Why a new push to 'Save the Children' isn't as innocent as it sounds

Andy Downing

Brandy Zachariah, director of sex trafficking prevention nonprofit Out of Darkness Ohio, has followed along in recent weeks as a series of Save the Children rallies have been staged nationwide, including one scheduled to take place at the Ohio Statehouse in Downtown Columbus on Saturday, Aug. 29. 

Zachariah said she has taken a guarded approach to the events, though, many of which have been planned and orchestrated by QAnon supporters or sympathizers. As a result, the rallies have served as fertile ground for jumping the far-right conspiracy theory, which is built around the false premise that President Donald Trump is pitched in a secret battle against a shadowy cabal of Democratic pedophiles, from the internet into the real world. 

“It’s great the issue [of trafficking] is being talked about more, and that people are raising awareness, but [the conspiracy] also shines a light on the ways that trafficking doesn’t happen,” said Zachariah, pointing to one QAnon theory that falsely suggested furniture wholesaler Wayfair was involved in child trafficking. Q conspirators constructed the unfounded theory based on the fact that the furniture company offered a high-priced line of cabinets named for girls, which prompted followers to claim the pieces were delivered with sex-trafficked children hidden inside.

So while Zachariah still plans to attend the event, in part to scope out the landscape and see what local groups rally organizers have paired with, she said those who wish to advance the cause of human trafficking would still be best served by reaching out to locals already doing on-the-ground work, pointing to a training session run by trafficking nonprofit She Has a Name as a solid entry point. “They do a great job of not only training, but also introducing people to the organizations around town that are doing the work and sharing other ways to get involved,” Zachariah said. 

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

Marie Kelty, who is spearheading the Columbus Save the Children rally, said she was initially drawn to the issue of child trafficking after reading about the Wayfair conspiracy online, though she doesn't believe the furniture company was actually peddling children via its catalog (she did suggest, however, that the high-ticket items advertised were part of a larger money laundering scheme).

“I believed there was something happening, because when you go down the rabbit hole of the Wayfair conspiracy, it does lead you to things that are legitimately happening,” said Kelty, who said she was first drawn to the world of Q when coronavirus-driven shutdowns left her with extra time to tool around online. “It’s not an elite pedophile ring sacrificing children and ripping their faces off, because that’s insane. … But trafficking is happening in China. It’s happening in Turkey. It’s happening in Syria. So [QAnon] leads you down a path where you start to see things that you overlooked, or maybe didn’t want to know about. When you see that bigger picture, at least for me, it brings you back to [the question]: 'What’s happening where I live?’”

Whitney Phillips,assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University and co-author of the forthcoming You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polluted Information, compared the growth of QAnon, which has been designated as a domestic terror threat by the FBI, with the formation of a hurricane in that its spread is the culmination of multiple factors rather than a single launch point, tracing its growth to everything from President Donald Trump’s embrace of the conspiracy (“They like me very much,” Trump said recently of Q followers) to increased media coverage, even if it paints QAnon in a negative light.

“For some people, the fact that the New York Times is reporting on something as false is pretty strong evidence for them that it is true,” Phillips said.

Phillips also noted that one of the tentpoles of QAnon— that a shadowy group of Democratic figures dubbed “the Deep State” is working from within to bring down Trump — has strong appeal within far-right circles.

“So when they do encounter the conspiracy theory — because it’s recommended to them by Facebook, or because they hear it from a cousin, or it’s recommended to them by the mainstream news media — it lines up with what they already believe to be true about the world,” Phillips said. “And within conservative politics this idea of the nefarious, elitist liberal — often coded to mean Jewish — that’s something that’s really been established for decades. So QAnon lines up with a lot of things that were already in place. And the things that were already in place are not extreme in terms of their mainstream acceptance within the modern conservative movement.… So, yeah, QAnon is beyond the pale in some ways, but it’s telling the same story, just more of an unvarnished version of that story.”

As a result, the conspiracy has grown increasingly prevalent, with more than a dozen congressional candidates expressing support for QAnon, including Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won her primary runoff and is likely to be the first vocal Q supporter elected to congress. (Greene has also recently come under fire for posting anti-Semitic videos, another hallmark of QAnon.)

Both in conversation and in posts on the Facebook event page for the Save the Children rally, Kelty has made efforts to separate the affair from QAnon. At the same time, Kelty has made posts on the event page giving foundational credit to the conspiracy. “While this event is not a Qanon event, that movement sparked Save Our Children and brought attention to child trafficking,” she wrote. “Politics aside, we are here because of them.”

In the same post, Kelty directed readers to the Instagram page of a local realtor she described as “incredibly knowledgeable on all things Q,” an account littered with far-right propaganda, anti-mask rhetoric and outlandish child trafficking conspiracy theories, such as one suggesting that 100,000 child sex slaves could be trapped under Los Angeles art museum the Getty. Additionally, one of Saturday’s speakers has made posts to their personal page sharing videos alleging the existence of an elite Hollywood pedophile ring.

“I’m starting to notice certain aspects of [the rally] are being hijacked. I think there are going to be quite a few QAnonymous followers and quite a few Trump supporters there,” Kelty said (a Facebook listing for the event has generated more than 2,700 “interested” replies, with 466 listed as attending). “But I still believe it is a positive because it has brought attention to an actual, legitimate problem. Had it not been for all of the conspiracy theorists and everything going viral on the internet, I would not have recognized that there is a problem. … My intent with this rally is to educate and to give people in our community the resources to actually combat trafficking. … I feel like I’m benefiting the cause more than I’m hurting it.”

Regardless, Phillips said the more damaging aspects of QAnon can’t be separated from the spate of Save the Children events born of the conspiracy, even if on the surface the rallies appear positioned to draw attention to a worthy cause.

“Advocating for children is obviously not a bad thing … but the unexpected downstream consequences can be pretty dire if you have people who are suddenly inclined to be sympathetic to the most dangerous, destructive, anti-science information that circulates within these same QAnon circles,” said Phillips, pointing to COVID-19 denials and deep, violent strains of anti-Semitism that are baked into the conspiracy. “It's sort of ‘buy one get the rest.’ You don't just engage with one element of the QAnon narrative; it's an overarching, sort of wraparound way of seeing the world. So if you're inclined to think, ‘Well, this piece of the narrative makes sense,’ it's not unreasonable to think that some people might be more inclined to take seriously the other elements that are demonstrably dangerous.”

A QAnon follower holds up a sign at a 2018 Make America Great Rally at Olentangy Orange High School.