On the second Saturday of August, about 100 protestors gathered at the "Big Red Wagon," a well-known attraction in downtown Spokane, Washington. Men, women and children marched through the streets chanting, “Save the children.” It was ostensibly an effort “to raise awareness and start a conversation” about child trafficking, according to a local television reporter at the scene.
Many of the marchers held signs that would be expected at such a rally: "Save our kids," "Your silence is deafening," and "Wake up 4 our children," to name a few.
But other signs were less clear, and suggested that something darker was going on during an event that otherwise seemed organic and sympathetic. "Symbolism will be their downfall," one read. Another featured the hashtag "#Pedowood." Yet another was a strange acronym: “WWG1WGA," short for "Where we go one, we go all."
These signs, similar to those found at many such rallies now taking place around the U.S., are references to QAnon, the conspiracy theory that has surged in popularity in recent months. It turned out that the rally had nothing to do with the century-old humanitarian charitable group Save the Children.
QAnon is a sprawling and baseless conspiracy theory alleging that President Donald Trump is engaged in a secret war against a cabal of Satanist child abusers in government, entertainment and the media. The conspiracy — which has spread to millions of users in Facebook groups during the pandemic — has been linked to several violent crimes and was last year labeled a potential domestic terror threat by the F.B.I.
The scene in Spokane was just one of many rallies planned on Facebook by QAnon supporters or sympathizers that have brought the conspiracy theory offline and into the town squares of dozens of cities in recent weeks. On Saturday, more than 200 “Save the Children” events are scheduled to take place across the country, organized by a constellation of individuals and newly formed groups, according to an NBC News analysis of Facebook events.
The events themselves tend to follow a familiar pattern. People march along the main streets and chant, usually sticking to the broader topics of child abuse and human trafficking. When talking with local reporters, marchers rarely mention QAnon or wider conspiracy theories, sticking instead to demands like stricter laws against pedophilia and greater media attention on sex trafficking. The marches are neighborly and peaceful. Often young children are marching, too, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with bloody handprints and carrying tiny signs with messages like “I am not for sale.”
QAnon spent years on the fringes of the internet, with the theory evolving and often growing less specific. What was originally a conspiracy theory that centered on an anonymous internet poster has now become something of a catchall for a variety of beliefs about a hidden group of child abusers in positions of power.
That's helped create a palatable entry point for many people who might not spend much time in dark parts of the internet but are active on Facebook. It's a strategy that has led to a significant growth in people who might not necessarily be among the most ardent QAnon die-hards, but are beginning to warm to some of its ideas.
"This is not about pedophilia," said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University and co-author of the book, "You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories and Our Polluted Media Landscape." "This is not about child protection. This is about a conspiracy theory that's trying to couch itself in other terms to get more people involved and sympathetic.”
And those sympathetic people are showing up at rallies and trying to take action. People who have spent years working for organizations that fight human trafficking and child abuse say that they have been flooded by bizarre claims and tips, as well as criticism and sometimes threats.
Amplify and co-opt
In early August, the hashtag #SaveTheChildren seemed to be everywhere. As it spiked, Facebook briefly disabled the hashtag, with a warning that it went against community standards. That action poured gasoline on the QAnon community, which rallied to circumvent what they claimed in groups was “censorship.”
The hashtag was reinstated and continued to take off but lost steam when QAnon believers moved to #SaveOurchildren after realizing Save the Children, the humanitarian organization founded in 1919, was funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates has been a constant target of unfounded conspiracy theories spread by QAnon groups since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The nonprofit organization Save the Children did not respond to a request for comment.
While 3.5 million users across thousands of groups were “talking about” #SaveTheChildren and #SaveOurchildren by Friday, according to Facebook data, the most engaging conversations were happening in Facebook groups and on Instagram accounts related to QAnon, according to an analysis by First Draft, a nonprofit that tracks misinformation online and provides research and training for journalists.
QAnon groups make up only 18 percent of those posting about #SaveOurChildren. But they accounted for nearly 70 percent of the total interactions on the hashtag in August, according to First Draft. On Instagram, QAnon-related accounts posting about #SaveOurChildren accounted for 75 percent of the interactions. Most of the top hashtags from #SaveOurChildren posts in August are QAnon-specific.
"The data suggests that a relatively small number of QAnon-related Facebook groups and Instagram accounts were able to amplify and co-opt #SaveOurChildren and its related language by creating a large and unprecedented flurry of posts and activity around the hashtag,” said Rory Smith, the research manager at First Draft who wrote the analysis.
Facebook cracked down on QAnon on Wednesday, removing or restricting more than 13,000 groups, pages and Instagram accounts that pushed QAnon content and “discussed potential violence.”
That action did not seem to affect the rallies planned for this weekend, events that largely remain on Facebook.
A Facebook spokesperson told NBC News that the company was continuing to review QAnon content against the new policy, including Save the Children events.
Organized and active
While many of the Save the Children events do not openly espouse QAnon beliefs, the group’s connection is never far.
On their personal social media pages and in their mostly private Facebook groups, organizers of the largest upcoming rallies openly embrace QAnon ideology and push its content. Facebook pages for the events are often swarmed with conspiracy theories involving vast child trafficking rings and baseless accusations about the involvement of Hollywood actors and politicians.
Scotty Rojas, a musician and social media manager who goes by Scotty the Kid, was the force behind an Instagram campaign to rally protestors in 100 cities on Aug. 22. Rojas organized one of the first rallies, a July 31 march in Hollywood that ended with dozens of people with signs with messages that included “Hillary Clinton Is Satan” and others fashioned into pizza slices — a reference to "pizzagate," the unfounded claim that the child trafficking ring is being led out of a Washington pizzeria — “storming” a CNN building. Rojas led the rally wearing a T-shirt with a large Q emblazoned on the front and carried a bullhorn through which he led chants of QAnon cries like “Where we go one, we go all.”
