When Kristen Alden moved to Thousand Oaks, California, two years ago, she joined the local moms’ Facebook group, Moms of Conejo Valley. She figured it’d be a good place to find out about activities for her 7-year-old, and she looked forward to unloading some old clothes, books, and toys to younger kids in the neighborhood. Every once in a while, someone would post something that Alden, an attorney, disagreed with—in particular, she began to notice that a few moms had a habit of sharing anti-vaccine memes. But it was infrequent enough that she just rolled her eyes and ignored it.
But then, when the pandemic began, the tone of the posts suddenly changed. The anti-vax moms became louder, and there seemed to be more of them. They began posting rants about how masks mandates and social distancing rules were “tyrannical,” and violated Americans’ civil liberties. Some of them claimed that the coronavirus vaccine would contain tracking microchips made by Bill Gates, a notion popularized by a viral video called Plandemic, released May 4, 2020 on YouTube.
Alden remembers that when dozens of members of the groups posted the video, she and a few others politely noted in the comments that Plandemic’s wild claims—for example, that the virus was created in a lab and that it’s “activated” by masks—had been thoroughly debunked by a range of medical professionals and fact-checking sites like Snopes. It had “absolutely no effect whatsoever,” she recalled, “because, they would just come back with, ‘Well, they’re, they’re all in on it. Snopes is owned by [liberal philanthropist and conspiracy theory target] George Soros.’”
Alden, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, became more alarmed as she watched the group appear to rally around the blatant coronavirus misinformation earlier in the summer. Then, after a few weeks of this, some strange hashtags appeared at the end of the conspiracy-minded posts: #savethechildren, #pizzagate, #wayfairgate. All of these, she discovered, were key themes for a wildly outlandish and increasingly popular conspiracy theory called QAnon, which alleged that a cabal of elites—especially Democratic politicians and supporters—trafficked children, sexually abused them, and drank their blood. But all was not lost, because Trump would soon stop them with the biggest sting operation in history.
Ever more bizarre plot twists gained currency. Some had been circulating for a few years already: “#Pizzagate” referred to the idea that the child sex ring was operating out of a Washington, DC, pizza restaurant—this theory emboldened an armed man to show up there in 2016 to liberate the supposed victims. More recently, “#Wayfairgate” alleged that the internet home furnishings company was a part of the trafficking, too. As the anxiety around the pandemic heightened, Alden watched in horror as these bizarre ideas moved from the fringe to the mainstream of the moms’ group. “There’s always going to be some people who have some kind of out-there views,” she told me. “But when you see a post about how Wayfair is trafficking kids through throw pillow purchases, and there’s already 30 or 40 people liking it, it’s just like, wow.”
The intrusion of paranoid ideology that Alden observed in her moms’ group is part of a broader pattern that has appeared in online parenting communities since the pandemic began. Moderators in several different parts of the country, who were in charge of groups ranging in size from roughly 10,000 to 40,000 mothers, told me about a dramatic uptick in posts that refer to outlandish plots by the government, celebrities, and even scientists to control citizens. Moderators—who are responsible for removing posts that violate groups’ policies around misinformation—are finding themselves scrambling to keep up with the influx. Katy Strang, who moderates a moms’ group in Camarillo, California, told me that before March, she only occasionally had to remove a post. These days, she removes 30 to 50 posts every week. “It has been infuriating—the amount of misinformation, conspiracies,” she told me. Anne Green, who moderates an online moms’ group in Collier County, Florida, said she faces the same problem, and she often finds it difficult to determine which posts cross a line. “I believe in open discussion, and I value all of my members’ voices,” said Green, whose name has also been changed. “But for some people, this is their only source of information. I feel such a responsibility.”
