Baseless accusations of LGBT activists supporting the acceptance of pedophilia as a sexual orientation have resurfaced thanks to far-right trolls and internet conspiracists.
The latest push of the false narrative came from actor and prominent conservative James Woods, who frequently uses his Twitter account to spread falsehoods.
On Tuesday, Woods tweeted a photo of a rainbow poster that had the text “Pedophiles are people too” on it.
“And so it begins,” he wrote.
The tweet received nearly 14,000 retweets and even more likes, prompting concern and outrage.
The image of the poster had spread online, primarily through Facebook, and made the rounds on forums about the baseless Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracy theories. The poster was originally stapled onto a telephone pole near a school in Portland, Oregon. Local news outlet KATU confirmed it was real and reported that the neighbors tore it down, but who put it up and why remains a mystery.
While the poster’s origins may be unclear, what is evident is that these baseless pedophilia accusations have been spreading more and more recently, and they’re a key component of online conspiracies that tend to support conservatives and cast liberals in an unflattering light.
“Pedophilia makes people angry, and anger is an emotion that drives action,” Joseph Uscinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “That action could include either sharing the story on social media or going out and chasing the pedophiles with weapons. Or something in between.”
Uscinski said accusing opponents of hurting children has a long history and has led to many innocent people’s lives being ruined, so it becomes particularly problematic when vulnerable communities are targeted.
“We want to be very careful, because the conspiracy theory points out innocent and unprotected people as villains,” Uscinski said. “That's when you can run into danger. If you have a conspiracy theory about immigrants or refugees or racial minorities or LGBTQ people or just regular people who don't have the benefit of secret service protection, these are people who are vulnerable to attack and sometimes conspiracy theorists will want to fight fire with fire.”
The LGBT/pedophilia conspiracy theory is not just being spread online. Last year, someone handed a crowd of people protesting conservative media commentator Mike Cernovich a pro-pedophilia sign. Although protesters quickly got rid of the banner, which was emblazoned with the logo for the largely defunct North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), it still became the basis of a misinformation campaign. Far-right media personalities used the photo of protesters holding it as an opportunity to call the protesters pedophiles, and the image continues to make rounds online nine months later.
Of course, it's prominent conspiracy websites like Infowars and poorly moderated social media that helps these hoaxes spread. Just last week, searching for Tom Hanks on YouTube, or even just googling him, brought up false conspiracies about him being part of a “pedophile ring.”
But searching a little deeper, on fringe anonymous forums like 4chan or 8chan, reveals plenty of coordinated campaigns surrounding pedophilia allegations.
For example, one poster falsely claiming the P in LGBTP stands for “pedosexual" was created by online trolls. (In the queer context, the letter P stands for pansexual, or someone who can be attracted to people of all gender identities and sexualities.) The poster was the brainchild of an anonymous online forum that even coordinated hashtags to smear the LGBT community, as Snopes reported at the time.
“This op, as you can probably deduce, will introduce fracture points in the LGBT movement by adding a “P” for pedophilia to their title,” one post said in January 2017. “Push pedo acceptance particularly on the LGBT bandwagon via twitter sockpuppets etc. Offline, letters to editors and / or news orgs as an ‘oppressed person due to my sexual preferences.’ Imagine if your 5pm news ran a story on this?”
Subsequently, the “LGBTP” poster began appearing on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, and continues to circulate online.
In another incident in central Oregon this June, an LGBT support organization called the Human Dignity Coalition found itself fielding angry questions and messages after someone spread posters that had NAMBLA's logo alongside the HDC’s.
Jamie Bowman, the organization’s president, said that when she found out about the posters that appeared around town a few days before the Pride celebration, she and her kids had to spend their day tearing them down.
“I thought we started to come out of that way of thinking as people are getting more educated, but now it's just being reiterated in a way that seems to be super effective and not helpful and scary,” Bowman said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News.
Eventually, she learned that the posters were printed in a local shop, but the man had paid in cash and didn’t reveal any information that could identify him. He printed 600 of them, though only 300 were picked up.
Bowman said she was fearful that this would impact the scheduled Pride celebration, but instead they had their best turnout yet and saw no protesters. Still, images of the posters Bowman tore down continue to live on conservative blogs and social media.
"People somehow still think the LGBTQ+ community is OK with this, and obviously it's not,” Bowman said. “But if you don't know any better and you already think there's something wrong with this community, you're going to see this as more reason why it shouldn't have rights.”