Resolving that QAnon is contemptible is all that Congress can do to this group; the resolution won’t stop people from believing preposterous propositions. Even proposing this resolution was challenging, as the primary sponsor, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NY), has faced death-threats from QAnon supporters in the past. Stopping QAnon has to be done in a different way.
Conspiracy theories about the exploitation of children seem to take hold despite their preposterous claims. I started noticing it over the summer when the Wayfair conspiracy — that the furniture behemoth was secretly trafficking children and messaging this activity through the names of its products — came to light.
The reason why people are willing to swallow the most outlandish explanations for behavior is that the buy-in into these conspiracies includes a condemnation of and commitment to fight one of the most heinous acts: child sexual abuse and exploitation.
It’s the essence of Wayfair, Pizzagate and the entire QAnon appeal, too. Children are being harmed and trafficked. Unless you approve of that, hop on.
Pizzagate, when interpreting the emails of former chairman of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHeller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 MORE’s campaign, John Podesta, an online cabal argued that Clinton and other Democratic elites were trafficking children through a DC pizzeria. Pizzagate ended in 2016 —with a man entering Comet Pizza on Connecticut Avenue with a gun not intending to kill, but to free the kids who were being tortured in a non-existent basement. It’s now been resurrected in 2020, with the help of TikTok.
In a similar vein, QAnon revolves around the belief that President Trump has been intentionally installed in the office to combat a global child sex-trafficking organization, run by pedophiles who are actually high-powered politicians and celebrities (Obama, Ellen Degeneres, the Pope, to name a few).
People have attributed the success of these movements to social media. The Netflix special, “The Social Dilemma”, details how algorithms and feedback loops reinforce false news and indoctrinate people. That’s part of it for sure.
But it’s not the whole story.
It’s a visceral response to child sexual abuse (CSA) — probably because many adherents are victims of CSA, and may have never reported it, and may be unaware that it happened.
CSA is severely underreported. A study published in 2008 in the British Medical Journal “The Lancet” found that these numbers may represent only 10 percent of the actual abuse that’s happening. And that’s in highly developed countries.
The global statistics are even more sobering. “An estimated 7.9 percent of males and 19.7 percent of females universally faced sexual abuse before the age of 18 years”, worldwide. And remember, that’s only 10 percent of it.
If about 18 percent of US adults have an adverse childhood experience that’s related to CSA, it’s easier to see how so many ostensibly thinking adults might take QAnon seriously. About 56 percent of Republicans can believe that Qanon’s claims are partially or completely true. Only 13 percent of them think it’s not true at all. And it’s not completely political — 18 percent of polled Democrats haven’t disavowed it.
And that’s the allure of QAnon and other conspiracy theories that base themselves in child exploitation. Victims exist and are believed before they ever report anything. The fact that it’s not happening in the ways that QAnon’s adherents assume (a cannibalistic Satanic cult of global elites) hardly matters to them. QAnon believers’ experiences of sexual violence matters is what recruits and maintain them. It’s the complete opposite response compared to devastating and actual examples of victim-blaming, victim-shaming, and victims not being believed, as the victims of Larry Nassar and Jerry Sandusky were initially treated.
After all, this is how indoctrination into most conspiracy theories happens. People find someone to blame for general misfortunes even if a new target had nothing to do with it.
That’s the secret to QAnon’s success: how we approach child abuse, especially sexual abuse, as a society is sorely lacking. It’s entirely reactive and it’s insufficient. We wait until it happens and are then satisfied to condemn abusers, but pay little attention to why many real-life young victims are dismissed by adults when they report, as the victims of Larry Nasser were, as highlighted in the HBO documentary, “At The Heart of Gold”. Indictment after the fact won’t stop child abuse — sexual, physical, or emotional. Talking about prevalence and grooming techniques can help, and so can condemnation of victim-blaming.
There are ways to change this and shift the paradigm to prevention; we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Since 2011, 37 states have already adopted a law known as “Erin’s Law”, created by Erin Merryn, a survivor of child sexual abuse. Erin’s Law requires that all K-12 students receive age-appropriate and education in identifying child abuse. School officials are required to learn about it as well.
Erin’s law has the potential to help because it’s not an anonymous trafficker who’s abducting children and doing this. Approximately 91 percent of victims are targeted by someone the child or their family already knows.
This is no defense of QAnon or other conspiracy theories; they’re unquestionably harmful and dangerous. Especially because they’re laced with racism and antisemitism, they deserve to be condemned.
But the way to stop conspiracy theories isn’t necessarily to shoo people off social media, although less screen time would hardly hurt us. It’s to first prevent and heal trauma in a way that it doesn’t trigger a belief in those conspiracy theories — and also to prevent instead of simply react. That’s all these theories are — mass reaction to trauma.
Of course, conspiracy theories exist that don’t have a child trafficking component, like the idea that COVID-19 is a hoax. And it doesn’t help that distrust of mainstream media has hit a new high in 2020 — people resist facts regardless of their subject matter, left and right. But these conspiracy theories are, at their root, attempts to stop child exploitation, an honorable goal in the right context and when it’s based on facts.
QAnon is not based on facts in that way but it is based on the reality that many people are victimized sexually as children and have little meaningful help to deal with the life-altering trauma that results from it. To prevent the next child trafficking based conspiracy theory, we don’t need psychologists and cult experts. We need national, comprehensive, fact-based prevention efforts that target sexual abuse of children. It might just be that simple.
Kelsey Baker is a freelance opinion writer and a former Marine Corps Sexual Assault Victims’ Advocate.