Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Analysis

How QAnon hijacks anti-trafficking, and what can be done about it

QAnon is here to stay but educators and advocates can mitigate its effects

Daniela Peterka-Benton Bond Benton
15 March 2022, 7.00am
‘Unite for Freedom’ demo in Trafalgar Square, London, UK

We are university educators who regularly teach students about the complex web of inequality that causes human trafficking. In general, we have found students to be interested and engaged with this topic and excited to become informed anti-trafficking advocates. In recent years, however, we have seen an increasing number of students arrive at sessions with some bizarre and outlandish perceptions of what human trafficking is.

From unsubstantiated claims of massive numbers of people being abducted from shopping malls, playgrounds, and other public places to descriptions of shadowy trafficking organisations controlling the global economy, it has become clear that misinformation on trafficking is gaining traction. While responding to myths has always been a function of education, this new community of home-spun ‘trafficking experts’ presents a challenge that we were not prepared to deal with.

Where do these ideas comes from? In recent years, QAnon has hijacked anti-trafficking discourse and activism with its outlandish claims of elite paedophilia and calls to ‘save the children’. As educators working at the intersections of human trafficking, right-wing extremism, media, and communications, we have watched these developments in horror. Understanding what is happening and the reasons why it has been so powerful is essential to counteracting it, and we have some ideas for why this has gained such purchase. But first, what is QAnon?

QAnon’s obsession with trafficking

The QAnon conspiracy puts forth the idea that a cabal of elites is currently covering up trafficking and paedophilia. ‘Q’ is a pseudonym for an anonymous online personality with ‘inside knowledge’ of the levers of power. Trafficking, in the Q space, is almost exclusively the abduction of children. Although the first Q post came in 2017, the conspiracy is largely an extension of several older conspiracies. The most prominent one is Pizzagate, which alleged that coded words and symbols found in the hacked emails of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign point to a secret child trafficking ring in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant. The story was further amplified by far-right media personalities such as InfoWars’ Alex Jones and social media bots.

Sincere anti-trafficking messages are not equipped to respond to ridiculous memes that are wholly divorced from reality.

QAnon’s portrayal of trafficking repeats many of the myths that anti-trafficking experts have long sought to rectify. These include the common misunderstanding that human trafficking is only about sex, and has little to do with labour exploitation, organ removal, child soldiers, or child marriage. It suggests that boys are more likely to be trafficked than men, which is not true. And QAnon’s focus on child abduction perpetuates the falsehood that most human trafficking victims are kidnapped, which is also not the case.

Q has grown to post on a variety of topics and individuals that divide Americans, including Hillary Clinton, George Soros, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, Edward Snowden, the Russian collusion investigation, fake news, the Red Cross, Jeffrey Epstein, Covid-19, and electoral fraud. Its traction is immense, with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue reporting tens of millions of social media posts inside the U.S. and across other countries. The entry point for QAnon participation, however, is the foundational belief that child abduction and exploitation are the core source of elite power.

QAnon’s Effects

The trafficking conspiracies shared in support of QAnon hinder authentic attempts at trafficking prevention. Speaking anonymously because of Q threats she has received, a senior staffer at a national anti-trafficking organisation in Washington said, “it definitely impedes our work when we’re getting harassed and trolled over misinformation campaigns … It’s exhausting work. It’s traumatic work. It’s something that all of us do because there’s such an extreme need in our communities and around the country. And this just makes it all so much harder.”

Beyond its use of old myths, QAnon’s structure (or non-structure) appears to invite even more unique and bizarre mythologising from its devotees. Among these is the unsubstantiated claim that the furniture store Wayfair runs a child trafficking ring and names furniture pieces after real child trafficking victims. Another shared rumour cautions people to be suspicious of white vans with external locks as a sign of possible trafficking activity. Almost by design, the absurdity of these stories makes reasoned response seem fruitless. Sincere and informed anti-trafficking messages can engage audiences on challenging, critical questions. They are not equipped, however, to respond to ridiculous memes that are wholly divorced from reality.

Particularly problematic are the ostensibly anti-trafficking organisations that use ‘child sex trafficking’ as a fear appeal for clicks and donations.

