In early December e-commerce giant Etsy became the latest victim of a QAnon conspiracy theory that alleges certain online retailers are involved in trafficking children.
For Etsy, this malicious disinformation campaign resulted in immediate backlash across mainstream and unmoderated social media which manifested as both financial losses and physical threats against executives.
Pyrra judges that Etsy’s poor financial performance coupled with recent social media posts by Elon Musk about Pizzagate made the company an easy target for QAnon. It’s possible that these claims could have further been influenced by pro-QAnon actors online, attempting to further the narrative about a cabal of Democratic pedophiles preying on children under the guise of Etsy shop owners selling art.
This is just the latest in a string of instances where QAnon personalities have claimed, without evidence, that online retailers, other businesses, or well-known locations are involved in child sex trafficking. In some instances, this has driven some Q supporters to violently act out in attempts to stop the alleged activity.
On 11 December, news of Etsy's purported involvement in trafficking child pornography under the guise of selling high-priced digital images of children eating cheese pizza erupted on mainstream and unmoderated social media. We have been unable to confirm if these were legit sales or provocations on Etsy.
Well-known QAnon users on X (formerly Twitter), like disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, quickly jumped into the conversation demanding that Etsy explain such posts, while labeling this the next PizzaGate and Wayfair -- references to the 2018 and 2020 conspiracies that a Washington, DC-based pizza restaurant and online furniture store, respectively, were involved in similar acts. You can read our report on the impact on Wayfairhere.
Etsy has publicly stated the allegations are "completely baseless," and has subsequently removed the ads because they violate the company's price inflation rules (not because of any threat to minors). Despite this, prominent QAnon influencers on mainstream and unmoderated social media continue to push the narrative that "PizzaGate is real."
Users on mainstream and unmoderated social media also allege that Etsy's recent layoffs and plunging stock prices are a direct result of immediate calls to boycott the company because of exposing its role in child trafficking.
More concerningly however, are threats on unmoderated platforms made against journalists who rebuffed the claims against Etsy. Pyrra has also identified a separate post on the same platform where a user enthusiastically identified Josh Silverman as Etsy’s CEO, which we judge was a veiled attempt to partially dox Mr. Silverman. Similar efforts were made in 2022 when conspiracists identified Wayfair employees and locations as part of their campaign to stop the online furniture store from trafficking children. To date, we have not identified any successful doxxing attempts related to this matter across alt-social.
QAnon is now a global phenomenon. Within the U.S. it’s estimated that around 22% of Americans accept one of the organization’s core beliefs: that some kind of political “storm” is coming, and that violence could be necessary to achieve it. More broadly, the group’s conspiracy theories have just as eagerly been picked up as gospel by followers in Canada, Australia, and Europe. Indeed, QAnon acolytes also include politicians in the U.S., Canada, Italy, and Germany - many of whom can be identified through public comments and statements that align with some Q-theories.
Social media - specifically unmoderated social - will continue to be the preferred medium for QAnon and other far-right groups to spread disinformation and sow discontent in part, due to a lack of moderation across these mediums. It is here that information can be easily manipulated to quickly target individuals, brands and organizations with a malicious disinformation campaign.
Moreover, we judge this lack of oversight enables the spread of inflammatory rhetoric that has, and will continue to, result in some users being influenced to take violent action to stop conspiracy theories and/or disinformation they believe to be true.
Since 2018, there have been 74 crimes committed by QAnon members in the U.S., the majority of which occurred between 2020 and 2021, judging from a review of statistics of QAnon-related crimes collected by the University of Maryland's Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism(START).
Of these 74 QAnon-affiliated attacks, six have resulted in fatalities and one third of these incidents involved individuals attempting to ‘disrupt’ child sex trafficking rings led by Democrats, according to the same START data.
On 14 December, a QAnon user on X noted that Walmart should be "next" over their alleged selling of similar excessively priced merchandise geared towards children. Walmart was a previous target of a similar QAnon conspiracy theory in August 2022 when users on Facebook falsely claimed one of the store's Pennsylvania’s branches was a hub for child trafficking.
Nearly a month after the initial post about Etsy, users on unmoderated social media continue to allege the online retailer's purported involvement in child trafficking, highlighting the longevity disinformation and conspiracy theories have across this ecosystem. Indeed, the reputation and brand damage caused by these malicious disinformation campaigns can be long lasting - Wayfair is now synonymous with pedophilia across alt-social sites.
In the most recent spike, occurring on 24 December 2023, dozens of users on Truth Social posted a link to an expensive piece of children's merchandise sold on Etsy that is allegedly a front for purchasing child pornography. These posts also included reposts of a QAnon account identifying "pedophile codes" on social media. As with previous posts, we are unable to confirm if these are legitimate sales or those intended to elicit negative responses.
The disinformation and conspiracy theories that emerged following the Etsy attack highlight the increasing dangers to brand, reputation and physical safety posed by the alternative/unmoderated social media ecosystem.
Now more than ever, companies need to be monitoring these sites to:
Understand pervasive narratives and consider how company actions, policies, statements or even in-action can be perceived by these communities (your customers)
Identify potential problems before they go viral, and
Closely monitor crises to quickly respond and act when necessary.
Pyrra’s goal is to make the internet and the world a safer place by identifying and combating hate speech, violent threats, reputation risk and brand damage across the unmoderated and alternative corners of the internet. Should your team need support in monitoring or identifying threats or trends online, please contact us at email@example.com.
1 QAnon users since at least 2016, have claimed that word combinations with "CP" (i.e. "cheese pizza," "Comet Pizza") is secret code for distributing child pornography.