Unsuitable for Parents: A QAnon Fairy Tale

An unholy alliance of Trump supporters, conservative Christians and conspiracy theorists is spreading lurid claims about child trafficking

Unsuitable for Parents: A QAnon Fairy Tale
Protesters attend a “Save our children” rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2020. (Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The thought of a child being abducted, sexually abused and murdered is a parent’s worst nightmare. It’s a natural fear — and one that makes parents an easy target for those seeking to exploit their protective instincts. That is what is happening in the United States, where MAGA Republicans, conservative Christians and believers in QAnon conspiracy theories have joined forces to stir up a moral panic over child trafficking.

According to their fanciful claims, American children are not only being abducted and abused in large numbers by a liberal elite, but murdered to extract adrenochrome from their bodies — a chemical allegedly sought after by satanists. While such claims greatly exaggerate the scale of child trafficking and offer no real-world approach to combating it, they do provide an effective way of luring anxious Americans, especially mothers, into a conspiratorial fantasyland — often without them realizing what is happening.

The most recent example is “Sound of Freedom,” a low-budget action movie that has been making waves since its release last summer. Filmed at a cost of just under $15 million, it grossed more than 10 times that amount in ticket sales during the first few weeks. “Sound of Freedom,” which tells the story of a mission to rescue children from sex traffickers in Colombia, comes with a personal endorsement from Donald Trump, who plainly believes there are votes to be won by taking a strong stance against child trafficking. His campaign team has already cited “Sound of Freedom” in three press releases,  including one that calls for anyone caught trafficking children to be executed “immediately.” In a direct show of support for the film, the once and would-be-future president arranged a private viewing at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, with political strategist Steve Bannon among those in attendance.

“Sound of Freedom” is clearly no ordinary film and its fans are not normal film fans. Their enthusiasm is more like that of sports fans and they support the film not for its cinematic qualities but because of the fears it stirs up about child trafficking. Following its American debut, the film is now on cinema release in other countries, but so far without the kind of enthusiasm generated in the U.S. By October, its worldwide box office earnings had reached $231 million, but only $47 million of that had come from outside the U.S., according to Movieweb. In Mexico, its most successful non-U.S. market, it has grossed $11.6 million — probably because its director and producer are both Mexican. In Britain, where film critic Wendy Ide described it as “a thunderously crass and manipulative movie,” it has grossed only $2.6 million.

Without financial support from religious patrons, “Sound of Freedom” might never have reached the screens. It had been ditched by its intended distributor, 20th Century Fox, in the wake of a takeover by Disney. But thanks to a crowdfunding effort the rights were eventually acquired by Utah-based Angel Studios, which has religious connections. Originally known as VidAngel, it was founded by a group of Mormons with a focus on providing wholesome “family-friendly” entertainment.

Based on ticket sales, “Sound of Freedom” was the most-watched film in America on the day of its release, but ticket sales may not be the best guide. Social media users complained of empty seats in cinemas that were supposedly fully booked. The explanation seems to lie in Angel Studios’ unusual marketing strategy: It encouraged online customers to buy more tickets than they needed and either give the extras away or treat them as a donation to the film.

These ticket buyers hoped their generosity would help stimulate interest in preventing child trafficking. Worthy as that might seem, though, the issue has become entangled with politics, culture wars and conspiracy theories. It became a cause celebre for the American right, mainly because of unfounded but widely believed claims that a liberal-minded elite — Hollywood celebrities, Democratic politicians, business figures, etc. —  are directly involved in child trafficking. The claims are based on fantasies spread by QAnon and its followers. “Sound of Freedom” doesn’t promote those ideas itself, but critics fear the interest it generates in human trafficking will be used to draw more people into QAnon’s orbit. One reason for concern is that two of the people most closely connected with the film —  the man at the center of its story and the actor who plays him — have a history of regurgitating QAnon memes.

