Christine Priola had worked in the Cleveland public school district for nearly 20 years when she resigned suddenly on Jan. 7, the day after she stormed the US Capitol, marching into the Senate chamber with a sign that said, “The children cry out for justice.”
“I will be switching paths to expose the global evil of human trafficking and pedophilia, including in our government and children’s services agencies,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
“This world is run on the blood of innocent children, please look into it,” she told a local news crew a few days later.
Others in the crowd on Jan. 6 held similar beliefs, bearing signs and shirts referencing QAnon, the mass delusion that a secret cabal is operating a global child trafficking network that Donald Trump was trying to stop. Among QAnon’s followers were two women who died at the Capitol insurrection: Rosanne Boyland overdosed on amphetamines, and Ashli Babbitt was shot by a Capitol Police officer. Priola now faces federal charges for unlawful and disorderly conduct for her role. (She did not respond to an interview request.)
Conspiracy theories about sex trafficking and child abuse have been a core feature of the online fever swamp that bloomed under Trump, acting as a powerful recruitment tool and call to action. During Trump’s years in office, believers cited these conspiracies to argue that Hillary Clinton should be arrested, discussed spreading them to divert attention from stories about children separated from their families at the US-Mexico border, and wielded them as a cudgel against mask-wearing policies, claiming that covering up faces would abet traffickers. And, after Trump called on his supporters to defend his false claims of election fraud, some who showed up to the “Stop the Steal” rally believed him to be on the verge of taking down the cabal.
But while attempts to reckon with the insurrection have largely focused on Trump’s incitement and the complicity of social media companies, the conspiracies at the core of the QAnon mass delusion were also fed by an ongoing moral panic over child sex trafficking that has not faced the same scrutiny. And, as sex trafficking conspiracies continue to proliferate in spite of the conspiracy’s many failed prophecies, some fear that the movement’s proponents, who had expected Trump to fight these imagined abuses, may now be recruited by other extremist groups or feel compelled to take matters into their own hands.
“The bottom has just fallen out of their worldview, they are extremely open to radical ideas when framed simply and reasonably,” reads one message in a far-right channel on Telegram discussing disillusioned QAnon supporters that was reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
With Trump out of office and the online persona who has been posting under the pseudonym “Q” nearly silent since the election, the movement’s future remains uncertain, leaving many of its followers to reckon with their own path forward.
“If you follow them to their logical conclusion, I think the risk becomes very apparent,” Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab, told BuzzFeed News. “If somebody deep in their heart believes there is child trafficking or satanic sex abuse at the highest levels, in plain sight, and they also lose faith that anybody is trying to do anything about it, the risk there is that that individual may feel compelled to try to solve the problem in their own way.”
As these conspiracies have spun out of control, some anti-trafficking groups have spoken out against them, but others have validated and even encouraged them. After years of campaigns seeking to raise awareness and sharing overblown statistics about human trafficking, some now say QAnon was the inevitable outcome of a movement built on narratives of abuse and rescue.
“QAnon is always going to find a home because it’s rooted in the same narratives that are professed by mainstream trafficking movements,” Kate D’Adamo, a sex worker rights advocate who has written about the connection between QAnon and the anti-trafficking movement, told BuzzFeed News. “QAnon is not a fluke; it is an outgrowth of decades of misinformation.”
Horror stories about children being abused in evil rituals have been around for nearly 900 years; often falsely accusing Jews, they are updated and adapted as the specific fears of an era shift. In the 1980s, the US was seized by a moral panic over satanic ritual abuse in daycares, and many elements of the QAnon narrative — hidden tunnels, the blood of children, and secretive cabals — echo those earlier tales.
The concept of human trafficking, often discussed as modern slavery, conjures its own demons. The international protocol on human trafficking has only been around since 2000, and according to one of the negotiators, the definition of "trafficking" was a problem from the outset. Writing for the Guardian in 2009, journalist Nick Davies called the story about sex trafficking from policymakers and victims’ advocates “a model of misinformation,” and compared it to the lies that were spread about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Much of the Guardian story — about limited research, exaggerated statistics, confusion over the definition of “sex trafficking,” politicians seizing on the supposed crisis, and feminists locking arms with evangelical Christians to fight for the abolition of sex work — strikes a familiar chord. And many of those same forces have fed the fervor around sex trafficking in the US that propped up QAnon.
Child sex trafficking is a real problem, but discussions about it easily veer into black-and-white formulations that prioritize getting a bad guy and rescuing victims over the hard work of addressing the systemic inequalities that are often at the core. These notions have been dramatized on programs like the NBC reality show To Catch a Predator, and they are often part of the work of anti-trafficking groups, who sometimes engage in vigilante actions to surveil and “rescue” supposed victims. “Who doesn’t want to go after child predators?” To Catch a Predator host Chris Hansen asked in a 2017 interview.
The political power of these stories of abuse was evident by at least 2012.
