A 90-minute anti-child sex trafficking documentary by a Polish filmmaker promoting various tropes related to the conspiracy theory QAnon has gone viral on TikTok and YouTube, despite both platforms’ purported efforts to halt the spread of viral misinformation.
A highly incendiary, sensationalized “documentary,” which Rolling Stone has chosen not to name, was uploaded to YouTube in March, but has been quietly circulating on various right-wing and anti-trafficking Facebook pages throughout the spring and summer. The video, which was made by a Polish filmmaker and appears to be highly staged, features interviews of individuals with their faces blurred out and voices distorted, such as a pregnant woman wishing to sell her baby to child traffickers and an “intermediary” who frankly discusses the logistics of selling children and babies for organ farming and sex. The video features detailed, extremely graphic, highly disturbing discussion and “witness” accounts of child sexual abuse. As far-right extremism researcher Marc-Andre Argentino wrote about the film, “This video as well as others like it, target a specific audience with their content, as well as those who are inclined to react to ‘outrage porn’ (media or narrative that is designed to use outrage to provoke strong emotional reactions for the purpose of expanding audiences).”
Notably, the documentary stokes Islamophobic beliefs shared by many in far-right Christian circles, at one point falsely claiming that “child brothels for pedophiles are mainly run by Muslims, [whose] religion and culture does not prohibit them from having sex with children.” And there are strong anti-choice undercurrents to the film, with the director, who is Catholic, telling a Polish publication, “I am Catholic and I listen to what God says. If it was about my child, I would not allow abortion under any circumstances.” (Poland instituted a near-total abortion ban last year.)
Though it does not explicitly promote the conspiracy theory QAnon, which posits the existence of a secret child sex trafficking ring run by powerful elites, the documentary makes many references to Satanism and alludes to the existence of Satanic pedophile rings, echoing the narratives promoted by supporters of the QAnon far-right conspiracy theory. “To me, there is no doubt that the devil is behind all child abuse. And this is not my overinterpretation. The trafficker himself talks about pentagrams, about how people involved in this practice communicate with each other,” the director said in an interview with a Polish publication about the film. To that end, the film has frequently been shared on many far-right extremist and QAnon-related threads on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
On YouTube, the original post advertising the trailer for the film has received more than 200,000 views, and the full-length video itself has garnered more than 20,000 Facebook interactions, according to CrowdTangle data. An English-language version of the film has more than one million views on YouTube, while a Polish version has more than 6 million views. In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for YouTube told Rolling Stone, “Sometimes content doesn’t violate our policies, but may not be appropriate for all audiences. In these cases, we’ll place an age restriction on the video when we’re notified of the content, as in the case of this video.” The documentary now has an age restriction warning, but has not been removed from the platform.
Snippets of the film — some of which contain extremely graphic descriptions of child sexual abuse — have also gone viral on TikTok, with the hashtag of the film’s title garnering more than 50,000 total views. One such video identified by TikToker and TikTok disinformation researcher Abbie Richards, which features a clip of the trailer for the film, has more than 700,000 views.
In response to a request for comment, a TikTok spokesperson tells Rolling Stone that the platform will be taking action against the documentary by blocking the hashtag and removing the clips Rolling Stone sent to TikTok, saying that the documentary violated the company’s misinformation policy. “Our community values authentic content, which is why we remove disinformation as it is identified and redirect related searches and hashtags to our Community Guidelines,” the spokesperson said. Rolling Stone, however, was still able to find clips from the movie on TikTok under related hashtags.
As Rolling Stone has previously reported, anti-child sex trafficking content has exploded on social media over the past year, in large part due to the success of the #SaveTheChildren movement, an anti-trafficking campaign that was later coopted by QAnon believers. (Indeed, following TikTok’s removal of the hashtag associated with the documentary, Rolling Stone was still able to find clips from the film under the hashtag #savethechildren.)
Narratives involving shadowy sex traffickers lying in wait to abduct women and children have gained a great deal of traction on social media, despite the fact that the vast majority of real-life sex trafficking cases involve vulnerable individuals, such as homeless LGBTQ teenagers, who know their trafficker. Such content “makes it harder for trafficking survivors to see themselves in this narrative and feel that law enforcement and service providers will recognize their experience as an experience of abuse and exploitation,” Jean Bruggeman, executive director of the anti-child trafficking organization Freedom USA, previously told Rolling Stone.
Anti-trafficking content, such as the Wayfair sex trafficking hoax or an urban legend regarding attempted trafficking at Target, is particularly popular on TikTok. That’s in large part due to the nature of the algorithm of the platform’s For You page, which feeds users videos based on their engagement history and watch time on similar videos. “Panicky videos are very engaging,” says Richards, citing a viral April TikTok hoax over a fictional event called “National Rape Day” as an example of how such content goes viral on the platform, despite being totally false. “If you are just watching someone say, ‘Oh my God, this happened to me,’ that’ll go viral. Scary content goes quite viral. And on top of that, there’s a culture of activism and a culture of believing victims. It’s great that [our culture in general has] gotten there, but it’s been slightly misinterpreted by this panic.”
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 election, both of which prompted an onslaught of social media misinformation, TikTok has instituted policies aimed at curbing the spread of hoaxes or conspiracy theories. Its user guidelines specifically prohibit “misinformation that incites hate or prejudice” or “misinformation related to emergencies that induces panic.” YouTube’s guidelines state that the platform employees “external human evaluators and experts to assess whether content is promoting unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, or inaccurate information.”
It’s also worth noting, in light of the incredibly gruesome and detailed descriptions of child sexual abuse and murder within the film, that both sites have robust policies in place to ostensibly curb sexually explicit material involving minors. TikTok specifically states in its user guidelines that it prohibits “content that revictimizes or capitalizes on minor victims of abuse by third party reshares or reenactments of assault or confessions,” as is present in the documentary.
Despite these policies, however, it has historically been difficult for large platforms like TikTok and YouTube to curb the spread of conspiracy theories. TikTok in particular has adopted something of a whack-a-mole approach toward regulating content, mostly by relying on user-generated reports or banning hashtags associated with misinformation as they surface. “Misinformation and more subtle hate speech are some of the more challenging things for platforms to moderate right now,” explains Casey Fiesler, an assistant professor in information science at the University of Colorado, Boulder specializing in social media ethics, “in part because creating consistent guidelines around what constitutes misinformation is really challenging.”
In the case of this recent video, the “documentary” nature of the film, compounded with the more subtle Islamophobic elements, may allow it to somewhat subvert moderation guidelines. The seemingly apolitical nature of the filmmaker’s agenda — fighting child trafficking — may also have helped it go viral, says Richards. “Like #savethechildren, it doesn’t seem political to hate pedophilia, or hate someone who’d do these disgusting things to children. That’s not a political take,” she says. “And yet, within that is false information but they can hijack that narrative and wield that power into funneling hatred for different groups.”
Fri., July 16, 12:53 p.m. This story has been updated with comment from YouTube.