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QAnon Was Born Out of the Sex Ad Moral Panic That Took Down

Americans adore a moral panic.

During the Red Scare, we believed that Soviet agents were everywhere, having secretly infiltrated all levels of society. In the 1950s, the U.S. government banned switchblades over unfounded fears that we were in the throes of “West Side Story”-style knife violence. The Satanic Panic convinced Americans of the 1980s that absurd claims of ritual abuse and sacrifice were somehow credible. Around the same time, there was “stranger danger” — which was debunked like other moral panics, but never went away entirely.

At any given time, America is moving in and out of some moral panic or another. Harm to children is a persistent theme. In recent years, however, our national obsession with these moral panics has consumed our politics. We’ve come to believe that sex trafficking rings are all around us. The driving force may come as a surprise: a moral panic about consensual sex workers who advertised legally on the internet.

The far-right’s current obsession with “child sex trafficking” — the animating force behind such conspiracy theories as QAnon and Pizzagate, as well as coded political insults like “groomer” — has roots in this moral panic hyped by powerful Republicans and Democrats alike. The panic reached its crescendo with the 2018 federal indictments related to a sex ad hub called

The Backpage story may stand as a cautionary tale not only of overzealous prosecutions, but also of the second- and third-order effects of moral panics.

A classifieds site that became known predominantly for “adult” advertising, Backpage was born of a more dispersed industry that used to operate in the back pages of local alternative weekly newspapers like the Village Voice, Chicago Reader, and LA Weekly — known as alt-weeklies. For a time, the sex ad industry had its central platform on Craigslist, the free classifieds website, which spurred large-scale campaigns against the ads. As the campaigns took hold, Craigslist buckled and effectively handed the mantle to Backpage — until eventually it, too, came under a sustained morality attack.

I spent four years reporting on this saga — the rise and fall of alt-weeklies, adult advertising, and Backpage — with fellow journalists Sam Eifling and Michael J. Mooney. The result, a documentary podcast series, now on Audible, titled “Hold Fast: The Unadulterated Story of the World’s Most Scandalous Website,” reveals how cynical politicians can take hold of a moral panic and exploit it for political gain.

One thing that struck me during my reporting was that the Backpage story may stand as a cautionary tale not only of overzealous prosecutions, but also of the second- and third-order effects of moral panics — in this case, conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and QAnon. If you look closely enough, you can trace a line from adult ads in alt-weeklies to escort ads on websites like Craigslist and Backpage, to conspiracy claims that Donald Trump is fighting to break up a global child sex-trafficking cabal run by Hillary Clinton and her malevolent minions.

Conspiracy theories don’t grow in isolation. They wrap themselves around kernels of truth. The truth here is that sex trafficking and sexual exploitation are horrific crimes, and no one should underestimate the harms experienced by survivors. For the last two decades, though, powerful politicians, breathless news media, and a host of ill-informed celebrities have conflated “sex trafficking” with “prostitution” — fanning a national hysteria that underpins the conspiracy theories now wracking American society.

Sex Ad Industry

A quick history: Starting with the Village Voice in the 1950s, alt-weeklies popped up in cities nationwide. These papers prized investigative reporting and magazine-style narrative writing; pioneered attitudinal pop-culture criticism; and published classified ads in their back pages that would make half the country blush.

The “adult” ads on the last pages of the tabloid-style papers promoted sex work. At first, they were written in coded language, which created enough ambiguity that federal judges had upheld the ads’ First Amendment protections. The legal doctrine was simple: The government couldn’t deprive a massage therapist or a dancer of their First Amendment right to advertise on mere suspicion that they might also provide an illegal sexual service behind closed doors.

For decades, wink-and-a-nod adult ads could be found in alt-weeklies nationwide. Publishers knew what was being advertised. Most readers knew. So did police and prosecutors. No one, however, seemed to holler about sex ads in newspapers that could be found at busy bus stops, crowded restaurants, or smoky bars. Society didn’t collapse. The kids were all right.

Then came Craigslist, a simple website that slashed a gaping hole in the newspaper industry’s hulking money bags. Who would pay for an ink-smeared classified ad in a newspaper when you could get a more effective one for free, in minutes, on Craigslist? People selling cars, boats, guitars, whatever — they moved to Craigslist. And those sex workers advertising in the back pages of alt-weeklies? They did too.

In response to the migration of classifieds to the internet, the largest publisher of alt-weeklies launched a Craigslist competitor, Backpage. Essentially a knockoff, Backpage used a design and category scheme almost identical to Craigslist’s. Throughout its early existence, the alt-weekly-run Backpage never matched the popular site from which it was cribbing.