In January that year, more than 40,000 Christian college students gathered in Georgia for a conference focused on the issue, which emerged as an appealing political cause for young evangelicals disinterested in continuing the fight against marriage for same-sex couples. The conference got the attention of then-president Barack Obama’s team as they strategized for reelection. A month later, after an adviser met with religious leaders, Obama celebrated young Christians who “worship the God who sets the captives free and work to end modern slavery” in a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast.
“Human trafficking stuff has been part of the discourse in the evangelical movement for a long time,” said Holt, who was previously a reporter at Right Wing Watch. “It kind of goes back to the same thing: Here is this universally agreed-upon evil, and God compels you to fight against it.”
The issue became central to a new wave of conspiracies, though, during the 2016 election, and the panic over sex trafficking mutated into the threat of real-world violence.
Online sleuths who scoured the Clinton campaign emails released by WikiLeaks claimed baselessly that orders for cheese pizza were actually a secret code to discuss child sex abuse materials, and that children were being held captive below a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC. One man was so alarmed by the claims that he traveled to the restaurant with a gun to investigate for himself. He fired several shots without injuring anyone, before he was arrested.
QAnon picked up where the incident that came to be known as Pizzagate left off. The online poster claiming to be an anonymous government official with a Q-level security clearance first appeared in October 2017. The first message seized on an unusual comment from Trump about “the calm before the storm” as a cloaked reference to his alleged efforts to take down a cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats and Hollywood celebrities running a child sex trafficking ring.
In the years since, the false claims have gained momentum.
Financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s abuses against young women, and his connections to prominent figures like the Clintons and the UK’s Prince Andrew, have been cited for years as evidence of a global child trafficking ring. Another online campaign, Operation Death Eaters, which was an offshoot of the Anonymous hacktivist collective, sought to expose child sex abusers like Epstein in 2014. Epstein had been convicted on charges of solicitation of prostitution and procuring a minor for prostitution in a 2008 “sweetheart” plea deal that sentenced him to 18 months in jail. His arrest in 2019 on charges of sex trafficking and his suicide while in prison were a major source of validation for QAnon believers, who in these events saw proof of both the cabal and the cover-up that Q described.
Politicians also seized on the issue and legitimized the conspiracy. After the Trump administration announced Justice Department funding to organizations that provide housing for human trafficking survivors, QAnon followers seized on the grants as evidence of Trump’s fight against the global cabal of child sex abusers, and the news became one of the most-shared stories on Facebook. When asked about QAnon during a presidential town hall in October, Trump refused to disavow it, saying, “I know nothing about it. I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard, but I know nothing about it.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, who raised a fist in solidarity with the rioters on Jan. 6, warned in a 2018 campaign speech of a growing “human trafficking crisis” that he falsely attributed to the “sexual revolution” of the ’60s and ’70s, saying it caused the “exploitation of women on a scale that we would never have imagined.”
The scale of the problem, however, has been difficult to pin down. The International Labour Organization estimates that of the roughly 24.9 million people in forced labor worldwide, the vast majority — about 80% — are involved in nonsexual labor.
In the US, the Department of Health and Human Services said bluntly in a 2018 report to Congress that “research on minor-victim sex trafficking does not support estimates of the number of victims.”
Anyone who is trading sex under the age of 18 is considered a victim of sex trafficking, whether or not they are forced or coerced into it. HHS cited a 2016 study from the Center for Court Innovation, which was based on interviews with about 950 people between the ages of 13 and 24 in the sex trade as one of the most thorough studies. That report estimated that there may be around 10,500 people under the age of 18 in the sex trade in the US. Only about 15% of the people interviewed, though, said they were doing so under the control of another person.
HHS suggests that the total number of victims may be higher since the CCI study focused primarily on street-based work, but that is a far cry from many of the claims commonly circulated on social media that hundreds of thousands of children are at risk of sex trafficking.
Despite the uncertainty around these numbers and the complex social inequalities that contribute to trafficking, many anti-trafficking advocates continue to promote sensational statistics and awareness campaigns that distort the public’s understanding of the subject.
Polaris, an advocacy organization that receives funding from HHS to operate the National Human Trafficking Hotline, has spoken out about the dangers of QAnon and misinformation, and signed an open letter to Congress along with dozens of other groups declaring that supporting “QAnon conspiracies related to human trafficking actively harms the fight against human trafficking.”
But it has also been criticized for spreading misleading numbers and promoting harmful policies. The organization says it has identified about 63,000 instances of trafficking with one or more victims since 2007. However, these numbers are based on anonymous calls and include situations where the organization is only moderately certain that trafficking has occurred. “Cases coded as ‘Moderate’ contain several indicators and red flags of potential trafficking situations, or resemble common trafficking scenarios but lack certain core details of force, fraud, or coercion,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
In the aftermath of the mass shooting in the Atlanta area last month, where three spas were targeted, Polaris took down a report online that vilified “illicit massage businesses” and was promoted with a campaign encouraging the public to get involved in shutting them down. The organization told Vice that it was concerned that white supremacists could use the report to justify violence.
