Across the globe, an estimated 40.3 million people are trapped in modern slavery, and roughly a quarter of them are children. In the United States, of the nearly 26,300 runaways reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 1 in 6 were likely victims of child sex trafficking. And these disturbing pre-pandemic statistics have likely increased due to COVID-19, as survivors who managed to leave their human traffickers are either considering or being forced to return due to loss of their jobs or housing. Children are also becoming more susceptible to exploiters due to increased usage of the internet during quarantine and less public visiblity.
But the sudden interest in #SaveTheChildren isn’t fueled by these statistics; instead, this hashtag stems from online conspiracy theories that D.C. pizza places or online furniture companies are actually selling trafficked children. These baseless allegations have exploded across evangelical social media, especially QAnon.
QAnon, which began as a series of posts in 2017 from an anonymous user known as ‘Q’ on the online bulletin board 4Chan, asserts that a network of satanic pedophile elites are running extensive networks of child-trafficking rings, and that President Donald Trump was chosen by the higher echelons of the American military to run and win the presidency, dismantle these perverse operations, imprison the ringleaders, and ultimately #SaveTheChildren. No evidence exists to support these claims, but over the past three years, QAnon has evolved from a small group that included far-right Trump supporters to a prominent movement within American conservatism. President Donald Trump praised his QAnon followers as people who “love their country” and recently failed to condemn the movement during a live town hall. There are 24 QAnon adherents running for Congress (with one likely to win in her district). As QAnon continues to become mainstream within the GOP, it has influenced and infiltrated Trump’s most reliable base: white evangelical Christians.
Why does QAnon resonate with these evangelicals? Part of the answer is their strong political alignment with the president, but it’s also true that evangelicals have long organized around the issue of human trafficking. And according to the major anti-trafficking organizations in the U.S., that axis of devotion and susceptibility due to political alignment is creating a nightmare for their work.
‘You don't think. Instead, you react.’
America today seems to run on cortisol and caffeine. Lines of communication run quicker than ever before; social media algorithms are tooled to provoke reaction based on the cookies of our online histories. The danger now, for those who work to prevent child trafficking in the United States, is not only that reactionary online posts to #SavetheChildren will distract from real instances of abuse, but also that anti-trafficking work itself will cease to be a bipartisan cause and instead become a political football.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, advocacy against sex trafficking was taken up by strange bedfellows: evangelicals and certain groups of second-wave feminists. This unlikely alliance, based upon a shared belief that all sex work is harm, shaped the U.S. government’s, and the evangelical community’s, involvement with human trafficking for decades to come.
It was during the George W. Bush administration that U.S. policy on human trafficking, originally focused on forced labor (about 64 percent of victims of human trafficking), shifted to sex trafficking (roughly 19 percent). This, no doubt, was due to the influence of evangelicals within and around his administration. “For many ... conflating commercial sex and human trafficking makes sense," wrote Yvonne C. Zimmerman. "Linking prostitution and sex trafficking also resonates with many Christians’ moral sensibilities.” After Bush established the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001 (called the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Barack Obama), an influx of government funds to the nonprofit sector spurred the rapid creation of both faith-based and non-religious NGOs, including those focused on human trafficking. By the time social media became a permanent fixture of the millennial generation, human trafficking was a mainstream movement and bipartisan social cause.
Through efforts like the Faith Alliance Against Slavery and Trafficking (FAAST), Wellspring Living, and most notably Louie Giglio’s Passion Conference, sex trafficking became what journalist Ruth Graham described in Slate as the “Christian Cause Célèbre.” Evangelical interest in sex trafficking has succeeded in raising funds for anti-trafficking organizations as well as spreading awareness of trafficking as a justice-issue nationally. (Giglio received bipartisan acclaim for his efforts that earned him an invite to give the benediction at President Obama’s second inauguration — before critics of Giglio’s past sermons on homosexuality pressured him to abstain from the national ceremony.) But their portrayals of trafficking slightly distorted the realities that fuel and maintain the industry in the U.S. and abroad.
The white evangelical community invoked the anti-trafficking cause as a moral descendent of the anti-slavery and civil rights movements, though its narrative focused less on trafficking’s concomitants with race, class, and gender, and instead wove in the Christian ideas of “redemption” and “rescue.” And though trafficking — of children and adults — has long been a problem in the U.S., evangelicals tended to paint trafficking as an occurrence primarily outside American borders.
Rob Morris, co-founder and CEO of Love 146, an international anti-trafficking organization, told Sojourners he appreciates the posture of compassionate readiness from supporting faith communities. But that desire can also lead to harmful actions. Morris recalled a conversation with a human rights agency director in Cambodia, who diagnosed Americans’ approach when fighting global causes: “You don’t think. Instead, you react.”
