Brooke Gladstone: The last Saturday, more than 200 cities from Spokane to Scranton saw modest rallies for a cause that was so pure, so unifying that who in their right mind wouldn't want to join in? "Save the children" was the chant and child trafficking the scourge. Lately that movement to save the children has been engulfed by another movement that has filled the streets in its name. These rallies, in fact, are just the latest instance of QAnon a group and a conspiracy theory spilling out of their online domain into what was formerly known as real life. This we know from the reporting of NBC News investigative reporter Brandy Zadrozny along with reporter Ben Collins. Brandy, welcome back to the show.
Brandy Zadrozny: Thanks so much.
Brooke Gladstone: If I lived in, say Grand Rapids or Pueblo, Colorado or Evansville, Indiana, and I tuned into my local news last weekend, how would they have described what happened in my neck of the woods?
Brandy Zadrozny: Well, you probably would have seen a correspondent standing in front of a group of a couple of dozen people holding signs saying-
Speaker 1: Wherever there are people, there's the potential for human trafficking, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Speaker 2: Speakers at the event believe that issue of human trafficking needs to be brought to the forefront, both in the US and around the world.
Speaker 3: A group called Operation Wake Humanity held signs and chanted, "Save our children," to passing cars from the parking lot of the old Southside Kmart.
Brandy Zadrozny: You would see men, women, children, old young, carrying these signs. They're dotted with handprints that are stained blood red. Often they have shirts that say, "I'm not for sale," on the kids, and they're shouting, "Save the children. Save the children."
Speaker 4: I'm really impressed with all these people out here. They are for "Save the Children".
Brandy Zadrozny: It's a stirring scene.
Brooke Gladstone: There were some of these Save the Children events across the country on July 30th, which has designated the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons by the United Nations. If it was almost 30th, why was it last weekend too?
Brandy Zadrozny: The 30th seems to have inspired some of the more recent protests. On the 30th, we had some reputable groups formed together have fundraisers. The very next day, you had an activist, conspiracy theorist, musician, cannabis dispensary worker show up in Hollywood with a shirt that had a big "Q" on it, a megaphone, and a couple of hundred people. They walked back and forth across the street. They made their way to CNN.
Speaker 5: We're showing y'all how to do a real peaceful assemble. Not no chaotic riots. It's cool. The cops literally let us march inside CNN and made our voices heard. That was pretty dope of them.
Brandy Zadrozny: That protest was identified as a "Save the Children" rally as well but it had a markedly different flavor. The signs were very QAnon-specific. It's pedo-wood. Instead of "Save the Children", it's "kill all pedophiles", their cardboard placards that look like a piece of pizza, and then another person holding a gate. That's meant to signify Pizzagate, the discredited conspiracy theory that alleges a child sex ring was happening in the basement of a pizza parlor in DC.
You had that flavor. Then you had some of the things that they were chanting, "Where we go one, we go all," QAnon-specific. One day apart, a sensibly same reason behind the march but it was very different. That's how we got the rest of the protests too.
Speaker 6: The feedback from the rally has just been so astronomical. It's been incredible and amazing and beautiful so much so that we already have 12 other cities ready to go on August 22nd. What we're going to do is we're going to have 100 cities. You heard me right, 100 cities across America. If you want to be a part of saving the children step up because-
Brandy Zadrozny: He is a conspiracy theorist of all sorts. I spoke with him, and he believes in everything from anti-vaccination to chemtrails, the trails from planes going across the sky. People who believe in this theory think that the government is dumping something on us. Maybe it's to stop us from having children. Maybe it's to give us all cancer. It varies from conspiracy theorist to conspiracy theorist. He believes in that. He just subscribes to every conspiracy theory that I've ever heard of. He left on this as a social media maven, he's very good at it. He used this to grow his brand and push a belief system that seems very true to his heart what he believes.
Brooke Gladstone: Scotty the Kid decided to arrange a Q rally with what was the same goal to save the children, only he believed that they were being threatened by democratically controlled child sex rings operating in the basements of pizza places. We know this is not without consequences.
