This story was updated after its original publication with photos from the "Save the Children" rally in Chattanooga on Aug. 22.
You may have seen the "Save the Children" homemade signs on highway overpasses and around some Chattanooga neighborhoods in recent weeks. But what is it about?
Since the U.N.'s World Trafficking Awareness Day on July 30, #SaveTheChildren or #SaveOurChildren posts have gained traction on social media, with many users hoping to raise awareness of child sex trafficking. But experts across the country are warning of a dark undercurrent behind the seemingly innocent hashtags.
Save the Children is a London-based international humanitarian organization that has been protecting children around the world for more than 100 years, according to its website. But the #SavetheChildren movement has been co-opted by followers of QAnon, a sprawling conspiracy theory that pushes the idea that the Trump administration will take down an alleged global ring of pedophiles led by prominent Democrats.
The idea, the New York Times recently reported, is to "create a groundswell of concern by flooding social media with posts about human trafficking, joining parenting Facebook groups and glomming on to hashtag campaigns like #SaveTheChildren Then followers can shift the conversation to baseless theories about who they believe is doing the trafficking[.]"
Conspiracy theories of underground sex trafficking rings involving society's elite have been brewing for years in the dark corners of the internet on websites such as 4Chan. The conspiracies emerged with prominence in 2016 after WikiLeaks published a trove of emails hacked from the account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign chair.
That led to what has been dubbed as Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that Clinton and other top Democrats were using a Washington, D.C., pizzeria as a front for child sex trafficking.
More recent developments, such as the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein and his subsequent death, have fanned the flames of conspiracy theorists who tout it as proof that a vast network of underground sex trafficking rings do exist.
Here in Chattanooga, a #SaveOurChildren Facebook group was created on July 30, the same day as the U.N.'s World Trafficking Awareness Day. It has been growing in popularity with more than 7,400 members as of Friday evening. Other local groups by the same name have sprung up, with one reaching a membership of over 3,000 — 1,000 of whom joined within the past week, according to Facebook.
Multiple protests are planned for Saturday, according to events promoted on Facebook. The largest is taking place at 6:30 p.m. in Coolidge Park. More than 200 people have said they plan to attend, and at least 780 have said they are interested.
Protest organizers did not respond to multiple requests for comment by the Times Free Press.
City of Chattanooga spokesperson Richel Albright said organizers reached out to the Chattanooga Police Department and to the city's special events manager.
"Per our current executive order, we are not granting any permit for a gathering of more than ten people on any city property," Albright wrote in an email. "Of course, safety and health remain our top priorities, and even though we strongly discourage mass gatherings of any kind, we will do what is necessary to keep people safe if this event takes place."
On its public Facebook page, an organizer's pinned post describes the group as standing "for god and anything true & just!!! The system is no longer good & just!! Lets [sic] make America God's country again & get rid of the sex trafficking ring thats [sic] holding many of our brothers, sisters, family, friends held hostage!!"
The post features a graphic of the closed fist associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and the slogan "kids [sic] lives matter."
Posts within the group and event page do not appear to make any overt references to QAnon or other political conspiracy theories. However, people with more sinister motives have infiltrated similar marches across the country, Rolling Stone recently reported, with some marchers carrying signs promoting Pizzagate or anti-vaccine slogans.
In other cities, Child Lives Matter rallies have taken place, something that may be a part of an effort by far-right protesters to co-opt the language from the Black Lives Matter movement, Rolling Stone reported.
Here locally, Cameron "C-Grimey" Williams, a leader of the local George Floyd death protest movement, questioned the group's use of the Black Lives Matter fist.
"Glad people are involved in community engagement but why steal the black lives matter phraseology and the black power fist for this?" he wrote.
"Were not looking at this as stealing anything," one member responded. "The fist is a sign of power in the air. As for the phraseology it needs to be understood that its not a stab at BLM and if anything it should inspire BLM activists to help. The bottom line is its not about BLM its about saving some kids lives."
Others weren't so diplomatic.
"They simply want BLM out of the news," another activist wrote.
