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QAnon’s Obsession With #SaveTheChildren Is Making It Harder To Save Kids From Traffickers



It’s hard to argue against a phrase like “save the children.” Which, presumably, is why QAnon uses it as a hashtag. The growing online conspiracy cult has co-opted the phrase to push falsehoods about pedophiles who run the world. But in promoting its radical worldview, QAnon has made life difficult for the organizations actually trying to save children. And the results could be putting kids at risk.

QAnon is a baseless conspiracy regardless of how deep you go, but its fixation on pedophilia is particularly unmoored. Devoted QAnon followers believe — to varying levels of detail — that there is a secret cabal of powerful elites who run an underground pedophilia ring, and that President Trump is currently working to bring these evildoers to justice. If you go all the way down the rabbit hole you’ll find theories about Bill Gates injecting tracking devices into every citizen, blood libel, devil worship and draining kids of a chemical compound called adrenochrome to become immortal. But the underlying connective tissue of QAnon is that bad people, mainly Democrats, are trafficking children and Trump is the only one who can stop them.

Over the summer, Q followers began using #savethechildren to spread the conspiracy theory, and it worked. From Aug. 9 through Aug. 15, more than 12,000 public Facebook posts used the hashtag, according to the social media tracking tool CrowdTangle. The rest of the year, the hashtag tended to garner fewer than 200 posts per week.

But most of the content shared using #savethechildren was based on a Q-fueled and completely warped picture of what child trafficking looks like in this country. And that has made life difficult for the people who actually do anti-trafficking work.

“It’s extraordinarily frustrating,” said Lisa Goldblatt Grace, co-founder and executive director of My Life My Choice, an anti-trafficking nonprofit. “We’ve worked so hard for the last 18 years to shift the narrative and have people understand this is happening in our communities. QAnon instead gives folks this incredibly sensationalized ‘other’ to fear and be angry about.”

In reality, child trafficking in the U.S. doesn’t look like a bunch of Hollywood and D.C. elites performing satanic rituals on children they stole from suburban playgrounds. Instead, kids who are sexually exploited are often poor, children of color, immigrants, or some combination of the three, and they’ve often been in the child welfare system or run away from home. In 2018, 1 in 7 kids who were reported as runaways to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely victims of child sex trafficking, according to UNICEF.

“We see minors who are in a vulnerable position — maybe they’ve run away from home, maybe they’ve been kicked out of their home — and then engage in sex acts for money in order to have food to eat and a place to stay,” said Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, an anti-trafficking group. “Almost never is there any kind of abduction or solely a use of physical force or locking people away. It’s generally much more subtle coercion.”

The spectre of pedophilia and child sex trafficking has been a part of the QAnon lore since the very beginning. Q, the anonymous poster who feeds the conspiracy by claiming to “drop” highly classified government information on image boards known for attracting white supremacists and violent misogynists, has been alluding to underground child trafficking rings in his messages for years. “Perhaps [Trump] could not stomach the thought of children being kidnapped, drugged, and raped while leaders/law enforcement of the world turn a blind eye,” reads one message from November 2017.

“Some of the earliest drops are about what the Clintons do to children, what the deep state does to children, satanic trafficking and sacrifices,” said Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher currently working on a book about QAnon.

The #savethechildren hashtag, however, didn’t come onto the QAnon radar until this year. The hashtag had been used before (notably to promote the charity Save The Children, which has been around for a century and is unaffiliated with QAnon), but in July and August, the number of posts using it surged, and a major portion of those posts were Q-affiliated. This was likely due in part to the pandemic, Rothschild said: With more people stuck indoors, out of work and feeling hopeless, it’s easy to get sucked into an online world that claims to have all the answers. But it also coincided with a crackdown from Twitter to remove Q-related content. Suddenly, Q followers couldn’t spread their message as openly as they had before, so it’s possible that’s why they adopted a hashtag that was so wholesome, social media sites couldn’t possibly ban it. It was more of an organic growth than any kind of coordinated campaign, said Annie Kelly, a PhD candidate at the University of East Anglia who studies far-right political movements and digital culture.

“It’s incorrect to frame it as some kind of mastermind pulling the strings,” Kelly said. “The #savethechildren evolution wasn’t a coordinated effort to hide QAnon’s agenda, but it had the effect of drawing in people to QAnon without realizing it’s QAnon.”

To some extent, this growing population of people concerned about child trafficking has translated into a genuine support for organizations that work to end it. I spoke to representatives from six anti-trafficking groups and four told me they have seen a recent increase in donations. Freedom Network USA, for example, received 102 donations totalling $23,200 from April to September this year, more than 50 times the amount it received in the same period last year, when it got five donations totalling $428. Other organizations declined to give specific figures but said they had seen an increase in donations this year, particularly over the summer.

That said, it’s really hard to say for sure how many, if any, of those donations were from Q followers. “Nobody was sending in donations with a note saying ‘In Q we trust,’ you know?” Goldblatt Grace said. And the increased attention has come with plenty of drawbacks. Polaris, the charity that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, had to issue a statement discouraging people from reporting that children were not being sold inside expensive cabinets online because callers were flooding its phones with a Q-adjacent conspiracy.

The inundated hotline is one example of a problem each of the anti-trafficking representatives I spoke to raised: Even if QAnon is bringing people’s attention to child trafficking in general, it’s focusing that attention specifically on a sensationalized, largely inaccurate picture of what trafficking looks like. And that can pull focus and resources away from the actual problem.

“It can lead to not only a misunderstanding of the issue, but also a wrong response,” said Borislav Gerasimov, the program coordinator for communications and advocacy at the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.

As an example, Gerasimov cited the gunman who fired inside a pizza shop in 2016 because he wrongly believed it was the location of an underground pedophile ring, a conspiracy theory called Pizzagate that is a precursor to QAnon. “If you portray human trafficking as something that a secret cabal is doing, the solution becomes guns and surveillance. This is totally not the solution to trafficking.”

The solutions that anti-trafficking groups advocate for aren’t about raiding pizza shops or decoding Justin Bieber’s headwear choices, they’re about improving social programs so kids don’t fall through the cracks and end up in situations that leave them vulnerable to exploitation. That’s not as easy of a sell to the QAnon crowd.

“I don’t find that I’m able to translate the kind of fervor and excitement and investment people get for #savethechildren into an investment and focus and excitement in caring for the most marginalized among us,” said Goldblatt Grace.

Each of the nonprofit representatives I spoke to said they’re grateful for any donation and are hopeful the increased attention can create opportunities for outreach and education. But for that to happen, Q followers would have to give up on some of their most cherished beliefs and admit that the real problem, while no less concerning, looks less like the action movie playing in their head and more like the rest of America’s problems.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast


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