For that reason, the moderators I talked to stay up late at night combing through the day’s posts—sometimes hundreds—to remove misinformation. For a while, the whack-a-mole strategy seemed to be working. Facebook says it’s taking steps to combat this misinformation, too: A spokesperson told me the company is “working with external experts on ways to disrupt activity designed to evade our enforcement—including how to address content related to Save the Children shared as part of QAnon while protecting the important work of child safety organizations.” But despite everyone’s best efforts, the conspiracy thinking only seems to be gaining strength. Now, the moderators report, conspiracy-minded members have figured out a workaround: When their posts are removed by a moderator, they simply post it again in the comments on another post. “Sneakily, people are commenting on random posts about like, who’s a good dentist to go see,” says Strang. “It’s crazy.”
But there’s a broader problem, says Seema Yasmin, a Stanford physician and expert on health misinformation. Conspiracies, Yasmin says, thrive in the absence of clear and consistent guidance from leaders. As the pandemic wears on, the Trump administration continues to contradict itself, sending mixed messaging on testing, schools, masks, and social distancing—not to mention the possible vaccine. Parents are left to their own devices, relying on incomplete information to keep their families safe. “We are in a state of heightened anxiety and fear, and we’re looking for a way to understand what’s happening in the world,” Yasmin said. “Charlatans are plugging those knowledge gaps. They’re saying completely false things with a sense of authority.”
Strang, the Camarillo moms’ group moderator, sees that dynamic play out every day as she sifts through the moms’ group feed, trying to root out the most paranoid posts. “I get it, we’re stuck at home with our kids, it’s hard, we’re all losing our minds,” she told me. “Trust me. I’m there too. But I think some people are beginning to believe that thoughts equate to fact.”
QAnon didn’t start out targeting parents’ groups. Its true origins are murky—some have suggested that the theory was amplified by Russian operatives to further destabilize American democracy. It gained popularity beginning a few years ago, first in the right-wing fringe, then it made its way through the evangelical Christian community and into some libertarian enclaves. So sprawling is the QAnon universe that it seems to be able to adapt to prey on the specific fears of subgroups. In the case of parents, of course, that’s kids.
No matter where they lived or how large their community was, all the moderators I talked to had the same experience. It all started when lockdown began back in March with a trickle of odd posts. First, came the questions about social distancing measures, then pseudoscientific “research” about how masks make coronavirus worse and social distancing can weaken the immune system were shared. In May, Plandemic appeared and after that, the trickle of memes became a torrent. Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were part of the “deep state,” for instance, and the government was using mask orders to force citizens into complicity through “trauma bonding” (a psychological phenomenon similar to Stockholm Syndrome wherein victims feel dependent on their abusers). As the spring wore on, the #saveourchildren QAnon hashtag gained momentum, and some members used moms’ groups to organize in-person rallies against child trafficking and what they believed was rampant pedophilia. Some of the moderators I talked to had the impression that many moms who shared these ideas didn’t know that they were part of a broader conspiracy theory.
“It just seemed like the floodgates opened,” said Green, of the Collier County, Florida, group. All of a sudden, the members of her group had gone from obsessing about their kids’ lunches to sharing QAnon memes about child trafficking. In many cases, the posts originated in smaller, private Facebook groups composed of people who share the same worldview. Where Kristen Alden lives, in the politically mixed community of Conejo Valley, a group called Conservative Moms of Conejo Valley is the source of many posts. In Florida, there’s a group called Un-masked Home Schoolers of Collier.
The spread of misinformation isn’t restricted to local parenting groups—it’s also flourishing in holistic child-rearing and natural birth communities. On his Facebook page, Dr. Bob Sears, an attachment parenting guru and vaccine critic with 97,000 followers, rails against school closures and COVID vaccines. Based in Southern California, he has invited his local followers to attend “freedom rallies” protesting mandatory masks and social distancing measures. In his podcast, “The Vaccine Conversation,” he promotes the discredited coronavirus treatment of hydroxychloroquine and celebrates citizens who are “pushing back against state government” on mask mandates and business closures.
