On July 30th, model and influencer Helen Owen, who has more than a million followers, deviated from her typical fare of Mexican-beachside dinner videos and lush-haired bikini images to post a photo of herself and her boyfriend with their mouths bound, holding a sandwich board that read, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,” in honor of World Human Trafficking Day. She concluded her post — which cited numerous statistics associated with child trafficking — with the hashtag #SaveTheChildren.
Owen’s post was clearly intended innocently enough, and child trafficking is undeniably a real and serious issue: According to UNICEF, one quarter of trafficking victims worldwide are children, most of whom are trafficked for labor. But the hashtag itself has darker undertones.
Over the past few weeks, the #SaveTheChildren hashtag has been co-opted by conspiracy theorists of all stripes to propagate the notion that an international cabal of elite pedophiles is secretly trafficking children, prompting worldwide #SaveTheChildren protests in July and earlier this month in cities like Los Angeles; Savannah, Georgia; and Columbus, Ohio. The hashtag has become so glutted with conspiracy theories that Facebook temporarily blocked it last week, prompting outrage from the Q contingent on social media. (“We temporarily blocked the hashtag as it was surfacing low-quality content,” Facebook spokesperson Dami Oyefeso tells Rolling Stone. “The hashtag has since been restored, and we will continue to monitor for content that violates our Community Standards.”)
Temporary censorship of the hashtag led to #SaveTheChildren trending on Twitter on Monday morning, racking up 240,000 tweets in the past 24 hours, according to Darren Linvill, an associate professor at Clemson University who studies disinformation. Social media has become so glutted with posts espousing a secret link between human trafficking and conspiracy-theorist favorites (such as Hillary Clinton and Chrissy Teigen), that Save the Children, an actual organization devoted to providing humanitarian aid for children, was forced to issue a statement on Twitter distancing itself from the movement. (In true brain-worms fashion, some on the more extremist fringes of the far-right movement issued clarion calls not to use the #SaveTheChildren hashtag, due to the organization’s purported links to philanthropist Bill Gates. Save the Children did not return a request for comment.)
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
— Save the Children US (@SavetheChildren) August 9, 2020
#SaveTheChildren (and its close cousin #SaveOurChildren) have long been used by conspiracy theorists of all stripes. The basic seeds of the idea that a global cabal of pedophile elites must be exposed have been germinating on 4chan boards like /pol/ and /conspiracy/ since as early as 2013, says Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher for the Technology and Social Change Project at the Shorenstein Center Harvard Kennedy School. It wasn’t actually used in conjunction with terms like #pizzagate (the belief that powerful Democrats were using a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant as a front for child sex trafficking) until 2017; and terms like #WWG1WGA (“where we go one, we go all,” a QAnon catchphrase) until 2018. An 8chan (now 8kun) thread from that year on a QAnon board explicitly refers to using the hashtag as part of a campaign to “counter [the media’s] separated children narrative and use #SaveTheChildren to highlight missing and exploited children,” the post reads.
Last spring, Friedberg says #SaveTheChildren enjoyed a brief renaissance thanks to a conspiracy theory that a hospital set up for Covid-19 patients in New York’s Central Park was a front for tunnels full of trafficked children. But it didn’t really start blowing up on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram until late July, thanks in part to the extensive promotion of a Hollywood rally on July 31st, during the U.N.’s World Trafficking Awareness Day. The Child Lives Matter rally appears to have been launched by Real Deal Media, a conspiracy-theory-promoting “independent news show” that used the hashtag #SaveTheChildren on its promotional fliers. While some influencers promoted the rally with genuine intentions of trying to spread awareness of child trafficking, others clearly had more sinister motives, with many marchers carrying signs promoting Pizzagate or anti-vaccine slogans.
The rallies may have been part of a concerted effort on the part of far-right protesters to co-opt the language from the Black Lives Matter movement, says Alexander Reid Ross, a doctoral fellow for the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right in London, pointing out that #ChildLivesMatter or #BabiesLivesMatter have also made appearances on social media. “They want to flip the script on protesters and make the protests about children being abused by Hillary Clinton’s liberal Deep State cabal,” he says.
Ross also sees #SaveTheChildren as a pivot or rebranding of sorts for far-right conspiracy theorists, many of whom are savvy enough to be aware of the fact that much of their potential audience will shy away from talk of baby-eating, youth adrenochrome harvesting, or child sex-slavery rings run by the star of Forrest Gump. “They want to create their public image as reflective of how they see themselves to an extent,” he says. “They do have that sense of pride and embattlement that they’re struggling for the Western world — that’s their public narrative, and thats how they want to appeal to people.” The arrests of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell have only served to bolster and lend credence to their perception of the world as run by a shadowy cabal of sex-crazed puppet masters.
Co-opting hashtags like #SaveTheChildren is also a clear attempt to avoid detection on social media platforms such as Twitter, which have been cracking down on QAnon-associated users and hashtags. “Influencers have been talking about how to deal with de-platforming and how the community should behave when high-profile influencers are de-platformed,” says Fridberg. “Interjecting into #SaveTheChildren is a strategic move.”
The end result has been that even people with no interest in fringe conspiracy theories have been drawn into the #SaveTheChildren campaign, causing the hashtag to explode in popularity. And as QAnon enters the mainstream, with major congressional candidates espousing the conspiracy theory and millions of members joining its Facebook groups, that can serve to pose a major problem. “One of the fundamental reasons to co-opt hashtags is to get broader attention. That can happen whether it’s purposeful” — citing K-Pop fans’ use of the racist hashtag #WhiteLivesMatter — “or whether it’s more of an organic co-option, as we have here,” Linvill explains. “But even when it’s organic, it has the same effect as whether it were intentional: It can bridge those barriers between communities that can be very difficult to bridge.”