During the summer of 2020, the specter of child trafficking ran rife across social media platforms. From well-known “mommy bloggers” who attended protests against the exploitation of children, to political leaders who railed against the Netflix movie “Cuties” as inspiring pedophiles and “fueling the child sex trafficking trade,” it seemed that child traffickers were suddenly around every corner. But where did this uptick in concern come from? The surge in #savethechildren campaigning and activism actually connects to the conspiratorial political movement, QAnon.
QAnon adherents believe that there is a “deep state” cabal of elites who are engaged in a global child sex trafficking ring (among other nefarious activities). This specific conspiratorial narrative is far removed from the efforts of mainstream #savethechildren activists; however, through efforts to co-opt the hashtags #savethechildren and #saveourchildren, QAnon was able to insert itself into the mainstream conversation.
So, what happens when a conspiracy becomes so normalized that the people promoting it don’t even know it is a conspiracy? Below, I illustrate the connections between mainstream #savethechildren and QAnon’s network of influence. I then explore the potential for QAnon’s growth vis-à-vis cooptation of mainstream social media influencers with large platforms.
In order to understand the power of QAnon to mainstream belief in a global cabal of pedophiles, I utilized data from CrowdTangle, a public insights tool owned and operated by Facebook. Specifically, I looked at Instagram posts which contained either the hashtag #savethechildren or #saveourchildren from October 1, 2019 – October 1, 2020. During this time period, CrowdTangle reported 45,161 Instagram posts which inspired 27,417,122 interactions (in the form of likes or comments). The height of this conversation was the week of July 26 – August 1, 2020 with 3.32 million interactions across 3.6 thousand posts.
Exploring The Center
To determine if there was a relationship between QAnon and the #savethechildren/#saveourchildren spread, I mapped out the network of influential Instagram users (users with high numbers of likes or comments on their posts) sharing the hashtags. In addition, I mapped the co-occurring popular hashtags to understand what else was being propagated alongside #savethechildren in Instagram posts. From the image below, it’s clear that the center of the #savethechildren network maps directly onto the QAnon movement.
That is, QAnon was actively driving the hashtag’s popularity. This is evident based on the most popular co-occurring hashtags on #savethechildren posts which included QAnon catch-phrases such as #wwg1wga (where we go one, we go all) and #thegreatawakening, as well as QAnon conspiracies such as “Pizzagate”. In addition, there was extensive support for US President Trump – a key figure in QAnon ideology, represented through hashtags such as #trump2020, #draintheswamp, and #maga.
Figure 1: Network of Core Instagram Users Sharing #savethechildren/#saveourchildren and Top Co-Occurring Hashtags on #savethechildren/#saveourchildren posts
While it’s clear from the image above that QAnon did play a central role in the propagation of these hashtags, how would this lead to the mainstreaming and growth of fringe conspiracies? To explore this, I analyzed two mechanisms through which the movement was able to recruit and grow vis-à-vis #savethe/ourchildren co-optation. These included (1) gaining the support of mainstream social media influencers and (2) slipping in fringe conspiracies next to generally supported ideas.
Mainstreaming Through Messenger: Building On Trust
The first way in which QAnon was able to expand its base was through “trusted messengers”. That is, the overarching message of #savethechildren was supported by various social media users with large platforms who may have been unaware of QAnon’s role in the hashtag’s propagation. These trusted messengers, including mommy bloggers, reality TV stars, and politicians on both sides of the aisle, had hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers. This variety of influential messengers broadens the pool of potential QAnon recruits in both quantity and scope.
In addition, QAnon’s fringe conspiracies were normalized when they appeared next to influencers’ other content. While Instagram users may react with skepticism to any content posted on accounts like q_pill, if content is posted on an account that they already trust and if the information is broadly consistent with their worldviews (i.e. save the children) they may be more inclined to believe and propagate the misinformation (including co-occurring fringe hashtags).
Creating A Coalition: Vulnerable To The fringes
If QAnon networks were only pushing #savethechildren/#saveourchildren hashtags then involvement by larger groups of people may not be concerning. However, the hashtags were frequently posted in conjunction with explicit support for QAnon such as #wwg1wga, #thegreatawakening, #qanon, #pizzagate, #thestorm, and #enjoytheshow. This co-occurrence introduces individuals to fringe ideas and may normalize them through presentation next to more mainstream ideas.
In addition, contentious topics also acted as co-occurring hashtags. Proponents of US Supreme Court nominee Barrett, anti-abortion activists, callers for Netflix cancelation, and 2nd amendment supporters searching their specific hashtags would find posts with the co-occurring #savethechildren hashtag and could be incorporated into a broader coalition. Once inside this broader coalition, however, pathways were created for these issue-specific communities to move towards the QAnon fringe.
In sum, #savethechildren/#saveourchildren hashtags served as a vehicle for recruiting individuals from a broad swath of the population into the movement’s periphery and introducing QAnon specific language to unsuspecting individuals. By grouping together hashtags of mainstream ideas with fringe QAnon language such as #pizzagate, the unknown fringe was introduced as equivalent by a trusted messenger. This is the core of what makes QAnon so dangerous – it coopts beneficial and popularly supported messages such as “Save the Children” and, through these posts, introduces unsuspecting users to fringe QAnon conspiracies.
Jaclyn Fox is a CARR Doctoral Fellow and Doctoral Candidate in School of International Service at the American University, Washington D.C. Full profile can be found here.
© Jaclyn Fox. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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