According to believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, President Donald Trump is the country’s savior from liberal elites who are kidnapping children and running a secret child sex trafficking ring.
But data shows that federal sex trafficking prosecutions have actually decreased since Trump took office.
According to the Human Trafficking Institute’s 2019 federal report which was released in May 2020, 73 new federal criminal cases involving the sex trafficking of children only were prosecuted last year, compared to compared to 87 in 2018, and 124 in 2017, Trump’s first year in office.
Experts say QAnon believers are latching on to misinformation to boost their cause but ignore evidence-based solutions to the issue.
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QAnon followers have long praised President Donald Trump as a champion for sexually trafficked children.
But data shows that Justice Department prosecutions of such crimes have decreased during his administration.
According to a 2019 report from the Human Trafficking Institute released in May of this year, the cases have fallen by a third since their height in 2017. There were 73 new federal criminal cases involving child-only sex trafficking launched last year, compared to 87 in 2018, 124 in 2017, and 115 in 2016.
The perception of Trump as tough on child-sex crimes originated from the far-right conspiracy movement QAnon. QAnon originated on the internet message board 4chan and has been labeled a potential domestic terror threat by the FBI. It promotes a series of conspiracies around the idea that Democrats are secretly working to take down Trump and other conservatives
Many believers claim that Trump is the country’s savior from the unfounded conspiracy that liberal elites are kidnapping children and running a secret child sex trafficking ring.
The conspiracy is untrue on a surface level, and the Human Trafficking Institute’s analysis of the data shows there have actually been fewer child sex-trafficking prosecutions from the federal government since Trump took office.
According to Jamie Gates, a professor at Point Loma Nazarene University who researches sex trafficking, the scale of child sex-trafficking cases is larger than most people think, but is “being exaggerated by QAnon conspiracy theories.”
“I’m really concerned with the exaggerated data that I see. I see [false stories about] tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of kids being kidnapped and taken to Mexico or taken to another country,” Gates told Insider. “I don’t think groups like QAnon are interested in actual data. They’re interested in the rhetorical use of data.”
The lower case count doesn’t necessarily mean child sex trafficking is happening any less
Erin Albright, a law enforcement consultant who works with human trafficking task forces, told Insider it’s unlikely that the rate of sex trafficking has actually changed, even though the number of federal prosecutions has decreased.
She said more cases could be prosecuted at the state level, current cases could be more complex and require more time, and that US attorneys’ offices may be prioritizing other types of cases.
Albright added that the federal government dialing back on protections for vulnerable populations — including undocumented immigrants and the LGBTQ community — could mean that support for trafficking survivors is harder to come by, and fewer victims are coming forward.
Ultimately, data on sex trafficking is hard to establish, since every organization tracks the issue differently. Child sex trafficking organizations often recirculate out of date statistics to declare the problem is large and growing, according to HuffPost reporter Michael Hobbes, who wrote in an article detailing the difficulty in finding hard numbers on the issue.
“Even as anti-trafficking groups have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in donations and carried out near-constant awareness campaigns, they still have not produced any credible research on the scale or nature of the problem they’re focused on addressing,” Hobbes argued.
According to Gates, the misinformation about trafficking being peddled by conspiracy theorists exaggerates the scale of the issue, obscuring the realities behind it.
“Sex trafficking is real, it’s hidden, and it’s at a larger scale than what most people tend to think about,” Gates told Insider. “But it’s not at the scale that’s being exaggerated by the QAnon conspiracies.”
QAnon uses misinformation to its advantage
According to Gates, many QAnon followers share incorrect statistics to garner concern from passionate people, so they can spread the theory wider.
“The worst part to me is the blurring of the lines between truth and fiction, truth and some other nefarious agenda,” he told Insider.
In addition to the baseless claim that Satan-worshipping liberal elites kidnap children and run a pedophile ring, the QAnon movement is also associated with absurd claims that vaccines are used to control people, that Kim Jung-un is a puppet controlled by the CIA, and that John F. Kennedy Jr. is secretly still alive and will emerge from hiding to become Trump’s running mate.
Trump has praised QAnon during press briefings and retweeted posts from the group’s followers on Twitter. In one briefing in August, he told a reporter that he knew very little about QAnon, but was grateful for support from its members.
The reporter told Trump that QAnon followers have a “belief that you are secretly saving the world from this Satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals.”
“Well, I haven’t heard of that,” Trump said. “But is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there.”
Gates told Insider that QAnon’s move to the mainstream is dangerous.
He pointed to its support of “Save the Children” marches, which he said have helped further spread misinformation by attaching it to an already-established organization that works to help trafficked kids
Albright said that people who are interested in helping prevent sex trafficking should look to assist vulnerable communities like runaways and homeless youth in their area.
She said people should be lobbying for better support that could improve the child welfare system and fund low-barrier, gender-affirming housing.
“By and large, even when you identify people [who are at risk of being trafficked], they still need tremendous support where there’s not a lot of resources, and those systemic factors that enabled it to happen in the first place haven’t really been resolved,” she said.
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