#SaveTheChildren: How a fringe conspiracy theory fueled a massive child abuse panic
A conspiratorial protest movement known as #SaveTheChildren swept across the United States, Canada, the UK, and Europe in the summer and early autumn of 2020, inspiring hundreds of in-person marches and demonstrations. The stated goal of the #SaveTheChildren campaign was to raise awareness around the horrors of “child sex trafficking,” a commonly misrepresented (although very real) problem in the United States and globally. However, much media coverage of this new movement initially failed to recognize that #SaveTheChildren was inspired by outlandish and debunked claims popularized by the online QAnon conspiracy movement; chiefly, the false notion that a “cabal” of politicians and celebrities participate in the satanic, ritual sexual abuse of children worldwide. By using social media to amplify misleading statistics and other misinformation, the #SaveTheChildren conspiracy movement contributed to an explosion of fear and anger surrounding child sex trafficking in the United States, and the proliferation of radical, conspiratorial beliefs that had previously been relegated to a relatively small, online community of conspiracy theorists.
Sex trafficking – defined under U.S. law as “trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion” – is a real, troubling but commonly misunderstood problem. While the QAnon community’s understanding of the term “child sex trafficking” evokes the misleading image of children being kidnapped by strangers and then transported across statelines or international borders to be sold for sex, most real cases of sex trafficking of minors involve teenagers who are pushed to commercial sex work due to extreme poverty, abuse, or other devastating circumstances.1 In its 2020 “Trafficking in Persons Report,” the U.S. Department of Justice describes certain minors in these circumstances as being particularly “vulnerable” to trafficking. These minors include “children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, including foster care,” “runaway and homeless youth” and “unaccompanied foreign national children without lawful immigration status,” according to the report.2
In 2020, U.S. federal prosecutors identified 1,499 victims across all federal human trafficking prosecutions (including both sex trafficking and labor trafficking). Fifty-three percent of those victims – roughly 800 people – were children under 18, according to the "2020 Federal Human Trafficking Report."3 On average in the U.S. between 2010 and 2019, fewer than 350 people under the age of 21 were reported as abducted by a stranger (which is about 0.1 percent of total reported cases of missing children).4
However, followers of the QAnon conspiracy movement have come to believe child sex trafficking is a rampant problem. They falsely claim that 300,000 children are kidnapped and forced into sex work every year.5 This figure has been widely debunked. It is a misrepresentation of a nebulous estimation from a 2001 report of the number of children considered to be “at risk for commercial sexual exploitation,” published by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, based on data from the 1990s.6
Federal statistics show that child sex trafficking does not occur on the scale suggested by QAnon and #SaveTheChildren adherents. However, experts in the field widely agree that the known number of victims of sex trafficking (and human trafficking in general) is likely an underestimation, given the social stigma and barriers associated with reporting crimes of a violent and/or sexual nature; the same is true of victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and other such crimes.7 As a result, the actual number of victims of child sex trafficking is very difficult to accurately estimate.
This creates a data void, which followers of QAnon and other conspiracy groups exploit to sow widespread anxiety about the prevalence of the problem by spreading misinformation and misleading statistics.
QAnon Origins and Folklore
The fringe conspiracy movement known as QAnon first emerged in October 2017, when an anonymous 4chan user (who would later become known as “Q”) claimed to be privy to top-secret government intel suggesting that Hillary Clinton was wanted by the federal government, and soon to be arrested. This was not true.
In subsequent posts made over the next several weeks, the anonymous “Q,” posted regular messages claiming many people in the government worship Satan, laying the foundation for the conspiracy movement. Q claimed, among other things, that then-President Donald Trump was waging a secret war against a vast satanic child sex-trafficking operation run by and catering to politicians, Hollywood celebrities, billionaires, and other political and cultural elites.8 None of these claims are true.
Over the next three years, a relatively small, committed group of internet users came to believe that Q was, in fact, a government insider or group of insiders, leaking top-secret government information to the public. They helped expand the conspiratorial belief system by “interpreting” Q’s cryptic, sometimes nonsensical messages within the context of their own preconceived conspiratorial beliefs.9 There are not many official estimates as to the size of the online community surrounding QAnon at this time, and even now, belief in QAnon remains difficult to measure.10 But a 2020 internal investigation by Facebook revealed that the top 10 QAnon groups on the platform contained more than 1 million users, according to reporting by NBC.11
QAnon has been described by journalists and researchers as an “umbrella”12 or a “big tent”13 conspiracy theory because many of the tenets of the QAnon belief system were absorbed from preceding or tangentially related conspiracy theories. For example, QAnon adherents falsely believe that adrenochrome – a real chemical substance found in the human body – is extracted from the blood of abused children by non-existent satanic elites.14 These beliefs are reminiscent of theories concerning the “Illuminati,” the “New World Order,” and other, more nebulous anti-Semitic and anti-Masonic fears – all of which date back to at least the 18th century.15 The 2016 Pizzagate theory, which falsely claimed that then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was operating a child prostitution ring out of a Washington, DC, pizza restaurant,16 is often considered the most direct precursor to QAnon.
Many scholars and journaliststs have also pointed out that widespread misbeliefs about the prevalence of pedophilia and child abuse pre-date the QAnon conspiracy movement, most notably tracing back to the Satanic Panic phenomenon of the 1980s and '90s.17
Since 2017, QAnon followers have often interpreted real-life news events concerning prominent allegations of sexual violence as fodder for new, unfounded conspiracy claims, or “evidence” of their previously-held beliefs.
For example, as the 2017 #MeToo Movement unfolded, many QAnon followers saw the allegations brought against prominent Hollywood studio executives, such as film producer Harvey Weinstein, as reason to believe that Hollywood and the entertainment industry writ large are hotbeds for sexual violence against children.
Similarly, in 2019, QAnon followers believed that the arrest for soliciting prostitution from a minor, and eventual suicide of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein as he awaited trial was “proof” that many (if not all) members of the global political elite regularly abuse and traffic children for sex. From 2017 to 2020, Q mentioned Weinstein by name twice in his messages, known as “drops.” Epstein, on the other hand, was explicitly mentioned more than 30 times.18 To date, both men remain prominent villains in QAnon folklore.
The identity of the person claiming to be “Q” remains unconfirmed (despite much speculation by journalists and others), but the community of Q supporters is led by a network of prominent social media influencers, many of whom command a large online following and regularly produce podcasts, video series, and other digital content dedicated to decoding Q drops. These influencers have popularized many coded slogans, catch phrases and other obscure calling cards within the larger community of believers, which a layperson might not recognize as related to the movement. For example, in QAnon phraseology, satanic elites who traffic and abuse children are referred to as “the cabal,” and their prophesied demise is known as “the storm.”19 One of the most common calling cards used by QAnon followers, often as a hashtag, is “WW1WGA,” short for “Where we go one, we go all.”
Beginning in 2018, QAnon followers occasionally used the phrase “save the children” or the hashtag #SaveTheChildren on social media when making vague references to “The Storm” or other Q-related theories. These posts rarely garnered much attention within the QAnon community, much less the mainstream discourse online.
Here are a few examples from Twitter:
- 1Michael Hobbes, “The Futile Quest for Hard Numbers on Child Sex Trafficking,” HuffPost, September 23, 2020, https://perma.cc/ABF2-YLFD; “How Unproven Trafficking Stories Spread Online and Why Stopping Them Matters | Polaris,” Polaris Project, July 22, 2020, https://perma.cc/ER9Z-FM54.
- 2“2020 Trafficking in Persons Report” (United States Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, June 2020), https://perma.cc/G3RC-5WXX.
- 3Kyleigh Feehs and Alyssa Currier Wheeler, “2020 Federal Human Trafficking Report” (Human Trafficking Institute, December 18, 2021), https://web.archive.org/web/20211218072341/https://www.traffickinginsti….
- 4“Kidnapped Children Make Headlines, but Abduction Is Rare in U.S.,” Reuters, January 11, 2019, https://perma.cc/86J4-Y4DY.
- 5Kim LaCapria, “Do 800,000 Children Go Missing Each Year in the United States? - Truth or Fiction?,” Truth or Fiction?, August 11, 2020, https://perma.cc/DXT3-ZN66; Mary Dobrian and Anne Manos, “Combatting Child Trafficking Misinformation,” FAWCO, September 28, 2020, https://perma.cc/HDA6-8UDE.
- 6Glenn Kessler, “The Bogus Claim That 300,000 U.S. Children Are ‘at Risk’ of Sexual Exploitation,” Washington Post, May 28, 2015, https://perma.cc/XTV7-JMAN.
- 7 Michael Hobbes, “The Futile Quest for Hard Numbers on Child Sex Trafficking,” HuffPost, September 23, 2020, https://perma.cc/ABF2-YLFD.
- 8Edward Tian, “The QAnon Timeline: Four Years, 5,000 Drops and Countless Failed Prophecies,” bellingcat, January 29, 2021, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/5XXA-FLRB; Kaylah Jackson, “QAnon: The Conspiracy Theory Embraced by Trump, Several Politicians, and Some American Moms,” Vox, October 9, 2020, https://perma.cc/GJ2D-XNG5.
- 9Adrienne LaFrance, “The Prophecies of Q,” The Atlantic, May 14, 2020, https://perma.cc/K8XT-UXBW.
- 10 Gilad Edelman, “QAnon Supporters Aren’t Quite Who You Think They Are,” Wired, October 6, 2020, https://perma.cc/KN96-7DXD; Kaleigh Rogers, “Why It’s So Hard To Gauge Support For QAnon,” FiveThirtyEight, June 11, 2021, https://perma.cc/5WVF-9B57/.
- 11 Ari Sen and Brandy Zadrozny, “QAnon Groups Have Millions of Members on Facebook, Documents Show,” NBC, August 10, 2020, https://perma.cc/4Q5E-C3HW.
- 12Tonya Mosley and Serena McMahon, “Will Facebook Ban Disrupt QAnon’s Momentum?,” WBUR, October 8, 2020, https://perma.cc/496L-7GLR.
