I Joined A Facebook Group That Seemed Innocent Enough. What I Found Was A Wormhole Of Crazy
Last week, I got a Facebook invite from an old elementary school friend of mine. She’s a mother of two, a big fan of Cardi B and completely apolitical. She’s not a Trump fan or a Fox News watcher and usually just posts about music, Bravo! reality shows and shares duckface selfies from whatever Florida location she’s vacationing at. The group she invited me to was called “Precious Lives Movement” and its mission statement said it was formed to bring attention to the problems of child sex abuse. This friend and I have mutual acquaintances from elementary school who were sexually abused as children, and I know this has become a concern during COVID-19 as many children are forced to stay home with abusers, so I joined to offer my support. Anything to help children.
Within a few minutes, I realized I had waltzed into a trap.
Literally nothing in the group was about supporting charities or organizations that help end child sex trafficking or help victims of child sexual abuse. It was all “Pizzagate,” “Epstein,” “Trump Saved Children.” It was a QAnon fan page – focused on the conspiracy theory that a cabal of pedophiles are seeking to destroy Donald Trump, who is using this presidency to take down a global child sex trafficking ring led by Hollywood celebrities and Democratic officials.
The latest posts were from members pushing conspiracy theories like Pizzagate – the false theory that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a Washington D.C. pizzeria’s basement. The conspiracy nearly led someone to kill the pizzeria’s owner several years ago. Other theories including the idea that Bill Clinton or Andrew Cuomo had Jeffrey Epstein murdered, and Donald Trump had broken up several child sex trafficking rings that had flourished under Obama’s “sharia law;” as a Muslim, they explain, Obama supported child prostitution. Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey and most of Hollywood are pedophiles according to this page. Prodigy, the rapper who died in 2017 from complications from sickle-cell anemia, an illness he had his whole lie, was actually murdered by the government for speaking out about the Illuminati. In one bizarre post, tabloid covers from the 1990s supermarket tabloid parodies like Star, Sun and Weekly World News are presented as real news that “no one is talking about.” The brainchild of the page is apparently a young paralegal and mother from South Carolina who started the page in late July.
The post also takes on the current political climate, labeling Black Lives Matter as a front for child sex traffickers, and taking on abortion. One post states that “abortion is the real virus,” referencing COVID-19, with many members denying the existence of COVID-19 completely. The virus, they say, is a plot to kill Trump supporters and other Americans who are on the verge of speaking out about this child abuse scandal. That’s why, one woman suggests, children don’t get sick. A total of 72 people liked or loved the comment in less than an hour.
Within two weeks, the page had over 1,000 subscribers, some of whom were friends of mine who are college educated, otherwise smart people. Some appear to have come to the page for the right reasons. In one bizarrely uncomfortable post, a woman posted a picture of her children while confessing that one of them had been sexually abused by her ex-husband, who did not go to jail, so she came to the page looking the help the cause after her son, in her words, was “denied justice.” Others admitted to being victims of child sex abuse themselves.
The comment threads on the posts, mostly memes, are commenters just encouraging each other to keep believing in these conspiracies, bashing the media and celebrities for “hiding the truth,”and congratulating each other for “being independent thinkers,” “doing the research” and “fighting to expose the truth.” Some of the theories are connected to actual truth. A few of the posts refer to the NXIVM organization – the multilevel marketing organization that is alleged to have been a front for a bizarre sex cult in which women were branded and sold into sex slavery. The fact that former Smallville actress Allison Mack faced criminal charges, alleging she was a high-level recruiter for the organization – which is true – seems to have led people into believing all of Hollywood is a secret child sex cult – which is not true. Jeffrey Epstein and his controversial death is also presented as evidence for the theory. All it took was some fake stories about Oprah and Tom Hanks being involved with pedophiles, probably the product of some Russian troll farm, for people to believe it. And it makes sense, no? If one actress is involved in sex trafficking, others may be as well? Epstein definitely had connections to these people, and his death even led the mainstream press to question whether or not it was a suicide, It doesn’t seem too far fetched that this may all be true if some of this is true, right?
Conspiracy theories can make people feel powerful, like they have access to information others don’t or have some sort of wisdom or ability to process knowledge that others don’t. There’s a strong sense of intellectual superiority in believing in conspiracy theories. That’s where the calls to “wake up” come from. And people who are broken, feel isolated and feel inferior need something to feel some level of superiority. Conspiracy theories do that. It provides an explanation for their feelings of isolation – they see things other people don’t, so of course they don’t fit in.
Conspiracy theories can make people feel powerful, like they have access to information others don’t or have some sort of wisdom or ability to process knowledge that others don’t.
But there’s a danger here – the danger of falling into a delusion that can harm, or worse, kill someone else. I don’t think this page is created by Russian bots or other troll farms seeking to sow dissent and misinformation in our society, but many of memes and fake news article shared by real people might be. Indeed, the page seems to veer into other conspiracy theories unrelated to child sex trafficking, such as hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 cure and the existence of Antifa as a neo-Marxist political movement seeking to overthrow the government and ban Christianity.
There’s comfort in groups, and when you have 1,000 people on a webpage encouraging and supporting a conspiracy theory and the belief in one, its hard for truth to get a foothold, and it is attractive to outsiders. If a thousand people believe this, maybe there’s some truth to it? No?
It reminds me of that documentary about the Flat Earthers – Behind The Curve. During the documentary, we are brought to a worldwide conference of people who believe the earth is flat, and the entire welcome session was just people congratulating each other for being there and believing in the long-debunked concept. There is no hard science evidence for their ideas, just pats on the back for not listening to the accepted truth and being “independent thinkers.” In fact, in the final scene, one of the believers conducts an experiment that proves the Earth is not flat after all. Rather than accept the evidence and come to terms with reality, he vows to do more experiments to prove the theory right. Facts did not move him at all.
And therein lies the problem, when you’ve emotionally and mentally (and perhaps even financially) invested in a conspiracy theory, being proven wrong is NOT an option. It would leave you exactly where you started; socially isolated and ignored. Who is going to believe you next time? Who is going to trust your opinion again? When challenged with facts, the conspiracy theorists only double down on their beliefs, and the internet and pages like “Precious Lives Movement” only makes that easier to do. It provides believers with justification to continue to believe, even if facts go against them.
It would be fine if this was just a fringe idea that doesn’t hurt anyone, like Elvis is still alive or UFOs exist – the kind of stuff we’d dismiss as just people being kooks – but this type of conspiracy theory is not fringe anymore. Lauren Boebert, an open QAnon supporter who gain notoriety for refusing to close her restaurant during Colorado’s COVID-19 lockdown, defeated in incumbent Republican congressman in a primary last month and is favored to win the general election for Colorado’s Third Congressional District. Marjorie Taylor Green, who is running for a Republican-leaning Georgia seat, is also a believer in the “pedophile” conspiracy theory. In 2017, she was quoted in saying “there’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it.”
Both these women are favored to enter Congress next year. There may be at least TWO people in Congress next year, making laws, who believe this, and much like the virus that is disrupting our lives right now, this has the opportunity to spread like wildfire and disrupt our lives. How much more dangerous can it get? How much more dangerous are we going to let it get?