While Sears doesn’t explicitly mention any of the more far-fetched QAnon ideas, his followers do in the comments. “It will take the entire world to stop the corruption of Bill Gates, the World Health Org, the CDC and the FDA, collectively known as the ‘#medicalmafia,’ reads one comment on a post criticizing the idea of a mandatory COVID vaccine. In response to a post in which Dr. Sears praises the CDC for calling for schools to reopen, one commenter speculates that the CDC is “planning some 5G rollouts in/near schools which will help fuel their ‘second wave’ narrative.”
Some have gone further. Take the Instagram account Informed Mothers, which has 39,000 followers and the tagline, “Our society isn’t chronically ill + pharmaceutically dependent by accident. It’s time to take a stand.” The group used to share anti-vaccine memes and promote herbal medicine and other alternative remedies, but starting last spring, the mix included coronavirus-hoax memes. Today, the account vacillates between innocuous “hippie mom” jokes (“Hippie dippie mommas teaching their kiddos the alphabet like ‘A is for apple cider vinegar” keep it going”) and QAnon memes. “Nothing to see here…just mainstream media protecting pedophiles again,” reads an August 13 post. A July 10 post reads, “Pizzagate isn’t looking so crazy now, huh?”
Yolande Norris-Clark is the cofounder of the Free Birth Society, a Canadian group that was established to train women to give birth at home without professional assistance. Clark, who has more than 25,000 followers on Instagram, mostly used to share photos of her eight children and memes about the virtues of childbirth without medical interventions. But lately, her account has a distinctly different flavor. “The mask is a religious icon: devotion, piety, propriety, obedience,” she posted on April 11. “It’s a literal muzzle; a symbolic scold’s bridle.” On her Youtube channel, with a serene smile and a lilting cadence she imparts insights from QAnon ideology. In a video she posted on August 1 titled “Bringer of Light—Fear, Surveillance & Revolution,” she describes coronavirus as a government hoax and alludes to a revolt. “More and more people really are starting to wake up,” she warns.
The idea of awakening to the truth is a running theme in the recent social media postings of Dr. Christiane Northrup, a board certified OB/Gyn author of the influential 1994 book holistic women’s health book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. She describes herself as “a visionary pioneer and a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness, which includes the unity of mind, body, emotions, and spirit.” An advocate of unmedicated childbirth and a critic of childhood vaccines, she has 108,000 followers on Twitter and more than 500,000 on Facebook. In her writing and posts, she blends conventional medical advice with alternative and new age practices like herbal medicine and reiki. But since the pandemic began, her posts have become darker, featuring coronavirus conspiracy theories nearly every day. Beginning in March, she has been sharing QAnon videos and memes, often with the “savethechildren” hashtag.
In the spring, she railed against contact tracing, masks, and vaccine development. Nestled among Facebook posts about weight loss and childbirth-caused incontinence are a series of videos called the “Great Awakening,” in which she refers to the idea that the government’s nefarious scheming will soon be revealed. “Those of us who know what’s going on are going to be all hands on deck,” she says in a September 12 video. “You and I know—we see things that others don’t see.” In a September 17 video, she praises the video Plandemic. On Twitter, her posts are more extreme, sometimes with racist overtones. On September 4, for instance, she shared a World News Daily article titled: “Appalling: Airline bans U.S. flag on face masks, but is apparently fine with ‘Black Lives Matter”—a reference to the QAnon-adjacent idea that Black Lives Matter peaceful protest groups are actually plants by the “deep state” to sow chaos and violence in American cities.
Derek Beres, a freelance journalist who hosts the podcast Conspirituality, about conspiracy thinking in the new-age community, recently devoted an episode to Northrup. “She’s been very influential—women, mothers, have really appreciated her advocacy around the idea that you know best for your own kid, that doctors are just trying to make money off you and your family,” he told me. He explained how this fits with Northrup’s recent slide into the QAnon trope of rampant child sex trafficking. “You imagine your child being stolen or molested,” he said, “and that’s just hitting the same fear button.” Indeed, my colleague Ali Breland noted this in his 2019 piece “Why Are Right-Wing Conspiracies so Obsessed With Pedophilia?” He wrote, “Conspiracies centering on the vulnerability of children are neither new nor distinctly American.” This is just the latest iteration.
