Earlier this summer, I noticed this alarming shift in my Facebook feed. Childhood friends and old high school acquaintances began plastering my timeline with posts referring to a satanic cabal of pedophile elites, including hysterical, unfounded claims about the proliferation of child sex trafficking and cultural or political efforts to “normalize” pedophilia.
During the pandemic, some of the people I grew up with in Colorado had gotten sucked into QAnon, the sprawling and baseless pro-Trump conspiracy theory that is deemed a domestic terror threat by the FBI. I remembered them as perfectly reasonable people: some liberal, some conservative, but all frozen in my memory as intellectually curious. Now, online and from a distance, I was watching them change. Young, white suburban women, in particular, were falling for a Q-adjacent movement, “Save the Children,” which raises false fears about child sex trafficking through fabricated stories, pastel infographics, and hashtag campaigns.
“When George Floyd cried for his momma everyone ‘felt that,’ now try to imagine 22,000 CHILDREN A DAY crying for their momma and no one hearing them! Please, ‘feel that’ too!! #SaveOurChildren,” read one post liked by nearly a dozen people I went to school with. Other posts incorporated Covid-19 misinformation or advocated against mask-wearing: “Mask or no mask? What we NEED to ask is where the fuck did 8 million children go???” another image read.
Save the Children is different in tone than straight-up QAnon, which originated on the anonymous discussion board 4chan in October 2017, with an unknown individual (or group of individuals) called “Q” claiming to have top-security clearance within the U.S. government. Q believers think that someone in the Trump administration has been using online message boards to send coded messages, known as “Q drops,” about the president’s secret war against this cabal to the public. Once a fringe conspiracy theory among Trump’s most ardent supporters, QAnon’s latest iteration is taking over white women in suburban communities, particularly mothers, and several other unexpected demographics. In Parker, Colorado, the suburban town I lived in for nearly a decade, and surrounding cities, it now feels like QAnon is everywhere.
Once a fringe conspiracy theory among Trump’s most ardent supporters, QAnon’s latest iteration is taking over white women in suburban communities, particularly mothers.
Parker is an affluent suburb in Douglas County, the richest county in the state and among the richest in the nation. The population is heavily conservative and predominantly white. In the time I lived there, Parker was about 93 percent white, though it has diversified a bit more in recent years, according to census data. The suburb’s member of Congress, Republican Rep. Ken Buck, is among the GOP lawmakers fueling Save the Children conspiracy theorists. He’s demanding that the Department of Justice investigate the Netflix film “Cuties,” which has faced intense backlash over claims that it sexualizes young girls. The film, a coming-of-age comedy-drama directed by French Senegalese filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré, became an instant target for the pedophile-obsessed.
A few of the friends I spoke with were young moms who recently began posting Q-curious content, adopting the anti-trafficking cause as their top issue — despite openly detesting the Trump administration and otherwise holding left-leaning positions.
Jared Holt, an investigative reporter at Right Wing Watch who has been covering QAnon since its inception, said that this web of conspiracy theories during the pandemic has “spread so much that it’s coming home to roost in places we were not expecting.”
“During the last six months, QAnon has really, as a movement, found a lot of success breaking out of its confines among sort of the far-right fringe,” Holt said. “You are now seeing mommy bloggers, health and wellness influencers, MMA fighters, various celebrities embracing parts or the whole of QAnon.”
The cult-like movement is achieving undeniable influence in the political sphere, including through dozens of QAnon candidates who have run for Congress this cycle and Marjorie Taylor Green’s unsettling primary victory in Georgia. President Donald Trump has praised Q believers as “people that love our country,” while countless Republican lawmakers have avoided disavowing it. Save the Children marches have attracted small but impassioned crowds — notably diverse in race, gender, and age — in cities across the U.S., and some adherents have already committed criminal or violent acts inspired by their beliefs.
Last month, NBC News reported that an internal investigation by Facebook revealed millions of members in QAnon groups and pages. The following week, the company announced that it would be removing and restricting thousands of QAnon accounts, pages, and groups from its sites, including Instagram.
But the Q believers I spoke with stumbled upon these incomprehensible ideas the old-fashioned way. They say they were indoctrinated (though they don’t use that term) by their parents, other family members, and friends, or introduced to the conspiracy through word-of-mouth, rather than via the algorithms that have received the most national attention. But word-of-mouth alone isn’t enough. The ability of people sitting at home to follow the online rabbit holes downward is critical. Moms are seeing an ever-changing web of trafficking conspiracy theories bounce around their circle of mom friends, like the debunked Wayfair conspiracy theory and USPS phishing text scam. The Jeffrey Epstein saga, a real-life case that involved an alleged sex trafficking ring and was covered by reputable news outlets, has also served as a key gateway into QAnon.
Zoë Royer, a 23-year-old youth advocate based in Denver, said QAnon and Save the Children is everywhere. “The Parker bubble is so real,” she said. “It’s this exurb that’s very new, and it takes a while to get to the major highways, like — you really can just stay in Parker and have no idea of what the entire rest of the world is like.”