The story told by “Sound of Freedom” is based on the exploits of Tim Ballard, founder of Operation Underground Railroad (OUR),  a controversial organization that aims to rescue trafficked children from foreign countries. Its activities have included sting operations in which Ballard or a colleague posed as a pedophile seeking to purchase a child. Videos of the stings were later posted online.

Ballard is a committed Mormon, married for more than 20 years and the father of nine children, two of them adopted after being rescued from Haiti in a sting operation. His anti-trafficking activities have made him something of a celebrity. In 2019 he was appointed to then-President Trump’s short-lived Advisory Council to End Human Trafficking. He has also taken part in briefings for members of Congress. Critics see him as a self-promoter and accuse him of magnifying the scale of the problem. They also question the value of his high-profile efforts to catch individual traffickers, arguing that they don’t address the underlying conditions that lead to trafficking.

In an article for The Atlantic last year about OUR and Ballard, writer Kaitlyn Tiffany found that many of the organization’s grassroots supporters and fundraisers not only regard child trafficking as a hugely important issue but also believe many of QAnon’s fantasies. Ballard denies supporting QAnon himself, though some of his statements — about the use of children for organ “harvesting,” for example —  echo QAnon memes. Shortly after “Sound of Freedom” was released, Ballard and OUP parted company. The reason was unclear at the time, but since then at least five women who took part in his sting operations have filed a lawsuit accusing him of coercing them into sexual acts.

For the stings, Ballard would be accompanied by a woman pretending to be his wife or girlfriend. The idea was that her presence would give him an excuse for declining to have sex with trafficked children, and that this tactic, which he called the “couples ruse,” would not arouse suspicion among the traffickers. “You go in together pretending to be a husband and wife or boyfriend/girlfriend,” he explained in an Instagram post. “One of you could pretend that ‘Yes, I want to partake in this sex act with this child but I can’t — maybe we can do it later.’”

According to the lawsuit, Ballard also used this pretense of a relationship to make sexual advances toward the women who accompanied him on missions: Even when in private, he would pressure them into sharing a bed and shower with him, saying there was a need “to maintain the appearance of a romantic relationship at all times,” because the traffickers might have them under surveillance. Ballard maintains that these allegations are “baseless inventions” and “any suggestion of inappropriate sexual contact is categorically false.”

The actor who plays Ballard in the film is Jim Caviezel, described in Vanity Fair as “one of the few proud conservative voices out there in Hollyweird.” He’s a devout Catholic, best known for his role as Jesus in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ.” In a Fox News interview promoting “Sound of Freedom,” Caviezel likened Trump to Moses because “He’s going to go after the traffickers,” telling viewers: “I’m still Jesus, but he’s the new Moses. Pharaoh, let my children go free.”

Online videos show Caviezel in a highly emotional state addressing a conference of American “patriots” in October 2021. Speaking in apocalyptic tones, amid wild applause, he warns: “We are headed into the storm of all storms. Yes, this storm is upon us, but not without Jesus our rudder.” The “storm” is a QAnon buzzword, originally referring to the mass arrests of pedophiles and others that its supporters were predicting would happen in 2020, once Trump had overturned his election defeat and seized power.

The conference, billed as a “Patriot Double Down Convention” under the title “For God and Country,” was essentially a QAnon/Trump event. Its organizer was the Patriot Voice, founded by John Sabal, a Trump loyalist better known on social media as “QAnon John.” Among those billed to speak were Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser (he resigned and later pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his dealings with Russian officials), who has been waging what he calls a “spiritual war” in America, and Jim Watkins, a prominent QAnon conspiracy theorist.

The patriots’ double down took place at the Ahern Hotel in Vegas, which helpfully stepped into the breach when Caesar’s Forum canceled the booking. The hotel’s owner, Don Ahern, is a multimillionaire businessman, finance chair of the Nevada Republican Party and a notable Trump supporter. Ahern had previously hosted two pro-Trump events during the COVID pandemic (one at his hotel, the other in a warehouse) and was fined a total of $13,000 for breaking lockdown rules.

