Leading global youth charity, Save The Children, was this week forced to distance itself from a conversation about child trafficking that's currently surging on social media.
"We have been protecting children around the world for over 100 years," the not-for-profit tweeted on Monday.
"While many people may choose to use our organisation’s name as a hashtag to make their point on different issues, we are not affiliated or associated with any of these campaigns."
In recent months, #savethechildren has been co-opted by conspiracy theorists who have circulated false claims and misleading data about the scale and root cause of the issue.
There are claims that 800,000 American children are vanishing each year, and that major brands and prominent public figures are driving or participating in child-trafficking rings. (We'll come back to all these claims below.)
Posts on these subjects are being widely circulated on social media, and in some cases have been seeded into parent-focused groups where they've found a particularly engaged audience.
The hashtag #savethechildren has been used more than 600,000 times on Instagram alone. On Facebook, it's become so bloated with misinformation that, last Wednesday, the platform temporarily blocked it for serving "low-quality content". It was restored 24 hours later, but the kibosh on the topic incensed its users and resulted in the hashtag trending on Twitter within a matter of days.
Let's take a look at what #savethechildren has become.
Where #savethechildren started.
What's made many of these posts so successful is that they are rooted in truth. A horrible truth.
Child trafficking is a huge, pressing global issue. While it's impossible to know the precise scale of the problem worldwide, UNICEF points to a 2002 estimate that 1.2 million children are trafficked annually.
The overwhelming majority of people using #savethechildren are almost certainly doing so with good intent. And no doubt many are unaware that the information they are parroting has murky roots.
At the core of it all is a conspiracy theory that emerged on the anonymous forum site, 4chan, roughly seven years ago.
The conspiracy claims that a faction of Hollywood and political elites operate a global child-trafficking ring. The children, it's alleged, are used for paedophilia or for a chemical compound in their blood called adrenochrome that wealthy people inject to stay healthy and young.
There is no credible evidence, whatsoever, to support any of these claims. But the 2019 sex-trafficking case against convicted child prostitutor Jeffrey Epstein helped persuade many otherwise.
This theory has been amplified by QAnon, an online, far-right movement that alleges that Donald Trump is secretly working to bring down these supposed paedophile elites.
Listen: What is QAnon and why is it becoming so popular? (Post continues below.)
In 2017, they championed unfounded allegations that senior Democrats were trafficking children out of a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant (#pizzagate).
More recently, this 'paedophile elite' theory has been tied to #savethechildren.
"What if we started a campaign to counter their separated children narrative and use #SaveTheChildren to highlight missing and exploited children facts?" the post reads. "If they really care about the children, what about the hundreds of thousands of missing ones? Far more than gun violence deaths and separated children at the border!"
("Their/they" refers to the mainstream media, who have been accused by QAnon and conspiracy theorists of either ignoring child trafficking, covering it up, or actively participating in an agenda to sexualise children and normalise paedophilia.)
Since then, the hashtag has had brief spikes on social media, but the recent swell came courtesy of promotion of #savethechildren and #ChildLivesMatter marches in several US cities on July 30 — U.N.'s World Day Against Trafficking Persons.
Footage from one rally showed protestors shouting "save the children" while raising signs that read, "Child sex trafficking is the REAL pandemic", and "#pizzagate #adrenochrome".