In January 2019, Scott Wiener, a California State Senator, introduced what he thought was an L.G.B.T.Q. Civil Rights Bill. At the time, California law gave judges discretion on whether to put a 19-year-old man on a sex offender registry if he had vaginal sex with a 16-year-old girl, but if that 19-year-old man had anal or oral sex with a 16-year-old boy, he would automatically be registered as a sex offender. Wiener ’s bill sought to fix that discrepancy by giving the same discretion to judges over oral or anal sex offenses. Sex with any minor would be a crime in the state of California if this bill passed.
According to Wiener’s communications director, Catie Stewart, the bill was moving through the legislature with little fanfare or opposition until this summer, when a mom with tens of thousands of followers on Instagram got wind of a politically motivated misrepresentation from earlier in the year — one with the headline “California lawmakers introduce bill to protect pedophiles who sexually abuse innocent kids.” She then posted about it, and encouraged her followers to contact Wiener’s office to complain.
This mom is anti-mask, against vaccines and promotes QAnon-based conspiracy theories about pedophilia — specifically that Democratic elites are running secret pedophile rings. When her anti-bill Instagram post went viral, it reached many parents who were not her direct followers and who were not affiliated with QAnon.
“They’d share it on their grids, and they’d share on their stories. They were fully unaware it was false information,” she said. “They weren’t really hard-core QAnon people — I don’t know if they’d know what QAnon was.” They just saw that there was a bill appearing to protect pedophiles and were understandably horrified. Wiener’s official Instagram was bombarded with thousands of comments and D.M.s, ranging from upset to violent. “#SaveTheChildren seemed to be the way in for many people,” Stewart said.
Since the bill passed on Sept. 2, the torrent of comments and D.M.s have become “a monsoon.”
As my colleague Kevin Roose pointed out in August, the SaveTheChildren hashtag began as “a legitimate fund-raising campaign for the Save the Children charity,” a 100-year old nonprofit dedicated to improving the health of children around the world. But since the pandemic began, that hashtag has been hijacked by QAnon followers spreading conspiracy theories about rampant pedophilia.
In the motherhood and wellness online space, #SaveTheChildren has been successfully distanced from the more extreme elements of QAnon, said Kathryn Jezer-Morton, a doctoral researcher in online motherhood at Concordia University in Montreal. Mom-fluencers pushing essential oils and nontoxic cleaning products aren’t, say, posting about how pedophiles are murdering children and harvesting their blood to stay forever young — they’re merely posting photos of themselves at rallies against child-trafficking.
“No one wants to take a public stance for child trafficking,” Jezer-Morton said, especially on Instagram, where “posi-vibes” are encouraged, so these posts go unchallenged, and can spread quickly. It matters because people can follow these hashtags down the rabbit hole of QAnon and become radicalized. And at this moment, parents may be particularly vulnerable. “It’s a really hard time in our country,” said Stewart. “People are suffering, there’s massive unemployment,” and becoming an activist against something as disgusting as child trafficking may be a way to make sense of the chaos.
“What most of us don’t realize is how entrenched people can get in these beliefs very quickly,” said Joan Donovan, the Research Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy who studies online extremism and disinformation campaigns. In the worst-case scenarios, these beliefs can lead adherents to potentially harm people, as Annie Kelly explained in an op-ed about moms for QAnon, and the F.B.I. labeled conspiracy theories including QAnon a new domestic terrorism threat in 2019.
Since July, at least three reality-TV-star moms with over four million Instagram followers collectively have posted about #SaveTheChildren, including incorrect information like the statistic that “300,000 American children a year will be lured into the sex trade,” a figure that has been thoroughly debunked.
If you’re active on social media, you may have seen a fellow parent share some of this information. So how do you go about pushing back against the falsehoods? I asked three experts to weigh in.
If it’s someone you know, talk to them privately. Start by asking broad questions about their posts, like, “What is this about? Can you explain it to me?” said Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher and the author of “The World’s Worst Conspiracies.” You’re trying to gather knowledge about their beliefs in a non-adversarial way. “You don’t want to try to debate or debunk, it makes them think they’re right,” he said. Just ask questions and get them to explain it to you. “Get them to do the thinking,” said Rothschild. “You can’t reason someone out of a fringe belief,” but you may be able to get them to see their logic isn’t holding up.
Approach the subject with kindness and empathy. Paul Offit, M.D., the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who talks to parents who have encountered vaccine conspiracy theories, said that “I am sympathetic to the fact that it’s hard to see your kids injected with a biological fluid,” he said. “I can see when people would be worried about that.” So try to engage with what your friend is really afraid of if they are posting a lot about child trafficking. Are they scared of their child getting kidnapped? If so, why?
You have to be willing to meet them where they are without calling them “crazy” or dismissing them out of hand. “Even feigning interest in the conspiracy in order to find out what their real pain point or fear is that they’re trying to address in their lives, may give you info on how to reach them as they’re getting more and more involved in this,” Donovan explained.
Acknowledge when someone is not open to a discussion. If your friend is so deeply into the QAnon world that they cannot have a civil discussion about their beliefs, “Let them know you love them, that you’re here for them,” but then drop it, said Rothschild — you can’t “talk somebody out of a belief that they want to have.”
If it’s someone you don’t know personally, respond with facts. If someone is repeating misinformation, say, in a Facebook mom group, you can gently push back with a link to correct data, said Donovan. It’s appropriate to respond, “‘I don’t think this discussion has a place here,’ and potentially link to some of the reporting going on,” she said. If that misinformation is anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim, as many of QAnon-related conspiracies tend to be, you should report those posts to either the moderator or the social media company, Donovan said. “It’s important to use the tools available on the platform to get these posts removed.”
Catie Stewart ignored all the Instagram messages that were abusive or contained threats of violence toward her or Sen. Wiener, but she said she had a decent success rate responding to constituents who were just misinformed. “You helped pass a law in California for pedophiles, basically,” one parent initially wrote to Wiener’s account over Instagram D.M., which Stewart shared with me. “As a mother, I need a clear understanding of what the laws that are being passed actually mean.”
Stewart wrote back to this woman with a link to a USA Today story that fact-checked conspiracies about the bill, and made it clear California was not legalizing pedophilia. “OK, thank you for clearing that up. My heart literally dropped thinking that this would be something California would do,” the mom replied.
“It’s really important that if you see someone in your life spreading this, you explain to them the truth in a really kind way,” Stewart said. “Sometimes it’s not going to work, but whoever you can get to, it’s one more person who is not going to spread this.” Misinformation is “its own pandemic.”