At the urging of the conference organizer, Caviezel went on to sound the alarm about adrenochrome after a show of hands revealed most “patriots” in the audience had not previously heard of it. Adrenochrome is an oxidized form of adrenaline, which in QAnon mythology is consumed by members of an elite referred to as “the cabal.” Although adrenochrome can be synthesized, QAnon believers claim it can only be obtained by extraction — with fatal results — from the bodies of terrified children. Caviezel told the conference: “Essentially, you have adrenaline in your body. … When you are scared you produce adrenaline. If a child knows he is going to die his body will secrete this adrenaline. … It’s the worst horror I’ve ever seen. The screaming alone, even if I never, ever, saw it, it’s beyond — and these people that do it, there will be no mercy for them.”

Over the last 70 years the supposed properties of adrenochrome have gone through a series of transformations: It was first seen as a potential cure for schizophrenia, then as a psychedelic drug and latterly as a substance purportedly much sought after by the corrupt elite. Some say it’s taken as a rejuvenating elixir, others that it’s used in satanic rituals. Either way, believers link it to child trafficking by claiming, falsely, that the only way of obtaining adrenochrome is to “harvest” it by murdering children.

The substance wasn’t of much scientific interest until the 1950s, when two psychiatrists in Canada, Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond, tested it on themselves and experienced hallucinations. This led them to theorize that schizophrenia might be caused by a buildup of oxidized adrenaline in the body. Their proposed treatment — massive doses of niacin and vitamin C —  didn’t appear to work and the schizophrenia aspect of their research was quietly forgotten. The hallucinatory aspect remained, however, and took on a life of its own.

In his 1954 book “The Doors of Perception,” in which Aldous Huxley described his psychedelic experience with mescaline, he alluded to the work of Hoffer and Osmond. Huxley noted a “close similarity” in the chemical compositions of adrenaline and mescaline: “Then came the discovery that adrenochrome, which is a product of the decomposition of adrenalin, can produce many of the symptoms observed in mescalin intoxication.” Adrenochrome probably occurs spontaneously in the human body, he added. “In other words, each one of us may be capable of manufacturing a chemical, minute doses of which are known to cause profound changes in consciousness.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what someone like the journalist and counterculture writer Hunter S. Thompson would make of that idea. His 1971 novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is the fictionalized tale of a drug-fuelled reporting trip by Thompson (“Raoul Duke” in the book) and his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta (“Doctor Gonzo”), a lawyer and Chicano rights activist. As their quest for new chemically induced sensations becomes ever more extreme, Doctor Gonzo urges Duke to try some adrenochrome. “Where’d you get this?” Duke asks. “You can’t buy it. … There’s only one source for this stuff … The adrenaline glands from a living human body. … It’s no good if you get it out of a corpse.”

Doctor Gonzo explains that he got it in lieu of payment from a client accused of child molesting: “The guy didn’t have any cash. He’s one of those Satanism freaks. He offered me human blood. … I told him I’d just as soon have an ounce or so of pure adrenochrome — or maybe just a fresh adrenalin gland to chew on.”

By 2007 the supposedly sinister origins of adrenochrome had also reached British TV scriptwriters. In the first episode of the detective series “Inspector Lewis,” the protagonist finds a notepad on which someone has written the word “adrenochrome” and asks what it means. “It’s a drug,” he is told, “a very special drug from a very special place. To harvest adrenochrome … you’ve got to murder for it.”

In the QAnon world, stories such as these provide a crossover point where believers create an imagined reality and cite fiction as supporting evidence. A video clip from the 1998 film version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” shows Duke (played by Johnny Depp) and Doctor Gonzo (played by Benicio Del Toro) on a drug binge in a trashed hotel room, with Del Toro urging Depp to try some adrenochrome: “As your attorney, I advise you to take a hit out of the little brown bottle in my shaving kit. You won’t need much. Just a tiny taste. … That stuff makes pure mescaline seem like ginger beer, man.” The clip, which has had 3.3 million views on YouTube, is often cited as proof that adrenochrome is established as a recreational drug.