Then there’s the holistic nutrition group Nourishing Our Children, whose Facebook page has nearly 84,000 followers. A project of a 21-year-old popular holistic nutrition advocacy group called the Weston A. Price Foundation, Nourishing Our Children says its mission is to “address the dramatic deterioration in the health of our children,” and it promotes diets for babies and kids that are heavy on high-fat foods that come from animals—think red meat, lard, and butter. The group advocates against vaccines and in favor of the consumption of raw milk (which is illegal in many states because it can harbor dangerous bacteria).
In the past few months, the Weston A. Price Foundation and Nourishing Our Children have promoted ideas that go far beyond quirky diet advice into the territory of health disinformation, especially around COVID-19. The groups oppose mask mandates and social distancing measures, and they rail against the idea of a coronavirus vaccine. Once more, the transition from garden-variety health disinformation to QAnon conspiracies seems inevitable. An August 10, post on Nourishing Our Children reads, “Spread the word. #savethechildren in the comments of this post, please!”
On August 14, Nourishing Our Children invited followers of its Facebook page to join a book group to discuss a book called The Contagion Myth. Written by Weston A. Price Foundation president Sally Morell and a naturopathic doctor named Thomas S. Cowan, who is currently under probation for gross negligence in the treatment of a patient. The book puts forth the theory that not only is the coronavirus not contagious, but that the symptoms of the disease are actually caused by 5G cell phone networks, part of the government’s master plan to track citizens. It also argues that “masks, social distancing and vaccines do no good and can only make the situation worse.”
In the comments on Nourishing Our Children, readers draw comparisons between what they see as unwholesome additives in children’s food and far-out theories of government control. In a comment on the post about the book group, one follower expressed skepticism about the notion that 5G networks are to blame for coronavirus. Another disagreed and pointed out, “WHO, funded by China, also has vested interest in one of the biggest 5G makers, Huawawei. So this is similar to McDonald’s telling you that vegetable oil is not going to make you sick.” In a way, the group’s longstanding fixation on purity of food seems to have primed them for other paranoid ideology.
That holistic parenting and birth groups are venturing into extremism doesn’t surprise Timothy Caulfield, a professor of law at University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, and the research director of its Health Law Institute. Caulfield, who studies health misinformation and is the author of the book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? notes that many parents might find a single point that rings true in their message. “Yes, pregnancy and birth have been medicalized inappropriately in the past, that it has been a problem, and yes, women’s health needs have been ignored, and women haven’t been listened to,” Caulfield said. These groups use those perfectly legitimate complaints to defend their belief in dangerous practices such as having a baby without any professional guidance, skipping vaccines, and feeding children unpasteurized milk. And Caulfield notes that these hardliners have little tolerance for other points of view: “It’s like, ‘If you agree these things are a problem, then you agree with the entire package of our perspective. And if you disagree, then you’re the enemy.’ They’re very good at doing that.”
It’s alarming enough that these especially toxic conspiracy ideas are spreading in online parenting communities, but now those groups are beginning to organize face-to-face events, as well. Several of the moderators told me that moms had used the Facebook groups to plan anti-mask rallies. Strang, the Camarillo group moderator, said that when community leaders warned against Halloween trick-or-treating, some parents said they would pass out candy anyway in protest. Green, the Collier County, Florida, moderator, said that when moms in her group planned a Black Lives Matter vigil in the wake of the George Floyd killing, other moms showed up to counter-protest. Another time, when moms in her group planned a “Save the Children” rally, she agonized over what to do: She supported the idea of raising awareness of child trafficking, but some of the members planned carry signs promoting discredited QAnon ideas like #wayfairgate. “What was I supposed to do?” she said. “It would have looked like I wasn’t in favor of ending human trafficking.” She ended up leaving the post up but turning off the comments. (The rally did end up happening, but Green doesn’t know how many people showed up, since she didn’t attend.)
