Adopting “Save the Children” as a mantra helped save QAnon in several other ways. It created a kind of “QAnon Lite” on-ramp — an issue QAnon believers could talk about openly without scaring off potential recruits with bizarre claims about Hillary Clinton eating babies, and one that could pass nearly unnoticed in groups devoted to parenting, natural health and other nonpolitical topics.
Typical of the new, understated QAnon style are Facebook videos in which parents sound the alarm about pedophiles brainwashing and preying on children. These videos, wrote Annie Kelly, a researcher who wrote a Times op-ed about QAnon’s appeal to women this month, make for “compelling and dramatic content” that is “easily shared in other parenting groups with little indication of their far-right origins.”
Since stopping child exploitation is an issue that has broad and bipartisan sympathy, QAnon’s anti-trafficking rebranding has also allowed politicians to appeal to QAnon supporters without explicitly mentioning the theory. And seeding misinformation about child sex trafficking on platforms like Instagram and TikTok has allowed QAnon to tap into a younger and less explicitly pro-Trump demographic.
“It’s bringing down the average age of a QAnon follower,” Mr. Argentino said. “In 2019, this was mainly a boomer movement. Now we’re seeing millennials and Gen Z getting on board.”
Mr. Argentino’s research shows just how effective QAnon’s “Save the Children” pivot has been. In addition to spurring in-person rallies all over the world, the movement has become one of the most potent forces on Facebook. Stories about child exploitation and human trafficking routinely end up being among the most-shared news articles on the site, and some QAnon-adjacent scandals — such as the uproar over Netflix’s “Cuties” documentary, which was discussed for weeks inside QAnon Facebook groups before it was condemned by Republican lawmakers as promoting child sexualization — have crossed over into mainstream political discourse.
There is nothing wrong with expressing concerns about child exploitation, which is real and harmful. But QAnon’s embrace of the “Save the Children” movement has created its own harms. Legitimate anti-trafficking groups have reported being flooded with calls from QAnon believers passing on false and debunked tips, forcing the groups to divert resources away from their actual work. QAnon believers have organized virulent harassment campaigns against people they accuse of being pedophiles, including celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Ellen DeGeneres.
And some QAnon followers have pursued acts of vigilante justice against the imagined “cabal” they believe is running an underground child sex-trafficking ring. Last year, a Colorado woman was arrested on suspicion of plotting with other QAnon supporters to have her son kidnapped from foster care. (The woman, Cynthia Abcug, has pleaded not guilty.)