Over the past few weeks, Colorado’s Human Trafficking Hotline has been very busy. An increased number of callers are reaching out, many of them believing they’ve witnessed perpetrators or victims. The Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT) is a Denver-based nonprofit that operates the hotline and runs other programs, including training first responders to identify possible signs of trafficking.
During July and August, LCHT fielded double the calls it usually receives. The explanation for this sudden surge in activity, however, wasn’t a new explosion of child trafficking in Colorado, but rather a massive social media campaign by QAnon conspiracy theory groups. Typically, the hotline’s primary purpose is to connect survivors with recovery services such as counseling or legal help. Unfortunately, the increase of conspiracy-induced calls made it harder for the Lab to do the crucial work of helping those people with immediate needs.
“Between the pandemic keeping everyone home and online and the underground nature of the crime, it’s a perfect storm,” says LCHT’s Communications Director Craig Nason. “Conspiracies like these muddy the water, they use elements of truth and they get people to jump to conclusions. The public perception of this crime influences our efforts to address it. So if that public perception is based in these conspiracies, then we aren’t applying our resources as effectively as we could. Myths, misconceptions and conspiracy theories about this crime aren’t new, but this is as loud as we’ve seen the public perception influence efforts to address it.”
Nason rejected the QAnon’s foundational narrative of a global cabal of child sex traffickers.
“We know from our work with survivors, trafficking is rarely tied to a nationwide or even statewide ring. It’s most often someone that the person knows or even a family member who exploits them. So, for example, the imagery online of chained kids bound-up by a man in windowless van who is taking kids off the street is not helpful. We’re not saying that couldn’t ever happened, but most trafficking is much less dramatic.”
Nason also noted that the Wayfair Furniture conspiracy theory wasn’t just a problem here in Colorado, but nationwide.
In fact, it was so prevalent that the Polaris Project, the leading national anti-trafficking group issued a public statement addressing the same challenges of doing its work while being inundated with hundreds of Wayfair-related “tips.”
“Over the past several days the National Human Trafficking Hotline has received hundreds of reports that reference a series of viral posts claiming online retailer Wayfair has been involved in a complex scheme involving sex trafficking of children,” stated the Polaris Project. “While Polaris treats all calls to the Trafficking Hotline seriously, the extreme volume of these contacts has made it more difficult for the Trafficking Hotline to provide support and attention to others who are in need of help.”
Despite a dramatic increase in news coverage debunking the Wayfair conspiracy, social media posts in support of it continue to circulate among Colorado conservatives.
For example, following the Colorado Times Recorder‘s earlier report of Colorado state Senate candidate Vanessa DeMott’s assertion that the Wayfair conspiracy was “worth a conversation,” she repeated her support of the baseless theory.
Members of numerous conservative Facebook groups promoted the Wayfair conspiracy, including “Keep Colorado Free & Open,” “Make Colorado RED Again,” “Rise UP Citizens (Colorado),” and “Bikers For Trump Colorado (Official).”
Congressional candidate Lauren Boebert earned national headlines for her previous support of QAnon. While her campaign now insists she isn’t a follower, she referenced at least one QAnon conspiracy, that Tom Hanks is a pedophile hiding out in Greece, in a tweet last month. State Senate candidate Lynn Gerber has also shared QAnon posts.
Not all conservatives have embraced the QAnon trafficking conspiracies.
Former GOP statehouse candidate Rupert Parchment II, who is now running for a seat on the Weld County Council, shared a post from the Greeley-based Avery Center, labeling Wayfair misinformation and sharing a first-person accounting of a trafficking survivor.
“A MUST READ from our Director of Research: This season in the anti-trafficking field has been exhausting. With the increase in attention to the movement with #epstein, #Wayfair, and #savethechildren, people are inundated with misinformation about #trafficking in the US. Not only is it making my work harder, but it is making my healing harder too… I wasn’t snatched out of a shopping cart at #Ikea or #Walmart. I wasn’t shipped across the country in a cabinet. No, I walked amongst you in broad daylight. No mask. No chains. I smiled when I was told to. My ads were posted on #backpage and other similar sites. I was sweet and compliant, a pleaser. I just didn’t want to be beaten again so I obeyed.”
At the crossroads of two major interstate highways, Colorado has long been a nexus for human trafficking. The fight to prevent it involves the joint efforts of law enforcement, social services, and medical and legal aid groups. State legislators have also worked across the aisle to pass laws that facilitate these efforts.
Lawmakers passed Colorado’s most significant piece of anti-trafficking legislation in 2014. The bill established the Colorado Human Trafficking Council, updated state statutes to align with federal law, and created new resources for both law enforcement and prosecutors to pursue traffickers. Since its passage, arrests and convictions have increased dramatically.
The bill’s introduction followed the publication of LCHT’s three-year research project titled, The Colorado Project. While the research demonstrated the need for updated laws and more resources, it was a pair of polar opposites who teamed up to provide the political know-how and influence needed to get the bill to the governor’s desk.
Focus on the Family president Jim Daly and Democratic strategist Ted Trimpa disagree on many if not most political issues, but they worked together to ensure HB14-1273 moved through the various committees and floor votes necessary for passage. The Colorado Springs Gazette’s John Schroyer reported on their work at the time:
“After HB 1273 was introduced in February by Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, Trimpa and Daly made phone calls to legislators weekly, checking on the bill’s status and doing whatever they could to ease the bill through the system.”
Trimpa and Daly’s left-right partnership on this policy effort not only started a friendship, but ensures that the issue remains a priority for both of them.
Reached for comment on the impact the QAnon conspiracy theory is having on anti-trafficking efforts, the pair issued a joint statement expressing the importance of the issue and expressed concern over the proliferation of disinformation online.
“Trafficking isn’t a partisan issue and it isn’t an elaborate global conspiracy. It’s a serious issue that demands serious attention. The recent surge of posts on social media driven by “QAnon” conspiracy theories about global kidnapping rings or furniture companies selling kids online are offensive and baseless. It’s making it harder for the people fighting this scourge to do their jobs. So please take the time to research before you share a post. Use a fact-checking site like Snopes or FactCheck.org.”Jim Daly, Focus On The Family & Ted Trimpa, Democratic strategist
The QAnon disinformation campaign isn’t going away anytime soon. The same organizers and Facebook groups who coordinated the Aug. 14 rally in Denver’s Civic Center park have additional events planned for upcoming weekends in the fall.
This time they’re thinking bigger than a single city. The Save Our Children Facebook group lists simultaneous events in Castle Rock, Denver, Brighton, and Fort Collins.
To reach the Colorado Human Trafficking Hotline call 866-455-5075 or text 720-999-9724.