Then the government and the press turned on the burgeoning online classifieds industry. Public officials latched on to a study from the University of Pennsylvania that claimed 326,000 children in America were “at risk for commercial sexual exploitation.” The report analyzed data from the 1990s using methodologies so deeply flawed that the Washington Post described it as “bogus.”

The jaw-dropping stat — More than 300,000 children in the United States could be victims of sex trafficking! — nonetheless lodged itself in our national consciousness. Politicians trumpeted the claim. Actor Ashton Kutcher, fashioning himself an advocate against sex trafficking, announced unchallenged on CNN that there are “between 100,000 and 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States today.” It sounded even then like an improbable total. But with kids’ lives reportedly at stake, few Americans pushed back. 

Pressure Campaigns

The FBI, conditioned to view any national clamor as a federal funding bonanza, launched Operation Cross Country to investigate the supposed scourge of sex trafficking. The FBI’s ongoing efforts now include partnerships with 400 law enforcement agencies nationwide, but the feds still haven’t uncovered any sort of large-scale, highly organized trafficking ring as part of Operation Cross Country.

That’s because — while cases of sexual exploitation and trafficking do occur, many of them horrific in their details — the perception of a large-scale threat in the United States is perched on a mountain of distortions and exaggerations.

“If you believe that hundreds of thousands of kids are being trafficked, you have to believe your husband, your dad, your brother, your sons are the ones buying them,” Juliana Piccillo, a sex worker advocate, explained to me. “It’s not just a handful of guys buying 300,000 kids.”

For context, the union-covered employees of UPS, those brown-clad delivery drivers we see daily, number 300,000.

As America bought into myths of large-scale sex trafficking, individual accounts of sexual exploitation made headlines. Yet the more nuanced story of online adult ads went unreported. Put simply, the internet made sex work, on the whole, safer by giving consensual sex workers a marketplace away from the streets and the ability to screen potentially dangerous clients.

Sex Workers and their supporters protest a police raid on Oct. 25, 2016, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, saying shutting down sites like exposes them to more risk.
Sex workers and their supporters protest a police raid on Oct. 25, 2016, in Minneapolis saying shutting down sites like exposes them to more risk.
Photo: “Protest march against the raid on Backpage” by Fibonacci Blue. Used under CC BY 2.0

These gains in worker safety benefited a large portion of Americans, and the reason is simple: The nation’s sex work industry is enormous. The National Institutes of Health estimate that sex work in the U.S. generates $14 billion per year in economic activity. That makes sex work a significant American industry, on par in revenue with the streaming music industry.

As police and politicians conflated sex trafficking with sex work, journalists dutifully followed along. A study from the University of Minnesota of 1,500 news articles from 1995 to 2014 found a dramatic increase in the media’s use of “sex trafficking” in place of “prostitution.” That trend hasn’t reversed. A local news report from Florida last year described a standard prostitution bust as being part of “a sweeping sex trafficking investigation.” Or consider a local news report from South Dakota, where an undercover cop posed as an underage sex worker in a prostitution sting. The TV anchor described it as “an undercover sex trafficking investigation,” even though no one involved was being trafficked. A right-wing sheriff in Florida fashioned a national profile by running prostitution stings and hosting chest-beating press conferences that promote how he’s bravely fighting “human trafficking.”

Backpage became the world’s internet brothel. It was the same legal business alt-weeklies had been in for decades, now operating at an industrial scale.

In August 2010, 17 attorneys general banded together in a letter pressuring Craigslist to take down its adult ads. It wasn’t a legal threat; federal judges had upheld the legality of such ads since their days on the back pages of alt-weeklies. Instead, the attorneys general were mounting a coordinated pressure campaign. And it worked. Bowing to the coercion, Craigslist shuttered its adult section, slapping the word “CENSORED” across it on the website.

Suddenly, adult ads flooded into the also-ran, Backpage, and the company’s annual revenue skyrocketed from $11.7 million to $78 million in just a few years. Backpage became the world’s internet brothel. It was the same legal business alt-weeklies had been in for decades, now operating at an industrial scale.

Backpage’s owners, Arizona newspaper moguls Michael Lacey and James Larkin, believed they could withstand what the nerds at Craigslist couldn’t. After all, they were career alt-weekly publishers, owning 17 papers nationwide, including the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Miami New Times. They’d printed adult ads in the back pages of their papers for decades. How could the internet be any different?