In essence, the claims about adrenochrome “harvesting” are an updated version of the folk tales about blood-sucking vampires that have existed for centuries. Vampire stories, and horror stories in general, are meant to be frightening — which is why people enjoy them. They need to be plausible enough to achieve the desired level of scariness, but not so convincing that what began as a form of entertainment crosses over into real life. Once people start believing that vampires exist, it’s only a matter of time before they wonder who among their friends, neighbors and acquaintances might actually be one.

The idea of children being abducted and killed to obtain adrenochrome bears a striking resemblance to the antisemitic blood libel in which Jews are accused of killing Christian children and using their blood to bake matzah bread for Passover. The claim is completely baseless but stubbornly persistent, and over the centuries has often served as a pretext for persecution. In a similar way, claims implicating prominent figures in adrenochrome stories — which would be extremely serious if true —  are freely bandied about on social media despite being nothing more than figments of people’s imaginations. Those allegedly involved include the Clintons and the Obamas, the (Jewish) billionaire/philanthropist George Soros and celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks.

The technique with adrenochrome stories, as with other conspiracy theories, is to cherry-pick bits of information that appear to support their claims while ignoring anything that calls them into question. Contrary evidence can be dismissed on the grounds that it is just an attempt to suppress the truth. The key, in the minds of conspiracists, is to search for hidden clues that give the game away.

In March 2021, one of the world’s largest container ships got stuck in the Suez canal, blocking it for almost a week. According to imaginative stories disseminated on social media, U.S. Navy Seals boarded the vessel and found unspecified “weapons of mass destruction,” which “were going to be given to the Muslims by the Israel Mossad” to start a Middle East war. The Seals were also said to have found more than 1,000 trafficked children on board (some dead, some alive). A photo was circulated purportedly showing some of the children, though it turned out to have been taken 20 years earlier and actually showed asylum seekers who had been picked up by a Norwegian freighter in the Indian Ocean.

Apart from the fact that a ship had run aground, the story was complete nonsense. But that didn’t stop believers convincing themselves that the person behind the supposed trafficking was Hillary Clinton. The ship’s operator was a company called Evergreen and, as the believers excitedly pointed out, “evergreen” was also a codename for Hillary previously used by the U.S. Secret Service. Furthermore, the ship’s call sign was H3RC which, if you remove the number 3, gives the initials of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Why she would have chosen to signal her involvement in this way was never explained.

The stories went on to claim that pedophiles had paid “big bucks” for the imaginary children, ordering them online through such companies as the furniture and household goods firm Wayfair. Wayfair had become the subject of an earlier conspiracy theory after advertising a series of very expensive storage cabinets. The price range of $13,000 to $15,000 was hard for many people to believe; by way of explanation, conspiracy theorists claimed this was a disguised way of selling trafficked children.

That wasn’t all. To distinguish between the different styles of cabinet, Wayfair had assigned them female names — Alyvia, Neriah, Samiyah and Yaritza — which it said were picked by an algorithm. Conspiracy theorists assumed these must be the names of trafficked children, and believers began searching for records of girls with those names who had been reported missing. They found some, though none had been trafficked. One named Alyvia turned out to have been an autistic 3-year-old who had wandered off and drowned in a pond in 2013. Another was a 17-year-old named Samiyah, who had been missing from home for four days in 2019.

Conspiracy theories linking Hillary Clinton to pedophilia and child trafficking had first gained widespread currency with the so-called Pizzagate affair in 2016 — when Clinton was running for president against Trump. According to the story, Clinton was involved in a child sex ring operating from the basement of the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. It was patently untrue, not least because the restaurant had no basement, but the conspiracy theorists claimed to have found clues in a series of hacked emails written by Clinton campaign adviser John Podesta. The New York Times reported: “Some emails referring to Mr. Podesta’s dinner plans mentioned pizza. A 4chan participant then connected the phrase ‘cheese pizza’ to pedophiles, who on chat boards use the initials ‘c.p.’ to denote child pornography.” Although numerous media organizations debunked these claims, a YouGov poll at the end of 2016 found 17% of Clinton voters and 46% of Trump voters believed the emails talked about pedophilia and human trafficking.

