A poster in the window of Cahoots Corner Cafe—great potatoes, good coffee— advertised a family event at the Oakdale, California, rodeo grounds. There would be food trucks, carnival games, live music, a raffle, and the opportunity to support the cause of “freeing child sex slaves.”
The event, called the Festival of Hope, was a fundraiser for the anti-child-sex-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad, which was founded in Utah in 2013 and has achieved immense popularity on social media in the past year and a half, attracting an outsize share of attention during a new wave of concern about imperiled children. It is beloved by parenting groups on Facebook, lifestyle influencers on Instagram, and fitness guys on YouTube, who are impressed by its muscular approach to rescuing the innocent. (The nonprofit group is known for taking part in overseas sting operations in which it ensnares alleged child sex traffickers; it also operates a CrossFit gym in Utah.) Supporters commit to “shine OUR light”—the middle word a reference to the group’s acronym—and to “break the chain,” which refers to human bondage and to cycles of exploitation.
Oakdale, a small city near Modesto, is set among ever-dwindling cattle ranches and ever-expanding almond farms. By 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday in late summer, more than 100 booths lined the perimeter of the rodeo arena. Vendors sold crepes and jerky and quilts and princess makeovers and Cutco knives. (They paid a fee to participate, a portion of which went to OUR, as did the proceeds from raffle tickets.) Miniature horses with purple dye on their tails were said to be unicorns. A man with a guitar played “Free Fallin’ ” and then a twangier song referring to alcohol as “heartache medication,” which was notable only because it was so incongruously depressing; everyone else was enjoying a beautiful day in the Central Valley. The air was filled with the perfect scent of hot dogs, and with much less wildfire smoke than there had been the day before.
At the OUR information booth and merchandise tent, stickers and rubber Break the Chain bracelets were free, but snapback hats reading Find Gardy—a reference to a Haitian boy who was kidnapped in 2009—cost $30. Shellie Enos-Forkapa had planned the day’s event with help from three other Operation Underground Railroad volunteers, two of whom she had originally met through the local parent-teacher association. She was wearing an official FESTIVAL OF HOPE BENEFITING OPERATION UNDERGROUND RAILROAD T-shirt and earrings shaped like red X’s, a symbol often paired with the anti-trafficking hashtag #EndItMovement. “Oakdale has been so welcoming,” Enos- Forkapa told me. “They’re behind the cause.”
The women were busy dealing with festival logistics, but during a brief lull another volunteer, Ericka Gonzalez, drew me over to a corner of the tent to show me a video on her phone, which she thought might be called “Death to Pedos” but wasn’t. It was called “Open Your Eyes,” and Gonzalez pulled it up in the Telegram messaging app. “From the time we were little kids we revered the rich and famous,” the voice-over began, as images of celebrities and of battered children flashed on the screen. As I started to take notes, she pulled the phone away and wondered aloud if she had done something she shouldn’t have.
I watched the rest of the video a few minutes later, on my own phone. “We are digital soldiers, fighting the greatest war the world has never seen,” the voice-over explained. The bad guys: Barack Obama, Ellen DeGeneres, Lady Gaga, Chuck Schumer, Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton. The good guys, a much smaller team: Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Barron Trump, Jesus, and an unidentified soldier holding a baby swaddled in an American flag. And, by implication, me, the viewer. “Our weapon is truth,” the voice-over continued as music swelled in the background. “We’ll never give up, even if we have to shake everyone awake one by one.”
The provenance of the video was unclear—it was not affiliated with Operation Underground Railroad and bore no resemblance to the official materials its volunteers had been handing out—but the term digital soldier rang a bell. It was a reference to a QAnon conspiracy theory that emerged in 2017 on an out-of-the-way message board and describes Donald Trump as a lone hero waging war against a “deep state” and a cabal of elites who are pedophiles and child murderers; these conspirators will soon be exposed—and perhaps brutally executed—during a promised “storm.” Notably, the video isn’t asking for money, and isn’t presenting an argument. It’s more like a daily devotional for people who already believe in its premise, or something like it.
Anxiety about the nation’s children, which is at a steady simmer in the best of times, boiled over in the summer of 2020, when the digital soldiers of QAnon occupied the otherwise innocuous hashtag #SaveTheChildren. Around the same time, major social media platforms had started blocking overt QAnon accounts and hashtags. From their new beachhead, the digital soldiers were able to disseminate a cascade of false information about child trafficking on Instagram and Facebook: Children were being trafficked on the hospital ship USNS Comfort, then docked in New York City, and through tunnels underneath Central Park.