- 13Kevin Roose, “What Is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?,” The New York Times, September 3, 2021, https://perma.cc/DPH8-JQUE.
- 14 Brian Friedberg, “The Dark Virality of a Hollywood Blood-Harvesting Conspiracy,” Wired, July 31, 2020, https://perma.cc/C29L-9H64.
- 15Tara Isabella Burton, “The Centuries-Old History of Jewish ‘Puppet Master’ Conspiracy Theories,” Vox, November 2, 2018, https://perma.cc/23NQ-C5DF.
- 16Michael E. Miller, “Pizzagate’s Violent Legacy,” Washington Post, February 16, 2021, https://perma.cc/4LD3-NT3Z.
- 17Aja Romano, “Demonic Rituals, False Confessions, Ruined Lives: Satanic Panic Is Still Alive and Well,” Vox, March 31, 2021, https://perma.cc/BH8T-ZFKT.
- 18 “Drop Search Results: Weinstein,” qalerts.app, accessed February 24, 2022, https://perma.cc/Y6C4-787W; “Drop Search Results: Epstein,” qalerts.app, accessed February 24, 2022, https://perma.cc/4DHB-F987.
- 19 Kevin Roose, “What Is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?,” The New York Times, September 3, 2021, https://perma.cc/U56V-68U3.
However, until 2020, the slogan and corresponding hashtag had never been widely used by the most influential members of the QAnon community. Indeed, #SavetheChildren was not widely associated with the QAnon community until 2020, when the phrase was catapulted into the public discourse by a global protest movement inspired by QAnon folklore.
STAGE 1: Manipulation Campaign Planning and Origins
The popularization of the phrase “save the children” in relation to conspiracy theories about child sex trafficking began with Scotty “the Kid” Rojas,1 a Native American rap artist, model, and cryptocurrency enthusiast from Los Angeles, during the summer of 2020.
- 1Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins, “A New Phenomenon as QAnon Conspiracy Spreads: Nationwide #SavetheChildren Rallies,” NBC, August 21, 2020, https://perma.cc/XKT4-8SSU.
The primary tool that Rojas used to seed and propagate the #SaveTheChildren campaign was Instagram. However, research for this case study, which was conducted from November 2021 to February 2022, found that only a few, incomplete digital archives remained of Rojas’s Instagram posts from that period.1
A September 2020 episode of the QAnon Anonymous podcast (QAA), an investigative QAnon debunking show, includes audio recordings from several of Rojas’s Instagram video posts, live streams, and stories about #SavetheChildren protests, as well as descriptions of several of his image posts from the summer of 2020.2
According to QAA, Rojas first showed interest in QAnon via his Instagram account on June 9, 2020, when he posted the following caption, “When someone calls you a conspiracy theorist, what they are really saying is they’re too lazy to do their own research, and we should just trust the government and the media to tell the truth;” along with the hashtag #Q.3
Prior to this post, the QAA hosts say that Rojas’s Instagram grid was mostly populated by stylized modeling shots, apolitical , and clips from his music videos. Furthermore, Rojas’s public persona at the time (based on his social media feeds and rap lyrics) was that of a fairly apolitical, new-age musical artist who expressed little interest in conspiracy theories (outside of a few YouTube videos about supposed UFO sightings4 ).
But after his initial #Q post, according to QAA, “Scotty’s feed transformed profoundly in the span of a few months” to include many more references to child sex trafficking and other QAnon-related issues.5
This change is also evident on Rojas’s Facebook profile which, as of November 2021, still featured posts from the summer of 2020.6 On July 11, 2020, for example, Rojas posted a reference to the Wayfair conspiracy7 – a QAnon-adjacent theory that suggested the online furniture retailer Wayfair was facilitating the sale of human children through cabinets.8
- 1 “@scottythekid,” Instagram, archived November 19, 2021, https://perma.cc/HF9X-VFU5; “@scottythekid,” ImgInn, accessed February 24, 2022, https://imginn.com/scottythekid/.
- 2“The Unlikely Man Behind the Worldwide QAnon Rallies,” QAnon Anonymous, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/26FR-7C8P.
- 3“@scottythekid,” Instagram, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/HF9X-VFU5.
- 4Scotty The Kid, "UFO over Scientology Celebrity Center Hollywood, California" (YouTube, 2013), https://perma.cc/B7CW-T7LB; Scotty The Kid, "UFO ABOVE HOLLYWOOD CALIFORNIA" (YouTube, 2015), https://perma.cc/8TCB-TAD7.
- 5“The Unlikely Man Behind the Worldwide QAnon Rallies,” QAnon Anonymous, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/26FR-7C8P.
- 6“Scotty The Kid,” Facebook, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/6YF2-P3BK.
- 7 Scotty The Kid, “Right in Front of Us the Whole Time 🐇,” Facebook, July 11, 2020, https://perma.cc/6CVV-FGJD.
- 8Hayley Peterson, “Wayfair Shoots down Conspiracy Theory about Child Sex Trafficking and Expensive Cabinets,” Business Insider, July 10, 2020, https://perma.cc/TXP3-5EDV.
These social media posts suggest that Rojas moved to begin a conspiratorial protest movement against child sex trafficking within weeks of showing public interest in QAnon for the first time.1
The timing of the campaign was also likely influenced, at least in part, by the substantial growth and public attention surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. In an Aug. 17 interview with Sam Tripoli, host of the conspiratorial comedy podcast, Tin Foil Hat, Rojas said he suspected the anti-racism uprising was a “distraction” orchestrated by powerful people to obscure the more legitimate problem of child abuse and trafficking.2
“When BLM started happening, and I just saw just so much going on and some people being confused and being manipulated...So many things didn’t feel right about it with me,” Rojas told Tripoli. “And as I just dug more and more...I’m like, dude, this [child sex trafficking] is actually what’s happening here. This is the problem."3
The #SaveTheChildren campaign officially began when Rojas announced his plans to host an in-person march “to save the children” on July 22, 2020, via his Instagram story.
“Next Friday, I’m going on a march to save the children. I'm heading it up, and I would love for you guys to join me in Hollywood. Peep my next story post to see all the details,” Rojas said in the video, the audio from which can be heard in the QAA podcast.4
In the same interview with Tripoli, Rojas explained that he decided to hold the demonstration in Hollywood because – despite having grown up in Los Angeles – he believes the entertainment industry to be a hotbed for satanism, child sex trafficking, and other abuses.5 This is also a commonly-shared belief among QAnon followers6 and other conspiracy groups.7
In a blog post published on Aug. 28, 2020, Rojas elaborated:
Most of my life I’ve been a Musician, DJ, Model, Actor, and Entrepreneur…as I worked to keep my status in Hollywood, and then it became worse, as I began to realize just how deep the rabbit hole went. What I thought was just dark clothing, and demonic emblems, worn for pop culture value, and to “look cool”, actually turned out to be the symbolism of a real force, controlling and running parts of the entertainment industry; and more. Obviously, had I known that children were involved, I never would have affiliated myself with that crowd, or anything remotely close to that nature.
Also on July 22, the same day that Rojas announced his march “to save the children,” a website called Real Deal Media posted on Instagram that it would be organizing a “Child Lives Matter” march in Hollywood the same day as Rojas’s event.8
The outlet’s involvement with #SaveTheChildren was first reported in August 2020, by EJ Dickson at Rolling Stone magazine, who called the website “conspiracy theory-promoting.”9 Real Deal Media is owned and run by Dean Ryan, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as a former InfoWars producer on “The Alex Jones Show.”10 At the time of publishing, Real Deal Media has some 1,300 followers on Instagram11 (compared to Rojas’s 36,00012 ).
Real Deal Media did not mention Rojas in its initial Instagram post promoting the “Child Lives Matter” march or any subsequent such posts, but both Real Deal Media and Rojas used similar versions of the same digital promotional poster to garner attention for the event. The first version of the image posted by Real Deal Media on July 22, 2020, had the organization’s own Instagram handle and web address displayed in the bottom right hand corner of the image, and featured the phrase “CHILD LIVES MATTER” in a red stripe. This post about the march earned 34 likes.13
- 1“The Unlikely Man Behind the Worldwide QAnon Rallies,” QAnon Anonymous, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/26FR-7C8P.
- 2 Sam Tripoli, “#SaveOurChildren with Scotty The Kid,” Tin Foil Hat, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/ZC97-3RKM.
- 3 Sam Tripoli, “#SaveOurChildren with Scotty The Kid."
- 4 “The Unlikely Man Behind the Worldwide QAnon Rallies,” QAnon Anonymous, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/26FR-7C8P.
- 5 Sam Tripoli, “#SaveOurChildren with Scotty The Kid,” Tin Foil Hat, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/ZC97-3RKM.
- 6 Gwynedd Stuart, “Inside QAnon, the Conspiracy Cult That’s Devouring America,” Los Angeles Magazine, August 17, 2020, https://perma.cc/7G26-HSRC/.
- 7Thomas Hobbs, “The Conspiracy Theorists Convinced Celebrities Are under Mind Control,” Wired, September 5, 2019, https://perma.cc/S6UP-Q3FQ.
- 8 EJ Dickson, “What Is #SaveTheChildren and Why Did Facebook Block It?,” Rolling Stone, August 12, 2020, https://perma.cc/MJ74-M9FC.
- 9 E. J. Dickson, “What Is #SaveTheChildren and Why Did Facebook Block It?”
- 10 “Dean Ryan,” LinkedIn, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/CL85-DC3V.
- 11 “Real Deal Media (@therealdealmedia),” Instagram, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/VCP2-ECUR.
- 12 “@scottythekid,” Instagram, archived November 19, 2021, https://perma.cc/HF9X-VFU5.
- 13Real Deal Media, “Come Join Us and Take a Stand against Pedophilia and Child Trafficking in Hollywood This Upcoming Friday, 7/31 at 10am on Hollywood And…,” Instagram, July 22, 2020, https://perma.cc/3XB2-BSEG.