Nourishing Our Children regularly urges its Facebook followers to attend the Weston A. Price Foundation’s annual conference. The agenda includes several sessions targeted at parents, including “Homeopathy for Children” and “Vaccine Fraud.” It also includes a session about the group’s belief that coronavirus isn’t contagious, and another about the dangers of 5G cellphone networks. Originally, the event was supposed to take place in Portland, Oregon, but because of the coronavirus, the city has temporarily banned large gatherings.
The conference is now scheduled to take place at a Sheraton hotel in Atlanta. “This hotel won’t require our group to wear masks or keep distances,” the group explains on its events page. On Facebook, about 800 people have already RSVP’d for the conference—some of whom may be nurses who will earn continuing education credits for attending. The group says that these credits are accepted by the credentialing body of the Maryland Nurses Association. (The Maryland Nurses Association didn’t respond to my request for comment.) A spokeswoman for Marriott, the hotel chain that owns the Sheraton brand, said that the company “requires everyone, at all hotels across North America, to wear a face covering” and that “we have engaged the franchise manager of the hotel to address this.” As of publication of this piece, Weston A. Price Foundation was still advertising its mask-free conference.
The prospect of actual virus cases coming out of online communities’ live organizing rattles public-health experts. When I told Caulfield, the health law and misinformation expert, about the Weston A. Price’s maskless conference plans, he was audibly shocked. “Really?” he said. “That’s incredible.”
Over the summer, Kristen Alden, the mother in Thousand Oaks, California, left her Facebook moms’ group. The conspiracy posts were weighing on her, and she didn’t need the extra stress they caused. Still, she struggled to make the decision to quit. “I realized that it’s a form of denial to leave the group because it’s not like they don’t exist anymore,” she said. “Those are still women who are next to me at the grocery store, but I don’t need the detailed reminder.”
The moderators I talked to all said they knew of many mothers who had quit the groups, like Alden, because they felt alienated among people who had once served as a supportive community. Strang, the moderator of the Camarillo group, says she feels deep sadness when she thinks of the mothers who come to the group assuming they will find a safe place—and are met with conspiracy theories instead. “These groups are such a support system for so many people,” she said. “So it’s just sad when people try to take them over advancing their bizarre agendas.”
But it can be difficult to figure out how to change the minds of people who are convinced that they are correct. In a recent advice piece about conspiracy theories spreading through online parenting communities, The New York Times suggested, “If it’s someone you don’t know personally, respond with facts.” That’s a start, but Yasmin, the Stanford physician and health misinformation expert, believes that approach might not be enough. “More and more I’m seeing that misinformation and disinformation are packaged with political information—vaccines and masks are anti-freedom, anti-American,” she says. “You don’t counter that by citing studies. These are tied into beliefs about freedom and what it means to be American.” In other instances, the misinformation is packaged in a way that’s meant to tug at parents’ heartstrings —say a story about a child who died after receiving a routine vaccination. In order to combat misinformation, Yasmin says, pro-science groups will have to beat the purveyors at their own game, finding effective ways to reach fellow parents. One idea that some vaccine advocacy groups are already trying out: sharing stories of children who died of vaccine-preventable diseases. “Compelling and well-told stories on parenting sites—those can really connect with parents,” she says. “They offer an emotional connection that’s very hard to counteract with facts.”
Moderators are trying hard to dial back the misinformation and instead promote the kinds of things that the groups were founded to provide: maternal bonding, information about community activities, and advice-sharing on parenting. The onslaught of paranoia can be utterly exhausting, and the conspiracy theorists are relentless, especially the way they recombine in private groups. After I reached out to Un-masked Home Schoolers of Collier for comment on this piece, a member sent me this post:
Still, the moderators keep doing their jobs because they believe the groups are important. “Some days it’s like why, why do we do this?” said Strang. On the especially late nights, when she’s reviewing the day’s mountain of posts, she reminds herself that for many moms, the group is a lifeline. “I’ve had people come to me and say it saved their lives—if it wasn’t for this group, they would have literally jumped off a bridge, but they found support,” she said. “That’s the reason I keep doing it.”
This story has been updated.