She agreed that the theories have captured moms especially, adding that most people have been bored and cooped up at home during the pandemic. “This all kind of popped up around the same time that the [Black Lives Matter] protests did as well,” Royer said. “I think that because it’s such a conservative area — and the fact that there was a popular movement and reaction to all the police brutality, that they couldn’t straight up say, ‘no, we’re anti-BLM’ — they kind of had to grasp onto this other basically fake story to make it seem like they are the ethical crusaders.”
Savanna Nash, 24, is a stay-at-home mom in Dacono, Colorado, a small town north of Denver. She lived all around the state growing up but moved to Parker, where she attended middle school and high school, just before starting seventh grade. Nash comes from a law enforcement family and, like many of my old classmates, inherited her parents’ conservative ideals.
“I didn’t know about any of this until a couple months ago,” Nash told me. “I actually heard about it from my mom. I don’t know how long she knew about it, but she started talking to me about it because she started reading a couple of books.”
One of those books was “Calm Before the Storm” by Dave Hayes, a Christian author and QAnon star known online as the “Praying Medic.” His YouTube channel has more than 386,000 subscribers and the book, which sells for $15.42 on Amazon, is ranked No. 17 in the Political Corruption & Misconduct category and No. 22 in books about the United States National Government. In the book, Hayes explains the entire theory and “decodes” Q drops, including a glossary of Q terms and codes at the end.
“And honestly, at first, I thought she was psychotic,” Nash continued. “She just started making these claims that sounded outrageous to me, like ‘JFK Jr. is not dead.’” (Hardcore Q believers think John F. Kennedy Jr. is alive and a Trump supporter who lives in Pittsburgh.)
Among her mother’s claims, Nash said, were stories about celebrities, including big Hollywood names, doing “ritual sacrifices” on Epstein’s island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. “It just sounded ridiculous to me,” Nash said. “I was kind of laughing it off.”
But then her friends started talking about it too. “My friend Ashley Campbell, she was like, ‘No, I actually think this too and here’s why,’” Nash continued. “And she recommended me some books and documentaries to watch, and she also added me to this Facebook group. After I watched that, it was super eye-opening. It was about three hours long, and I liked it because those things sound crazy if you don’t have anything to back it up.”
In late June, she began posting regularly about QAnon and related conspiracy theories on Facebook, sharing viral content from other accounts. I asked if she buys into some of the other conspiracy theories that have merged into the Q world, like anti-vaccine or anti-mask views. Nash said she is not personally against vaccines and has no problem wearing a mask in public if it’s required, but understands the skepticism other QAnon believers may have about the development of a coronavirus vaccine. Like other followers of the movement, she also shares a deep distrust of the media and has been avoiding all mainstream news outlets. “Even Fox News, I don’t really like to watch that much,” she said, adding that she avoids Google and uses the search engine DuckDuckGo instead.
“My sister, she is a police officer, she believes in [QAnon],” Nash said. “Not sure about my dad, he’s a police officer as well. For the most part, it’s me and my mom discussing it.”
Campbell, a criminal justice student aiming to go into law enforcement, first got into QAnon a few months ago, learning about the conspiracy theory through a three-hour YouTube video recommended by her brother and dad, who’s a federal employee.
An avid Trump supporter, she said she was pretty confident he was headed for reelection until the pandemic hit. But seeing how widely the QAnon and Save the Children movements have spread around Colorado, including recently spotting a “Save the Children banner over a bridge,” has renewed her optimism. “It’s giving me a little bit of hope that our president in the coming term could be on our side.”
“As a Trump supporter, I kinda feel like I’m alone most of the time in my beliefs,” Campbell said. “But this one I feel like I’m part of the majority because everyone is kind of thinking the same thing.”
But QAnon isn’t just a set of beliefs. The movement draws adherents into an alternate reality, which, at its core, is calling for the mass arrests and execution of the president’s political enemies. And because followers inherently distrust traditional media and most forms of authority, it becomes difficult to deradicalize them.
“As a Trump supporter, I kinda feel like I’m alone most of the time in my beliefs. But this one I feel like I’m part of the majority because everyone is kind of thinking the same thing.”
Notably, a Parker woman was arrested last December in Montana and charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, as she was allegedly planning an armed raid to kidnap her child from foster care with help from QAnon. The woman, Cynthia Abcug, lost custody of her son, and, according to an arrest affidavit, her daughter told the police that Abcug had “gotten into some conspiracy theories and she was ‘spiraling down it.’”
I asked Campbell whether she had any concerns about QAnon-inspired violence or believers getting in too deep and acting on it. For a very brief moment, I felt like there was a small breakthrough.
“To be honest — this is going to sound kind of dumb of me — but I had never really even thought about the possibility of people taking it into their own hands,” she replied. “I guess I do now, because I had never really thought about it before, but yeah it is scary. It is really scary, and I’m sure it won’t be the end of it getting to people’s heads because how do you really stop it at that point? Once you realize, oh shit, this actually is so real.”
Austin Priester still lives in Parker, working at a coffee shop at the heart of Old Town Parker and teaching theater classes nearby. He doesn’t affiliate with either political party, but does consider himself “a big environmentalist, so things that have to do with the environment and regulations, I tend to care about more.”