QAnon emerged a year after Pizzagate, by which time Trump was in the White House and, according to Q (the anonymous person or persons behind QAnon), he was preparing to crack down on a bunch of “deep state” conspirators. Q’s claims about that quickly merged with Pizzagate fantasies. Taking up a prediction from Q that Hillary Clinton was going to be arrested, QAnoners decided that the reason for her arrest would be pedophilia. As James Ball puts it in his recent book “The Other Pandemic: How QAnon Contaminated the World,” it “sort of spirals out from there.”

“With conspiracies and QAnon you end up at a place that just looks batshit to a normal person, but each step is quite a small one and quite plausible,” he told New Lines. One element of plausibility was a statistic that 365,348 children had been reported missing in the U.S. during 2020. At first sight this was a horrifying figure; the fact that it had come from the FBI gave it credibility and QAnon followers publicized it relentlessly. The way the figure was cited gave the impression that large numbers of children were being abducted, when in fact they had merely been reported missing. “More than 99% of them are found within 12 hours and even in the most high-risk situations 97% are returned unharmed,” Ball said. Alarmed at what appeared to be an epidemic of missing children, people soon began asking why mainstream media were ignoring it, which in turn invited conspiratorial explanations. “Once you believe the media is covering it up you must look for a reason … and QAnon then starts to find the ‘answers,’” Ball added.

Wild as the claims about trafficking and Hillary Clinton might be, they came against a background of some genuine abuse cases, among them that of the late financier (and convicted pedophile) Jeffrey Epstein, who socialized in elite circles and befriended various celebrities, including Trump. “If you’ve got that, and the very real institutional abuse of the Catholic Church,” Ball commented, “is it so ridiculous to ask people to believe there is some kind of additional cabal?”

The late financier and convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1997. (Davidoff Studios/Getty Images)

Epstein’s sex crimes have long been grist for the QAnon mill, but his 2019 suicide in jail generated a conspiratorial feeding frenzy, with a phantasmagoria of claims about what “really” happened. Trump’s well-documented relationship with Epstein, which has been described as an “epic bromance,” doesn’t seem to bother QAnoners. They largely ignore it. According to Michael Hayden, who monitors extremism for the Southern Poverty Law Center, their purpose when citing Epstein is to discredit anyone seen as attacking Trump. In an interview with NPR, Hayden suggested that Epstein references can also be used to diminish criticism of their hero: However bad a news event may look for Trump, by citing Epstein, the other side looks worse and more depraved.

Blending fantasies about adrenochrome “harvesting” with conspiracy theories about pedophilia and child trafficking adds a new dimension to the horror. It sounds more 21st-century than tales of blood-sucking vampires and implies that the choice of chemical has some basis in science. From a conspiracy theorist’s point of view, though, the most useful thing about adrenochrome is that it’s such an obscure substance.

According to Brian Friedberg, writing in the technology magazine Wired, the lack of verified information creates a knowledge gap that fantasists can exploit because of the way social media and search engines work: “As a result of the relative unimportance of adrenochrome, it doesn’t get written about much by scientists, journalists, or academics. This creates a data void, a vacuum of trustworthy information.” Within that void, Friedberg continues, “Search algorithms surface what’s available. … This is the perfect condition for a viral infection of misinformation and conspiracism.”

Regardless of the knowledge gap, though, the core claim of the adrenochrome fantasy — that the only way of obtaining it is to extract it from the human body through a lethal “harvesting” process — is easily disproved: Biotech companies are perfectly capable of manufacturing it.

