If you were to believe what’s been circulating on some social media feeds in Frisco lately, the suburb has become a hub of child sex trafficking as part of an international, cannibalistic conspiracy.
Of course, none of that is true.
But a viral conspiracy theory — presented as concern for abused children — has stalled real investigations, police and experts say. Well-intentioned but misinformed people all across the country have jammed phone lines and email inboxes in Frisco and elsewhere in North Texas with rumor and conjecture spread in part by the QAnon movement.
Most recently, viral videos showing a girl crying in the backseat of a car have sparked questions about her welfare from people on social media nationwide.
The girl in question is very much safe, authorities say, but that hasn’t stopped misinformed people from flooding child advocacy professionals and law enforcement agencies in North Texas with calls of concern.
“The adults that are doing this are hurting this child,” said Dan Powers, chief operating officer of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County. “The information becomes so distorted that people don’t know what they’re supporting.”
Many of the posts appear to originate from Save Our Children groups and TikTok accounts that feature language to signal they are part of the QAnon conspiracy network — the wild and false theory that President Donald Trump is secretly fighting a massive cabal of satanic child predators and cannibals.
In North Texas, Save Our Children groups have grown rapidly, and have sparked protests in Fort Worth and elsewhere. They’ve seized on rumor and fear to develop viral moments out of ongoing investigations that local departments say are keeping police from doing their jobs.
In one post, Frisco’s Stonebriar Centre mall is painted as one of the nation’s top human-trafficking spots. This is not true, Frisco police say.
In the case of the girl, who police say is at the center of a custody battle, dozens of videos have sprouted hundreds of theories about her well-being and have caused some on social media to cast doubt about her safety.
Frisco police said in a prepared statement that the case is under investigation and that the large amount of misinformation swirling about the case is troubling.
“The continued dissemination of patently false information and third-party speculation on various social media platforms related to this case serves no other purpose than to hinder investigative efforts and does nothing to help the child in this case,” the department said.
A Frisco police spokesman told The Dallas Morning News this week that though addressing misinformation in the case was important, commenting further could do more harm than good.
Police Chief David Shilson declined to be interviewed, citing the ongoing social media controversy.
Frisco isn’t the first to be targeted by such a conspiracy. In 2016, rumors that a child sex trafficking ring was being run in the back of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria led a gunman to open fire there. QAnon also falsely accused retail giant Wayfair of supporting a similar conspiracy.
The FBI recently labeled QAnon a potential domestic terrorism threat.
QAnon’s improbable momentum has hinged on very real problems: child abuse and sex trafficking. Texas has been a hotspot for such illegal activity, Powers said.
However, when misinformation spreads about these crimes online, Powers said it can cause havoc for professionals working to eradicate the problem and the children who are at risk.
“The agencies that are working this know way more than Facebook,” Powers said. “There’s good feelings and social justice behind it, but they’re victimizing this child.”
While it’s great to see public concern rising about an important issue, he said, when that concern is founded on misinformation, responding to the social media masses can distract from their real work.
The Polaris Project, a nonprofit that runs the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, said in a recent blog post that viral conspiracy-based reports can overwhelm agencies that serve victims.
The biggest problem has been people who flood the hotline with false tips, the project said.
“Hundreds or thousands of people sharing the same information means long wait times for victims in crisis or service providers trying to find immediate help for someone in need,” the group said. “These long waits may literally mean the difference between someone finding the help they need to escape or having to hang up because they can’t get through.”
Powers said he and his colleagues at other agencies in North Texas have been swamped with calls about the viral videos of the girl in the car. Some people just want more information. Others are demanding answers.
But custody battles are usually private matters. Especially when dealing with children, discretion is key for judges, advocates and law enforcement. Publicly spreading information about the child could re-victimize the child in the future, Powers said. She has lost anonymity, and could be more vulnerable to predators in the future, he said.
“On the internet, once it’s there it’s there forever,” Powers said. “People who hurt kids look for vulnerable kids. I would be concerned that this increases the risk for this kid.”
Alice Marwick is an assistant professor of media and technology studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and researches the QAnon movement. She said that people who believe or spread theories like QAnon’s may have good intentions but that they make assumptions off half-truths that can take on new lives on social media.
“They aren’t dupes. They are really critical,” Marwick said in a recent interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. “The problem is that they’re basing all of this research and conjecture on a bunch of assumptions that they take to be true which are decidedly not. So it becomes this whole flimsy house of cards where falsehoods turn into canon, and then entire elaborate theories are scaffolded on top of things that are wholly factually inaccurate.”
The viral videos of the girl have not appeared on one of Frisco’s largest and most active neighborhood Facebook groups, Frisco Residents Who Care. That’s because the page’s administrator, Jamie Heit, said she has chosen not to repost them.
Instead, she said in a statement on the group’s page, she relied on police statements about the case.
“It is not up to me to determine what is true or not true in what is obviously a very complex case,” Heit wrote in the post. “My heart hurts for these children, but I want to make sure that … [Frisco Residents Who Care] is a part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
Heit said that in the last several months, posts about sex trafficking and child abuse have become more frequent on the group’s page and misinformation has begun to spread rapidly.
“I’m not trying to take away that person’s belief that they think may be true, but it’s not just something I want to have my name tied to,” Heit said.
Sometimes, however, she said she will approve of posts containing questions about local rumors — like one about sex trafficking at Stonebriar Centre — so she can dispel the rumors for the original poster and others who may have heard them.
Every time a questionable post is submitted, Heit said, she researches the topic or story. If the post contains a video, she watches it in its entirety, she said.
“I end up spending so much time looking at posts before I approve them,” Heit said. “Then, I have to go through the whole battle of, ‘If I approve it then this, but if I don’t approve it, I have to look at the consequences of this.’”
Experts say Heit’s concern is valid, especially because of how false theories and misinformation can spread on Facebook groups.
Joan Donovan, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, said the fact-checking process is cumbersome and can deplete resources from other vital tasks.
“We don’t really know the true costs of misinformation,” Donovan said. “Police, medical professionals and even journalists have taken on the burden of unchecked misinformation, and now it’s becoming part of their daily work.”