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Extremism experts worry a QAnon theory is making into the mainstream political right

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

The confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson have many asking why some Republican senators dwelled on her sentencing record in a small number of child pornography cases. Jackson's critics accused her of choosing more lenient sentences than the maximum punishment allowed. But extremism experts took it as a sign that a baseless QAnon narrative is creeping into the mainstream political right. NPR's Odette Yousef is covering this, and she joins me now. Hi, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hi.

SNELL: I should start by saying that many legal experts say Jackson's rulings were within the norm for similar cases decided by other federal judges. Now, the QAnon narrative - can you explain what it is and where it came from?

YOUSEF: So, Kelsey, the QAnon conspiracy theory is that, you know, Democrats and Hollywood elites are running a global child sex trafficking ring - all baseless, of course. Experts point to the so-called Pizzagate conspiracy of 2016 as maybe the immediate precursor to this. You know, you'll remember this was this false claim that Hillary Clinton and other high-ranking Democrats were running a child sex trafficking ring in the basement of a pizza parlor in D.C. And it led to violence. A man went there and he fired shots, saying that he was there to save the children. But the truth is that weaponizing fears around child safety has long been in the toolkit of political movements, and it's very effective.

SNELL: So what is the history there?

YOUSEF: Well, Kelsey, I've seen this theme show up in white nationalist literature that dates back to the late '70s, where you'll see threads about young white girls being trafficked by Jews with powerful connections. But it was also used in the early days of conservative coalition building. Juliana Martinez is a professor at American University, and she points to a campaign in 1977 to fight a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Fla. And the person who led that campaign was a singer named Anita Bryant.

JULIANA MARTINEZ: This was one of the first times that she managed to successfully bring together Catholic and Baptist groups with conservative activists claiming that the passage of this law would enable homosexuals, as that's the term she used, to, quote, "recruit young people," right? And the moral panic created around this language generated so much panic that the ordinance was retracted.

YOUSEF: And Kelsey, we've seen that narrative continue to evolve today. You know, even though gay rights have progressed, we're seeing very similar rhetoric in the campaign now against trans rights.

SNELL: So if this has been a rallying cry for decades in the conservative right, why are extremism experts worried about it right now?

YOUSEF: Well, part of this is about language. You know, it's common today on far-right social media channels to see people use the word pedophile freely to refer to their opponents without basis. And that's really troubling to people who know the role, the history of language in dehumanizing groups of people. I spoke with Marilyn Mayo about this. She's with the Anti-Defamation League.

MARILYN MAYO: I mean, there's no clearer example than what we saw during World War II - right? - when the Nazis, for example, dehumanized Jews to the point where, you know, they were, you know, mercilessly killed.

YOUSEF: You know, the other concern here is simply that child trafficking narratives set the stakes so high that some people may feel justified in committing acts of political violence.

SNELL: So how has all of this affected the work of trying to combat the very real and very serious problem of child trafficking?

YOUSEF: I spoke with Catherine Chen about that. She's the CEO of the Polaris Project, which is a national anti-trafficking organization. She says the spread of this disinformation and these conspiracy theories have harmed real efforts to address the issue. You know, Kelsey, there have been these viral claims about supposed techniques that traffickers use to lure or snatch women off the streets, all of them false. And Chen says that this is complicated work on the ground.

CATHERINE CHEN: It is already extraordinarily challenging for the anti-trafficking community, for law enforcement, for community members, for family members to help somebody understand the course of relationships that they might be in. It's much harder if what you're seeing on TikTok or on Instagram or on, you know, other social media channels are these extreme ideas that conspiracy theorists are putting out there about what trafficking actually looks like.

YOUSEF: And, you know, Chen says that people who are vulnerable to trafficking often are also victims of other societal inequities. You know, they're often homeless, for example. So this hysteria around trafficking is distracting people from addressing those root causes of the vulnerabilities.

SNELL: That's NPR's Odette Yousef. Thanks so much for being here.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.