Brandy Zadrozny: Yes. We had a man drive to Comet Pizza with a gun. He came in armed and he said that he was there to save the children. Luckily, no one was hurt but he fired a gun in the restaurant, and then he came out. Later admitted that he had his intelligence wrong because his intelligence was mostly conspiracy theories gotten off the internet.
Brooke Gladstone: When I was asking about these hundreds of city marches across the country, how much is this actually about saving the children? You spoke to Syracuse Professor Whitney Phillips, who wrote, "You are here a field guide for navigating polarized speech conspiracy theories and our polluted media landscape." She says it's really not about child protection. At least it isn't about child protection for the organizers of these events. She says this is about a conspiracy theory that's trying to couch itself in other terms, to attract more people to the cause.
Brandy Zadrozny: Yes. This is called information laundering. Extremist groups will try to take the meat of their message and wash it up in a way where it's attractive to people who aren't part of their in-group. Against child trafficking, who in their right minds would say, "Oh, no, no, I'm not against child trafficking."? When she says it's about a conspiracy theory couching itself in other terms, I think she's right and it's really effective. We talked about, and it didn't make it in the article, the danger of this sort of thing can really be seen when you think about the Satanic Panic of the '80s.
Speaker 7: Satanic activity has become widespread throughout Louisiana. Father, Joe Brennan has been assigned by the Catholic Church to deal with the problem.
Father Joe: When these children goes through this horrendous experience of cold initiation where they have to drink animal blood, where they have to drink their own urine and eat your own defecation, this is such a traumatic experience on them, then they resort to drugs. It's not the other way around.
Brandy Zadrozny: This mass hysteria over the perceived ritual of abuse of children led to all these false accusations where parents and daycare workers were operating these sex abuse rings and it didn't all happen at once. It started in evangelical circles, and it very specifically used the term "satanic abuse". Then slowly, the Satan part sort of got washed away. Then child protective services, local media, law enforcement, they all entered the conversation and entered this cause. It changed to stuff like child sex rings or multi offender child abuse. That language of Satanism had to go away.
That's what we're seeing here. We're seeing the language, the explicit language of QAnon go away. Instead, we're seeing it in tiny drips on signs, like you mentioned stuff that normal people might not understand. It softens their message, and it makes it palatable to a wider audience, and it gets them on TV.
Brooke Gladstone: What is really going on? Is it recruitment? Do they want to bring them to where they really live online?
Brandy Zadrozny: It's definitely recruitment. QAnon believers want to amass an army of people just like them who are all in the fight. QAnon at its core is this belief in good versus evil, right versus wrong of biblical proportions. Almost like evangelical Christianity, they are winning souls. They call it red-pilling. If you're in these groups, which I am it's one of the dominant conversations, "How can I red-pill my husband? How can I red-pill my neighbor?" Often the answer is a YouTube video or, "Have them join this Facebook group."
You'll see in the most recent groups that formed around "Save the Children" which are not labeled QAnon groups. They're labeled "Save the Children" groups, but they're primarily QAnon-focused. You'll see that the people who have organized these groups are major QAnon believers. They post videos. They say, "Here's what you need to know." There are people that just have never been in these groups in their lives saying, "Oh my god, I never knew." You can see the recruitment. You can see the red-pilling and it's incredibly effective.
Brooke Gladstone: Obviously QAnon thrives on the internet and serves its own media to its own audience. You're particularly concerned when local journalists in real life, don't see them for who they are because you're concerned about this recruitment effort? Or that simply, the locals who care about child trafficking could be drawn into a movement that they don't really understand?
Brandy Zadrozny: I think it's all of those things. As a journalist, I feel protective of fellow journalists, especially ones who are local and have to write a new story or get a new story on the air every day, and maybe don't have time to investigate each one of the organizers Facebook pages to see what they really may believe. I don't want them to be duped. If they're duped, I don't want them to aid in the media communication strategy of a dangerous online cult.