Rojas’s version, which he posted on Facebook that same day, appears to have the Real Deal Media branding obscured, and replaced with the acronym, “WWG1WGA.” This version also has replaced the “CHILD LIVES MATTER” phrase with “#BABIESLIVESMATTER.” Rojas’s version of the poster was shared 97 times.1
- 1Scotty The Kid, “Every Year in America Alone 800,000 Children Go Missing. Talk about a Pandemic This Is the Real Pandemic. #BABIESLIVESMATTER #SAVETHECHILDREN,” Facebook, July 22, 2020, https://perma.cc/78WY-RZKX.
Both versions of the poster featured the hashtag #savethechildren and QAnon iconography, including a pizza slice (which some QAnon followers believe to be a coded symbol for child exploitation).
It remains unclear whether Rojas and Real Deal Media coordinated to organize or promote the first #SaveTheChildren march on Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street on July 31, 2020. Both Dean Ryan of Real Deal Media1 and Rojas later took credit for the event.2
- 1 Real Deal Media, “Keep up the Good Fight #childslivesmatter,” Instagram, July 31, 2020, https://perma.cc/Q7XQ-MGK9.
- 2Sam Tripoli, “#SaveOurChildren with Scotty The Kid,” Tin Foil Hat, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/ZC97-3RKM.
STAGE 2: Seeding Campaign Across Social Platforms and Web
This first “Save The Children”/”Child Lives Matter” protest took place in Hollywood on July 31, 2020.
Photos and videos posted to social media during the event show a few dozen protesters holding signs containing numerous QAnon and Pizzagate references, including crossed out pizza slices and mentions of the “cabal.”
During the demonstration, protestors marched down Hollywood Boulevard, through the “Walk of Fame.”1 In an effort to garner press attention and trade up the chain, the protestors gathered in front of the CNN office building, chanting “Where we go one, we go all.”2 The march eventually dispersed in front of Hollywood High School.3
- 1“Hundreds of People Marched through the Hollywood Walk of Fame with Signs ‘Save The Children’ and ‘Hillary Clinton Is Satan,’” USA Really, August 1, 2020, https://perma.cc/YM33-97AC.
- 2 Nesto Rhea, "Hollywood Protest “STORMING CNN Building” / Save The Children" (YouTube, 2020), https://perma.cc/36UK-K88E.
- 3 “The Unlikely Man Behind the Worldwide QAnon Rallies,” QAnon Anonymous, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/26FR-7C8P.
Rojas attended the event wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and a T-shirt with a large Q printed on it,1 and was photographed holding a sign that read: “F*CK THE NWO. F*CK VACCINATIONS. EXECUTE ALL PEDOPHILES!”2
- 1 “The Unlikely Man Behind the Worldwide QAnon Rallies."
- 2@consciousevi, “"I Will Tell All My Children Was Not Silent 💯 and I Spoke up! Tbt 7/31/2020 the Cause That United Us into One 🙌🏼 #stopchildtrafficking #nonwo…”,” Instagram, February 23, 2021, https://perma.cc/2Z6B-RUQ4.
In the days that followed, photos and video from the protest circulated on social media, often accompanied by the hashtag, #SaveTheChildren.1 On Twitter, the hashtag was used more than 2,600 times between July 31 and Aug. 5, 2020. These tweets earned a total of more than 66,000 retweets and over 82,000 likes.2
Other, associated hashtags from that same time period include #savethechildrenworldwide, #endhumantrafficking, #WWG1WGA, and #billclintonisapedo.
- 1 “#savethechildren OR #saveourchildren until:2020-08-02 - Twitter Search,” Twitter, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/3LJH-RKTL.
- 2According to analysis conducted via WeVerify: https://mediamanipulation.org/sites/default/files/media-files/citation5…
On Aug. 5, 2020, Rojas announced on Instagram that he would be organizing a second protest event, according to QAA. These demonstrations, he said, would take place across “one hundred cities” roughly two weeks later, on Aug. 22, 2020.1 Rojas dubbed the event the “100 City March.”
In order to achieve his goal of bringing 100 American cities into the anti-child sex trafficking fold, Rojas used Instagram to encourage his followers to personally head up a march in their own hometowns. “If you want to be a part of saving the children, step up, because right now is that time,” he said in an Instagram video.2
In the Tin Foil Hat interview, Rojas explained his process for recruiting participants in more and more cities:
I figured, ‘Hey, if I just use my Instagram as an actual platform for other people to communicate, I was like ‘Well, all I’d have to do is put a black box with the city name, and then the people – my followers – who live in that city can just comment there, can connect there, and DM each other and create their own movement,’ and it clicked…So that’s literally all I did.
Then, when someone would express interest in getting involved, Rojas told Tripoli that he would create a “syllabus” for them, complete with instructions on how to organize, host, and promote their very own local event as a part of the 100 City March.
“It’s a breakdown on how to do this correctly, how to do it legally, how to not interfere with businesses, with people’s lives, this is a peaceful thing,” said Rojas.
But not all #SaveTheChildren adherents took instruction from Rojas. In the weeks between the July 31 “Save The Children” protest and The 100 City March, at least nine other seemingly unaffiliated “anti-child sex trafficking” demonstrations were held in various cities across the United States, including Chicago,3 Savannah,4 and Spokane.5 This fact suggests that the Rojas campaign message had already carried far enough to inspire copycats.
- 1 “The Unlikely Man Behind the Worldwide QAnon Rallies,” QAnon Anonymous, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/26FR-7C8P.
- 2 “The Unlikely Man Behind the Worldwide QAnon Rallies,” QAnon Anonymous.
- 3Read The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin, “A Few QAnon People Are Having a Rally to ‘Save the Children’ in Chicago. But They’re Chanting ‘ICE Loves Our Children’ You Can’t Make This Stuff up. Https://T.Co/XsfHDBN1sn,” Twitter, August 7, 2020, https://perma.cc/52J4-TZGS.
- 4Jackson Kurtz, “‘Save the Children’ Rally Held in Savannah to Raise Awareness of Human Trafficking,” WJCL, August 10, 2020, https://perma.cc/L6EY-7SRP.
- 5@noellelashley, “HAPPENING NOW: A Rally to End Child Trafficking Is Starting at the Red Wagon in Downtown Spokane. Organizer Mia Gray Says This Event Is to Raise Awareness and Start a Conversation. They Just Started Marching down Spokane Falls Blvd Chanting ‘Save the Children.’ @KHQLocalNews Https://T.Co/BikxrD0upr,” Twitter, August 9, 2020, https://perma.cc/L3EP-ARGJ.
This marked a turning point for the weeks-old campaign, because it indicated that #SaveTheChildren had – intentionally or otherwise – become decentralized. Anyone across the country (or the world) could participate in the campaign by using social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to organize a local #SaveTheChildren event; with or without Rojas’s help.
“I am asking all my followers to retweet this with your state and which part of your state so we can find co ordinate [sic] a meeting place to set up the #SaveourChildren protest[.] I am South Arkansas. Other South Arkansas please reply to me,” wrote one unverified Twitter user on Aug. 18, in a typical call-out to fellow campaign participants.1
“Together we can raise awareness and fight to bring justice and light for children suffering in darkness & without a voice!” posted another Twitter user that day, alongside a digital flier for a local event in Toronto and the hashtags #Pizzagate and #WWG1WGA.2
“Let's stand together against pedophilia and human trafficking. Click the link to join my event. 🙏❤ #SaveOurChildren,” wrote a third Twitter user on Aug. 20, along with a link to a now-deleted Facebook event which presumably contained logistical details about this particular protest.3
- 1@KMitzi, “I Am Asking All My Followers to Retweet This with Your State and Which Part of Your State so We Can Find Co Ordinate a Meeting Place to Set up the #SaveourChildren Protest I Am South Arkansas. Other South Arkansas Please Reply to Me,” Twitter, August 19, 2020, https://perma.cc/2DDS-KMZZ.
- 2Bailey (@bc_made), “This Is the Toronto Specific Event in Collaboration with Marches of Solidarity against Child Trafficking and Pedophilia; Being Held Worldwide on August 22nd. Together We Can Raise Awareness and Fight to Bring Justice and Light for Children Suffering in Darkness & without a Voice! Https://T.Co/KZQtXtgmHF,” Twitter, August 19, 2020, https://perma.cc/VJ3F-9PJZ.
- 3Katie (@Katie_815), “@LindseyGrahamSC @realDonaldTrump ❌❌ South Carolina ❌❌ Help Us Give a Voice to the Children Who Can’t Speak up for Themselves. Let’s Stand Together against Pedophilia and Human Trafficking. Click the Link to Join My Event. 🙏❤ #SaveOurChildren Https://Facebook.Com/Events/s/Save-Our-Children-Protest-in-c/990661914713097/?Ti=as,” Twitter, August 21, 2020, https://perma.cc/W8LC-8DAT.
Importantly, because these demonstrations were typically not advertised as QAnon-affiliated or conspiracy-inspired events (much like Rojas’s initial march), the campaign participants attracted a more mainstream audience of people genuinely concerned for the well-being of children. These people would otherwise not have been likely to publicly align themselves with an extremist conspiracy movement.1
It was at this point that the #SaveTheChildren campaign effectively became unmoored from its roots in the QAnon belief system. It branched off into a distinct – although still very intertwined – conspiracy movement dedicated to spreading misinformation about human trafficking.
As the movement grew, some participants even rejected any association with QAnon and its community. For example, one Instagram user posted on Aug. 22, “Human trafficking is the [sic] real[.] That’s why we need to stop associating it with the Q conspiracies.”2
- 1 Anna North, “How #SaveTheChildren Is Pulling American Moms into QAnon,” Vox, September 18, 2020, https://perma.cc/S2X4-LM4L.
