Mary Michelet is an ordinary suburban mum. She loves makeup, gardening, keeping up with the latest on Netflix — and lately, organising street protests to end child sex trafficking.
The 28-year-old mother of one is part of a Facebook community in her native New Orleans, dedicated to the #SaveTheChildren movement — though the hashtag has recently evolved into #SaveOurChildren.
Made up of hardcore conspiracy theorists and concerned mums, those posting these hashtags and joining the growing number of protests are concerned with the false statistic that 800,000 children go missing in the United States each year — a figure they have described as “the real pandemic”.
“The majority of women that I have talked to have some kind of story that involves child kidnapping or child sex trafficking,” Michelet says.
“Child porn is so much more accessible, and that’s why I feel it’s getting worse.”
Save Our Children has garnered headlines in the United States and beyond — but the movement’s origins, and basis in fact, is more troubling than its seemingly noble goals.
Movement ‘extremely harmful’ for victims
The movement was birthed by conspiracy theory movement QAnon, but the genesis of the disinformation campaign on human sex trafficking in the United States lies in a network of anti-human trafficking not-for-profit organisations, many emerging from the evangelical religious right.
In their own ways, and sometimes together, they are both hugely influential online movements which look set to have an outsized effect on November’s presidential election campaign.
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Michelet agrees that the movement is gaining traction politically among many like herself who are “not political” people.
“You can’t rely on the government to do anything, at least not to do it fully. People do need to form community groups for the policing of child sex trafficking,” she says.
“Saying that you don’t want child sex trafficking is one thing, but advocating for it’s another.”
At the University of Michigan’s Human Trafficking Clinic, law professor Bridget Carr does just that.
For the past decade, she has been researching and representing victims of human trafficking, and believes that a genuine issue has been dangerously hijacked by Save Our Children.
“The narrative currently playing out on social media, and in some mainstream media organisations, is actually extremely harmful for real victims of sex trafficking,” she says.
Carr believes that #SaveOurChildren is ignoring the way trafficking actually happens, which is when vulnerable people are exploited for profit — usually through an existing relationship.
“I’ve represented hundreds and hundreds of victims and consulted on many more cases, and never, not one time in my case work has a child been snatched by a stranger. Not one time.”
‘No-one knows the real numbers’
Narratives around an increase in children being snatched off the streets — and predators using COVID-19 mask regulations to hide their faces as they do it — are “making true victims of child sex trafficking invisible and irrelevant”, Carr says.
She believes disinformation from the online movement has been able to gain traction because it is filling a void of real information and support services for human trafficking victims.
“No-one knows the real numbers, and this is where the anti-trafficking movement has failed,” she says, adding that global numbers from the International Labour Organisation were frequently distorted by not-for-profits for fundraising purposes.
About one in four of those victims are children, while about 21 per cent were exploited in commercial sexual practices.
“There is a willingness for a lot of non-profits to say whatever they need to say to get donations,” Carr says. “Many only do awareness and training, and they have no on-the-ground experience.”
‘They ignore the issue in its true scope’
Some faith-based organisations provide invaluable resources, Carr adds.
But she cautions many of the “glossy” online groups affiliated with evangelical megachurches “may never have actually served a real trafficking victim”.
Some secular and feminist groups have allied with faith-based groups on the issue, and have similarly been accused of publishing false and misleading statistics on human trafficking, while being unable to offer any services to help victims.
But on social media, there is a nexus between online conspiracies and a number of prophets and preachers on the evangelical right.
“Many in the anti-trafficking movement are always willing to use sex trafficking as a synonym for human trafficking,” Carr says.
“They ignore labour trafficking victims to only talk about kids and ignore the issue in its true scope.”
Religion and QAnon collide
Groups such as A21, founded by Hillsong alumni and anti-porn crusaders Exodus Cry, have emerged from the Charismatic Pentecostal movement — the fastest growing mainstream religion in both the United States and the world.
The denomination and their non-profit arms are adept at social media campaigns, and use the language of social justice to promote their views on sexual ethics to a mainstream audience.
Ahead of other evangelical Christian denominations, Charismatic Pentecostals were the first to support Donald Trump in 2016.
The Trump campaign has not only leaned in heavily to the movement, holding prayer meetings at the White House that involve the practice of laying hands on the President, but the anti-human trafficking cause too.
A prominent speaking slot at last month’s Republican National Convention was given to Utah Attorney General (and practising Mormon) Sean Reyes and his efforts to fight human trafficking, while the President’s daughter Ivanka Trump recently announced a $35 million aid package for groups who help house human trafficking victims.
Travis View, a researcher and co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, which tracks the growing and disparate conspiracy movement, says the crossover of Charismatic Pentecostalism and QAnon can be seen at Save Our Children rallies.
“At a recent Hollywood rally, we saw a group of people who were having an ecstatic experience, talking in tongues and sort of shaking their body in a Charismatic Pentecostal kind of way,” he says.
“There is definitely some presence of that style of Christianity in the QAnon movement.”
How a mythology was born
View says the Save Our Children movement appeared to have originated from a QAnon supporter, who was radicalised into conspiracy theory in June and helped the movement go viral on social media.
“The Save The Children movement was really initiated by a QAnon follower and struggling rapper named Scotty the Kid,” he said.
“Many of the Save The Children rallies are essentially QAnon rallies, and they very cleverly disguise their conspiracy theory origins. They can easily attract people who might otherwise find QAnon off-putting.”
In videos on social media, Scotty the Kid, who does not appear to be traditionally or overtly religious, speaks of “prophecies” such as folding a $10 which foreshadowed the September 11 attacks.
He also said that God was giving him direct messages about the Save Our Children movement.
“People involved in it are not really referring to real children or the real problem of combating human trafficking,” adds View.
“It is a mythology that’s centred around the belief that there are children being systematically abused to create a substance called adrenochrome which the elites use to stay young and get high.”
Religious studies academic Megan Goodwin believes QAnon is, in many ways, an outgrowth of the New Christian Right, which emerged in the United States in the 1970s and has become a powerful force in the Republican Party.
“I see them as the absurd logical conclusion of the New Christian Right, the hyper-patriotism and the sense of embattlement, and particularly the conviction that political disagreement or progressive values must equal not sexual perversion but sexual predation,” she says.
‘I’m definitely going to vote for Trump’
But Mary Michelet maintains that, whatever the conspiracy and religious origins of Save Our Children, it is now firmly the domain of this army of concerned Facebook mums.
“Because I’m involved with this group, I see a lot of people trying to get me to jump on board with QAnon,” she said.
“I mean, it’s just insane. As great as that story sounds, it’s just not reality.”
While Michelet says that she is “spiritual, not religious”, and that she did not vote in 2016, her newfound activism has sparked an interest in this year’s election.
“I don’t think either of the candidates are great choices, but this year I’m definitely going to vote for Trump,” she says.
“The thing that makes me want to vote for him is that he’s allocating more funds for sex trafficking victims, as well as pushing more taskforces to stop trafficking.”