From the Newsletter: How the Biden administration should address QAnon

Editor’s Note: Prostasia is reprinting useful material from our newsletter for blog readers. This article by newsletter editor Jeremy Malcolm first ran in February 2021. To keep up to date on everything happening at Prostasia, you can sign up for the newsletter here.

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After an exhausting election season, American democracy finally proved stronger than would-be autocrat Donald Trump. Trump’s base relished in spreading salacious false conspiracy theories about child sex trafficking and pedophilia, that Trump repeatedly refused to contradict. However ultimately it was his incitement of the QAnon-led siege of the Capitol on January 6 that served to seal his downfall.

QAnon’s ringleaders have been very calculating in their distortion of hot-button issues such as sex trafficking to gain clout for themselves and their movement. But although it’s disheartening how many people fell for this ploy, why should we be surprised that self-identifying patriots should align themselves with a movement that plausibly claims to have the blessing of the President of the country?

It’s equally unsurprising that QAnon was able to grow its influence by leveraging its claims about child trafficking through groups of parents, specifically mothers. Motivated by natural concern for their own children, these mothers were then indoctrinated by the cult-leaders into supporting a spurious conspiracy theory that has nothing to do with saving children. In the process, their instincts towards the protection of children were twisted and betrayed.

Now cut off from major social platforms, and with Trump’s failure to fulfil QAnon’s predictions, the future of that movement remains in flux. But the incoming Biden administration should not ignore that a significant base of Americans remain highly susceptible to moral panic over simplistic narratives about child sexual abuse. Indeed, Biden played to that very demographic as a sponsor of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which established America’s public sex offense registry system.

Things have changed since then. Despite its popularity, the regime established by Biden’s Adam Walsh Act has come under fire for failing to keep the public safe. Internet companies finally recognized the danger of allowing conspiracy theories about trafficking and pedophilia to blow up into real life violence. And for once, an Internet law based on fear and stigma made less progress in Congress last year than a law based on prevention education.

In our 2020 Annual Report we wrote, “as the tide of public and official sentiment has turned against QAnon in 2020, we have a golden opportunity to respond with stigma-free, scientifically accurate information about CSA and its prevention.” Will the Biden administration seize this opportunity to advance evidence-based child protection policies, or fall back on populist solutions that center the criminal justice system and Internet platform regulation?

There are reasons to be hopeful. President Biden has shown awareness of the true nature of the problem of child sexual abuse, describing it accurately as a leading health risk to children. In September 2011, the then Vice President launched a campaign called 1is2many aimed at reducing dating violence and sexual assault among students, teens and young adults. In the same week of January, President Biden ordered the Department of Justice to end the use of private prisons by the federal government, and ended discrimination against trans people in the military.

On the other hand, there is a long record of bipartisanship around the use of sex work prohibition, mass incarceration, surveillance, and censorship to quell public awareness of the problem of child sexual abuse, rather than addressing its causes. Changing course now will upset powerful powerful interest groups, and could be politically costly.

But the costs of allowing conspiracists and fear-mongers to drive child protection policy are even higher. We cannot adopt an effective, evidence-based approach to the scourge of child sexual abuse while QAnon-style misinformation on the topic dominates public discourse. A public health approach must inform all public programs and legislation, and support for that approach must come from the top.
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