Commentary: Driving a False Narrative on ‘SavetheChildren’

(Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

For months now there has on social media been posts about these stories of sting operations that have supposedly uncovered huge amounts of previously missing children.  It has spawned some to ask why, during a global pandemic, the media was under-reporting the story while others were driving the hashtag, #SavetheChildren.

It turns out it was largely fake news and it took an investigative team from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to uncover it.  They concluded: “Feds cobbled criminal cases together in missing children operation, creating false perception” and “Anti-sex trafficking announcement created flurry of social media misinformation.”

As I read the article, I was reminded of a local raid a few years ago—Operation Red Sash, billed as a major multi-jurisdictional anti-gang raid, where they ended up rounding up two dozen or so defendants.  But from the start there was a problem.  Most were out of the gang scene long before.  There were some minor drug charges, and when the Yolo County DA’s office prosecuted the thing, the case fell apart and they never even bothered to try the second group of defendants.

The AJC reports: “Federal authorities weren’t just looking to find a missing teenager that day, but also to make a public impression.”

According to the report, they allowed a news crew to tag along for the raid and record the footage as neighbors watched from their homes.

But this small operation would end up including among those arrested during the U.S. Marshals Service’s “Operation Not Forgotten,” which was depicted as “a two-week joint law enforcement effort that located 39 missing and endangered children, ages 3 to 17, and involved the arrest of nine “criminal associates.””

The AJC was able to unravel the claims point by point.

They note: “Public announcements about the operation, vague on details but full of loaded terms, led to weeks of social media misinformation about the breakup of a massive child sex trafficking ring in Georgia. ’39 kids were just recovered from traffickers in Georgia,’ went a common Twitter trope.”

We saw these claims posted on Facebook and Twitter at the time.  People started asking questions—why isn’t this big news, they would ask.  Why isn’t the administration getting credit for this.

But there is a reality here.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution “examined the criminal charges stemming from the operation and found that, by combining a variety of cases, federal authorities had fostered a false perception that confused the public and may have harmed some people who were swept into the narrative.”

They talked to experts on child exploitation who believe “such an oversimplification hurts the effort to combat sex trafficking and question whether the presidential election factored into the announcement.”

The AJC noted, “While the operation was described as a two-week effort, more than half of those arrested had been in jail for months before the U.S. Marshals’ public announcement. The charges involved six unrelated cases. Of the nine people charged, five are accused of sex trafficking or sexual crimes against children.”

But some face misdemeanor charges related to the raid, not related to sex offenses at all.

The AJC reports, “The circumstances of the located children also call into question information from the Marshals Service that stressed the sex trafficking angle.”

“These missing children were considered to be some of the most at-risk and challenging recovery cases in the area,” a news release said, “based on indications of high-risk factors such as victimization of child sex trafficking, child exploitation, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and medical or mental health conditions. Other children were located at the request of law enforcement to ensure their wellbeing.”

Once again, some of the children involved in the raid were suspected to be victims of sex trafficking.  But the AJC found that two of the juveniles were wanted on homicide warrants, another was a person of interest in a murder investigation and 11 are believed to have gang affiliations.

The AJC talked to Dave Oney, the U.S. Marshals public affairs specialist who wrote the release, and he said that “the language about child sex trafficking might have contributed to the story being misconstrued, but it’s an accurate description of some factors that put children at risk.

“People read headlines, and the headlines are written sensationally,” he said, “so they don’t read into the last three or four paragraphs of the story anymore.”

That is undoubtedly a problem.  People on social media often never click on links.  That puts additional onus on the headline being completely accurate and not sensational.

Nor was the Georgia raid unique.

The U.S. Marshals have since, according to the article, followed up Operation Not Forgotten with announcements of “Operation Safety Net,” which reportedly recovered 35 children in the Cleveland, Ohio, area; “Operation Homecoming Indy,” which reportedly recovered eight children in the Indianapolis area; and, last week, “Operation Summer Rescue,” involving 11 recovered runaways around New Orleans.

Writes the AJC: “Experts on child exploitation have complained that the chest-thumping on one of President Trump’s hot-button issues may be leaving the public misinformed about the real issues that lead to sexual exploitation, such as poverty and desperation.”

“Using the terms ‘human trafficking’ and ‘sex trafficking’ is what gets attention, and it’s been an emphasis of this administration to claim progress,” Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, said. “But what I know, as the executive director of a coalition of service providers across the country working with actual human trafficking survivors, is that the efforts of this administration have pushed people further into the shadows and have made it harder to get services and support for trafficking survivors.”

But it’s worse than that.  It is an effort to frame an issue that, while a problem, might not rise to the level in the public’s minds that it is now.  In some cases it puts innocent people at harm—people now believed in the public eye to be sex traffickers and child molesters, when they are not.

Some officials argue that this wasn’t an election day stunt.  But this is feeding into paranoia and conspiracy theories.

The AJC story lays out exactly how this morphed from a press release about a sex trafficking ring and bust into something much more.

For instance, QAnon is claiming that this is the work of Satan-worshipping pedophiles that secretly control the media and who are locked in “an existential battle with President Trump.”

The AJC talked to “Judith Miller, an associate history professor at Emory University who teaches a class on ‘fake news,’ tracked Operation Not Forgotten’s course on social media and in news coverage as it evolved into descriptions of a ‘criminal enterprise’ on cable TV news shows, then became a subject of the false mythology of QAnon.”

Miller found social media posts about Operation Not Forgotten which contained the hashtags—“#savethechildren” or “#saveourchildren”—these were linked to hashtags used by QAnon and also false rumors on Facebook that the hashtag itself was banned.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s retweet of a Channel 2 Action News story on the operation. “We’ll continue to work around the clock to bring an end to human trafficking and ensure the perpetrators of this evil industry know they have no place in our state,” the governor tweeted.

Three days later, AJC reported, a Republican congressional candidate in New York tweeted, “The media Won’t tell you what Happened with U.S. Marshall’s saving 39 kids & that Q Supporters are right POTUS is putting a END TO THE CABAL!”

We saw this one: conservative activist Charlie Kirk asking, “How is this not the biggest story in America right now?” was shared 18,500 times and liked 52,700 times.

Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling made a tweet that Trump retweeted.

As it turns out this was all largely over-hyped at best and some of it was outright fabrication.

“This is PR in the midst of other kinds of chaos,” Miller said. “The way that people are receiving this, in the comments, are, ‘See, there isn’t any good news. Everybody is dumping on Trump about Covid, the Covid hoax.’”

The hoax turns out to be the #SavetheChildren narrative itself.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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