- 2@truth4u99, “NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH on Instagram: ‘LET’S STOP ASSOCIATING THE MOVEMENT WITH THESE RIGHT WING EXTREMIST. LET’S SAVE THE CHILDREN ✊❌ #savethechildren #endhumantrafficking…,’” Instagram, August 23, 2020, https://perma.cc/26CC-VHZN.
Even Rojas, who had previously expressed strong support of QAnon, wrote explicitly on his website: “We are a grassroots organization, founded by We The People…we're NOT affiliated with Antifa, QAnon, or any corporate/political/religious agenda. Period.”1
This dilution of the QAnon narrative within #SaveTheChildren allowed the campaign to further trade up the chain; garnering local media exposure that treated the gatherings as positive local activism organized by concerned citizens, and lending legitimacy to the campaign’s conspiratorial narrative.2 New York Times Journalist Kevin Roose described this development as a “blurring of the lines” between “legitimate anti-trafficking activism and partisan conspiracy mongering.”3
As Rojas’ 100 City March neared, and ancillary #SaveTheChildren protests continued to garner local press attention, the campaign’s affiliated hashtags began to skyrocket in popularity on nearly every major social media platform.
On Twitter, although #SaveTheChildren never made it to the “Trending Topics” list, more than 22,000 posts containing #SaveTheChildren were posted between Aug. 1 and Aug. 21, garnering more than 85,000 retweets.4 Similarly, #SaveOurChildren was tweeted more than 14,000 times in that same period, and retweeted more than 29,000 times.5
During the same time period, #WWG1WGA appeared in more than 14,000 tweets, which garnered just over 14,000 retweets.6 #BlackLivesMatter, meanwhile, was retweeted more than 139,000 times, according to Twitter analysis conducted via WeVerify.7
- 1“Home,” STOP KIDding, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/HHW2-F6F4.
- 2Jackson Kurtz, “‘Save the Children’ Rally Held in Savannah to Raise Awareness of Human Trafficking,” WJCL, August 10, 2020, https://perma.cc/D8XG-DUSZ; Blake Allen, “‘Save The Children’ Rally Held in Prineville,” KTVZ, August 10, 2020, https://perma.cc/257D-VWRE; Tia Mitchell, “Rep. Buddy Carter Attends Human Trafficking Rally with QAnon Ties,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 12, 2020, https://perma.cc/7C3V-FK3T; Allison Zeithammer, “Activists Hold ‘Save the Children’ Protest,” ABC57, August 16, 2020, https://perma.cc/J3S5-7YJS; @noellelashley, “HAPPENING NOW: A Rally to End Child Trafficking Is Starting at the Red Wagon in Downtown Spokane. Organizer Mia Gray Says This Event Is to Raise Awareness and Start a Conversation. They Just Started Marching down Spokane Falls Blvd Chanting ‘Save the Children.’ @KHQLocalNews Https://T.Co/BikxrD0upr,” Twitter, August 9, 2020, https://perma.cc/M7PF-E3ZH.
- 3 Kevin Roose, “What Is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?,” The New York Times, September 3, 2021, https://perma.cc/U56V-68U3.
- 4 According to analysis conducted using WeVerify, https://mediamanipulation.org/sites/default/files/media-files/%23saveth….
- 5According to analysis conducted using WeVerify, https://mediamanipulation.org/sites/default/files/media-files/%23saveou….
- 6According to analysis conducted using WeVerify, https://mediamanipulation.org/sites/default/files/media-files/%23wwg1wg….
- 7According to analysis conducted using WeVerify, https://mediamanipulation.org/sites/default/files/media-files/%23BlackL….
The number of Google searches for “save the children” and similar phrases followed a similar pattern as the Twitter activity, spiking between Aug. 9 and 15, according to Google Trends.1
- 1 “‘save the Children’, #savethechildren, ‘Save Our Children’, #saveourchildren by Time, Location and Popularity on Google Trends,” Google Trends, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/DWX2-WTUQ.
The #SaveTheChildren hashtag became especially popular on Instagram, among prominent parenting, fitness, natural healing, and lifestyle influencers. It particularly attracted women influencers in these spaces, whose signature aesthetic inspired the colloquial term, “pastel QAnon.”1 Journalists and researchers occasionally use this term to describe QAnon-inspired rhetoric online that is packaged in the soft-hued color schemes, decorative fonts, or other feminine-coded aesthetics that have become commonly associated with these online communities.2
- 1Marc-André Argentino (@_MAArgentino), “1/ Tonight I Want to Share Some of the Research I Have Been Doing on What I Am Calling ‘Pastel QAnon’. I Have Been Spending Some Time Researching Women QAnon Believers on Instagram. Many Are Lifestyle Influencers, Mommy Pages, Fitness Pages, Diet Pages, and Alternative Healing Https://T.Co/0YWeTdo5QW,” Twitter, September 2, 2020, https://perma.cc/76P5-FXGV.
- 2Anna North, “How #SaveTheChildren Is Pulling American Moms into QAnon,” Vox, September 18, 2020, https://perma.cc/S2X4-LM4L; Kaitlyn Tiffany, “The Women Making Conspiracy Theories Beautiful,” The Atlantic, August 18, 2020, https://perma.cc/VGJ7-95AJ; Caitlin Dickson, “‘Pastel QAnon,’ Where pro-Trump Conspiracy Theories Meet New Age Spirituality,” Yahoo!, October 21, 2020, https://perma.cc/28NC-GK6R; Christophe Haubursin, “The Instagram Aesthetic That Made QAnon Mainstream,” Vox, October 28, 2020, https://perma.cc/H57F-XS6Z; EJ Dickson, “QAnon Ideology Is Infiltrating the Natural Parenting Community - Rolling Stone,” Rolling Stone, December 14, 2020, https://perma.cc/DU5S-ES8Z.
In a 2021 analysis of the accounts that posted or interacted with hashtag #SaveTheChildren on Instagram, researchers at the University of Washington identified the campaign’s “primary contributors,” meaning those who posted the most often about the movement. They found that this group consisted of largely “conservative leaning, white, highly religious female-presenting accounts with a particular emphasis on motherhood.”1
Describing this development in Sept. 2020, Vox Senior Reporter Anna North wrote that #SaveTheChildren “may be feeding on the anxiety parents are experiencing in a time when families are stuck at home with many schools remote or operating on a hybrid model, leaving parents (disproportionately moms) to balance work, child care, and the ever-present risk of Covid-19.”2
Lifestyle and parenting influencer Rose Henges (@roseuncharted) posted an image featuring the #SaveTheChildren hashtag on Instagram on July 13, along with a caption containing incorrect statistics about human trafficking.3 According to BuzzFeed News Reporter Stephanie McNeal, Henges was one of the earliest influencers on the platform to embrace QAnon-adjacent rhetoric.4
- 1Rachel Elizabeth Moran et al., “MISINFORMATION OR ACTIVISM: MAPPING NETWORKED MORAL PANIC THROUGH AN ANALYSIS OF #SAVETHECHILDREN,” AoIR Selected Papers of Internet Research, September 15, 2021, https://perma.cc/AEB6-MDBM.
- 2Anna North, “How #SaveTheChildren Is Pulling American Moms into QAnon,” Vox, September 18, 2020, https://perma.cc/S2X4-LM4L.
- 3🌾𝓇𝑜𝓈𝑒 (@roseuncharted), “‘HUMAN TRAFFICKING IS THE REAL PANDEMIC. It Is an Injustice That Affects Millions of People Every Year on Every Continent and at All…,’” Instagram, July 13, 2020, https://perma.cc/6M96-DG78.
- 4Stephanie McNeal, “The Face Of QAnon Isn’t Just White Dudes With Guns, It’s Instagram #BoyMoms,” BuzzFeed News, January 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/7FXF-XAK8.
But the campaign’s influence was not limited to social media. Several campaign participants founded anti-child sex trafficking advocacy groups between May and September 2020, bearing names such as Freedom For the Children,1 Where’s Our Children,2 Save Our Children UK,3 and a group called Child Lives Matter.4 Many of these groups went on to promote the 100 City March – although not always using Rojas’s branding5 – as well as other in-person protests to raise awareness around child sex trafficking.6 Sometimes these groups raised funds or sold merchandise under the auspices of offsetting operational costs.7 Rojas launched his own advocacy organization, Stop Kidding, on Aug. 23, 2020.8
This newfound vigor for the #SaveTheChildren campaign culminated on Aug. 22, 2020, when The 100 City March took place. According to a list of participating cities circulated by Rojas,9 upwards of 250 individual #SaveTheChildren protests were held across the US,10 Canada,11 the UK,12 and parts of Europe13 on Aug. 22, 2020.
The TaSC team has not been able to locate official estimates of the crowd sizes at these disparate protests. However, photos and videos posted to social media on Aug. 22 show that some local gatherings attracted only a handful of people,14 while others drew much larger crowds.15 Jesselyn Cook, a senior reporter for HuffPo, tweeted that there were “easily hundreds of people” at a Los Angeles leg of the march.16
- 1 “Who We Are,” FREEDOM FOR THE CHILDREN, August 25, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200825005847/http://freedomforthechildren…; Tarpley Hitt, “Inside QAnon’s Bizarre Hollywood Invasion,” The Daily Beast, August 27, 2020, https://perma.cc/6TMM-XZPF.
- 2“Home,” Where’s Our Children, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/6ZCC-G47A.
- 3“Home,” The Save Our Children Campaign UK, January 31, 2021, http://archive.md/z72FF.
- 4“Child Lives Matter,” JOIN THE WORLDWIDE MOVEMENT!, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/C34Y-FTBE; “Child Lives Matter (@childlivesmatterorg),” Facebook, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/TK6W-2CJS.
- 5“Freedom For The Children Movement Buffalo,” Facebook, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/FNJ2-A5RU; “Buffalo New York FFTC Protest 8-22-20,” DarkDox, August 17, 2020, https://perma.cc/MFH6-W29X.