Political Opportunism

As the world’s largest platform for adult ads, Backpage became the target of withering scrutiny and sensational claims that it was encouraging child sexual exploitation. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof led the charge with stories headlined “When Peddles Schoolgirls for Sex” and “Google and Sex Traffickers Like”

Protestors gathered outside the Village Voice’s office in New York. They held up signs reading “End Sex Trafficking” and “Women and Girls Will Not Be Silenced.” An anonymously run website,, aggregated reports of violence and sexual exploitation.

The drumbeat drowned out a more complicated reality. Backpage, whose owners and employees knew large amounts of its ads were using ambiguous language to promote illegal sex work, was minting money by cynically pushing First Amendment protections and internet laws to their legal limits. Backpage, though, didn’t turn a blind eye to possible harm. One of the company’s executives had received an award from the FBI for working proactively with law enforcement. Prosecutors at the Justice Department had even advised against filing criminal charges involving Backpage after concluding, in an internal memo, that “Backpage genuinely wanted to get child prostitution off of its site.”

Politicians, on the other hand, saw blood in the water.

FILE - In this April 25, 2014 file picture California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who as a prosecutor once specialized in child sexual assault cases addresses the Domestic Human Trafficking symposium in Los Angeles, Trafficking, forced labor and modern slavery are big business generating profits estimated at $150 billion a year, the U.N. labor agency said Tuesday May 20, 2014. The report by the International Labor Organization finds global profits from involuntary workers _ an estimated 21 million of them _ have more than tripled over the past decade from its estimate of at least $44 billion in 2005. ILO Director Guy Ryder said his agency?s report Tuesday calls attention to the need ?to eradicate this fundamentally evil, but hugely profitable practice as soon as possible.?  (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes,File)
Then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris addresses the Domestic Human Trafficking symposium in Los Angeles on April 25, 2014.
Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP

Vice President Kamala Harris, then the ambitious attorney general of California, boasted of being tough on human trafficking. In 2016, while running for U.S. Senate, she filed criminal charges against Backpage’s owners. The case garnered Harris national headlines — What politician doesn’t want to be seen as tough on child sex trafficking? — but a judge threw out most of the charges shortly after the newly elected Harris was sworn into the Senate. Her case hadn’t helped end exploitation at Backpage, but it had launched her into national politics.

Around this time, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s think tank, the McCain Institute, focused its efforts on human trafficking. His wife, Cindy, became a self-appointed expert in the subject. McCain Institute reports circulated in Washington, pointing the finger at Backpage for sex trafficking cases in the United States.

The McCains had a wounded history with the owners of Backpage, who started their publishing company in Arizona with the muckraking alt-weekly Phoenix New Times. The paper had written unflatteringly about the McCains for decades and in the mid-1990s revealed how Cindy McCain was stealing painkillers from her medical charity — a story headlined with the very alt-weekly pun “Opiate for the Mrs.” Cindy spun the scandal as a story of addiction and redemption, but it dogged her husband through his failed presidential bids.

Political chicanery and sensational news reports about sex trafficking fueled each other, creating a media environment by 2016 in which Americans had been inundated with reports about sex trafficking and online classifieds. Just as Americans had come to believe that strangers were abducting thousands of children in the 1980s, we came to believe that child sex trafficking was endemic, with hundreds of thousands of our kids at risk.

In April 2018, bowing to pressure from Harris, McCain, and other elected officials, the Justice Department seized Backpage and filed criminal charges against its owners. None of the charges alleged sex trafficking — of either children or adults. The government accused Backpage’s owners and executives of money laundering and facilitating prostitution. Because prostitution is not a federal crime, the Justice Department filed charges under the Travel Act, which outlaws interstate activities intended to violate state laws.

In the first Backpage trial, federal prosecutors repeatedly referred to “child sex trafficking” — even though none of the charges alleged such activity — forcing the judge to declare a mistrial. In November 2023, a federal jury in Arizona convicted Backpage’s principals following a second trial. Lacey was convicted on one count of money laundering, acquitted on another, and no verdict was reached on the other charges, many of which were thrown out by a judge this week ahead of an possible retrial. He faces sentencing in June. Larkin took his own life in 2023, on the eve of the second trial.

Any of the nation’s alt-weeklies — which published the same types of adult ads that Backpage did — could have faced the same charges decades earlier, but prosecutors had deferred to First Amendment protections.

Until the political pressure ramped up on Backpage.

Conspiracy Theories

Pizzagate, the far-right conspiracy theory that suggests Democrats operated a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizzeria in Washington, sprung from this Backpage-obsessed media environment. The conspiracy claim jumped from the online world to the real one when, in December 2016, a man fired an AR-15 rifle inside the pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong, as he attempted to investigate the supposed sex trafficking ring. 