It might seem strange that despite conclusive evidence to the contrary, people continue to believe the “harvesting” claims, but in the world of conspiracy theories a scientific approach to evidence is optional: You can accept it if it fits the theory; if not, you can ignore it. In the U.S., trust in science among Republican voters is increasingly fragile. A survey reported by the Associated Press in 2022 found that only 34% of Republicans expressed strong confidence in the scientific community, while almost twice as many Democrats (64%) did so. Previously there was little difference in attitudes between Democrats and Republicans, but a gap has developed since 2018, one that widened considerably during the COVID pandemic, when anti-vaccine populists attempted to sow doubt about science and went on the warpath against immunologists and public health officials.

A possible explanation for this shift is that Republicans and Democrats have been following cues from their leaders. Reporting on the survey’s findings, the Associated Press quoted Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, as saying: “We’ve seen so much criticism (and worse) leveled at medical experts since the beginning of the pandemic from the former president, other Republican leaders and the conservative media, and just the opposite from the current president, Democratic leaders, and the mainstream and liberal media.”

In QAnon circles doubts about orthodox science are often replaced by an unquestioning faith in pseudoscience. One illustration of that is Before It’s News, a website where “digital warriors and YouTubers, citizen reporters and whistleblowers” can post “important facts” that have been “omitted or ignored by the mainstream media.” A search of the site reveals 806 items mentioning Pizzagate, 276 linking Clinton and Evergreen, and 48 mentioning Wayfair. Alongside these, there are abundant links to videos about the Bible plus contributions expressing devotion to God and Donald Trump.

Before It’s News claims to have 4 million visitors every month, and also attracts lots of advertisers with an eye on the visitors’ money. The content of these ads gives a remarkable insight into the type of people the website attracts: people wary of the present and fearful of the future. The advertisers, meanwhile, are offering to protect them (for a price) from the invisible forces that cause their feelings of insecurity. One ad urges readers: “Emigrate while you still can” and a linked website advises them to avoid the coming cataclysm by buying land in Panama. “Surviving the further course of an ever escalating crisis in Europe will not be possible for most people. No doubt adjusting to the future will also be a challenge in Panama, but neither are there millions of refugees here, nor is there a Ukraine around the corner.”

Before It’s News has lots of ads for “alternative medicine” products — pills to improve brain function, cleanse the colon and generally detoxify the body — plus numerous devices to counter unseen electromagnetic forces. For only $59.95 you can buy a cover for your smart meter that will cut out 96% of the radiation. Common symptoms caused by smart meters are alarmingly said to include headaches, insomnia, fatigue, tinnitus, heart arrhythmia, decreased immune function, irritability and decreased cognitive function.

There’s also PolarAid, a green disc that users are told to place for a couple of minutes on their body’s “energy meridians.” It is said to work by “directing, redirecting and harnessing the powerful, natural occurring ‘vital energy flows’ that surround us.” A family pack of seven discs costs $250. Meanwhile, the BCX Ultra Deluxe frequency generator costs $2,795, but the advertiser suggests it’s a sound investment: “In the future, conventional health services may be very strained, rationed, or non-existent. The BCX Ultra is the most versatile healing technology that should be on everyone’s list for emergency preparedness.”

In James Ball’s view, QAnon has been highly successful at attracting people with an interest in “wellness” and alternative medicine — a trend that was boosted by the Covid pandemic. “It’s built into alternative medicine that mainstream medicine is hiding something from you, so people who are in it, especially practitioners, are predisposed to conspiracy-type ideas,” he told New Lines.

There is no age limit for the trafficking of people. Most of the victims are adults and, according to UNICEF, only about a quarter are children. Given that, tackling human trafficking in general rather than child trafficking in particular might seem a better strategy.

Historian Eli Zaretsky sees possible ideological reasons why “child trafficking” might be preferred in right-wing discourse. “Human trafficking,” he told New Lines, “may have to do with the left’s critique of capitalism and the markets. For the left, human trafficking represents capitalism, which reduces everything to a commodity. … It just buys and sells human beings with no respect for human life.” The right, he continued, “could be saying no, it’s not a problem of capitalism, it’s a problem of leftists who don’t want to respect the traditional family — they believe in all these things that are exploding the traditional family, gay marriage, transgender rights, women’s liberation.”