- 6 “Event Gallery,” Where’s Our Children, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/4GK9-FPPT; Child Lives Matter (@childlivesmatterorg), “Montana- McCormick Park 600 Cregg Lane Missoula, MT 1:00 P.M. Join Event Print Flyer Print Educational Flyer (Double Sided) #activism #childsextrafficking #childlivesmatter #clm #humantrafficking #pedophile #protest #savethechildren,” Facebook, August 16, 2020, https://perma.cc/ADN6-L9E2; “WheresOurChildrenMarchSTPETEFL,” Facebook, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/2HNG-YUTU.
- 7Christian Andrew, “End Child Sex Abuse Worldwide,” gofundme.com, June 29, 2020, https://perma.cc/5PEF-9RGB; “Donate,” Where’s Our Children, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/A5VC-MQ99; “Products,” Child Lives Matter, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/DF8X-XW6Q.
- 8“Stop KIDding (@StopKIDdingOrg),” Facebook, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/Z9F3-6GFP.
- 9T$$ (@@CrashTestT11), “@An0n661 @ScottyTheKid https://t.co/cLQpAr4Aw1,” Twitter, August 21, 2020, https://perma.cc/GGB6-TBVW; “#savethechildren AUGUST 22nd,” Google Sheets, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/WPJ9-35JQ.
- 10"Save The Children: A March to End Human Trafficking,” Facebook, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/BCK4-LWUY; “Freedom For The Children: Fort Worth,” Facebook, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/BR2V-3L9S; “Freedom For The Children Movement Buffalo,” Facebook, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/FNJ2-A5RU.
- 11“Freedom For The Children Walk - Winnipeg,” Facebook, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/9B7Q-JBUQ; “Freedom For The Children Protest Toronto | Facebook,” Facebook, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/8B9M-X7EZ.
- 12“London - Freedom for The Children,” Imgur, August 13, 2020, https://perma.cc/J33D-SSMK; “United Kingdom - Freedom for The Children,” Imgur, August 4, 2020, https://perma.cc/ZG9G-9ZKY.
- 13“Spain - Freedom for The Children,” Imgur, August 9, 2020, https://perma.cc/E7MY-CQ6H.
- 14 my Louise Bauer (@amylouisebauer), “#100citymarch #saveourchildren #humantrafficing #childtrafficing #adrenochrome #sacramento #trump2020 #maga #kag #🇺🇸 #exposehollywood #vop…,” Instagram, August 23, 2020, https://perma.cc/7DD3-28TX.
- 15@kingluv_, “#SaveOurChildren #WeAreThe99Percent #100CityMarch #200CityMarch,” Instagram, August 27, 2020, https://perma.cc/XBR8-DQKP.
- 16Jesselyn Cook (@JessReports), “Easily Hundreds of People Here. Despite Claims That This Protest Is All about Kids — and Has Nothing to Do with Q — Marchers Are Now Chanting the QAnon Slogan, ‘Where We Go One, We Go All’ Https://T.Co/4XkpYzixHc,” Twitter, August 22, 2020, https://perma.cc/8SKV-TRZC.
Rojas led the Hollywood leg of the march, and described the event on Facebook as “one of the greatest moments of my life.”1
- 1Scotty The Kid, “One of the Greatest Moments of My Life.. #SAVEOURCHILDREN,” Facebook, August 23, 2020, https://perma.cc/KSZ5-MDBD.
In contrast, a month prior, NBC Los Angeles reported that a Black Lives Matter protest hosted on the same street drew an estimated 20,000 people.1
- 1“Hollywood Protest Crowd Grows to 20,000 Led by Black Lives Matter, YG and BLD PWR,” NBC Los Angeles, June 7, 2020, https://perma.cc/A7EZ-VYQG.
STAGE 3: Responses by Industry, Activists, Politicians, and Journalists
Throughout Aug. 2020, as #SaveTheChildren rallies continued to crop up around the country and Rojas continued to promote the 100 City March, the #SaveTheChildren hashtag proliferated on social media. Many celebrities – including martial artist and actor Cung Lee1 and reality TV stars Jenelle Evans,2 Kelly Dodd,3 and Siggy Flicker4 – used it.
National Football League superstar Tim Tebow, who is well-known for his Baptist faith,5 used the hashtag to promote a new anti-sex trafficking “Rescue Team” within his eight-year-old, $8 billion philanthropic organization, the Tim Tebow Foundation. The Rescue Team’s website describes the project as “an army of people committed to engaging, inspiring, and equipping others in the fight against child sexual exploitation and human trafficking.” The foundation, which is a registered 501c3 non-profit organization, accepts donations from the public.6
Several politicians and political candidates also adopted the #SaveTheChildren slogan, and interacted with the campaign to varying degrees – and with seemingly various levels of understanding about its QAnon roots.
Georgia Rep. Buddy Carter, a Republican, attended a #SaveTheChildren rally in Savannah on Aug. 9. A spokeswoman for Carter later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the congressman had been invited to the event by a constituent, and that he “had no knowledge of any QAnon ties to the event.”7
Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes, also a Republican, used his office’s official Twitter account to promote a Salt Lake City “Freedom For The Children” gathering scheduled for the same day as the 100 City March.8 “Join us in raising awareness for human trafficking and child exploitation tomorrow at 9AM at Liberty Park in SLC,” the Aug. 21 post read. Hours after Reyes’s tweet was posted, local news station KUTV2News reported that the event had been postponed "due to questions about association with other human trafficking events being held the same day."9
Then-Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia also employed the #SaveTheChildren hashtag a handful of times on Twitter, beginning in August, 2020.10 By this time, Greene had already become known as the “QAnon candidate”11 by political opponents and journalists. Throughout her winning 2020 congressional campaign, she publicly expressed support for QAnon in multiple Facebook videos12 and contributions to American Truth Seekers, a now-defunct outlet that NBC called a “conspiracy news website.”13
One of Greene’s first uses of the hashtag was in defense of Tim Tebow on Aug. 29, 2020, when his own use of the slogan garnered critical press coverage on Fox News.14
“The media is so obsessed with trying to attack Christian Conservatives that they can’t even comprehend that #SaveTheChildren is a fight every single one of us should be battling,” Greene wrote on Twitter. “I support @TimTebow And let’s #SaveTheChildren.”
Many of the #SaveTheChildren rallies – and particularly those held before the 100 City March on Aug. 22 – were covered uncritically by local television news stations and newspapers that failed (with some exceptions15 ) to recognize the movement’s roots in the QAnon belief system. These reports often employed the phrase “save the children” in the headlines,16 and featured quotes from local organizers and rally attendees.17 They typically did not mention Rojas’s role in kick-starting the movement, its relationship to the QAnon conspiracy community, or campaign participants’ misleading claims about child sex trafficking.
Meanwhile, within the more hardcore QAnon community, reactions to the #SaveTheChildren movement were mixed.
Despite the two movements sharing a goal of exposing the so-called “realities” of child sex trafficking, many dedicated QAnon followers did not see #SaveTheChildren as an extension of their own movement. As outlined in Stage 1 of this case, Rojas was not an established figure in the QAnon network when he launched the campaign, and although some QAnon believers embraced his message, others grew skeptical of his intentions.
Beginning in August, around the time of the 100 City March, some QAnon followers began to suggest that the #SaveTheChildren movement might be a coordinated conspiracy against QAnon, waged by members of the cabal to “co-opt” QAnon’s goals and values.18
“Of course save the children [sic] is comped,” wrote one anonymous 8kun user, posting to the “QResearch” board on Aug. 22. By “comped,” the user means “compromised,” assumedly by shadowy forces.
Another user agreed, commenting, “Classic attempt to coopt movement. FF incoming. Remain vigilant.”19
Here, “FF” stood for “false flag,” a term conspiracy theorists use to describe an attack carried out by a government or other powerful entity that implicates another entity as the perpetrator.20
The next day, a third user noted that #SaveTheChildren had to be some sort of cabal-related operation because (they argued) if it had been organized by other QAnon followers, they would have heard about it sooner.
“Told spouse anon today it was absurd that we would be having ‘nationwide’ rallies for ‘save the children,’" the person wrote. “I'm on here everyday and we've never once discussed organizing something like that.”21
- 1Cung Le, “This Is Happening Everywhere. The Sad Thing Is It Happening on Both Sides. My Wife @sunshine_s_le Kids Was Illegal Taken by CPS & Public Servants in Boyd County Kentucky. I’m Shining the Light into the Darkness There. I Want to Thank You @jackfroot for Joining My Fight to Expose the Corruption There with Media...,” Facebook, August 3, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200811212030/https://www.facebook.com/cun….
- 2Jenelle Evans (@PBandJenelley_1), “Again.. WHY IS NO ONE REPORTING ABOUT #SAVETHECHILDREN 🤬🤬🤬 NATIONAL PROTEST ON AUGUST 29th ! #SAVETHECHILDREN 💓👩🏾👦🏼👦🏾👧🏻,” Twitter, August 12, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200812105735/https://twitter.com/PBandJen….
- 3Kelly Leventhal (@kellyddodd), “It’s Time to Rise up and Get Loud Because Children Need Our Help Now More than Ever. . Human Trafficking Is a $150 Billion a Year Criminal…,” Instagram, October 19, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20201019200127/https://www.instagram.com/p/….
- 4Siggy Flicker (@siggy.flicker), “Love This Girl @the_savvy_truth #Repost @the_savvy_truth with @make_repost ・・・ You’re All Blinded by Your Hate for Donald Trump to See…,” Instagram, August 12, 2020, https://perma.cc/P9JN-F2X9.
- 5Steve Kettmann, “Tim Tebow Ponders a Future in Politics,” The New Yorker, October 21, 2016, https://perma.cc/Y6NG-8NSK.
- 6“Rescue Team | Defender,” Tim Tebow Foundation, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/T9HJ-2FKJ.
- 7Tia Mitchell, “Rep. Buddy Carter Attends Human Trafficking Rally with QAnon Ties,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 12, 2020, https://perma.cc/J758-5PX7.