As outrageous as these allegations were, their timing may have made them sound less fantastical to some. They coincided with the release of popular documentaries about the real sex-trafficking crimes allegedly committed by Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier who was arrested in July 2019 and committed suicide that August, and who was known for his wide circle of rich and famous acquaintances. (His death had set off a new slew of conspiracy theories.) In this context, the suddenly ubiquitous #SaveTheChildren posts created the illusion of an organic movement rising up to confront a massive social problem. Americans who knew little about QAnon became heavily involved, and when QAnon moved on to other concerns—a stolen election, a poisonous vaccine—these volunteers stayed devoted to the cause of opposing child sex trafficking.
Today, buying a raffle ticket to support this effort feels as natural to many people as picking up a Livestrong bracelet at a car-wash cash register did 15 years ago. Small businesses sponsor fundraisers. Happy couples add Operation Underground Railroad donation links to their online wedding registries. All over the country, community volunteers promote awareness of child sex trafficking: InColorado, at a Kentucky Derby party. In Arkansas, at an Easter bake sale. In Texas, at a “Big A$$ Crawfish Bash.” In Idaho, at a Thanksgiving-morning “turkey run.” In Utah, at an annual winter-holiday fair.
In some ways, this is just the most recent expression of a fear that has been part of the American landscape since the early 20th century—roughly the moment, as the sociologist Viviana Zelizer has argued, when children came to be viewed as “economically useless but emotionally priceless.” As in previous moral panics, messages about the threat of child sex trafficking are spread by means of friendly chitchat, flyers in the windows of diners, and coverage on local TV news.
But the present panic is different in one important respect: It is sustained by the social web. On Facebook and Instagram, friends and neighbors share unsettling statistics and dire images in formats designed for online communities that reward displays of concern. Because today’s messaging about child sex trafficking is so decentralized and fluid, it is impervious to gatekeepers who would knock down its most outlandish claims. The phenomenon suggests the possibility of a new law of social-media physics: A panic in motion can stay in motion.
“PEDOPHILES CAN BE ANYONE,” Laura Pamatian, at the time a Palm Beach–based volunteer team leader for Operation Underground Railroad, wrote on Facebook in June. “They look just like you and me. They work with us … they sit next to us at our favorite restaurant … they are shopping with us at the grocery store.” To raise awareness, and funds, for Operation Underground Railroad, Pamatian helped organize a statewide motorcycling event. “It’s about saving children who are being raped and abused by pedophiles 10, 20, 30 times a day!” she wrote. “And I don’t say that to sensationalize the topic, I say it because it’s TRUE and it’s happening and NO ONE is talking about it!” Her volunteer chapter claimed that “upwards of 300,000” children are victims of sex trafficking in the United States every year.
All over the country, well-meaning Americans are convinced that human trafficking— and specifically child sex trafficking—is happening right in their backyard, or at any rate no farther away than the nearest mall parking lot. A 2020 survey by the political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Adam Enders found that 35 percent of Americans think the number of children who are victims of trafficking each year is about 300,000 or higher; 24 percent think it is “much higher.” Online, people read that trafficking is a problem nobody else is willing to discuss: The city they live in is a “hot spot,” their state one of the worst in the country. Despite what the mainstream media are saying, this is “the real pandemic.”
Of course, child sex trafficking does happen, and it is horrible. The crime is a serious concern of human-rights organizations and of governments all over the world. Statistically, however, it is hard to get a handle on: The data are often misleading, when they exist at all. Whatever the incidence, sex trafficking does not involve Tom Hanks or hundreds of thousands of American children.
When today’s activists talk about the problem of trafficking, knowing exactly what they’re referring to can be difficult. They cite statistics that actually offer global estimates of all forms of labor trafficking. Or they mention outdated and hard-to-parse figures about the number of children who go “missing” in the United States every year—most of whom are never in any immediate danger—and then start talking about children who are abducted by strangers and sold into sex slavery.
While stereotypical kidnappings—what you picture when you hear the word—do occur, the annual number hovers around 100. Sex trafficking also occurs in the United States. The U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline has been operated by the anti-trafficking nonprofit Polaris Project and overseen and partially funded by the Department of Health and Human Services since 2007. In 2019, it recorded direct contacts with 14,597 likely victims of sex trafficking of all ages. (The average age at which these likely victims were first trafficked—“age of entry,” as the statistic is called—was 17.) The organization itself doesn’t regard its figure for direct contacts as one that should be used with too much confidence—it is probably low, but no more solid data exist.
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