QAnon has a hashtag that's really popular and it's, "We are the media now," and they're not wrong. They've been very good for years at hijacking hashtags, hijacking trending topics, getting things like Obamagate into the national conversation through the president's Twitter account. A QAnon proponent is headed for the halls of Congress. They've done a great job already. I don't think that local or national media needs to help them anymore.
Brooke Gladstone: You saw that quite a lot in the last few weekends?
Brandy Zadrozny: Unfortunately, yes. Jay Rosen, from NYU, had a thread on Twitter, where he compiled local TV reports on the coverage. It was just not great.
Speaker 1: Two events with one common goal of ending this modern slavery. The first will be in Foley at Heritage Park beginning at 10:00 AM, handing out flyers with information on how to help local organizations.
Speaker 2: So many people gather up and show that this is a big, big concern of ours. It will make certain regulations, certain things happen and certain progress happen.
Speaker 1: The second is happening in Mobile at 3:00 PM. It will be marching from Government Plaza-
Brandy Zadrozny: I did have some local reporters reach out to me and say that it influenced their coverage or that they weren't going to cover the marches coming up, which were great, because there's a new round of marches coming up this weekend in dozens of cities. The organization Where's Our Children, which is a Nashville based organization that plans to be a nonprofit, they have dozens of marches planned across the country.
I called them and talked to them. When I asked them about QAnon, their answer was they could neither confirm nor deny the existence of QAnon. Just speaking to them, it was clear that if they did not believe in the QAnon conspiracy, they were very sympathetic to it. The specific Facebook pages for each of their marches are very heavy with QAnon rhetoric.
Brooke Gladstone: You reported on how the hashtag #SaveTheChildren was a rallying cry on the web this month, but then Facebook briefly disabled it with a warning that it went against community standards. What standards?
Brandy Zadrozny: I think it was inciting violence.
Brooke Gladstone: Save the Children?
Brandy Zadrozny: Facebook quickly and rightly saw that something was happening with this hashtag. It was going off. They said, "Whoa, whoa, hold up. Let's look at this for a second." I don't want to send people to bad places but you can look at the #SaveTheChildren hashtag right now on Facebook. What you see is basically a collection curated by Facebook of the most heinous terrifying child trafficking lies, conspiracies posted by QAnon adherence.
They've hijacked that and they continue to do so. It's unclear why they took a quick stand. It was less than a whole day they removed the hashtag. When they did that, what it did was pour gasoline on the QAnon crowd. Social media is one of the QAnon conspiracies enemies. They said, "Okay, they're going to stop this. We're going to get it going." Then they changed the hashtag to #SaveOurChildren and then #SaveTheKids and they were going to get it going again. Then Facebook seemingly rewarded them by reinstating that hashtag and now it's worse than ever. I don't understand their thinking. I never do.
Brooke Gladstone: My understanding is that QAnon after realizing that Save the Children, which is the name of a humanitarian organization that was founded in 1919, that Save the Children is funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That's when QAnon changed to "Save Our Children". Gates has been a constant target of QAnon since the coronavirus pandemic began. I thought it was funny if I understood it correctly that QAnon types, who believe the Democratic Party has child sex rings, that Donald Trump is a Savior and whose fantasies are peopled with Satanists and cannibals, that QAnon didn't want their movement to be sullied by associations with Bill Gates.
Brandy Zadrozny: It's so silly. It doesn't make sense. You're trying to apply some sort of logic to these folks where none exists. The thinking of some of them was that since Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had contributed somewhat to the humanitarian effort Save the Children, then they shouldn't use that hashtag for their organization anymore because that would somehow muddy their rich and righteous cause. They moved to "Save our Children". Some thought that was still too close, so they moved to "Save the Kids".
There's now a dozen different hashtags, which is hard. There's no love lost between me and Facebook but it is hard for them to stay on top of this movement that's so fast-moving, so nonsensical, that follows so many arbitrary in-group rules that only they or researchers crazy enough to follow this stuff really understand. I don't totally fault them for not being able to get a handle on this.