- 8Utah Attorney General (@UtahAG), “Join Us in Raising Awareness for Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Tomorrow at 9AM at Liberty Park in SLC. Our Office Will Join Speakers in Highlighting Trauma-Informed Recovery, Legislation, Law Enforcement Roles, Resources, and Stories from Survivors. #utpol Https://T.Co/Pr0ALKgl0Y,” Twitter, August 21, 2020, https://perma.cc/F2LZ-DJUT.
- 9KUTV2news (@KUTV2News), “UPDATE: The Event Has Been Postponed ‘Due to Questions about Association with Other Human Trafficking Events Being Held the Same Day.’ Full Release Below.,” Twitter, August 22, 2020, https://perma.cc/29G3-PCU3.
- 10Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸 (@mtgreenee), “Praise the Lord! US Marshals Have given the Lives Back to 39 Innocent Children. No Other President Has Fought the Horror of Sex Trafficking with Such Urgency. @realdonaldtrump Will #SaveTheChildren! Https://T.Co/Di0LnBpNw3,” Twitter, August 30, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20210813200037/https://twitter.com/mtgreene…; Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸 (@mtgreenee), “The Media Defends Antifa/BLM Who Violently Loot, Burn, Attack Our Police and Cities, and Even Murder People Yet the Media Attacks, Criticizes, and Mocks People Who Want to Stop Pedophilia and #SaveTheChildren What Is Wrong with the Media?,” Twitter, September 7, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20210813195944/https://twitter.com/mtgreene…; Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸 (@mtgreenee), “Incredible News! #SaveTheChildren…,” Twitter, November 1, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20210813195425/https://twitter.com/mtgreene…; Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸 (@mtgreenee), “Democrats and the Fake News Media Call This ‘Progress’ ... I Call It Child Abuse in America! #SaveTheChildren…,” Twitter, November 23, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20210813195132/https://twitter.com/mtgreene…; Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸 (@mtgreenee), “Someone Should Be Arrested and Charged! #SaveTheChildren…,” Twitter, April 19, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20210813193224/https://twitter.com/mtgreene….
- 11Charles Bethea, “How the ‘QAnon Candidate’ Marjorie Taylor Greene Reached the Doorstep of Congress,” The New Yorker, October 9, 2020, https://perma.cc/ZYJ4-WA74.
- 12Charles Bethea, “How the ‘QAnon Candidate’ Marjorie Taylor Greene Reached the Doorstep of Congress.”
- 13Brandy Zadrozny, “House GOP Candidate Known for QAnon Support Was ‘correspondent’ for Conspiracy Website,” NBC, August 14, 2020, https://perma.cc/A8F8-YRD3.
- 14Ryan Gaydos, “Tim Tebow Embraced by QAnon Followers after Instagram Post,” Fox News, https://perma.cc/YN4S-S5TC.
- 15Tia Mitchell, “Georgia Congressman Attends Human Trafficking Rally with QAnon Ties,” The Seattle Times, August 12, 2020, https://perma.cc/JT87-Q7FK; Erik Maulbetsch, “Denver Anti-Child Sex Trafficking March Rooted in QAnon Conspiracy Theories,” Colorado Times Recorder, August 13, 2020, https://perma.cc/8MNY-6NB4; “‘Save the Children’ Rally Draws Hundreds to Downtown OKC, Organizers Didn’t Want It to Turn Political,” KFOR Oklahoma City, August 22, 2020, https://perma.cc/272D-G4CJ.
- 16Jackson Kurtz, “‘Save the Children’ Rally Held in Savannah to Raise Awareness of Human Trafficking,” WJCL, August 10, 2020, https://perma.cc/AJC2-U72M; Blake Allen, “‘Save The Children’ Rally Held in Prineville,” KTVZ, August 10, 2020, https://perma.cc/Y4TG-PT69; Allison Zeithammer, “Activists Hold ‘Save the Children’ Protest,” ABC57, August 16, 2020, https://perma.cc/J3S5-7YJS; Angel Thompson, “Save the Children March to Be Held Saturday,” WTAP, August 18, 2020, https://perma.cc/F4NL-34SG; “Group Plans ‘Save The Children’ March at Spokane Riverfront Park Saturday,” KHQ6, August 19, 2020, https://perma.cc/PF6N-QET4.
- 17Allison Zeithammer, “Activists Hold ‘Save the Children’ Protest,” ABC57, August 16, 2020, https://perma.cc/J3S5-7YJS; Angel Thompson, “Save the Children March to Be Held Saturday,” WTAP, August 18, 2020, https://perma.cc/F4NL-34SG; “Group Plans ‘Save The Children’ March at Spokane Riverfront Park Saturday,” KHQ6, August 19, 2020, https://perma.cc/PF6N-QET4; “Nearly 100 People Rally at Coolidge Park Saturday to ‘Save the Children,’” WTVC FOX, August 23, 2020, https://perma.cc/4XR8-3E8E.
- 18Anonymous, “Save the Children Is Completely Comped and Ripe for a Ff,” /qresearch/ - Q Research, August 22, 2020, https://perma.cc/4ZL3-QVEC; Anonymous, “Save the Children FF Incoming.,” /qresearch/ - Q Research S, August 22, 2020, https://perma.cc/XY7P-9Q8Q; Anonymous, “Q/Comments for Discussion: Seems like #savethechildren Came on Strong in Some Areas. Part of Plan?,” /qresearch/ - Q Research, August 23, 2020, https://perma.cc/49SC-8C6E; Anonymous, “So This Is an Example of How Hey Are Manipulating Normies into Falling for the ‘Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing’ Trick. They Have Them Pushing the SaveTheChildren Theme While Linking to These Corrupt Orgs and Non Profits. All the While Claiming Qanon and Patriots Are Co-Opting Their Movement and Corrupting It.,” /qresearch/ - Q Research, August 25, 2020, https://perma.cc/W29W-AM7K.
- 19Anonymous, “Call to Meme Fake and Gay Save the Children Protests. Classic Attempt to Coopt Movement. FF Incoming. Remain Vigilant.,” /qresearch/ - Q Research, August 22, 2020, https://perma.cc/7WVQ-UUWM.
- 20“Definition of False Flag,” www.dictionary.com, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/KXZ4-GRTZ.
- 21Anonymous, “Told Spouse Anon Today It Was Absurd That We Would Be Having ‘Nationwide’ Rallies for ‘Save the Children’ When I’m on Here Everyday and We’ve Never Once Discussed Organizing Something like That.,” /qresearch/ - Q Research, August 23, 2020, https://perma.cc/T75F-XXMC.
STAGE 4: Mitigation efforts
Throughout the #SaveTheChildren campaign, social media platforms, non-profit organizations, and others made several attempts to prevent campaign operators from spreading misinformation about child sex trafficking online. Many of the mitigation efforts put in place in 2020 remained in effect 18 months later, when this case was published.
On Aug. 5, 2020, six days after Rojas’s first protest in Hollywood, Facebook made the first effort to mitigate #SaveTheChildren. The platform temporarily restricted the distribution of the #SaveTheChildren hashtag, describing the decision as a means of restricting the spread of content related to QAnon. This meant that “posts using the hashtag will have their visibility reduced in the News Feed and people clicking on the hashtag will not be able to see the aggregated results,” a Facebook spokesperson told CNN in a statement.1
The restriction was short-lived. By Aug. 12 a different Facebook spokesperson told Rolling Stone magazine that the hashtag had been “restored,” but provided no reason for the decision.2
Another early effort to push back against #SaveTheChildren came on Aug. 7, in the form of a civil society response from the well-known humanitarian organization Save The Children. The group – which has been providing education, food and health services to children worldwide for more than 100 years – published a press statement3 and corresponding tweet4 distancing itself from the media manipulation campaign using its name.
“Our name in hashtag form has been experiencing unusually high volumes and causing confusion among our supporters and the general public,” the statement read. “While people may choose to use our organization’s name as a hashtag to make their point on different issues, we are not affiliated or associated with any of these campaigns.”5
After the release of this statement, Rojas instructed campaign participants to use hashtag #SaveOurChildren, rather than #SaveTheChildren, according to QAA.6 Twitter data analyzed via WeVerify show that the use of “#saveourchildren” shot up in the days that following this announcement by Rojas.
- 1Donie O’Sullivan, Kaya Yurieff, and Kelly Bourdet, “Facebook Cracks down on QAnon Hashtag #SaveOurChildren,” CNN Business, November 1, 2020, https://perma.cc/K6K2-TSUB.
- 2EJ Dickson, “What Is #SaveTheChildren and Why Did Facebook Block It?,” Rolling Stone, August 12, 2020, https://perma.cc/MJ74-M9FC.
- 3“Save the Children Statement on Use of Its Name in Unaffiliated Campaigns,” Save the Children, August 7, 2020, https://perma.cc/JZ6W-RFMY.
- 4Save the Children US (@SavetheChildren), “We Have Been Protecting Children around the World for over 100 Years. While Many People May Choose to Use Our Organization’s Name as a Hashtag to Make Their Point on Different Issues, We Are Not Affiliated or Associated with Any of These Campaigns. Https://T.Co/QDDGLvjDw9,” Twitter, August 9, 2020, https://perma.cc/H6HN-W4F7.
- 5“Save the Children Statement on Use of Its Name in Unaffiliated Campaigns,” Save the Children, August 7, 2020, https://perma.cc/JZ6W-RFMY.
- 6“The Unlikely Man Behind the Worldwide QAnon Rallies,” QAnon Anonymous, accessed November 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/26FR-7C8P.