It’s obvious there are also practical reasons for campaigners against trafficking to keep the spotlight on children: It helps to mobilize public support by tapping into the natural concern of parents for the safety of their young. QAnon-inspired activists have maximized that effect with misleading claims about the scale of the problem and also by presenting it as a threat to the traditional family coming from outside the family — when the opposite is more likely to be true.

“They maneuver the threat from where it actually occurs, which is inside the family,” Max Fox, a writer on sex and gender, told New Lines. “Most child sexual assault happens with caregivers rather than outsiders, but by saying interlopers are coming to do violence to what was previously a haven of safety, they can suppress the unbearable truth that it’s families and relatives and caregivers who are statistically the most likely to be perpetrators of this kind of violence.”

Meanwhile, perceptions of the child victims have taken on an idealized form — in James Ball’s words,  as blonde-haired churchgoing kids snatched from a loving family. Usually, though, it’s more complicated. “Sex trafficking tends to be drug-related,” Ball said. “It tends to be people who have run away from troubled homes or they’ve moved in with a boyfriend who then pimps them out — that’s the reality a lot of the time.”

Not surprisingly, mothers from a conservative religious background seem especially drawn to supporting organizations like Operation Underground Railroad — which in turn can easily lure them into the world of QAnon thinking. In his book, Ball shows that the way the child trafficking issue appeals to mothers has enabled QAnon to broaden its demographic — though many of those caught up in it are unaware it is happening. One example of how easily they can be lured into QAnon thinking was a campaign around the hashtag #savethechildren. Originally created by the international charity of that name, it was derailed by QAnon postings, which in turn generated street protests in 30 U.S. cities, plus a similar number elsewhere in the world.

QAnon’s takeover of the hashtag had been started by two mothers, apparently with the best of intentions. “I don’t think the two women behind it quite knew that the stuff they were posting originated within QAnon, but what they were spreading was very much QAnon-related material,” Ball told New Lines.

Ultimately, the kind of activism that spreads conspiracy theories and deceives people about the scale and nature of trafficking doesn’t help abused children, but it’s not meant to. The aim is to rally support for conservative ideas about the traditional, wholesome, God-fearing, all-American family in the face of anxiety-inducing liberal values, and social and demographic changes. Presenting those challenges in the form of threats to innocent children gives the activism a powerful appeal.

More than 100 child welfare and anti-trafficking organizations issued an open letter in October 2020 warning that anyone “who lends any credibility to QAnon conspiracies related to human trafficking actively harms the fight” against traffickers. “There is not a deep state cabal of Democratic politicians and Hollywood celebrities who traffic children for sex,” the groups said. “We work on these issues. We would know.” Trafficked youth “are not abducted by strangers or Hollywood elites — they are abandoned by failing and under-resourced systems.” Among the letter’s signatories were the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking (since renamed the Alliance to End Human Trafficking) and the University of Maryland SAFE Center for Human Trafficking Survivors.

Trafficking is by no means the only culture war issue that can be presented under the guise of protecting the young. Trump has vowed to “protect” students “from the radical left and Marxist maniacs infecting educational institutions” if elected in 2024. Campaigns against abortion rights, “unsuitable” school textbooks, transgender rights and same-sex marriage can also be made to appear motivated by concern for the well-being of the young. The conservative obsession with the dangers of “grooming” — where adults seek to gain the trust of children in order to exploit them sexually — is one example. Moral panic about “grooming” is used as a pretext for restricting LGBT+ rights, despite there being zero evidence of a connection between the two things. Meanwhile, people who object to anti-LGBT+ laws find themselves accused of advocating, if not actually practicing, child abuse. It’s no accident that when Florida introduced a new law against discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, the governor’s press secretary referred to it as a law against “grooming.”

It has been said that the story of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, is not really a children’s story but was written to satisfy the psychological needs of adults. The same might be said of anti-trafficking activism: It’s less about saving children than manipulating the minds of their parents.

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