Unfortunately, even well-intentioned anti-trafficking advocacy can actually empower such actions. For example, jarring (and potentially spurious) trafficking statistics may encourage audiences to support “backyard abolitionism”; efforts to end so-called modern-day slavery have led to vigilante actions against perceived trafficking hubs based on rumour, misinformation, and dubious tips. This increased militancy is frequently informed by awareness raising messages from the anti-trafficking community that focus on shock. For example, the “heat map” of trafficking reports produced by the anti-trafficking NGO Polaris gives the impression that trafficking threats are omnipresent in every corner of the United States. Such content serves as a rationale for vigilantism with the trafficking menace apparently everywhere.

Particularly problematic are the ostensibly anti-trafficking organisations that use ‘child sex trafficking’ as a fear appeal for clicks and donations. Operation Underground Railroad, for example, has used the fear of ‘child sex trafficking’ to solicit millions of dollars in donations and to gain public support from celebrities and conservative political leaders. In 2019, OUR brought in more than $22 million with the group’s leader serving as a White House anti-trafficking advisor during the Trump administration. With the notoriety of QAnon, leaders of OUR have latched on to the conspiracy to gain visibility, even going so far as to voice support for the unfounded claims that Wayfair is a trafficking front.

Cumulatively, the combination of shock-based communication from legitimate anti-trafficking organisations, the use of fear appeals from organisations profiting off the hysteria, and the online space that invites conspiracy sharing has created challenges that anti-trafficking advocates need to consider.

Responding to QAnon

So how to counter these absurd conspiracies and misinformation about human trafficking? We propose three ways.

First, anti-trafficking advocates should focus on ‘myth versus reality’ messages rather than messages based on fear. Trafficking is a global phenomenon and by emphasising its broader dimensions, the sensationalised (and often fictional) local incidents can be placed in a more realistic context. Particularly important is the need for trafficking organisations to show restraint and responsibility in shock-based messages. Using horrific images of people in agony and cherry-picking frightening trafficking statistics may generate greater interest in the cause. But the consequence is the creation of content that will be co-opted by conspiracists and militants.

The field needs to both respond to misinformation and interrogate the ways their messaging has been complicit with this misinformation.

Secondly, the anti-trafficking movement must recognise that the QAnon conspiracy has the potential to sully advocacy against trafficking for years unless it is countered. It is very easy to look at QAnon and dismiss it as too fringe to merit a response. As educators working in this field, we can conclusively state that this would be a mistake. The narratives of misinformation coming directly from Q supporters and the Q adjacent are here. They are very much in the space of dialogue about trafficking. Use of the term ‘trafficking’ in any educational setting now invites a certain type of participant to hijack the session with hysteria from the Q space.

Separating the anti-trafficking movement from such conspiracy is not a ‘wait and see’ proposition. It demands clear and immediate action from the anti-trafficking community. Collectively, there needs to be a united stance where all actors in the field denounce misinformation. There also needs to be open dialogue not only about how human trafficking has been hijacked, but how historically it has always been so hijack-able. The field needs to both respond to misinformation and interrogate the ways their messaging has been complicit with this misinformation.

Lastly, media literacy must be emphasised. Moving the topics and themes of anti-trafficking away from myth is crucial but only one part of changing the conversation. QAnon calls upon people to “do their own research”. On the face of it this sounds reasonable, as checking sources and evaluating evidence facilitates critical consumption of information – an overt goal of media literacy education. In the case of QAnon, however, ‘research’ takes on a different character where people are encouraged to evaluate selected data through a conspiratorial lens. What appears to be critical information evaluation actually serves as a process of conspiracy confirmation, where biases are groomed and subsequent information is contextualised as support for the bias.

Anti-trafficking advocates should help to identify the sorts of clicks, views, and shares that can pull users down ‘the rabbit hole.’ Awareness raising around this might help users of social media to approach trafficking content with a more critical lens. They might pause before sharing a shocking ‘trafficking image’ or statistic. They might start to reflect on the broader dimensions of trafficking, rather than just the sensational. In short, fostering information literacy is the foundation of creating authentic advocates rather than conspiratorial zealots. This has not been a primary focus of the anti-trafficking movement until now. That needs to change.

At core, anti-trafficking messages seeking to counter misinformation and disinformation must first acknowledge the existence of misinformation and disinformation. Serious action against systemic exploitation requires responding to those who are manipulating the conversation and, as educators, responding to this has become a central focus of our work.

A longer version of this article first appeared in Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 17.

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