From then on, the two viral slogans were largely used interchangeably by campaign participants.1
Save The Children’s disavowal of #SaveTheChildren sparked a wave of critical press aimed at the campaign, chiefly from national news outlets with dedicated beat journalists familiar with online communities and digital conspiracy movements. At least two dozen stories published between early August and late October 2020 revealed the true nature of #SaveTheChildren as being inspired by conspiratorial beliefs popularized by QAnon.2
A few of the earliest critical articles include a Politifact explainer on how “QAnon, Pizzagate conspiracy theories co-opt #SaveTheChildren,”3 and a New York Times article outlining how and why “QAnon Followers Are Hijacking the #SaveTheChildren Movement.”4
These articles successfully identified the connection between #SaveTheChildren and QAnon. But many explainers published during this period nonetheless over-simplified the nature of that connection, suggesting that the two were not, in fact, distinct conspiracy movements.
Exceptions to this trend include Mel Magazine’s article on “How ‘Save The Children’ Became A Conspiracy Grift”5 and a piece in the Colorado Times Recorder called “Denver Anti-Child Sex Trafficking March Rooted in QAnon Conspiracy Theories.”6
In late Oct. 2020, more than 130 established non-profit organizations that advocate for victims of human trafficking – including Polaris and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) – signed and published an open letter asking political “Candidates, the Media, Political Parties, and Policymakers” to “condemn QAnon” and other “conspiracy theories and about sex trafficking aiming to sow fear and division in order to influence the upcoming election.”7
The letter did not explicitly mention the #SaveTheChildren campaign, but it avers that, “Anybody – political committee, candidate, or media outlet – who lends any credibility to QAnon conspiracies related to human trafficking actively harms the fight against human trafficking.”8
By early 2022, many of the Facebook event pages associated with the #SaveTheChildren movement had been removed. A February 2022 search for #SaveTheChildren on both Facebook and Instagram returned a content label redirecting the user to the official website of the philanthropic organization Save The Children.
However, on both Facebook and Instagram, users need only click a button reading “See posts anyway” to view all remaining posts featuring the hashtag.
- 1According to analysis conducted via WeVerify: https://mediamanipulation.org/sites/default/files/media-files/%23saveth…; https://mediamanipulation.org/sites/default/files/media-files/%23saveou….
- 2Daniel Funke, “QAnon, Pizzagate Conspiracy Theories Co-Opt #SaveTheChildren,” PolitiFact, August 12, 2020, https://perma.cc/8WYQ-M2R9; Kevin Roose, “QAnon Followers Are Hijacking the #SaveTheChildren Movement,” The New York Times, August 12, 2020, https://perma.cc/DJ8L-JMMB; Deepa Seetharaman, “QAnon Booms on Facebook as Conspiracy Group Gains Mainstream Traction,” Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2020, https://perma.cc/RE7N-JFJ7; K. Bell, “How QAnon Went Mainstream,” Engadget, August 14, 2020, https://perma.cc/SNP2-NQ5P; Ali Breland, “The Summer QAnon Went Mainstream,” Mother Jones, August 20, 2020, https://perma.cc/Q7LR-2EQE; Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins, “A New Phenomenon as QAnon Conspiracy Spreads: Nationwide #SavetheChildren Rallies,” NBC, August 21, 2020, https://perma.cc/XKT4-8SSU; Jemima McEvoy, “QAnon Supporters May Be Behind Hundreds Of In-Person ‘Save The Children’ Rallies Planned For Saturday,” Forbes, August 21, 2020, https://perma.cc/BC83-SF4K; Alex Walker, Olivia Little, and Bobby Lewis, “Watch How Reports across the Country Omitted Dangerous QAnon Connections to Supposed Anti-Child-Trafficking Rallies,” Media Matters for America, August 25, 2020, https://perma.cc/UD7M-WX4U; “With #SaveTheChildren Rallies, QAnon Sneaks Into The Offline World | On the Media,” WNYC Studios, August 26, 2020, https://perma.cc/W2JP-P6GL; Tarpley Hitt, “Inside QAnon’s Bizarre Hollywood Invasion,” The Daily Beast, August 27, 2020, https://perma.cc/6TMM-XZPF; Elahe Izadi, “The QAnon Problem Facing Local Journalism This Election Season,” Washington Post, September 4, 2020, https://perma.cc/UUC4-QNS6; Anna North, “How #SaveTheChildren Is Pulling American Moms into QAnon,” Vox, September 18, 2020, https://perma.cc/S2X4-LM4L; Esther Wang, “Eat, Pray, Conspiracy: How the Wellness World Embraced QAnon,” Jezebel, September 23, 2020, https://perma.cc/QKD4-BRLV; Sue Greenwood, “How QAnon Conspiracy Theory Are Spreading on Facebook in the UK,” The Conversation, September 25, 2020, https://perma.cc/J7DF-YYYY; Kevin Roose, “What Is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?,” The New York Times, September 3, 2021, https://perma.cc/U56V-68U3; Dani Di Placido, “How The Twisted Tendrils Of QAnon Wormed Its Way Into The Mainstream,” Forbes, October 16, 2020, https://perma.cc/7GZR-EW2K; "QAnon Has Hijacked the Name of Save the Children, a Real Children’s Charity," CNN, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/3U9V-35FX; Jamie Landers and Richard Ruelas, “QAnon-Linked Save the Children Movement Is Derailing Local Anti-Trafficking Organizations,” The Arizona Republic, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/7M9Y-TLBD; Sue Greenwood, “How Have QAnon’s Conspiracies Gained Traction in the UK?,” The Guardian, October 27, 2020, https://perma.cc/5UDX-YDVF; Amanda Seitz, “QAnon’s ‘Save the Children’ Morphs into Popular Slogan,” The Seattle Times, October 28, 2020, https://perma.cc/L2TY-8J64.
- 3Daniel Funke, “QAnon, Pizzagate Conspiracy Theories Co-Opt #SaveTheChildren,” PolitiFact, August 12, 2020, https://perma.cc/8WYQ-M2R9.
- 4 Kevin Roose, “QAnon Followers Are Hijacking the #SaveTheChildren Movement,” The New York Times, August 12, 2020, https://perma.cc/DJ8L-JMMB.
- 5Eddie Kim, “How ‘Save the Children’ Became a Conspiracy Grift,” MEL Magazine, August 6, 2020, https://perma.cc/WES6-FZZM.
- 6 rik Maulbetsch, “Denver Anti-Child Sex Trafficking March Rooted in QAnon Conspiracy Theories,” Colorado Times Recorder, August 13, 2020, https://perma.cc/DR8J-WT6N.
- 7"Human Trafficking Groups Reject QAnon Lies,” Medium, October 21, 2020, https://perma.cc/25L2-JEWL.
- 8“Human Trafficking Groups Reject QAnon Lies."
On TikTok, a search for #savethechildren returns a warning that the phrase “may be associated with behavior or content that violates our guidelines” and offers no content featuring the hashtag.
Despite all this mitigation, #SaveTheChildren protests – many unaffiliated with Rojas – continued to take place. Through September and into October 2020 cities such as Olympia, Washington, Phoenix, Arizona, and Wichita Falls, Texas, all saw anti-child trafficking marches.1
- 1“Nearly 100 People Rally at Coolidge Park Saturday to ‘Save the Children,’” WTVC FOX, August 23, 2020, https://perma.cc/4XR8-3E8E; “Photos: Black Lives, Back the Blue and Save the Children Protests Held in Olympia | The Daily Chronicle,” The Chronicle, August 24, 2020, https://perma.cc/ZEK8-BAJT; Jamie Landers and Richard Ruelas, “QAnon-Linked Save the Children Movement Is Derailing Local Anti-Trafficking Organizations,” The Arizona Republic, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/7M9Y-TLBD; Angelina Dixson and KVAL com Staff, “‘Save the Children’ Rally in Eugene Held to Protest Sex Trafficking around the World,” KVAL, August 29, 2020, https://perma.cc/BFP5-2KE6; PJ Green, “Save The Children Rally Calls for Change to the Criminal Justice System,” Texomas, September 6, 2020, https://perma.cc/847T-76Y8; Cathy Womble, “Second Save the Children Rally Planned,” South Central Florida Life, August 26, 2020, https://perma.cc/N55K-5QHP; “Upcoming Movements,” STOP KIDding, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/76SD-4JBX.
STAGE 5: Adjustments by campaign operators
Soon after its launch, #SaveTheChildren followers took on new targets, and new tactics.
In August 2020, American streaming giant Netflix announced on Twitter that it would soon be releasing a French film called Mignonnes (Cuties in English) in the United States. According to Vulture, the film – which follows a dance troupe made up of preteen girls – had received “relatively positive” reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, in part for its criticism of the harsh expectations placed upon young women by a patriarchal society.1
However, the film’s announcement was met with backlash on social media. Some users took issue with the movie’s promotional poster (not with the film itself, which had not yet been released). In it, the young dancers wear crop top uniforms and strike poses that some considered age-inappropriate.2
“Netflix WTF IS THIS,” one unverified Twitter user wrote in response to the Cuties poster on Aug. 19, 2020. “This [sic] is fucking disgusting. minors shouldn't be sexualized like this,” the user added in a second post.3
This user’s initial tweet received more than 30,000 retweets and 166,000 likes before being deleted.4 The success of this tweet was particularly striking, given the fact that digital archives show this user had less than 700 followers in April 2020, and their other posts did not typically earn more than a handful of likes.5
- 1Vulture Editors, “Wait, What’s Going on With Netflix and Cuties?,” Vulture, October 7, 2020, https://perma.cc/V8KE-P54S.
- 2Vulture Editors, “Wait, What’s Going on With Netflix and Cuties?"
- 3koko✨ (@littlewarior9), “‘Netflix WTF IS THIS… ,’” Twitter, August 19, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200823002727/https://twitter.com/littlewa….
- 4koko✨ (@littlewarior9), “‘Netflix WTF IS THIS…”
- 5“Koko (@littlewarior9),” Twitter, accessed February 25, 2022, https://web.archive.org/web/20200429223503/https://twitter.com/littlewa….