Another group of social activists, who asked not to be identified to avoid further harassment, was infiltrated and threatened by #SavetheChildren backers after someone posted photos to the group's Facebook page showing the #SavetheChildren signs being removed from two locations near Hamilton Place mall.
Amy, who removed the two signs and asked to be identified by her first name, said the group didn't put her up to taking down the signs.
"I actually acted on behalf of several neighbors — liberal and conservative, older and younger, if that matters," she wrote in an email. "My neighbors and I disagree about a lot! - but we all agreed that we didn't want conspiracist misinformation being promoted in our neighborhood.
"I think there are many well-meaning Chattanoogans with a heart for children who don't know the organizations they're supporting aren't legit and are primarily motivated about onboarding new members into their conspiracist movement," she said, adding that people interested in supporting the movement should vet the organizations they support because, "the health, safety, and well-being of children is a cause far too important for us to allow it to be co-opted by groups with ulterior motives."
THE REALITY OF HUMAN TRAFFICKING
The truth is that child sex trafficking is a problem that affects countless children across the globe.
Worldwide, the International Labour Organization estimated there were 40.3 million victims of human trafficking in 2016, Ted Francisco, special agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said at a local physicians conference last year.
Human trafficking is a $150 billion a year industry worldwide, he said, with about $99 billion of that in the sex industry.
But vast networks of human trafficking are rare, said Natalie Ivey, executive director for the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking. That is especially true for victims from rural areas, she said.
Across the board, human traffickers are "very smart, but they're also very lazy," she said. "They're not going to work that hard — travel across country or commit to these real elaborate travel schemes. They might pop from city to city just to reduce some of the attention, but they're not going to work that hard, and they don't have to work that hard to find victims. They go down the street, they go to church, they go to schools, and they find kids that are vulnerable."
Most often, sex trafficking is perpetuated by family members rather than by the "big white van" people snatching people out of a store, Ivey said.
"We're talking about a mom who sells access to her kid to feed her family, to pay for housing — maybe to fuel a drug habit," she said. "The reality of human trafficking looks very, very different, so we always get real concerned when that misinformation is out there."
Sometimes it's other children who are the perpetrators, Francisco said. In some cases, he said, he's received calls from high school principals about boys convincing girls to send nude photos, "and then having their buddies come and have sex with these girls with the threat, 'If you don't, then we're going to send these pictures around.'"
Ivey said her organization's social media pages have recently been inundated with baseless tips or references to false information.
"It's a little bit of a double-edged sword," she said. "We love when folks are talking about human trafficking because we know it's a difficult topic. We just want to use this opportunity to actually spread legitimate information to actually equip our community to recognize it and to respond to it, and not to blind ourselves with kind of false dramas."
"This rally in Chattanooga may not be contributing to that, and hopefully they aren't," she said. "But we want to make sure that the message is very clear because that misinformation — it's not just bad data, it actually hides the problem. It contributes to the cycle trafficking because then people are staring at the big white vans, and they're not considering their neighbor or the kid in their class or the patient and their exam room."
At least 2,400 Tennessee children are at risk of becoming victims of sex trafficking, Francisco said.
Just this year, the TBI has received 566 tips of possible human trafficking incidents. That number only reflects the number of calls to the tip line, not actual victims. In all of last year there were 722.
But the reality is that human trafficking is difficult to spot, Ivey said.
"That's one of the dangers behind the sensationalized reports," she said. "These aren't going to be necessarily kids walking around dirty with shabby clothes on, crying or have tape over their mouth. These are kids who might be in school every single day. They might be your neighbor."
The flip side, though, is that the red flags become obvious once someone knows what to look for, Ivey said.
"It might be a young child who has a relationship that seems inappropriate, that seems off," she said. "It might be a family that's struggling to meet basic needs has lots of visitors come into the house on a regular basis.
"We're always encouraging the public to open your eyes and consider all of the people who could be affected," Ivey said. "Just be having conversations. If we're concerned about our kids, we gotta be having conversations with them regularly. You know, 'Tell me about your boyfriend.' 'What's he like?' 'What do you guys do for fun?' 'Where do you hang out?' Just having that open line of dialogue is going to be the best way for us to recognize this dynamic and recognize when this type of victimization is occurring."