Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), a hard-charging sex trafficking “rescue” group with conservative roots, doesn’t just accept donations to fund its multimillion-dollar mission; it also lets donors in on the action. OUR is fueled by a hybrid fundraising and branding model that has—through six years of YouTube videos, hidden cameras rolling—promised results. “These young victims are preparing to be sold for sex,” an early video claims. We see them in a living room as men with long guns and body armor flood in, forcing everyone to the floor. These “operations” became more elaborate looking over time as the group gained prominence and funding: More “girls” are “freed” by more “strike teams” with more gear and weapons. It’s never clear what happens to the girls or what crimes are committed. “I believe OUR exists to show that there is a fight against evil,” an “ops training” video begins. Close to one million accounts follow OUR as well as its founder and Chief Executive Officer Tim Ballard on Facebook, where he shares these videos alongside smiling photos of his large Mormon family, his famous friends Glenn Beck and Tony Robbins, and fundraising appeals. The message OUR sends about itself is clear: Other organizations may be content with advocacy, but they go to where the children are. “It is time for private citizens and organizations to rise up and help,” the website says. “It is our duty as a free and blessed people.”
After sifting through the internet for evidence of child sex trafficking, another man in 2016 decided to take his hunt offline. So he drove several hours to a restaurant in Washington, D.C., recording a video along the way. He believed he was on his way to rescue children from sex traffickers, but when he entered the establishment, carrying a rifle, he found none of the abuse he’d been promised. The video would be played in court at his sentencing—the first criminal conviction connected to Pizzagate. Along with its later incarnation QAnon, these multi-layered conspiracy theories are informed by age-old fever dreams that tend to coalesce on the right of shadowy networks of pedophiles, protected by the corrupt, which only the righteous can root out. That’s well-accepted and, at least outside the White House, commonly derided for the terrifying, occult fantasy that it is. But less acknowledged is how these moral panics helped just as much to drive groups like OUR when they take up guns as vigilantes to take down traffickers while documenting their exploits for an online audience invited to participate by sharing and donating. QAnon has surpassed OUR’s online following now; Facebook counts more than 3 million members and followers of QAnon groups, and reporting by The Guardian suggests that number is growing. As they have grown in both number and clout, I have found myself asking: Who is influencing who?
These two groups are barely comparable—one a registered charity with a staff and an IRS paper trail, one an ever-shifting collection of people drawn to the postings of an anonymous message board user. Yet both now operate in the same chaotic space, swimming in the same false claims and exaggerated campaigns, which for two decades have imagined sex trafficking as an omnipresent danger that no one can see and no one is talking about—except for them.
Seven years ago, as OUR tells its origins story, Tim Ballard left his job as an agent in the Department of Homeland Security to launch a group where he could do the same work, unbound by the government. When I met him at a junket in lower Manhattan five years ago, he implored us assembled members of the media to be like modern-day “Harriet Beecher Stowes,” telling the stories of the children Ballard and his undercover operatives say they liberated from child sex trafficking. It is very modern: the abolitionists he styles himself after didn’t have 501c3s. In 2019, “Operation Underground Railroad Inc.” brought in more than $22 million, and he served as a White House anti-trafficking advisor appointed by President Trump. Flourishing as they are in the Trump era, it is hard to say if OUR has gained respectability despite their vigilantism or because of it.
The QAnon movement, in contrast, is bound together by a conspiracy theory involving shadowy networks of child sex traffickers from the Democratic Party to Hollywood. They believe a violent crackdown is coming, and they will play some role. QAnon Facebook groups, compared to even Ballard and OUR’s significant online audience, churn an incredible volume of child sex trafficking content. Their reach is such that when the president announces an otherwise not newsworthy human trafficking policy, QAnon Facebook groups help propel the news into three of the top ten spots for the day. According to Media Matters researcher Alex Kaplan, Trump himself has amplified QAnon accounts from his Twitter account at least 200 times. That has certainly raised their profile. But QAnon has grown so much of late through successfully seeding their messages out in otherwise basic-seeming anti-child sex trafficking “awareness” raising.
Anti-child sex trafficking memes were already popular on Facebook and Instagram. The top #endhumantrafficking photos on Instagram tend toward influencer cliches, like moms with toddlers holding folksy signs and curvy calligraphy announcing unsourced statistics—only they warn fans about millions of children allegedly being sold for sex. Among them now are a mix of both overt and more subtle mentions of QAnon. You might also see a photo on that hashtag with two women holding up protest signs: “Save a Child, Save the World” with a rainbow and “Expose the Government Hollywood The Elite #SaveTheChildren” with a pizza. The user told me via Instagram message she took it at “a very small save our children event in Colorado Springs at Acacia park”—rallies organized in multiple cities large and small over the last few weekends, flooding the app with similar images, marrying the Save the Children (an existing humanitarian group) and #pedogate hashtags, a real crossover event. Ballard and OUR have leaned into it.
Earlier this summer, when QAnon followers pushed a conspiracy theory about the online furniture retailer Wayfair trafficking children from social media virality to national news story, Ballard took to Twitter. “With or without Wayfair, child trafficking is real and happening!!!” he posted, along with a video. The police would get to the bottom of it, he said. But rather than emphasizing that no child sex trafficking case had ever been traced back to Wayfair, he gave the conspiracy theory credence. “No question about it,” said Ballard, “children are being sold that way … and I’m glad people are waking up to it.” QAnon supporters turned up in the comments, hearing confirmation. Then, as QAnon hit the streets to #SaveTheChildren, OUR organized their own rallies. At both the QAnon and OUR rallies, supporters held signs stating a message equally at home at either, or anywhere: Children are “not for sale.”
“Fighting trafficking” can be so broad as to appeal to the many while also containing political agendas that are otherwise marginalized. In truth, QAnon’s entrance into the scene is far from the first time that people who say they are passionate about ending child sex trafficking spun made-up stories, peddled sketchy stats, or even encouraged vigilantism. OUR, like those groups, is now contending with what they have wrought. When reporters have asked lately, Ballard would not confirm or deny what truth he sees behind QAnon (and he did not return a request from The New Republic asking the same). By dancing around QAnon, OUR is perhaps being more realistic about the state of things for their cause. Ballard sees the benefits to OUR and himself clearly. “Some of these theories have allowed people to open their eyes,” he told The New York Times last week. “So now it’s our job to flood the space with real information so the facts can be shared.”
What risk would there be for OUR in accommodating QAnon? It is certainly diminished. Dozens of Republican Congressional candidates, after all, are happy to use QAnon for visibility, too, like Burgess Owens of Utah, who has a real shot at heading to Washington come January. Sure, it came out before the primary that Owens went on a leading QAnon YouTube channel to promote his campaign. He still won. After that, his campaign spokesman told Deseret News, Owens was too busy to “Google what QAnon is”—he’s “slammed meeting with Tim Ballard and (Operation Underground Railroad) to discuss how the federal government can end the trafficking of 2 million children each year.”