Part of an $810 million underground illicit sex economy in San Diego alone, human trafficking is hiding in plain sight in our community. It impacts thousands of people from all ages and backgrounds. Our mobile phones ping us with notifications throughout our day; we are constantly filtering social media messages, determining what’s important and what we need to ignore. Now a duplicitous and even dangerous string of messages has cropped up: an attempt by Q’Anon sympathizers and supporters to coopt the fight against human trafficking.
The work to end human trafficking in San Diego is a decades-long collaborative effort supported by multi-sector partners who work to identify those who are exploited, provide services to restore victims and track down and prosecute traffickers. A critical part of this effort is public awareness, helping our community understand what human trafficking is, how and where it happens in San Diego and what each one of us can do to end it.
Enter the social media messaging of Q’Anon supporters and promoters, luring people into a web of lies that threatens to distract, mislead, divide and tear apart decades of hard-fought advances in the fight against human trafficking.
While human trafficking is an intractable social issue, it consistently draws bipartisan support with the Trump administration and past administrations funding services and visibility that has done much to advance the cause. Q’Anon’s entrance to the conversation around human trafficking threatens to unravel this critical collaboration across the aisle of political rivalry. Q’Anon, once a fringe phenomenon is now a rapidly spreading set of conspiracy theories flooding social network platforms.
Q’Anon supporters and sympathizers are using people’s passions about the atrocities of human trafficking as bait to lure those sympathetic to the anti-trafficking cause into their broader and more diffuse disinformation campaign. As reported elsewhere, “Marc-André Argentino, a Ph.D. candidate at Concordia University who is studying Q’Anon, said he had identified 51 Facebook groups that branded themselves as anti-child trafficking organizations, but which were actually predominantly sharing Q’Anon conspiracies.”
Kristina Davis’ recently reported on this issue in the San Diego Union Tribune, engaging local Q’Anon inspired rally attendees and noting that experts worry Q’Anon conspiracies are diverting essential attention and resources from the actual fight against child trafficking.
In often subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways, Q’Anon proponents and sympathizers confuse the public with misleading human trafficking statistics, misleading characterizations of the nature and scope of human trafficking (sex trafficking in particular) and misleading claims about the fundamental causes and sources of this heinous crime.
Opportunist politicians are blurring the lines between legitimate human trafficking data and concern and the Q’Anon conspiracy morass. In a twisted logic, the concern for human trafficking victims itself becomes a dog whistle for politicians interesting in wooing the votes of Q’Anon sympathizers. The bogus anti-trafficking statistics and stories promoted by Q’Anon are making their way into current political campaigns. It is incumbent upon those of us that know better to call out the false human trafficking statistics and theories in the mouths of public figures.
The influence of Q’Anon related ideologies continues to grow. Recent reports out of the United Kingdom highlight the growth of Q’Anon beyond US shores. Twitter and Facebook are scrambling to prevent Q’Anon and its ideologies from spreading any further, but Facebook, at least, is increasingly losing this battle. Shutting down the conspiracy pages and hashtags has seemed to cause some of the opposite effect, invigorating the claims that there is a conspiracy against them.
At Point Loma Nazarene University we are more than casual observers of the anti-trafficking movement. A Christian university with a strong commitment to educating and resourcing the community, PLNU and its Center for Justice and Reconciliation have played a central and leading role in studying and engaging against human trafficking in San Diego County since 2005. The Beauty for Ashes Scholarship for survivors of human trafficking and the kNOw MORE! Anti-trafficking curriculum are critical pieces of the puzzle to prevent exploitation and empower victims to heal. We also coordinate quarterly meetings and annual conferences for researchers of human trafficking. PLNU professor Dr. Jamie Gates, with Dr. Ami Carpenter (USD), co-authored the groundbreaking study measuring sex trafficking in San Diego County (2016).
In particular, we are deeply troubled by signs of how deep and wide and with what ease Q’Anon is spreading through Christian communities across the US. Christians in particular have been on the front lines of the anti-trafficking movement, and people of faith have been a driving force building the current anti-trafficking infrastructure that we have.
It has been a hard road bringing light into this darkness, sorting out truth from lies in an industry that is built on lies, intentionally bridging communities that don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with one another like activists and law enforcement, survivor advocates and the judicial system, people across many faith traditions, Democrats and Republicans.
Lies that masquerade as truth have the danger of unraveling decades of carefully nurtured cross-ideological collaborations as they thrive on aggrieved mistrust while they drive people and communities further apart.
Those who are passionate about doing and being good in the world can sometimes fall into acting more out of passion than wisdom. This tendency has not been uncommon in our fight against trafficking, but we have worked hard to educate our communities on the facts, to bring disciplined thinking and discernment to tackling one of the most complicated crimes in our midst.
It is time to mobilize our community to work harder at seeking truth and to continue the real fight instead of being distracted by the shadows of conspiracy theories.
Dr. Jamie Gates is a sociology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University.
Kim Berry Jones is the director of the Center for Justice & Reconciliation at Point Loma Nazarene University.