“I work at a coffee shop, so I just overhear people talking a lot,” Priester said. “Certain members of my extended family had mentioned it to me in the past, and then I kept hearing — I mean, just in passing on the street, in the coffee shop, at restaurants, at bars, I’d just hear people talking about Q. I thought, what is this thing?”
He got into the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which first circulated before the 2016 election, before it began receiving mainstream attention.
Unlike Campbell, Priester didn’t seem troubled by Abcug’s case or the possibility of violence, believing that QAnon primarily attracts the nature-loving hippie types. “From what I’ve seen from the QAnon movement, I’ve only ever seen love and light talked about and emanated from that,” he said.
“I’ve never met a violent, or someone who knows about Q and is an inherently violent, individual,” he continued. “But I’ve met a lot of people who are into Q who are very hippie-dippy types, very open love and, you know, wanting to save the world through peace and unity. Again, I’m aware that there’s a few kind of religious, cultish kind of groups that claim to be Q followers or whatever — and that, as well, I roll my eyes at, because it’s like, you’re doing it wrong. That’s not what the movement is.”
Another way in which QAnon’s influence has spread — even across ideological lines — is through viral videos on TikTok, a popular short-form video platform. The app is awash with conspiracy theories about missing children and the “pedophile elites,” the type of content that can grab the attention of even avowed liberals.
One of my closest friends, Taylor Metzner, a 25-year-old mom and brand strategist living in a suburban community in Los Angeles County, is one such example. We met in Parker during my senior year and had bonded over our shared high school obsession with Barack Obama.
After college, we drifted apart, but recently reconnected and picked up where we left off. I had grown out of my adolescent fondness for the former president, largely out of ideological differences and a journalistic conviction to challenge power, while she grew out of her affinity because she became convinced of his participation in satanic rituals with other Democratic Party figures.
Metzner has had left-of-center politics since I first met her and is particularly vocal in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. She cares deeply about a range of progressive issues and generally aligns with the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. In recent months, she’s also gotten into spirituality, meditation, and the like, which, combined with her bell-bottoms and lifelong love of Stevie Nicks, makes her the kind of hippie Priester was talking about.
Pizzagate’s revival on TikTok — and its transformation into a theory that focused on celebrities, rather than political figures — accelerated QAnon’s reach among younger generations, especially teenagers.
“TikTok’s algorithm is insane,” Metzner told me. “So I started seeing it and I just went down the rabbit hole. Now I see it all the time because I literally spent a week, like manic episode, just going through the internet and finding all these videos and documents and flight logs, you know, watching survivors’ videos.”
In earlier stages of QAnon, boomers seemed particularly susceptible to the conspiracy theory’s claims, more likely to share and engage with its online content. But Pizzagate’s revival on TikTok — and its transformation into a theory that focused on celebrities like Justin Bieber and Chrissy Teigen, rather than political figures — accelerated QAnon’s reach among younger generations, especially teenagers.
Metzner’s “For You” page usually consists of “a lot of nature stuff and pretty videos,” but then “it’ll pop in a video of Save the Children stuff.” She’s genuinely terrified about child trafficking and worries for her 3-year-old daughter’s safety every day.
These movements, which insist on the ubiquity of child sex trafficking, are using tactics that were perfected by the mainstream, bipartisan anti-trafficking movement. QAnon and Save the Children have thrived, in large part, because a less ridiculous version has long been a force in political orthodoxy. As Melissa Gira Grant has argued in the New Republic, decades of exaggerated anti-trafficking rhetoric and sex trafficking “awareness” campaigns helped drive our current panic. “Anti-child sex trafficking memes were already popular on Facebook and Instagram,” she wrote. “Among them now are a mix of both overt and more subtle mentions of QAnon.”
Common claims and statistics about human trafficking that go viral online are often exaggerated, misinterpreted, or taken out of context. The claim that 1 in 4 victims of trafficking are children, for example, is based on a 2017 report from the International Labour Organization, which was done in collaboration with other groups. But ILO’s figures are more complicated than can be conveyed in a short tweet; the organization factored in a wide set of legal concepts, including forced marriage and forced labor, which is a much more prevalent form of trafficking and exploitation than say, getting kidnapped in the suburbs. As a recent HuffPost article noted, the problem of child exploitation “persists for complicated, heartbreaking reasons that have more to do with the failure of America’s social safety net than the rapaciousness of its criminal sex offenders.”
Though Metzner didn’t use the word QAnon or seem as diehard as many of the other believers I spoke with, she said she’s “heartbroken” by the “horrifying rumors” surrounding the Clintons and Obama, a politician she once admired.
When it came to the Epstein stuff, I couldn’t argue with some of the broader disdain I heard for a system and ruling class that let the late millionaire financier off the hook. But these occasional kernels of truth were always intertwined with the indefensible. Using bits of truth to support a bigger, baseless conspiracy theory, Holt noted, “is a practice as old as time.”
“That is a key way of keeping a conspiracy theory going and interesting, sort of evolving the conspiracy theory,” he said. “Then, it also acts as a vector to open up potentially another entry point for new believers to come into the movement.”