The real Samara Duplessis was sprawled across her comforter, her thumb on Instagram. Summer could drag on in the Detroit suburbs, and the summer of 2020 - her eighth-grade graduation reduced to Zoom, her whole world masked and anxious - was already the most boring of them all.
But it felt even more bleak to 13-year-old Samara, whose parents had been a mess of worry ever since what happened in the spring.
In May, Samara had stuffed a box of Frosted Flakes into her sparkly backpack, slipped out the door and ran away. She had just needed a break from it all, you know?
It was terrifying for her parents, Samara understood that now. The search parties, the police alerts, the missing posters.
They found her after two days, and ever since, everything in Samara’s life was about “rebuilding trust” and “taking responsibility.” All she wanted was for her parents to see that she was fine, and they didn’t need to be so worried.
On this afternoon in July, she felt perfectly safe.
She scrolled to the next Instagram post, and the next, and the next, until her phone rang. Her dad’s name was on the screen.
“Something’s going on,” Kevin Duplessis told his daughter.
Within the last 20 minutes, more than a dozen people had called him, frantic about whether Samara was OK. Apparently, thousands of people on the Internet were talking about the same thing.
Samara’s name and face were going viral, along with the names and faces of half a dozen other children.
One tweet circulating her picture showed a screenshot of an old local news article that said Samara Duplessis was missing. The article was never updated when Samara was found safe.
Beside it was a screenshot of a pillow for sale on Wayfair, the online furniture superstore. It was called the “Duplessis” pillow. Its price: $9,999.
The person behind the post was seemingly arguing that because the pillow was marked at a ridiculous price, and because its name matched the last name of a child who appeared to be missing, Wayfair was involved in something sinister.
There were thousands of tweets making similar accusations about cabinets Wayfair was selling. The claims were on Facebook, too. And on Reddit, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. Within 72 hours, the company was trending, with an estimated 1.2 million tweets about Wayfair and trafficking.
In the days to come, every aspect of these claims would be found to be false.
Human trafficking investigators at the Department of Homeland Security, who had to pause active investigations to sort out what was happening with Wayfair, would find no evidence to support any of the allegations. Wayfair’s staff, bombarded with threats, would realize how the pricing anomalies were happening. Anti-trafficking organizations, inundated with callers, would beg the public to stop sharing bogus stories that made their work harder.
But with limited immediate intervention from social media companies, the Wayfair conspiracy theory would become one of the fastest-spreading disinformation campaigns on the Internet, ensnaring concerned mothers, TikToking teenagers, racial justice advocates and people all along the political spectrum.
They didn’t realize they were amplifying a QAnon propaganda artist trying to convince the masses that President Donald Trump was saving the country from a ring of satanic pedophiles.
And they didn’t know how dangerous child sex trafficking myths were about to become. That actual victims would be blocked from getting help. That women fearing traffickers would be driven to violence. And that the real children whose pictures were used in this ploy would have their lives upended.
One of those children was trying to make sense of what her dad was saying.
Kevin Duplessis Jr. and his ex-wife Tammy Samuels, Samara’s mom, still hadn’t recovered from their daughter running away two months earlier. Samara was the only child they had together, their little girl who belted out gospel music and argued like the lawyers she loved on “Law and Order.”
She was beautiful in a way that drew comments at church, always about her stunning green eyes. And now people were saying Samara was some kind of target for sex trafficking? Or there was a price on her head? They didn’t know what this was about, but they knew it wasn’t good.
“Do not leave the house,” Kevin instructed his daughter.
Samara laid back on her bed. Her parents were probably just overreacting, she thought. But a few minutes later, her phone rang again.
It was one of her closest friends, panicked about Wayfair.
“If you playing, tell me now,” Samara told him.
He sent her screenshot after screenshot.
Samara didn’t know anything about algorithms that caused pricing inconsistencies. She’d never heard of QAnon. She saw only her face. Her name. $9,999.
With every passing minute, her certainty about her safety was slipping away.
With every passing minute, more people were posting her picture.
Many of them wrote that they didn’t know if what they were reading about Wayfair was true, but they figured that sharing it couldn’t hurt.
Samara was about to find out just how much it would.
In another bedroom 700 miles away, Zari McFadden reached for her phone and discovered it was hot. Which was weird. She had been sleeping in her parents’ house, too, ever since her own graduation, from Spelman College, had been interrupted by the pandemic.
