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What we can learn about QAnon from the Satanic Panic

You’re Wrong About’s Sarah Marshall explains why debunking #SaveTheChildren and human trafficking statistics is so difficult.

Demonstrators at a #SaveTheChildren rally in Keene, New Hampshire, on September 19, 2020.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

For many supporters of the #SaveTheChildren movement, face masks are part of the problem. Rather than saving lives by slowing the spread of Covid-19, proponents argue, letting your child wear a mask makes it harder for them to cry for help, which they will need to do, because there are evil people, right now, coming to kidnap them.

“Save the Children,” like so many other moral panics, sounds like such a plainly obvious force of good, that to question it feels like you are marching under the banner of “Fuck the Children.” What do you say, for instance, to someone who believes that there are 800,000 children being trafficked every year, and that the government does nothing to stop it?

Yet it’s still important to question their claims, because “Save the Children” is part of a new, more palatable branch of the alt-right conspiracy theory of QAnon, and its misleading name is part of why its traction with women and mothers has skyrocketed. “Save the Children” is less of an organization than a hashtag-able rallying cry, a call to action to investigate what many believe is a national emergency. Mom influencers, who until recently were known mostly for sharing cute photos of their kids at pumpkin patches, have been crucial to its spread, sharing aesthetically pleasing infographics of human trafficking statistics and scary stories of attempted kidnappings.

While the bedrock of QAnon — the theory that an anonymous Trump insider is sending coded warning signs about a forthcoming “awakening” that will culminate in the mass imprisonment of Democratic public figures — might sound a bit kooky to an average Facebook user, Save the Children “has succeeded in mainstreaming the QAnon movement by representing its most sanitized aspects, pushing its more unsavory facets to the back burner,” explains EJ Dickson in Rolling Stone.

The problem is that these hundreds of thousands of supposedly missing children are a product of unreliable statistics and misleading anecdotes on social media. These memes and posts are popping up all over Facebook, pointing to what QAnon supporters believe is an elite child sex trafficking ring comprised of Democratic politicians and celebrities. That there is no elegant way to fact-check the concerns of Save the Children without sounding dismissive of human suffering is part of why it is so difficult to talk about, and why people who attempt to do so are often targeted as enablers or complicit in pedophilia.

There is some sort of clarity to be found, however, within the moral panics of the past. Over the course of quarantine, I’ve become a fan of the popular podcast You’re Wrong About, in which journalists Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes delve into misremembered historical events and figures, including the frenzies over Stranger Danger and the Satanic Panic (wherein dozens of daycare workers were falsely accused of using children in Satanic rituals) in the 1980s and ’90s, as well as episodes on why so many statistics about human trafficking and sex offenders are inherently misleading. In other words, they’re professional debunkers.

I called Sarah, who’s currently working on a book about the Satanic Panic, to chat about what Save the Children gets wrong and why a fight against mostly imaginary predators has captivated so many seemingly well-intentioned people — particularly as a pandemic unfolds before our eyes. We talked about why people feel the need to protect against an invented threat while a botched government response to the coronavirus has left hundreds of thousands dead, and about how a metaphor about rat milk can help us understand why it’s so difficult to have these conversations.

As you’re working on this book about the Satanic Panic, are you seeing any notable similarities or differences between that moment in the ’80s and ’90s and right now?

Oh, yeah, it’s totally the same. It’s driven by genuinely concerned and terrified parents who are feeling insecurity for the welfare of their children for extremely good reasons. This is a terrible time to be a parent in America. If you’re asked to send your child to school, then you’re potentially signing the death sentence of your child or of the people in your child’s family and community that they’re going to transmit potentially a deadly disease to. The amount of abuse that the American government has perpetrated on its citizens is just amazing, especially in the past few years.

Trump is so interesting as a president because he has the behaviors of an abusive father figure in so many ways. Even if you believe in him and feel like he’s carrying out policies that you want, he’s still lying to you. People must be feeling the effects of that, to some extent, even if they’re among his supporters. So I feel like this QAnon panic is so interesting to me because it really began as an elaborate fanfiction to explain how Trump was doing a good job and then it evolved into this.

I’ve seen so many memes on Instagram about how “the real problem” is the pedophiles, not the pandemic. One idea that you tend to come back to on the podcast is that moral panics often claim that we as a society are not paying enough attention to “the children.” Do you see that as a Trojan horse to get other extreme theories into public consciousness?

