Online Conspiracy Theories Could Hurt Kids

Conspiracy theories have been circulating on social media and getting ever more convoluted. Facebook, Twitter and other companies have taken…

Oct 29, 2020

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This post first appeared on Mercury News.

By Larry Magid

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As you have probably heard, there is a conspiracy theory floating around that elites — including high-ranking political figures and celebrities — are part of a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are kidnapping, murdering, and drinking the blood of children, and that President Donald Trump is leading a secret war against this evil cabal. Of course, it’s nonsense, just like the 2016 report that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring from a Washington D.C., pizzeria — a theory that led 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch to show up at the restaurant with a loaded gun that went off but thankfully didn’t hurt anyone. Maddison later admitted that he was motivated by these false reports.

These theories have been circulating on social media and getting ever more convoluted. Facebook, Twitter and other companies have taken some actions to reduce their visibility, but they are still present in one form or another.

Although I don’t consider myself an expert on child abuse, I do have some background having served for more than 20 years on the board of directors of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children until this January. As a former board member, I know how important it is to focus on facts when dealing with horrific crimes against children. NCMEC maintains a webpage with key facts about missing children including that more than 29,000 cases were reported in 2019 with 91 percent endangered runaways and less than 1 percent nonfamily abductions. The organization reports that “1 in 6 (of the 26,300 runaways) were likely victims of child sex trafficking.” Yes, this is a very serious problem that we must continue to address, but it’s not around 800,000 as some conspiracy theorists have claimed.

It would be easy to dismiss those who adhere to QAnon theories as part of a lunatic fringe, but this theory is being taken seriously by an unexpected group of people — including many who are well-meaning. It’s also getting positive lip service from several candidates for Congress and from Trump who — at the October 15 NBC News town hall, was asked by host Savanah Guthrie if he could “once and for all state that that is completely not true and disavow QAnon in its entirety.” He responded, “I know nothing about it. I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard. But I know nothing about it.” He went on to say, “What I do hear about it is that they are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that.”

What Trump may not realize is while QAnon adherents may think they’re fighting pedophilia, they are instead interfering with those who really are fighting it.

These theories put children at risk.

In addition to the risk of people taking violent actions, these conspiracy theories pose a risk to children because they confuse the public about the real risks to children, interfere with the work of the legitimate organizations fighting actual abuse of children, and distort the reality when it comes to the actual risk of child abuse.

While there is no evidence of a cabal of elite child abusers and murderers, there is real evidence that they are hurting legitimate organizations that are working to protect children. For one thing, proponents of these debunked theories have been using the hashtag #SaveTheChildren, which has long been associated with an international humanitarian organization, called Save the Children, that’s been helping to protect children around the world for the last 100 years.  In a statement, the group said that “Our name in hashtag form has been experiencing unusually high volumes and causing confusion among our supporters and the general public.” Diluting this hashtag makes it harder for the group to spread its accurate messages.

Another nonprofit, Child Help, runs a 27/7 national hotline on child abuse, In an interview, the group’s chief communications officer Daphne Young told me that their hotline staff has had to deal with calls prompted by these false stories. “Something like QAnon, which promotes this information to large groups of people and can sweep through social media, in a matter of hours, can take up those resources.”

The organizations’ hotline got calls after conspiracy theorists falsely accused the online furniture company Wayfair of shipping children to pedophiles in large furniture boxes. “The Wayfair conspiracy believed that children were being transported in their furniture, and our hotline got a lot of calls from well-meaning people about these Wayfair kids,” Young said.

She said that many of the people who called, including some donors, were well-meaning people who had heard these stories and worried that they might be at least partially true.

A few weeks ago, the Today Show interviewed a very normal looking suburban mom of two who said she spends about 20 minutes a day reading various conspiracy theories online and watching a YouTube program about QAnon theories.  She thinks “Q” is a small group of former military intelligence officers and others who know a great deal about underground military bases and other places where children are exploited. She believes that perpetrators include Democrats but “Republicans too” along with judges and police officers. When asked if there is anything that could dissuade her from these beliefs, she said no, “There’s just too much evidence.” Like others, she thinks that Trump is leading the war against these child killers.

Child welfare groups are fighting back. An open letter to media, candidates and political parties from a diverse group of 86  mostly anti-human trafficking groups made it clear 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.” The letter, which offers facts about human trafficking added, “You don’t score political points on the backs of human trafficking survivors, and you don’t lie about human trafficking to scare voters. We are in this together. “

As the letter said, “human trafficking is real,” but the way to protect children and others who are being exploited is to focus on the facts and support the work of law enforcement and serious organizations that are dealing with the problem.

I think it’s great for the public to be concerned about sex trafficking and child exploitation but — if you want to help — you can support organizations like NCMEC and Thorn, which use facts and proven methods to eliminate child sexual abuse.

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