Bored back home in North Carolina, 20-year-old Zari had been doing a lot of doom-scrolling, including the night before, when she had been shocked by the tweets she was seeing about Wayfair.
Zari usually tweeted about activism and TV shows to her few hundred followers. When she saw the picture of Samara Duplessis, she thought about how the stories of Black girls like her and Samara so often went ignored. Here, she thought, was a chance to do something about it.
“Y’all, this Wayfair Human trafficking thing is crazy,” she’d typed.
Now she could see why her phone was hot. It was lighting up with every new notification, and by morning, there were nearly 10,000 retweets. Soon there would be more than 64,000.
A researcher analyzing the false claims about Wayfair would pinpoint Zari’s tweet as one of the most powerful spreaders of the misinformation.
But she was far from the one to start it. By the time Zari read about the Wayfair frenzy, it had been simmering on the Internet for nearly a month.
It began, QAnon researchers say, with a tweet from a woman who calls herself Amazing Polly.
Polly, a middle-aged White woman in Canada, had spent years making YouTube videos with titles like “How to fight Islamic prayer in school” and “Diversity is a con job.” She professed her allegiance to QAnon in 2018, after watching a viral video warning that everyone from former President Barack Obama to the Queen of England and the Pope were “deep state criminals” destabilizing the world for their own gain.
QAnon had grown out of another conspiracy theory - Pizzagate - that commandeered the issue of child sex trafficking to spread pro-Trump propaganda. Pizzagate was so effective in convincing one man that pedophile Democrats were abusing children in the basement of a Washington pizza restaurant that in 2016, he showed up with an AR-15 to “rescue” the nonexistent children.
He was sentenced to four years in prison for the three shots he fired into the restaurant.
Pizzagate was a cautionary tale, showing how online conspiracy theories about sex-trafficked children could lead to real-life violence. But that did nothing to stop more made-up stories from spreading.
Instead, QAnon followers, with the assistance of YouTubers like Amazing Polly, used sex trafficking as a tool to gain traction, especially with women. By the time pandemic lockdowns drove people to spend endless hours on their screens, false claims about Tom Hanks, Chrissy Teigen, Ellen DeGeneres and other celebrities trafficking children were regularly appearing on mainstream social media platforms. So many people believed Oprah was about to be arrested for trafficking in March 2020 that the Boca Raton Police Department in Florida had to tweet that the rumor was not true.
This time, Polly’s target was a high-profile corporation. In an email to The Washington Post, Polly, who declined to reveal her real name, said she was shopping for storage cabinets when she noticed multiple low-quality photos of the same cabinet at a variety of high prices.
“At the time I was doing a lot of research into human trafficking so my twitter post about the cabinets was kind of a ‘raised eyebrow’ type thing,” she said.
Her June Wayfair tweet planted a seed that was cultivated by other social media users. By mid-July, they had matched the cabinet and pillow names to real children, dreamed up bogus meanings for SKU numbers and invented rumors about Wayfair executives. On Instagram and TikTok, self-proclaimed influencers who regularly posted about motherhood or beauty products gained hundreds of likes, followers and subscribers by repeating the lies.
Every share was a potential for more people to “look into” the allegations - and with a few more clicks, find their way to other QAnon content. In her next YouTube video, Amazing Polly encouraged them to do just that.
“The people who are now just waking up because of Wayfairgate, I hope you’ll go down these other rabbit holes, too,” she said.
In North Carolina, Zari wasn’t going down the rabbit hole. She’d been excited at first about all the traction her tweets about Samara and the pillow were getting. She had even bragged to her mom about it.
But Zari, who was starting graduate school in the fall, was planning to pursue a PhD in algorithmic bias, researching the ways technology could be helpful or harmful. As she read the replies to her tweets, she saw how many people were telling her the Wayfair claims were being debunked. They informed her that journalists had found old Facebook posts from Samara’s parents saying she had returned home safely.
“I sort of felt uncomfortable about it,” Zari said. She came to a realization: “I don’t know that this is true, really.”
She deleted the tweet specifically about Samara, telling her followers she wasn’t missing after all. Eventually, Zari would delete all eight of her tweets about Wayfair.