The intrigue around Comet pizza then fed the sprawling pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy. The far-fetched myth hyped secret sex trafficking rings operated by prominent figures, notably Democrats, with Trump cast as a hero fighting valiantly to expose this criminal network and bring its pedophiles to justice. QAnon inspired other conspiracy theories, including one that claimed online retailer Wayfair was selling sex-trafficked children.

“You’re onto something with the idea of far-right obsession over trafficking and grooming having its seeds planted with Backpage,” Mike Rothschild, the author of “Jewish Space Lasers: The Rothschilds and 200 Years of Conspiracy Theories,” told me after I explained how I suspected the years of sensationalistic Backpage coverage explains our current conspiracy theories. “There’s a sense among QAnon promoters and right-wing influencers in general that organized rings of child trafficking have been a problem for decades and that only Trump had the courage and lack of connections to ‘the swamp’ to take it on.”

“And sure enough,” Rothschild added, “I dug around a bit on Telegram and found some Q promoters talking about the cabal taking its child trafficking ops somewhere else once Trump took Backpage down in 2018.”

The beliefs behind QAnon are shaped by so-called Q drops, cryptic online messages written by a supposed government insider describing child sex trafficking and Trump’s efforts to stop it. One “Q drop” in particular folded the seizure of Backpage into its tinfoil-hatted QAnon universe as if it were evidence that Trump was battling the sex traffickers:

That didn’t take long.


Strength test.

For God & Country!

We Fight for FREEDOM.


After the Justice Department seized Backpage, Trump signed a bill known as FOSTA-SESTA into law. It was designed to scorch the earth behind Backpage — a response to the years of media reports about sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation. The law stripped away liability protections for online platforms perceived to be promoting prostitution.

By one measure, the law worked. The breathless news reports about child sex trafficking through online classified ads came to a trickling stop.

FILE - This April 6, 2018, file photo shows a screen shot of on the day that federal authorities seized the classified site as part of a criminal case. Dan Hyer, sales and marketing director for, pleaded guilty Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, in Arizona to conspiring to facilitate prostitution in a scheme to give free ads to prostitutes in a bid to draw them away from competitors. Six others affiliated with face charges in the case. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
A screenshot of on April 6, 2018, the day that federal authorities seized the classified site as part of a criminal case.
Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP

The End of Sex Trafficking?

So, the far-right conspiracy theories were correct, then? As prophesied by “Q,” Trump vanquished the child sex trafficking rings?

Of course not.

In 2021, the Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding that shuttering Backpage had made it more difficult for law enforcement officials to identify and track cases of sexual exploitation.

And online ads promoting sex work haven’t gone away either. There’s now a constellation of smaller Backpage-like sites, many based outside the United States and beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement. Some sex workers have simply slid over to Instagram, Facebook, and X, using a decades-old trick refined in the naughty back pages of alt-weeklies: ambiguous language.

Conspiracy theories like QAnon and Pizzagate were never the true aim. They are byproducts of something more sinister in our body politic.

The madness of our nation’s obsession with child sex trafficking appears to be reaching new and frightening peaks. Last year, the melodramatic movie “Sound of Freedom,” about a vigilante who rescues children from international trafficking rings, was a box-office smash, grossing more than $250 million. The film’s writer-director, Alejandro Monteverde, was inspired to make it after seeing TV news coverage of sex trafficking during the Backpage media pile-on. The influence has gone full circle: A prospective juror in the second Backpage trial admitted that he thought “Sound of Freedom” was a documentary film.

That prospective juror wasn’t the only one mixing sex-trafficking fiction with reality. Last month, during the Republican response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, Alabama Sen. Katie Britt passed off a case of child sex trafficking in Mexico from two decades ago as a recent crime that had occurred in the United States under the Biden administration.

The avalanche of stories portraying extensive violence, human trafficking, and child sexual exploitation linked to online classified ads helped rid the world of Craigslist’s adult section and Backpage altogether. Those stories, however, seeded the ground for another dark reality, with secondary and tertiary effects that promise to be much more consequential. We are now a nation consumed by fantastical conspiracy claims about child sex trafficking.

Potential harm to children is an unmatched motivator in American civic life. By fooling us into fears about massive sex trafficking rings, elected officials can lace panic into the border crisis or crack down on internet speech.

Conspiracy theories like QAnon and Pizzagate were never the true aim. They are byproducts of something more sinister in our body politic: power-hungry elected officials promoting fear for political advantage, all the while unconcerned about what happens when that fear becomes hysteria.

The post QAnon Was Born Out of the Sex Ad Moral Panic That Took Down appeared first on The Intercept.

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