In the summer of 2020, social media companies, led by Facebook, banned the hashtag #savethechildren, which had been hijacked by QAnon conspiracy theorists from the legitimate charity with the same name. The QAnon campaign created huge problems for legitimate anti-trafficking organizations, strained law enforcement with false “tips” about trafficked kids, and undermined the fundraising efforts of children’s charities.
Over the course of researching the book I co-authored with Sophia Moskalenko, Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon, something else about QAnon’s “save the children” messaging became apparent: its overt racism.
QAnon accounts using the name Save the Children appear in English, Hebrew, Portuguese, German, Hindi, and French. After capturing images used in those accounts and eliminating duplicates, my research team wound up with 240 unique QAnon images, gifs, memes, and posters. The vast majority of children who are trafficked originate from the global south. But the images of the children in the QAnon campaigns were almost uniformly white, usually female, and often badly bruised, bound, or bleeding.
Much of QAnon ideology stems from anti-Semitic tropes about elite cabals and blood-drinking pedophiles. It should come as no surprise, then, that QAnon is widely racist, too. But highlighting the extent of that racism may help diminish the spread of QAnon ideology in South America and Africa.
The hijacking of a respected name. The “Save The Children” charity is an international organization that has operated for over 100 years. The organization was founded in 1919, in the wake of World War I, to alleviate famine in Austria-Hungary and Germany. When QAnon hijacked the charity’s slogan, many people assumed it was nothing more than a tactical move to grow the movement.
But by the time that the stolen hashtag went viral on social media, the COVID-19 pandemic had supercharged QAnon. Save the Children was no longer the name of a worthy charity but a tagline for the strange world of QAnon, which the New York Times’ Kevin Roose has summarized as “the umbrella term for a set of internet conspiracy theories that allege, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.
“QAnon followers believe that this cabal includes top Democrats like President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros, as well as a number of entertainers and Hollywood celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and Ellen DeGeneres and religious figures including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. Many of them also believe that, in addition to molesting children, members of this group kill and eat their victims to extract a life-extending chemical called adrenochrome.”
QAnon propaganda using the #savethechildren hashtag has been posted across multiple social media platforms, in an apparent attempt to appeal to a wider audience, particularly suburban women. Via Facebook and Instagram, QAnon content was/is also aimed at women ordinarily associated with the left, including those who follow yogis, natural childbirth blogs, vegan chefs, and mom-influencer timelines.
The QAnon campaign to highjack the “Save the Children” brand was effective, in part, because the problem of child trafficking is real and urgent. It is precisely this grain of truth that allows QAnon to convince well-meaning individuals that in order to save the children, they must become QAnon keyboard warriors.
One in four victims of modern slavery are children, meaning that some 10 million children are enslaved at this time, having been forced into labor (mostly manufacturing), domestic servitude (via debt bondage), forced marriage, or child sex trafficking. Children are victimized in a range of activities, “including commercial sexual exploitation, pornography, forced begging, petty theft, and the drugs trade.”
Because trafficking is a legitimate threat, women can be drawn down the QAnon rabbit hole as they research and perceive, accurately, that child slavery is real and getting worse—but conflate that genuine problem with QAnon’s false and labyrinthine conspiracy theories.
The danger of QAnon racism. Our research shows that QAnon used mostly white children to appeal to white suburban women who tend to lack the same degree of empathy for children of color. The extent of racism we found was disturbing. Despite the reality that most child trafficking victims are from the global south, the majority of QAnon’s children were blonde, bruised, and bound. QAnon posts almost exclusively depict Caucasian children. Of the 240 images we catalogued (after eliminating hundreds of duplicates), 75 percent were Caucasian and only a small number (2.4 percent) were groups that included children of color alongside white children (that is, they were coded as diverse).
Asian or Black children each appeared in just nine of 240 images; 12 of the 240 images (5 percent) included Latinx children. Fewer than 12 percent of the total images depicted children who were not white. Several of the examples of children of color were genuinely missing children—taken from FBI notices and mixed with QAnon propaganda.
Where possible, we triangulated the names of missing children on QAnon forums with the missing person registry maintained by the National Center for Missing or Exploited Children. Some of the children depicted in QAnon messaging went missing in 2016 – well before QAnon existed. The tactic of folding in actual missing children provides QAnon with a degree of credibility, should someone look up a name and see that child really is missing. But the vast majority of the children depicted in QAnon propaganda are not named, and the propaganda images include pictures of child actors such as Heather O’Rourke, Macaulay Culkin, and Drew Barrymore. Not everyone will recognize these child actors mixed in with the other images.
In contrast, a preliminary assessment of the real charity Save the Children’s Telegram channel found that 79 of 80 images were of children of color (that is, 98.75 percent).
QAnon propaganda included a series of posters in which a child is grabbed from behind with a hand covering his or her mouth—so that the child cannot scream. There were 10 versions of this poster/meme, and 90 percent of the time, the hand covering the white child’s mouth is black or brown. This terrifying image plays on the “brute caricature” and “black peril” themes conveyed during Reconstruction and featured in Thomas Nelson Page’s book Red Rock (1898), in which a sinister Black figure tries to rape a white woman: “He gave a snarl of rage and sprang at her like a wild beast.”
A growing number of QAnon supporters are emerging among Lantinx communities and communities of color; it is crucial to highlight how racist QAnon messaging is, as the conspiracy now spreads its tentacles in Central and South America and parts of Africa—and also to communities of color within the United States. Perhaps an understanding of QAnon’s overt racism will give people of color an additional reason to resist the false call to protect the children.
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