Social media posts and critical press from this time show that #SaveTheChildren participants immediately saw Cuties as a flagrant example of the sexual exploitation of children they believed to be rampant in Hollywood and beyond.1
In a campaign adjustment, many participants called for their followers to cancel their Netflix subscriptions in protest of the film, under the hashtag #CancelNetflix.2
“Cuties is a pedophile’s dream,” wrote one Instagram user on Sep. 13, along with a picture of herself wearing a “Save Our Children” t-shirt. “There are a few things I’m really passionate about and when it comes to children- I won’t stay quiet. #cancelnetflix #saveourchildren.”3
- 1Stephanie McNeal, “The Netflix Movie ‘Cuties’ Has Become The Latest Target Of #SaveTheChildren Conspiracy Theorists,” BuzzFeed News, September 11, 2020, https://perma.cc/MC3S-L8YZ.
- 2Julia Alexander, “Why ‘Cancel Netflix’ Is Trending,” The Verge, September 11, 2020, https://perma.cc/8W4P-HJ5Y.
- 3Jasmine Denos (@jazzzyyy13), “I Really Didn’t Plan to Bring This up Because I Thought Anyone with Common Sense Would Know This Is Completely Wrong. Sadly, I Was Wrong…,” Instagram, September 13, 2020, https://perma.cc/JCJ3-UCC8.
The #SaveTheChildren-adjacent hashtag #CancelNetflix allowed the campaign to appeal to an even wider audience across various social media platforms, particularly among concerned parents who disapproved of the controversial film.1 #CancelNetflix became so widely used on Twitter, for example, that the hashtag reached the “Top Trending” topics list on Sep. 10, the day of the film’s release.2 And five days later, on Sept. 15, Variety reported that the campaign had successfully caused U.S. subscription cancellations to surge.3
The Cuties controversy and corresponding #CancelNetflix campaign effectively reinvigorated the #SaveTheChildren movement by attracting press attention from right-wing media outlets.4 It also brought a handful of prominent politicians into the fold. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, for example, called the film “disgusting and wrong” and demanded a federal investigation as to “whether Netflix, its executives, or the filmmakers violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography.”5
In a tweet posted Sep. 11, 2020, former Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard declared the film would “help fuel the child sex trafficking trade.”6
Nevertheless, by early October 2020, #SaveTheChildren rallies began to dwindle. Scotty Rojas’s website shows that the last event he organized took place on Oct. 10.7 Rojas has since removed most of the posts related to #SaveTheChildren from his Instagram account, and has not promoted any other in-person events related to the campaign since.
But the categorically false claims about child sex trafficking born out of the #SaveTheChildren and QAnon movements have continued to thrive online. Their existence has severely muddied the waters in discourse about human trafficking.
Political science researchers Joseph Uscinski and Adam Enders found in October 2020 that most Americans seriously overestimate the prevalence of human trafficking nationally. Their study aimed to measure the popular impact of QAnon and related conspiracy theories by asking survey respondents whether “the number of children being trafficked in the US was above, about, or below 300,000 children.” This question was designed as a reference to the false but widely-shared statistic popularized by QAnon followers online.8
The researchers found that “50 percent of Americans think the real number of trafficked children is about 300,000 or higher. Thirty-four percent think it is ‘much higher.’”9
Those misinformed about the prevalence of child sex trafficking include powerful public figures, and even policymakers. For example, in Dec. 2021, Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Republican and known QAnon supporter,10 tweeted, “365,348 children went missing in 2020. You haven't heard a word from the media about it. There enlies [sic] the problem.”11
- 1Stephanie McNeal, “The Netflix Movie ‘Cuties’ Has Become The Latest Target Of #SaveTheChildren Conspiracy Theorists,” BuzzFeed News, September 11, 2020, https://perma.cc/MC3S-L8YZ.
- 2Kelly Wynne, “#CancelNetflix Trends on Twitter as Fans Accuse ‘Cuties’ Film of Being Child Pornography,” Newsweek, September 10, 2020, https://perma.cc/T32N-HTGT.
- 3Todd Spangler, “‘Cuties’ Backlash Led Netflix U.S. Cancellations to Spike Nearly Eightfold, Analytics Firm Says,” Variety, September 15, 2020, https://perma.cc/BPA7-VXU3.
- 4Phillip Nieto, “Netflix Releases ‘Cuties’ Movie About Child Dancers And … ‘It’s Worse Than You Could Imagine,’” Daily Caller, September 10, 2020, https://perma.cc/CLC8-37F4; “DOJ Should Charge Netflix With ‘Distribution of Child Porn,’ GOP Lawmakers Say,” The Epoch Times, September 12, 2020, https://perma.cc/JK4H-PK9N; Paul Joseph Watson, “IMDB Parental Warning For Netflix’s ‘Cuties’ Says Scenes in Movie Are ‘Lawfully Defined as Pedophilia,’” Summit News, September 10, 2020, https://perma.cc/33KC-LGHE.
- 5Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz), .“.@netflix’s ‘Cuties’ Sexualizes 11-Year-Old Girls, and It’s Disgusting and Wrong. That’s Why I’ve Asked AG Barr to Investigate Whether Netflix, Its Executives, or the Filmmakers Violated Any Federal Laws against the Production and Distribution of Child Pornography. Https://T.Co/OuhE6ifmGi,” Twitter, September 13, 2020, https://perma.cc/8L2K-BT6L.
- 6Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard), .“.@netflix Child Porn ‘Cuties’ Will Certainly Whet the Appetite of Pedophiles & Help Fuel the Child Sex Trafficking Trade. 1 in 4 Victims of Trafficking Are Children. It Happened to My Friend’s 13 Year Old Daughter. Netflix, You Are Now Complicit. #CancelNetflix Https://T.Co/GI8KFH7LFq,” Twitter, September 12, 2020, https://perma.cc/FMW2-58P9.
- 7“Drawing The Line 10/10/20,” STOP KIDding, September 21, 2020, https://perma.cc/3L5L-7359.
- 8Glenn Kessler, “The Bogus Claim That 300,000 U.S. Children Are ‘at Risk’ of Sexual Exploitation,” Washington Post, May 28, 2015, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/XTV7-JMAN.
- 9Adam M. Enders and Joseph E. Uscinski, “Unfounded Fears about Sex Trafficking Did Not Begin with QAnon and Go Far beyond It,” LSE Phelan US Centre, March 9, 2021, https://perma.cc/7AHU-EYBG.
- 10Jack Brewster, “Congress Will Get Its Second QAnon Supporter, As Boebert Wins Colorado House Seat,” Forbes, November 4, 2020, https://perma.cc/8627-Y5EJ.
- 11Lauren Boebert (@laurenboebert), “365,348 Children Went Missing in 2020. You Haven’t Heard a Word from the Media about It. There Enlies the Problem,” Twitter, December 12, 2021, https://perma.cc/VW2S-QZ95.
Although the campaign waned in Oct. 2020, the inaccurate beliefs spread by #SaveTheChildren continue to inspire occasional, typically localized redeployments, in the form of in-person protests and fundraisers for dubious organizations that claim to be working to end human trafficking or providing aid to survivors.1
“All over the country, community volunteers promote awareness of child sex trafficking,” wrote journalist Kaitlyn Tiffany in a Dec. 2021 feature published in The Atlantic. In ithe article, she describes her experience at one such fundraising event. The “Festival of Hope” in Oakdale, California had a block party vibe, Tiffany writes, complete with food trucks and carnival rides.
Her story includes a laundry list of other nominally anti-trafficking fundraisers underway across the U.S: “In Colorado, at a Kentucky Derby party. In Arkansas, at an Easter bake sale. In Texas, at a ‘Big A$$ Crawfish Bash.’ In Idaho, at a Thanksgiving-morning ‘turkey run.’ In Utah, at an annual winter-holiday fair.”2
Today, the #SaveTheChildren campaign slogan continues to serve as popular merchandising fodder, emblazoned on T-shirts, sweaters, buttons, posters, and car decals sold on websites like Amazon3 and Etsy.4
- 1Anna Merlan and Tim Marchman, “Operation Underground Railroad’s Carefully Crafted Public Image Is Falling Apart,” Vice, June 10, 2021, https://perma.cc/4CQU-KCKM.
- 2Kaitlyn Tiffany, “The Great (Fake) Child-Sex-Trafficking Epidemic,” The Atlantic, December 9, 2021, https://perma.cc/G2HL-RJPQ.
- 3“Search : Save the Children,” Amazon, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/C48R-P73Z.
- 4“Search: Save the Children,” Etsy, accessed February 25, 2022, https://perma.cc/E7TA-U5QV.
The ubiquitous, #SaveTheChildren hashtag and slogan has also been co-opted by several other protest movements since 2020, including by activists opposing COVID-19 interventions.1
Recently, at an anti-COVID-mandates protest in front of San Francisco City Hall on Feb. 8, 2022, at least one person held a “save the children” poster. When asked by a TaSC researcher how the sign related to COVID, the protestor replied, “Save the children from the vaccines.”
- 1Mandy B. Groom (@mandybgroom), “F You, Newsom. #protectourkids #protectthechildren #gavinnewsom #commiefornia #momsagainstmandates #savethechildren #protecttheinnocent,” Instagram, October 1, 2021, https://perma.cc/U2N2-YC2T; Capt Obvious (@cap_obviously), “‘Safe & Effective’ at What? #mrna #vaccine #ᴠᴀᴄᴄɪɴᴇsideeffects #bigpharmaiskillingus #pregnant #jab #savethechildren #mothersagainstvax…,” Instagram, September 29, 2021, https://perma.cc/B44U-5H7X; The Larrikin Review (@larrikinreviewofficial), “With the TGA Set to Approve the Jab for 5-11 Year Olds, Are We on the Precipice of a Devastating Catastrophe? How Can They Approve the Jab…,” Instagram, December 4, 2021, https://perma.cc/MJ9V-46PZ.
Cite this case study
Kaylee Fagan, "#SaveTheChildren: How a fringe conspiracy theory fueled a massive child abuse panic," The Media Manipulation Case Book, March 7, 2023, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/savethechildren-how-fringe-conspiracy-theory-fueled-massive-child-abuse-panic.