How QAnon undermines anti-trafficking efforts
Because of conspiracy theory proliferation and our culture’s reactionary tendencies, evangelicals are beginning to act in ways that cause dangerous effects. Pizzagate, the 2017 pre-QAnon conspiracy theory that linked Hillary Clinton to a purported child-sex ring underneath a pizza joint in Washington, D.C., induced Edgar Maddison Welch — a devout, conservative Christian — to leave his home in Salisbury, N.C., and storm a family-filled Comet Ping Pong with an AR-15. As he drove to Washington, Welch recorded a message to his family, saying he hoped his daughters would come to understand he was trying to “protect the defenseless;” in a text to his girlfriend, Welch cited a Bible verse about being “anointed by God.”
These conspiracies also take up valuable time and resources from legitimate organizations that fight human trafficking. The anti-trafficking organizations I contacted confirmed that they’re having to educate and re-educate those who’ve contacted them, citing these theories. Legitimate cases are getting backlogged because of concerned citizens who might have watched an Alex Jones clip on Facebook. While the theories themselves have generated interest (and for some, brought in donations), QAnon proliferation has overall made their work more difficult.
“Over the last few months, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has seen a surge in people contacting the trafficking hotline with reports based solely on second-hand information that is publicly available through social media or news reports,” a spokesperson from Polaris Project, a NGO that works to end human trafficking, told me in an email exchange. The spokesperson decided to remain anonymous due to safety concerns, given the sensitivity on conspiracy theory and child trafficking discourse.
The spokesperson said most of the calls are from well-meaning people, but “since the trafficking hotline takes all reports seriously, these redundant reports end up doing more harm than good by diverting the limited time and resources available away from serving victims, survivors, and others with more actionable information.”
At International Justice Mission, Katelyn Curran, national director of church mobilization, noted similar concerns and made it clear “IJM is not affiliated or associated with any QAnon theories or campaigns, and we recognize and denounce the false information QAnon supporters are spreading broadly.”
‘Anybody can be vulnerable’
The sensationalization of QAnon-style conspiracy theories and Hollywood depictions of trafficking paint a picture of the modern-day slavery that obscures reality. While conspiracy theories allege that child trafficking involves insidious networks run by far-off, liberal elites, the reality is that traffickers tend to be in a victim’s orbit of relationships, playing on vulnerabilities that already exist. “It’s about vulnerabilities being preyed on and being exploited by criminal traffickers,” says Barbara Ayama, a survivor of child trafficking and member of ECPAT-USA’s survivor council. “Anybody can be vulnerable at some point in their life; we don’t like to think that we can be, but we can be.”
In a COVID-19 world, these vulnerabilities are exacerbated. Children’s online schooling and their increased internet use, effects of the recession on families, and isolation with or near their traffickers all can lead to an increase in the number of children being trafficked within the U.S. and abroad. Traffickers can be in one’s own family, communities, and even local religious congregations.
“There are many studies that have shown that calls have upticked on reports on trafficking, and I think the pandemic has also shown that it has impacted specifically marginalized communities and specifically people who have been historically impacted, such as Black and brown folk,” said Yvonne Chen, director of private sector engagement for sex trafficking organization ECPAT-USA. “I think it’s important for people of faith to recognize that trafficking has a huge intersection with so many other human rights issues — like poverty, like homelessness … We’re looking at adoption and foster care, we’re looking at health care, we're looking at so many different ways where people may not recognize what the intersections are.”
Along with people from Black and Latinx/Hispanic communities, LGBTQ+ people, undocumented people, people who come from families with histories of drug/alcohol addiction and/or sexual abuse, and people living in poverty all have an increased likelihood of being trafficked.
As QAnon and similar conspiracy theories involving pedophilia allegations have infiltrated the conscience of the mainstream political Right, the theories’ blatant depiction of Trump as a quasi-messianic figure throws a legitimate issue forever into the “right-wing issues” circle of the American political Venn diagram. It creates a rebuffing impulse to child trafficking within the political Left in a similar vein as climate change or poverty is to the Right, or religious freedom to the Left. All are important issues, but when issues become linked with one political party, we run the risk of poisoning legitimate causes with the venom of cable news polarization.
During our interview, Morris recalled memories of his mother telling him the oft-shared yet societally unheeded tale of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
“So when it actually really is happening, you’re gonna miss it because you’re not gonna believe it anymore. Because you’re gonna eventually learn this stuff was just BS; it wasn’t real. It was [a] conspiracy theory. And so when it actually is happening, are you gonna have an attitude of like, ‘Yeah, been there down that road; I was deceived. I was tricked … I don’t have the energy anymore to wrap my head around this?’”
Author's Note: In partnership with ECPAT-USA, join me on Oct. 28, 2020 at 7 p.m. (EDT), for the webinar “Survivors Get Real About Trafficking” where survivors of child trafficking will discuss the current myths surrounding trafficking and provide concrete steps that people can take to help prevent trafficking in their communities.