In the summer of 2020, a massive amount of rumors about child trafficking appeared under the hashtag #savethechildren — and temporary hashtag filtering by Facebook in response was cited as evidence of “media suppression” of a massive conspiracy.
Let’s unpack why that particular hashtag was targeted by social media filters, and how #savethechildren came to be at all.
TikTok, The Wayfair Child Trafficking Rumor, Oprah, and Patton Oswalt
Many social media users encountered or shared variations on the Wayfair child trafficking rumor, a panic initiated when TikTok users observed items with unusually high price tags that appeared to be named after people:
TikTok, like other social media platforms, is a fertile ground for celebrity pedophilia rumors, as evidenced by a concurrent rumor about Oprah Winfrey originating on the platform. Naturally, it quickly migrated to Facebook:
Evident in the two rumors chronologically was a change in motive and behavior by the rumor spreader. Although the Wayfair child trafficking rumor appeared to originate on Reddit with with a hunch and hypothesis, however misdirected that might be, the Oprah clip was clearly, purposely edited to paint a misleading picture.
Facebook users went back at it again in early August 2020, taking a single tweet from comedian Patton Oswalt to advance the conspiracy theory:
#SaveTheChildren is ‘Banned’ by Facebook
One of the most viral elements of the #savethechildren rumor cluster followed action initiated by Facebook in early August 2020. According to Heavy.com, #savethechildren was temporarily restricted for reasons not immediately disclosed:
Facebook users noticed that a hashtag with the phrase “Save the Children” (#SavetheChildren) appeared to be banned or censored on Facebook on Wednesday night, August 5 , and into the early hours of August 6 . Although statuses with the hashtag could still be posted, clicking on the hashtag didn’t reveal any results or, instead, came with a warning about community safety guidelines. After a couple of hours, it appeared the hashtag may have been restored for many people. Some Facebook users told Heavy that the hashtag was still censored for them, so the fix may not have been across the entire platform.
That reporting noted instances where social media users shared screenshots like this — an image indicating that “Posts with #SaveTheChildren are temporarily hidden,” but not information about what exactly was being hidden or why:
The New York Post essentially copied Heavy.com’s notes, but didn’t do anything further to explain the reason why the posts were seemingly censored.
Facebook Community Standards Giveth, Facebook Community Standards Taketh Away
The results [of a study] found that the use of “false” tags that are used to flag inaccurate content did significantly reduce participants’ willingness to share fake stories from 29.2% to 16.1%. But, the study also found that unmarked false stories were believed to be true and shared 36.2% of the time.
… and that its structure elided some of the platform’s most egregious examples of disinformation.
Searching Facebook itself for answers about the suppression of a #savethechildren hashtag or related content was often fruitless, yielding little information about how or why the effort was targeted by the site’s algorithms.
A Reuters Fact Check and Missing Information
On July 17 2020 — as child trafficking conspiracy theories were spiking — Reuters published a fact check about a persistent whataboutism rumor (“There are more confirmed global COVID-19 deaths than the number of children reported missing in the U.S.”) and the first line demonstrated a very likely reason the posts were being suppressed:
Shared on Facebook and Instagram, posts claim that the number of COVID-19 deaths worldwide is less than the number of children who go missing in the United States. It is unclear if the posts mean missing children per year, or active missing children cases. In either scenario, this claim is false.
Although the first post primarily involved the image used in both posts, the second included significant exposition about the conspiracy theory:
100’s of thousands of children every year vanish off the face of the earth in the United States!
This is not an exaggeration, it’s roughly 2000 per day, yet the media does not tell the public of this child abduction pandemic.
They make the general Public focus on a “virus” and “racism” instead of the fact that the lives of children are stolen daily.
The numbers are factual , the crimes are real there is no conspiracy”theory” about it, this needs to be exposed and brought to the forefront of public discussion.
The text accompanying the image of a child read:
“A child in America today, is over 66,000 times more likely to be sold to human traffickers than to die of COVID – S Stone
Essentially, the full scope of the rumor was not that #savethechildren was a hashtag about abduction or child trafficking. It was a rumor that the media was using COVID-19 to hide the problem of child trafficking, and that is what likely triggered Facebook and Instagram’s COVID-19 content filters.
The rumor itself undermined the seriousness of COVID-19 by implying it was a “hoax” to cover up trafficking, or to claim that trafficking was a “bigger threat” than the virus. Again, Facebook’s COVID-19 filters and complete lack of transparency made it difficult to locate many examples of this, but it was fairly evident in the ones supplied to Reuters.
At least one examination by Mel Magazine connected the #savethechildren or “child lives matter” rumors in the summer of 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic, describing a demonstration at the CNN building in Los Angeles which involved QAnon believers:
The marchers arrived at the headquarters of CNN in Hollywood on [July 31 2020], buzzing with righteous energy and looking to make a point to one of America’s biggest news networks.
They spilled into the small lobby hallway of the building, chanting “SAVE THE CHIL-DREN!” and waving signs with all sorts of messages: “CHILD LIVES MATTER.” “Pedophile is NOT a sexual orientation.” “END Sex Trafficking.”