I do. One of the really dynamic ways we can see that functioning, which I’ve seen on Twitter and stuff, is the automatic argument ender that you have by being like, “Well, 800,000 children disappear every year. So how can you dismiss that? Don’t you care?” It’s very interesting, because it’s like me saying to you, “One out of every 10 American schools is serving its children rat milk instead of cow milk. How dare you say there’s not a milk problem in this country?” And you’re like, “Well, I’m saying that I doubt the rat milk studies. I’m saying this is fake rat milk data that’s been making its way around social media, because it’s so shocking when you see it. But it turns out to be an unreliably reported version of an unreliable data point and an unreliable study whose conductor has disavowed it since publication.” I would think it was horrible if a ton of American children were being fed rat milk, but it turns out that it happens very, very, very rarely. Maybe at one school every year. This metaphor is falling apart, but when one sort of unwell cafeteria lady is like, “Time for rat milk,” it’s not a systemic problem.

You’re just in this impossible bind, because even if the statistics have any truth to them, they’re misleadingly stated and no longer relevant, but the person who’s citing them is so attached to the figure of the children. They’ve already bonded with this idea of 800,000 children who are trafficked each year, or whatever it is — all these incredibly high numbers that have generally no basis in reality, or a very slight basis in reality. If it feels true to you, as though it has happened in the way you see in movies, and then someone tells you, “Actually, it’s more like roughly 115 children a year in America are kidnapped under classic Stranger Danger circumstances,” that is horrifying to the person who has come to believe in that statistic.

That would be like someone saying to me, “You know, actually, only 115 people in America have died of coronavirus,” because the fact that coronavirus is dangerous and that people should be taking precautions against it has become a central fact of my life. I would find that upsetting, perhaps in a similar way to the way people find it upsetting when you question the statistics that they’re citing.

Your episode on human trafficking was so informative, but at the same time frustrating in the sense that there’s no one easy and elegant way to debunk these statistics. But can you give an overall picture of why human trafficking statistics are almost always wrong?

Every so often, there’s a study that guesstimates or offers a statistic on child abuse that has some basis in fact, but it’s based on, for example, a survey that goes to like, 100 girls. Then based on that, they’ll say the percentage of these girls that experienced something that we define as sexual abuse was 40 percent, so 40 percent of girls have been sexually abused in their life. That’s not a good study. It’s data of some kind, but it’s not the most useful kind of data.

There have been cases similar to this, where you have a small sample size and some kind of upsetting percentage comes out of it and then that makes headlines and circulates around. People don’t know the circumstances of the study, they just know the percentage. It indicates a real problem in the world, but then it gets inflated into this idea of a crisis. We have these numbers that, if we looked at them, would indicate the complexity of the real problems that generate them. But we instead, I think, choose to selectively interpret them to support the idea of this very dangerous world where children just need to be rescued from monsters, rather than have their daily lives improved in a way that involves listening to them. You don’t have to listen to someone when you’re “rescuing” them.

The Satanic Panic ended up causing real material harm to so many adults who were accused of doing horrible things they never did. With human trafficking, the laws we put in place often end up hurting immigrants and sex workers. Who do you think QAnon and Save the Children will end up really harming (besides the people who have literally already been killed by proponents)?

I think it will be children, because I think that increased paranoia about children often manifests in ways that don’t involve listening to the child or trying to understand what your children’s needs are. Right now, I think a lot of kids would like to avoid contracting or spreading coronavirus. But if their parents subscribed to a horror story where wearing a mask means they’re going to be abducted, then they’re not going to be able to do that. I’m sure there have been many children in America who have spread a virus to elderly family members, or to people with compromised health to whom it proved deadly, or to people who were completely healthy and died anyway. This is what happens with this virus.

We know the Satanic Panic was, in many cases, harmful to the children that it was attempting to help. They have to figure out what to do with memories that they underwent therapy to “retrieve,” in a way that made these memories feel as real as any of the things that they knew with a greater degree of clarity had happened to them. If you retell a story over and over, it turns into a real-feeling event, especially if you’re a young child being led by an adult who’s highly invested in you producing a specific story for them. I think that the children, once again, are going to be the primary victim here.

What do you do in your own life when you’re in a social situation and someone says something that they believe to be true, but you know they’re going in a potentially harmful direction? The “Wayfair is selling children in $10,000 cupboards” thing comes to mind.

I’m a pretty non-confrontational person, and I think one of the things that draws me to journalism is that the best interview skill you can have is just to not interrupt someone and to just go, “Hmm,” and they’ll just keep talking, potentially forever, and get deeper and deeper into what they believe. When I’m talking to someone who espouses a belief in something that is confusing to me, I often feel like I want to know more. I’ll say things like, “Does this part make sense to you? How does this work?” to gently kick the tires of the logic. There is probably a self-protective strategy to put your journalist hat on and be like, “Say more about that!” But I am curious. I can never guess at the reasons that people have for believing what they do.

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