do with saving the children,” she says. “You have people entering into this world, thinking it’s about one thing, feeling good about connecting to it, and then it exposes them to all kinds of polluted information.”
The explosive popularity of #SaveTheChildren, combined with the recent success of congressional candidates like QAnon proponent Marjorie Taylor Greene, have led to much hand-wringing in the media about QAnon going mainstream. But Khazarian says that such concerns often overlook the fact that the core tenets of the conspiracy theory — that a shadowy cabal is exploiting vulnerable children — are already far more widely accepted than we’d like to acknowledge. “It’s been thought of as this fringe conspiracy theory that only people super into 8chan and are sort of internet-savvy adhere to, but really it has a much broader appeal,” she says. “And that is sort of the danger of it — it can be something that’s very attractive to a suburban soccer mom.”
What also makes child trafficking conspiracy theories so attractive to influencers, and so difficult to fight back against, is that, much like all other conspiracy theories, they are at least in part rooted in reality. Child trafficking is a legitimate and terrifying issue (albeit one rooted in statistics that are tenuous and arguably inflated); and there are extremely powerful people who have sexually abused children and not been held to account, as the Jeffrey Epstein case starkly demonstrated. “The tragedy is that these unfounded theories are damaging the actual cause,” says Daniels Hussar.
While there is a tremendous chasm between acknowledging this reality and, say, embracing the belief that the star of Forrest Gump is harvesting adrenochrome from babies, it’s easy to see how the gap between these ideas can seem much smaller during unstable and frightening times; trusted influencers like Self promoting them makes it seem even more miniscule. And for mothers of small children trying to navigate the pandemic era, endlessly scrolling through pastel-pink versions of other, more contented lives, “it’s not a question of why would people believe such a crazy thing,” says Phillips. “It’s, why wouldn’t they?”
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