A baseless conspiracy theory about Wayfair spread like wildfire among influencers on Instagram over the weekend, with prominent voices on the platform joining in the speculation.
Misinformation and right-wing conspiracy theories — which used to primarily reside in darker corners of the internet like 4chan and Reddit — have been spreading through Instagram since earlier this year. In April, BuzzFeed News reported that several lifestyle and parenting influencers had begun sprinkling in QAnon theories with their normal content; since then, the problem has only become bigger.
The Wayfair conspiracy theory — which baselessly claims that the company is trafficking children through its website — began to gain steam on Friday. It has spread alarmingly quickly around Instagram.
Since June, the conspiracy theory about Wayfair had been floating around Twitter accounts that share dubious information — but the version that went viral appears to have originated on the r/conspiracy subreddit. The apparent original poster speculated that Wayfair had been trafficking children through storage cabinets after noticing several of the products were "extremely overpriced." The cabinets in question cost around $13,000; conspiracy theorists connected some of the products' names to children who had reported missing online.
The price tags and the fact that Wayfair (like many companies) assigns human names to its items aside, there is no concrete evidence that the company is involved in child sex trafficking. Wayfair has denied these allegations, and one of the so-called missing children being flagged by conspiracy theorists also responded angrily on social media.
The Wayfair conspiracy plays into the bigger QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that the world is controlled by a secret cabal of pedophiles that President Donald Trump is actively fighting against. Over the years, QAnon believers have claimed this ring has been involved in the Clinton presidential campaign (remember Pizzagate?), the Mueller investigation, and, more recently, the Navy ships and hospital built in New York City to help fight the coronavirus.
If you want more information, BuzzFeed News' Craig Silverman broke the whole bogus QAnon theory down in a video last year.
QAnon supporters and conspiracy theorists have taken the Wayfair claims and connected them. Several other photos of "proof" have emerged, and countless people online have come up with other products, such as expensive pillows, they deem suspicious.
The company has denied any involvement in human trafficking, saying "there is, of course, no truth to these claims."
"The products in question are industrial grade cabinets that are accurately priced," a Wayfair spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. "Recognizing that the photos and descriptions provided by the supplier did not adequately explain the high price point, we temporarily removed the products from site to rename them and provide a more in-depth description and photos that accurately depict the product to clarify the price point."
The conspiracy theory has also been debunked in mainstream media outlets like Snopes and Reuters. Ben Collins, a reporter on disinformation for NBC News, also addressed the conspiracy point by point in a Twitter thread.
Samiyah Mumin, a teenager who conspiracy theorists claimed was a missing child possibly caught up in the ring, posted an angry Facebook Live video to chastise those spreading her name in connection with the bogus information.
This did not stop the theory from being circulated by lifestyle influencers throughout the weekend.
Influencer Rebecca Pfeiffer — who runs a blog about fashion and home decor called LuvBec and has 110,000 followers — has nine separate highlights on her page sharing a range of debunked QAnon conspiracy theories.
She and other vocal QAnon supporters posted about the Wayfair conspiracy theory, and many others on Instagram began to share it as well.
Pfieffer declined to comment for this story.
Posts from Maddie Thompson — a beauty influencer with 42,000 Instagram followers and her own line of eyebrow products called MadLuvv — have been shared widely since she began sharing the Wayfair conspiracy theory over the weekend.
Thompson said in an Instagram Live video with her husband, Justin, that while in quarantine she had begun reading more about human sex trafficking. When she read the Wayfair theory, she said she "immediately believed it" and thought it was "more of the pandemic than anything else." Justin did too, and so he said he decided to buy one of the desks in question for more than $17,000. She posted the transaction on Instagram, where it has been liked nearly 10,000 times.
Her husband also posted a video of himself calling Wayfair customer service and attempting to buy a cabinet. When the representative apparently began to understand he was calling about the conspiracy theory, Justin begins to tell him, "Shame on you."
Thompson declined to be interviewed for this story but told BuzzFeed News: "Know that trafficking is a REAL THING. There really are kids getting rapped, killed, abused and sold everyday. To make light of that is sad and speaks to your character."
Other, bigger lifestyle influencers began to share the theory as well, like Indy Blue Severe, who has 322,000 followers on Instagram. Severe told BuzzFeed News she feels it is "very obvious something illegal and potentially dangerous is going on."
"I think it’s shameful that the media won’t touch this story, and I think it’s shameful that anyone who does is branded a 'right-wing conspiracy theorist' and gaslit for questioning a very questionable situation," she said. "This is not about politics, and I am shocked that so many people are staying quiet about children. At the end of the day, we need to start demanding sufficient explanations to these types of 'glitches' and 'mistakes.' The very dismissive and surface-level statement Wayfair gave regarding to all of this is absolutely insufficient."
Fashion blogger Suzy Shattuck (153,000 followers) made an entire highlight explaining the theory, and mom influencer Kassady Bingham (168,000 followers) even claimed while discussing the Wayfair conspiracy that her own child was almost trafficked.
Shattuck told BuzzFeed News that she has "no allegations, nor have [I] come up with an exact 'theory' to any of it," but she wants Wayfair to answer to the speculation.
"It started as just a curiosity but then grew into a major concern. I work on promoting companies like this and have purchased many things from them so it sparked my curiosity," she said.
Bingham didn't return a request for comment.
Other influencers mentioned the theory but didn't say they subscribed to it. When Emily Herren (@champagneandchanel) posted a poll asking her audience of 1 million followers what they thought of "this Wayfair stuff," 65% said they believed the conspiracy theory.
Other influencers posted that while they were unsure whether the Wayfair theories had merit, the theory is "shedding light on child trafficking."
Some supporters of the Wayfair conspiracy theory posted on Instagram that they were upset many influencers had posted consistently about Black Lives Matter and anti-racism but not about child sex trafficking.
"Where are the squares and the marches for the children?!" Pfeiffer posted over the weekend. "You posted a black square in solidarity for the oppressed. It picked up tons of media exposure. Tons of activism for unified efforts for a better way. You fought for systematic change for those you believe deserve a voice. Now ... there are little people who need your help!"
Ayana Lage, a Black lifestyle influencer, saw this narrative emerging and decided to respond in an IGTV.
"You can post about your cause without bringing Black Lives Matter into it," she said, pointing out that 40% of victims of sex trafficking reviewed in a two-year period were Black, according to the FBI.
According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, of the more than 23,500 children who were classified as endangered runaways in 2019, it is likely that as many as 1 in 6 became victims of sex trafficking.
Any child can become a victim, but the NCMEC states that "traffickers often target children with increased vulnerabilities." These include children who run away frequently, have a substance abuse issue (or have a parent who does), have experienced sexual abuse, or identify as LGBTQ in an unsupportive family. Children in the foster care system are particularly vulnerable, according to the NCMEC and the Department of Justice.
"Many recovered American victims are street children, a population of runaway or throwaway youth who often come from low income families, and may suffer from physical abuse, sexual abuse and family abandonment issues," the DOJ says on its website. "This population is seen as an easy target by pimps because the children are generally vulnerable, without dependable guardians, and suffer from low self-esteem."
While child sex trafficking, especially of at-risk youths, is a real problem in the US, there is no credible evidence that Wayfair has any involvement in such an operation. Like Pizzagate before it, this conspiracy theory has only served to spread misinformation through the internet and increasingly on platforms like Instagram.
So the next time you see this on someone's Instagram story, know how it connects to the larger QAnon conspiracy ecosystem, and think before you swipe up.
As Collins, the NBC News journalist, wrote on Twitter, "We're living in a second, more profound and politically important Satanic Panic. This time, everyone's in on it."