But despite it being the U.N.’s World Human Trafficking Awareness Day, there were decidedly stranger signs and ideologies being shared, too. Countless signs at the CNN rally and the ensuing march referenced #Pizzagate, the widely debunked conspiracy theory that claims to pin Hillary Clinton and longtime ally John Podesta to a child sex ring. Others featured some take on the phrase “Child trafficking is the REAL pandemic,” seemingly downplaying the importance of COVID. Others yet were even more violent in their rhetoric, as with one woman who toted around a sign screaming “F*CK VACCINATIONS. EXECUTE ALL PEDOPHILES!” The marchers even stopped on the Walk of Fame to vandalize Tom Hanks’ star with a black Sharpie marker, based on the belief that he is a trafficker.
Reddit was another social platform, but with different areas and parameters of permissible content.
Reddit was also very broad in scope, with communities (or subreddits) devoted to discussion about every possible subject imaginable. Consequently, iterations of the COVID-19 and child trafficking rumors appeared in myriad contexts.
On r/conspiracy, a user spelled it out in an August 9 2020 post:
That post mentioned:
COVID: 99.99% US population survival rate but talked about by all of Hollywood, media, and social media platforms 24/7.
A few days prior, a shorter post was shared to r/conspiracytheories:
On July 29 2020, a user in r/TooAfraidToAsk surmised the uptick in child trafficking rumors was a distraction from COVID-19 or Black Lives Matter:
Over on r/AskReddit, another user made the same observation about the concurrent pandemic and disinformation campaign about trafficking:
What is with all the posts on social media about human trafficking? Mostly coming from conservative Facebook people. Is this some strange way to deflect from COVID? Seems like some kind of AstroTurf movement. Anyone know where this turf is coming from? from AskReddit
An August 10 2020 post on r/conspiracy demonstrated how users could be aware the COVID-19 pandemic was both real and dangerous, and still advance the idea that it was being used to cover the “real epidemic” of child trafficking and abduction:
The first three paragraphs of that post ironically provided what might be the best example of the rumors as the disinformation they were being used as, all while seeming to embrace said disinformation:
I personally believe COVID-19 is real. I cannot take any risks because I live with a cancer patient, and their immune system is compromised. But I feel the media keeps pushing COVID as a cover up for the sex trafficking scandal. And when people started uncovering more, they publicized THE HELL out of George Floyd’s murder. It might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back; which is why a lot of people are protesting now. And now the Maxwell is being investigated, there are absolutely 0 reports on it from my local news station. They have done nothing but bicker and argue about Biden’s VP. “He needs a powerful woman of color who will get things done!” She’s going to be VP? She wouldn’t be able to do shit unless Biden dies? Why does it matter if she’s a woman of color? If they’re qualified for the job, they’re qualified for the job.
While all this crap in the news and media is being reported, The whole entirety of the pedophilia and sex trafficking ring has been going on. And while many celebs have become silent, and those who spoke out were killed years ago (killed meaning, they reportedly committed suicide by hanging), Maxwell is shaking in her boots.
Contemporaneous posts on r/conspiracy showed how the conflation of two separate and unrelated issues could lead to highly convoluted reasoning, like in this post from August 10 2020:
That post contained a transcript, which itself leaned heavily into a purported “connection” between COVID-19 and trafficking (emphasis from the original post):
And one of the things that had me troubled was that, you know, hearing about the rogue lab at Zorro ranch and, and like you were talking about the, the executor, that was the the, the consultant for this type of a material that would be used to create a vaccine or even to create a virus or a technology that would be masking itself as a virus. And I thought, you know, we have this rogue lab out in New Mexico where, you know, Epstein and Gates have been meeting.
And I was just curious if maybe Epstein had some knowledge about this Coronavirus, that whether or not you know, being a eugenics aficianado himself. And of course, you know, Gates predicted at all. But then again, Gates had been meeting with a known eugenics enthusiast that was trying to work on reproductive health. And if you know a lot, and you do, about what Bill Gates is a special what his specialty is, it IS reproductive health and vaccines. And that’s what really has me a little creeped out is because if that was the case, then Epstein knew something about COVID-19…
Finally, an August 9 2020 r/conspiracy post also articulated the complete conspiracy. It primarily involved trafficking and celebrity involvement, but the second to last line read:
I’m not interested in hypotheticals, rumours or factless connections. Everything. Everything ties together. Everything is connected. So while others are more concerned about COVID, I’m more concerned about saving our children. Aren’t you?
There is a lot to unpack with this dual-purpose disinformation, and much of it is not visible due to content filtering related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not a coincidence this movement appeared to spring up from nowhere during the COVID-19 pandemic, and neither did it do so because people were “bored at home in lockdown” and thus more receptive to disinformation — at least, not entirely and likely not primarily.
When Facebook restricted use of the #savethechildren hashtag and “child lives matter” posts, it appeared on the surface that a suppressive conspiracy was afoot. That was somewhat true — but due to the same restrictions many people couldn’t see why such content was banned. Viral variations on memes using #savethechildren typically claimed either that more children were trafficked or killed by pedophiles than were at risk of “dying of COVID-19,” or in a related claim, that COVID-19 was essentially exaggerated to “cover up” developments in trafficking investigations, such as the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell on July 2 2020.
Because posts shared with “child lives matter” or “#savethechildren” contained disinformation downplaying the COVID-19 pandemic, those hashtags and keywords were restricted by Facebook, apparently without explanation. Facebook suppressed the posts making the original claims, allowing people sharing them to go on to claim the terms alone triggered Facebook’s suppressive algorithms. In actuality, it was the deliberate hijacking and subsequent reappropriation of the terms by bad actors, intended specifically to launder COVID-19 disinformation, which caused the whole brouhaha.