Upon learning that hundreds of thousands of posts on Instagram are tagged with “#SaveTheChildren,” one might assume that the UK-based child welfare NGO was working to increase their social media visibility. But the hashtag’s popularity, which has grown steadily since 2017 and surged sharply at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, refers not to the well-known international charity but rather to a complex web of overlapping conspiracy theories often known simply as QAnon. Since 2016, the conspiracy’s adherents have used the seemingly innocuous hashtag to recruit unsuspecting social media users, especially mothers. Coupled with Instagram-ready graphic design, this “pro-child” messaging provides cover for the theory’s most radical beliefs, legitimizing it enough to convince increasing numbers to listen.
As a general term, “QAnon” encompasses many convoluted and often contradictory theories, but at its core, the conspiracy’s tenets include the belief that former President Donald Trump is fighting to uncover a cabal of Satan-worshiping, pedophilic liberal elites who leverage their political power to fuel a steady diet of children’s blood. Implicated in this corrupt elite are prominent business and political figures such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, and Michelle and Barack Obama, among others. Though it is difficult to identify a single narrative strand within QAnon, most adherents believe that a mythical savior, identified only as Q (symbolizing Q clearance, the security clearance required to access classified information on nuclear weapons), will rise up to purge the “deep state” of American government of its predation and corruption. Once isolated to unsavory internet locales like 4chan and 8kun, the infamous anonymous message boards where the theory originated in 2017, QAnon has demonstrated a remarkable ability to subsume other related conspiracy theories and to attach itself to legitimate and uncontroversial social issues. Cannily aware that the forums where the conspiracy initiated are easily dismissable as radical and bigoted, proponents of the theory turned to popular social media such as Instagram and Facebook, where the hashtag “SaveTheChildren” often accompanies aestheticized infographics that claim to reveal the secrets of deep-state child exploitation.
QAnon’s use of #SaveTheChildren and other appeals to those concerned with child welfare began in earnest in the summer of 2020, when Facebook, Instagram, and other popular social media platforms began to crack down on hashtags advertising explicit conspiracy theory-related content such as #qanon, or its abbreviated motto, #wwg1wga (“where we go one, we go all”). Capitalizing on the swell of anti-government sentiment that emerged as a backlash to the first stage of the Covid-19 lockdown, QAnon supporters flooded the seemingly innocent #SaveTheChildren with lurid allegations of child rape at the hands of liberal elites. On Facebook, the number of QAnon-related groups increased a hundredfold through the summer of 2020; membership and activity in the groups increased thirtyfold.
These tactics had a special influence on women. The use of the hashtag and related child trafficking sensationalism, the harnessing of anti-vaccine language already targeted at mothers, and what social scientist Sophie Bishop calls the “feminine-coded aesthetics” of QAnon posts all worked in tandem to attract women who may have otherwise objected to the conspiracy theory. In 2021, QAnon adherents attracted followers through claims that the furniture company Wayfair was engaging in child sex trafficking, which, in spite of debunking efforts by mainstream media outlets, proliferated wildly, partly through popular memes. Whether they arose from true belief or a desire to produce comedy at the edge of acceptability, the memes that exploded from the Wayfair theory pushed QAnon’s child trafficking rhetoric to mainstream social media. QAnon’s successful—and subtle—association of its core beliefs with exploitable anxiety over harm to children thus accelerated the radicalization of countless individuals, especially mothers.
These newly recruited adherents do more than aestheticize conspiracy theories; once bought into QAnon, believers become increasingly radical and incite one another to more direct action. On January 6, 2021, supporters of former President Donald Trump attacked the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Enraged by his loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 election, fueled by visions of an insidious “deep state” working to sabotage Trump, over 2,000 rioters stormed the Capitol to prevent Congress from counting the Electoral College votes that would formalize Biden’s victory. Though many of the rioters belonged to right-wing paramilitary groups or white nationalist organizations like the Proud Boys, countless individuals joined the riots under the more diffuse influence of QAnon. Gina Bisignano, a salon owner who lost her business in 2020 over her use of homophobic slurs and QAnon slogans, was recorded in tears while participating in the Jan. 6 riot: “I love my country, I love my president, I’m a single mother […] and they can’t take that away from me,” she cried to the camera as the crowd pushed toward the Capitol.
For Bisignano, like many women who became ensnared in QAnon, the theory represents the ultimate redemption of traditional womanhood and motherhood in a world where these values appear to have fallen by the wayside. As Sophia Moskalenko and Mia Bloom write in their book Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon, “Shifting gender roles [have] cracked a worldview tenet for many women […]. In QAnon, they seek a respite.” For women who experience the progress wrought by feminism as a destabilizing force to their fundamental belief systems, or who might simply be seeking a traditional, patriarchal family structure, this respite is real. Exposed to QAnon by #SaveTheChildrem and soothed by the value the theory places on traditional motherhood, radicalized women are encouraged to view Donald Trump as “the ultimate masculine hero who [will] rescue abused children [and] smite the cannibals and pedophiles.” This comforting image deepens their loyalty to QAnon, even as they are exposed to its most extreme proposals. The violence of the January 6 riots exemplify the power and danger of QAnon’s manipulation of pro-child messaging, and how it serves to expose women to increasingly radical conspiracies; in August 2021, Bigignano was indicted on seven counts for her role in the riots and pleaded guilty to six.
Perhaps the foremost case study on the effects of QAnon rhetoric on mothers is the theory’s most outspoken Congressional representative. In 2022, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-GA) won reelection with 66 percent of her district’s vote. She was first elected in 2020 on a platform of misinformation, calls to violence against other members of Congress, and promises to strengthen Second Amendment rights; at a gun rights rally in early 2020, she posed for photographs with members of the Ku Klux Klan. She espoused such radical rhetoric that in February 2021, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives voted to strip her of all Congressional committee assignments, with 11 Republicans crossing the aisle to endorse the sanction. Despite distancing herself from QAnon after her successful Congressional election, Taylor-Greene herself has explicitly associated her own belief in the theory with becoming a mother. She has also named her concern for the exploitation of children as the catalyst for her leaving the Catholic Church and seeking political office. Under the new House majority helmed by Kevin McCarthy, Taylor-Greene has regained her committee positions, including on the influential Oversight and Accountability Committee, guaranteeing QAnon a loud voice in legislating.
Outside of the halls of Congress, ordinary people will continue to be ensnared by the conspiracy, deft as its followers are at rendering its content palatable. The symbolic resonance of protecting the innocence and vulnerability of children, whether by legislation or by extralegal armed force, all but guarantees the continued radicalization of vulnerable groups, but none more so than American mothers.