Shauna Blen, a California activist behind a team effort to unite hundreds of Saturday’s rallies, noted the heavy presence of QAnon believers at the previous rallies but said all were welcome.
“There were a lot of Trump supporters, a lot of Q supporters," she said. "But there were also a lot of Democrats, and people that do not like Trump and that don't even follow Q.”
As for her personal stance, Blen said, “I guess you could say I support Q.”
Other organizers were less willing to claim QAnon, but unwilling to deny it. Amy Coon and Isaac Miller are founders of Where’s Our Children, a new Nashville-based organization, and planners of more than 25 rallies for next Saturday, Aug. 29. They said that they were working to clean up the descriptions for their rallies, many of which contained hashtags belonging to the QAnon conspiracy.
“Every person is going to have their own freedoms and beliefs,” Miller said of the marchers.
When asked whether the organization believes that pizzagate is real, echoing one of the hashtags on its many events, Coon demured.
“We will neither confirm nor deny that,” Coon said.
One group that formed in July, “Freedom for the Children,” has organized more than 60 rallies in 26 states and Canada, according to their website, where they accept donations. Until Wednesday, personal Facebook profiles for co-founders Bhairavi Shera and Tara Nicole seen by NBC News contained posts with conspiracy theories about Bill Gates, the coronavirus and QAnon’s precursor, pizzagate. By Thursday, Shera’s personal profile had been either removed or deleted, and Nicole deleted or made previous posts private.
Shera and Nicole did not respond to a request for comment,
Their communication strategy seems to be working. Regardless of their public online postings and event pages, local media coverage of the events has been widespread and credulous, almost never mentioning the events' QAnon connections. A few local television and radio stations have advertised lists of the events on their news websites.
The Colorado Times Recorder served as an outlier with its report last week: “Denver Anti-Child Sex Trafficking March Rooted in QAnon Conspiracy Theories.”
All six of the rally organizers who spoke with NBC News said the point of their protests was to get media attention. Indeed, many of the signs seen at rallies ask why the media is reporting on COVID-19 or Black Lives Matter protests instead of “the real pandemic” of missing children.
It's a tactic that can help attract more followers.
“The media often acts as an interlocutor between movements and politicians,” said Joan Donovan, director or Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media Politics and Public Policy. “And media attention can also be a strong recruitment strategy.”
'We're leaving those kids behind'
People who have spent much of their lives fighting human trafficking and child abuse have borne the brunt of the surge in popularity from the "Save the Children" movement.
Rochelle Keyhan, the CEO of the anti-trafficking nonprofit Collective Liberty, has been bombarded in the last few months with text messages, Facebook messages and LinkedIn requests, all pointing her to conspiracy theories and YouTube videos about Satanic cabals. She mostly gets sent a 10-part YouTube video about how Trump is secretly rounding up all of the Satanists and in turn stopping child trafficking.
Keyhan is a former prosecutor of gender-based crimes for the Philadelphia District Attorney's office. She designed a “Disruption Strategies” division at the anti-trafficking organization Polaris. She said the incoming messages are incessant.
“They’re like: ‘Have you seen this? What are you doing about this?’” she said. “All day, every day, we’re doing a lot about this.”
Before QAnon adherents took over the #SaveTheChildren hashtag, QAnon followers invented the conspiracy theory that the furniture site Wayfair was trafficking missing children in overpriced shelves and pillows last month.
Keyhan’s group, which was inundated with Wayfair tips, put out a statement explaining that the exorbitant prices were due to search engine optimization gone wrong, and not proof of a Satanic cabal. So did Polaris, which was forced to put out a statement, hoping QAnon followers would stop sending in false Wayfair tips.
“While Polaris treats all calls to the Trafficking Hotline seriously, the extreme volume of these contacts has made it more difficult for the Trafficking Hotline to provide support and attention to others who are in need of help,“ the company said.
Keyhan said these conspiracy theories often wildly misrepresent what trafficking most frequently looks like, which can make it harder for real victims to get help.
“Their kid’s friend could have all the warning signs of those same girls that Epstein victimized,” Keyhan said, referring to Jeffrey Epstein, the millionaire financier who was accused of federal sex trafficking. “If we're not paying attention to that, then we're leaving those kids behind, and letting them fall into the hands of predators.”
That’s also the worry of Eliza, a human trafficking victim who now works in aftercare for trafficking survivors. (Her last name is being withheld to protect her identity from former abusers.)
“There's nothing more terrifying to me as an advocate than thinking about a survivor not being able to get through to the Human Trafficking Hotline or National Human Trafficking Hotline because it's being inundated with Wayfair calls,” she said.
Eliza, who is hosting a virtual event on Saturday with survivors who were abused by Epstein, was initially disheartened by QAnon supporters drowning out real calls to action to stop child sex trafficking and said she considered ending her efforts due to "constant misinformation.”
Although Eliza is hopeful that the new surge of attention can raise awareness among people who want to stop real-world human trafficking, the picture of sex trafficking painted by QAnon’s version of the "Save the Children" campaign does not tend to reflect reality, she said.
“We do run into this issue where we see the imagery of little white girls with chains on. And, just speaking from personal experience, I did not step forward sooner — this is me, speaking as a survivor — because I thought, I hadn't been transported in the back of a semi truck,” Eliza said. “I wasn’t aware of what human trafficking meant.”