Brooke Gladstone: You've immersed yourself, Brandy in QAnon. You interact with its adherence, I'm guessing on a daily basis. What have those interactions been like on a personal level?
Brandy Zadrozny: It varies. Sometimes it can be scary when you get a true believer who really thinks that I'm part of this media machine that's protecting pedophiles. Sometimes it can be heartening. I talked to this one woman who, before all the QAnon stuff, she owned a mitten store in Michigan. She's so cute. She became immersed in QAnon stuff and started printing out these huge drops and putting them in a big binder, making a Bible for herself and she's just all in.
I check in on her every couple of months because I liked her and she was really nice. She seemed like she could be my mom and she's still in it. I don't know how to feel sometimes. Then also if I'm being really honest, I feel scared a lot. They claim in the open to be there to save the children or they want to protect children or they're patriots, or they're just evangelicals who love Donald Trump. There's a whole spectrum of QAnon people but when you get into their private groups, it's just, post after post wishing mass murder on their political enemies or members of the media to which I belong.
I talked with this guy, Scotty the Kid, and he has a kid and I have three children. At the end of our conversation, I said, "Tomorrow, after I report this, you're going to call me a pedophile and all the people on your page are going to call me a pedophile. I can't have a public Instagram page because you guys send me pictures of my own kids. It's very upsetting, so could you not do that tomorrow?" He said, "Yes, I won't do that." He said, "I don't think you're a pedophile, but your boss is." It's like, "What do you do?" You want to think that you can make a human connection and I think it's beyond that.
Brooke Gladstone: You also spoke with advocates for trafficking survivors. I'm just wondering what the uninvited alliance of QAnon with their cause has meant for them.
Brandy Zadrozny: We talked to a lot of organizations who work in child trafficking and sexual abuse and just work on behalf of victims, children, and adults, many of whom wouldn't go on the record because they're terrified of these people for what it's worth. They told us two things. One, donations to their organizations have gone through the roof. In one aspect, it's never been better in terms of the funding that's being poured in from people who are separating with their money to fund these organizations that they think can solve a problem that they've somewhat created in their minds.
The other aspect of it is that they're inundated with phone calls and messages, private and to the pages of their organizations, pointing to all these conspiracy theories and YouTube videos about these Satan cabals. It's not helpful because every second, you have to look at those or deal with those messages, then that's taking away your resources from actually helping child victims, actually helping victims of child sexual abuse.
One of the groups talked to us about how she had to spend so much time dealing with tips about the Wayfair conspiracy which was this conspiracy that the furniture seller, Wayfair, was hiding its child sex trafficking rings behind really high-priced cabinets. Those were industrial cabinets that had the wrong picture on it that one person found in Wayfair, unattributed and had girls' names on it, like you go to IKEA and you have the Billy bookshelf. They found a missing person's ad that with a girl with that same name and, "oh, click," they found it, they had unlocked the conspiracy.
That's back to the messaging, that's why they're so good. That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard of in my life. Who would believe that? It makes no sense, but these are thousands of tips that she had to look at, they had to put out a statement about, Wayfair had to put out a statement, it was crazy.
Brooke Gladstone: This weekend or any weekend when a consumer of the local news or somebody walking down Main Street gets a view of these marches, what should they look for? What should they understand?
Brandy Zadrozny: What's important for a news consumer or just someone on the street who sees a protest like this, this weekend or any other, is to know that not everything is as it seems, to be discerning when you look at the signs that are being held, the phrases that are being called. If you want to join, my advice to the consumer is the same advice that I'd give to the local news organizations which is, look at their online profiles and see for yourself whether you really agree with what's behind this message, not just a catchy catchphrase like "Save the Children" that everybody would be behind.
Brooke Gladstone: Brandy, thank you very much.
Brandy Zadrozny: Thank you.
Brooke Gladstone: Brandy Zadrozny is an investigative reporter for NBC News. You can find her reporting on nbcnews.com. Thanks for listening to this On the Media pod extra. Tune in on Friday late afternoon, early evening to hear the big show.
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