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Why Does Anyone Believe Etsy is Selling Children?

By Mike RothschildDecember 19, 2023

No. E-commerce sites like Etsy are not using disguised listings for child sex trafficking. Despite lack of evidence and company denials, the theory persists, fueled by influencers and previous similar theories like Pizzagate and QAnon

Credits: Canva.

Conspiracy theorist social media is currently overrun by baseless allegations that a variety of e-commerce companies, but primarily the online craft marketplace Etsy, are using real and wildly overpriced listings as classified ads for child sex trafficking or for selling sexual material. Major social media influencers and content creators say they know it’s true because the companies in question haven’t sued anyone, and the “debunkers” who cover for such heinous acts can’t prove they’re false. How could they? The evidence is right in front of them.

The claims surfaced on X/Twitter in mid-December, promoted by people whose job seems to revolve entirely around making unsupported claims about trafficking and sex crimes. And they took off because they did seem to offer proof. Real listings touting AI-created images of children eating pizza, based on supposed code words for pedophilia, were found on Etsy, listed by multiple sellers at sky-high prices. And as if proving consciousness of guilt, the listings were removed by the company.

And believers could tout previous listings from when the e-commerce company Wayfair was accused of selling cabinets for tens of thousands of dollars listed under the names of missing children, a conspiracy that took off just as the “save the children” movement was exploding in summer 2020.

Both Wayfair then and Etsy now have denied the listings involve anything illegal, and said they were removed due to violations of pricing policies. Not a single child has claimed to actually have been trafficked through these companies – with anti-trafficking organizations noting that conspiracy theories like “Etsy is selling kids” actually hurt their cause. And we know for a fact that the Wayfair claims were false, because many of the “missing children” had actually been found or returned home – the fate of the vast majority of the supposedly trafficked children often used as proof in these theories.

And yet, the theory continues to grow online, with seemingly no sign of abating. The idea that a major company like Etsy would be engaged in child sex trafficking by using easily-cracked codes and signs, in a way that any law enforcement agency could set up a sting operation to stop, is ludicrous and absurd to the vast majority of people who encounter it. But despite the complete lack of evidence, eyewitness, logic, or sense behind the theory, some people do believe it, just as they believed Wayfair was doing the same thing in 2020.

It’s worth looking at the reasons why this has taken off, especially after it’s already gone through multiple cycles of media coverage and come up lacking evidence. Why would anyone believe this is real, when there’s no evidence and it makes no logical sense? There are a range of reasons, both simple and complex:

Conspiracy theories about vast elite trafficking rings are already popular among fringe believers

The Etsy theory is very similar to Pizzagate, the debunked 2016 theory that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats were using a Washington DC pizza restaurant as a hub for trafficking children, and using code words like “pizza” to trade children. In late 2016, a believer went to the DC pizza restaurant with a gun looking for “trafficked children,” after which the theory went dormant. But Pizzagate was soon subsumed into the QAnon prophecy cult, where it was combined with other well-worn conspiracy theories and antisemitic tropes. Over the last few weeks, the theory has begun seeing something of a resurgence thanks to an endorsement by Elon Musk. So there was an audience for this theory primed to believe it, and it became easy for influencers to link the new version to past iterations that, according to them, had “never been debunked.”

The theories are boosted by influencers with large followings who trust them

Conspiracy believers have constructed an alternate media ecosystem where the mainstream media is corrupt, and only “citizen researchers” whose efforts are funded by their readers can be trusted. After it was first posted by an anonymous X account, the Etsy theory was heavily promoted by a number of such figures, including self-proclaimed anti-trafficking crusader Liz Crokin, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and Infowars host Alex Jones. These are figures with massive followings, a great deal of trust in that community, and personas as being “truth tellers” unafraid of the consequences of their “investigations.” When they share something, it doesn’t matter how outlandish it is – and might catch on because it’s outlandish.

It’s not clear what actually is going on with the overpriced listings

Some social media users have speculated that the strange listings for ten thousand dollar pictures of pizza are actually traps or scams meant to catch pedophiles, an elaborate prank, or some kind of money laundering. It’s also possible the prices were raised to prevent more people from buying the images, since NFT’s are meant to be unique. Etsy itself said the listings were pulled down because of fraudulent pricing, and the fact that the images are NFTs, which are difficult to regulate and have prices that constantly rise and fall seemingly based on nothing, isn’t helping. But until we definitively know what the listings are, it’s hard to completely say what they are not.

Many people don’t understand how the burden of proof works

A constant feature of conspiracy theories is the demand that those pushing back at the theory somehow prove it’s not true. This demand to prove a negative is, by and large, not something that can ever be satisfied. The burden of proof for a conspiracy theory always lies with the person who believes it’s real, but in practice, conspiracy believers don’t operate that way. They demand explanations, and when given one they don’t agree with, simply demand another one. The only way to prove that the images are not linked to child sex abuse material would be to buy them – which none of the accusers seem to have actually done, usually offering up excuses and deflections when asked why not.

Saving children in danger is something everyone can get behind – except people who are endangering children

When to comes to children, many well-meaning people simply take leave of their common sense and ability to tell fact from fiction. The thought-terminating cliché about “child trafficking” is that anyone who pushes back, demands evidence, or simply doesn’t believe the theories has something to hide. Nowhere was this more common than in the reaction to the anti-trafficking film Sound of Freedom, where journalists trying to uncover the real story of the people behind the film were constantly called pedophiles and traffickers by proponents of the film. Care for children is as close to a universal sentiment as we can agree on, but believers in theories like those about Etsy weaponize it to protect themselves from having to prove they’re real.

Ultimately, the complex web of influencers and media personalities pushing theories are much more concerned about these children – who don’t exist and are in no danger – than in using their influence to help endangered or hungry children in their own communities. Unfortunately, this suffering is no theory, and therefore is of little use to people who believe e-commerce sites are the biggest threat to children.

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Mike Rothschild
Mike Rothschild
Journalist and expert focused on the rise and spread of conspiracy theories, he is the author of the first complete book on the QAnon conspiracy movement, "The Storm is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything", and his newest book is "Jewish Space Lasers: The Rothschilds and 200 Years of Conspiracy Theories". In addition to his writing and interviews, Mike has worked as an expert witness in cases related to QAnon and the 2020 Election, testified to  U.S. Congress on the danger of election fraud disinformation, and submitted written testimony to the January 6th Select Committee on the role of QAnon in the Capitol attack.
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