Other organizations have gone so far as to say some QAnon narratives were, essentially, legitimate. In June 2020, when baseless rumors started spreading on social media that the furniture company Wayfair was trafficking children in expensive cabinets, Tim Ballard, who founded Operation Underground Railroad and was appointed by Trump to cochair an advisory council on human trafficking, told the New York Times he saw the conspiracies as an opportunity; he posted a video on Twitter, saying, “Bottom line, law enforcement is going to flesh that out, and we’ll get our answer sooner than later. But I want to tell you this: Children are sold that way.”
As the conspiracies spread online, adherents began to take action in response to the perceived crisis by blocking traffic across the Hoover Dam to demand answers, vandalizing churches they believed were implicated, harassing members of the public who supposedly victims, and, in a few cases, killing people.
The pandemic, during which people have been fearful and spending more time online, reenergized QAnon, which had slowed after the website where Q had posted was taken offline. Research indicates that much of the renewed interest came from conspiracies about child sex trafficking. The hashtag #SaveTheChildren was co-opted by QAnon followers and picked up by lifestyle and parenting bloggers. Messages adapted for Instagram brought women, and moms in particular, into the fringe movement with pastel-colored messages about an alternative reality in which child sex abuse was the real pandemic. In the wake of mass demonstrations following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, QAnon followers organized another set of protests, sometimes with the slogan “Child Lives Matter.”
In their effort to expose suspected traffickers, QAnon believers have also interfered with legitimate anti-trafficking efforts. A recent report from Polaris on the mass delusion says its followers have doxed staffers and members of the organization’s board in 2018 and deluged the hotline with calls about baseless conspiracies. Anjana Rajan, Polaris’s CTO, who had been tracking threats against the organization, told BuzzFeed News that the calls had alarmed her last summer because they were an indication of believers’ commitment.
“There’s an important link between online and offline action on this,” Rajan said. “Posting on a message board is a pretty low-friction thing to do. Taking an action to call a hotline … that is an offline action that I think is a signal of something more severe to come.”
Researchers at START, a consortium of terrorism researchers headquartered at the University of Maryland, have so far identified 71 QAnon followers — 17 women and 54 men — who have allegedly committed crimes on the basis of their beliefs, about half of which took place during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at START, said the number of people who had preexisting mental health conditions was “alarmingly high.” The researchers have only examined the mental health backgrounds of defendants in cases unrelated to the insurrection so far, and found that about 66% were radicalized after experiencing some kind of trauma. That number is even higher for women, with 83% having specifically experienced trauma related to the physical or sexual abuse of their children.
“Many of them…are primarily motivated by this idea of child sex trafficking, and this belief that they’re fighting this criminal enterprise,” said Jensen.
The sister of Rosanne Boyland, one of the rioters who died during the Capitol insurrection, said she had been drawn in by the Wayfair conspiracy. And, tweets from Ashli Babbitt show that sex trafficking and a desire to protect children were concerns for her as well.
Babbitt tweeted about sex trafficking as early as January 2019, about a year before her first tweet about QAnon, writing, “I live 15 min from Tijuana....what trump speaks is truth. the drugs the crime the sex trafficking the gangs..the sickness..IT IS ALL HAPPENING.”
Some of Babbitt’s tweets have apparently been removed, but reporting from Bellingcat shows that she tweeted about Pizzagate in November 2019 and began to use QAnon-related hashtags in February 2020. She announced that she would be attending the rally in DC on Jan. 6, 2021, by replying, to a since-deleted tweet that said, “We will not let the children be forgotten.”
It’s unclear what will become of these conspiracies with Trump out of office. Some QAnon followers have begun to abandon the movement after it became clear that the former president would not fulfill Q’s predictions of mass arrests. And while the investigation into allegations of sex trafficking against Matt Gaetz might seem like fodder for new conspiracies, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican and proponent of QAnon, has defended him. Greene and Rep. Lauren Boebert, who has also expressed support for the conspiracies, were elected to Congress last fall, along with numerous other QAnon believers in local elections who now hold positions around the country.
In the aftermath of the insurrection, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that the bureau considers white supremacist groups a “persistent, evolving threat.” And as right-wing organizations recalibrate their strategies for gaining support in the Joe Biden era, Q adherents represent a large pool of Trump supporters left without guidance. Jensen cautioned that the overall number of people who had been motivated by their belief in QAnon to commit crimes was low relative to the millions who have been exposed to the conspiracies. But for white supremacists looking to recruit, connecting sex trafficking to the old “blood libel” conspiracies about Jews using children for ritual sacrifice has been a way in.
“[Right-wing] groups and white nationalists are largely dealing with what is already out there,” said Brian Friedberg, a researcher at Harvard’s Technology and Social Change Project. “From my perspective, they are trying to harness preexisting narratives rather than inventing anything new.”
The attraction for Cleveland public school employee Christine Priola to such conspiracies could be looked at in much the same way.
“I have known for many years that I wanted to work with children and assist in their development,” she wrote in her application for the job in the Cleveland public school district. “I understand that development in the critical years of childhood help form the foundation for healthy, safe, and respectful adult lives. I feel that I have a special rapport with children and find creative ways to facilitate the learning process.” ●