But she knew enough about the Internet to know that to the 64,000 people who shared what she shared, and to all the people who followed them, there was no taking it back.
Samara did not leave her dad’s house. Sometimes, she did not leave her bed. But even lying there, she was afraid to fall asleep. She stayed on the phone with a friend all night, not wanting to be alone.
“I started getting real bad anxiety. I started pacing around real heavy,” she recalled. “When I get in my head, like real, real deep in my head, I start hyperventilating.”
The hives came next.
“My body is just doing whatever it can just to get me to calm down,” she said.
Samara had talked about Wayfair with her dad a few times, and he still didn’t seem to know what to do about her picture being all over the Internet. So how could she be sure she wasn’t going to be snatched one day? She didn’t tell anyone about the hives, though.
She didn’t want her parents to know how freaked out she was.
All the while, Samara’s mother, Tammy, kept returning to her Facebook inbox. It was full of alarming messages from strangers and distant friends.
Tammy worked as a counselor who helped kids in the juvenile court system. But at home, she was struggling to get through to her own teenager. The night Samara snuck out two months before, they’d been fighting because Tammy had taken Samara’s phone.
The 48 hours Samara was gone were the worst of Tammy’s life. There were so many false tips that sent them running around Detroit and frustrated conversations with police officers she worried weren’t taking her seriously. And then, when Samara was found safe, Tammy learned that she’d been temporarily taken in by total strangers who had offered her a place to stay. They kicked Samara out once her face was on the news, but they didn’t call the police or her parents.
So even as Tammy read the articles saying the Wayfair thing was a lie, she couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow, there was a bounty on her daughter’s head.
“Can my child go outside?” Tammy asked herself. “Can she go to the grocery store without people lurking? We don’t know.”
Samara’s parents never realized that nearly all the other “missing” kids who were named in the viral posts about Wayfair weren’t actually missing.
One girl from Texas had run away for a few days in 2017, but like 92% of all children reported missing, was recovered. Now 19, she posted a TikTok to show everyone she was just fine. Her mother, Katrina Waggoner Phillips, was not. The moment she saw her daughter’s missing poster being shared again as a supposed Wayfair sex trafficking victim, it felt like a mostly healed wound had been ripped open.
“I just started shaking all over,” Phillips recalled. “Everything was bringing back the memories of when that poster was made, when she had run away.”
Cameron Dziedzic, a 16-year-old boy from Maryland, tried to ignore how many people were sharing a picture from when he had gone to stay with friends for a few weeks without telling his family. He’d since been placed into foster care and was working toward joining the military.
But one day at Walmart, an employee recognized him as the boy next to pictures of the $9,999 “Dziedzic” pillow.
“Chill out,” Cameron told the woman. “Everything is good.”
She called the police anyway.
Even when one 18-year-old girl went on Facebook Live to demand people stop saying she was being sold in a cabinet, commenters refused to listen. They said she was probably being forced to make the video. Or that she should be “grateful” people were trying to help her.
“You’re mad because I’m telling you that I’m not missing?” she asked the 530,000 viewers of her live stream.
A woman watching didn’t like her tone. “Put her ass back in the cabinet,” she commented.
Hundreds of thousands of people wanted to help these children when they believed they were victims of sex trafficking. When it turned out that they were victims of a viral hoax, the kids and their families were left to face the wreckage alone.
Samara’s mom tried calling the Michigan attorney general. Someone there, she remembered, told her to call the FBI. Tammy did, but said she never heard anything back.
After that, she decided it would be better not to talk about any of this with Samara.
She didn’t want her daughter to know how freaked out she was.
Nearly two months after Wayfair was trending on Twitter, a real victim of sex trafficking was sitting in a hospital emergency room in the Florida Panhandle.
A nurse giving her a sexual assault examination had recognized the warning signs. She called a local advocate, who would come to learn that this woman in her 30s had been coerced by two men to sell herself out of a hotel. In exchange, she got a place to stay.
The advocate, Katie Howard, knew this was what most sex trafficking looked like in America. Not kidnapping. Not stranger danger. Not Wayfair cabinets or pillows. Just a person being manipulated by someone exploiting their vulnerability.
Howard knew, too, what she needed to do: call the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which provides resources to people being coerced into commercial sex or any kind of forced labor.
But when she called, she was placed on hold. It was late, so she filed a written assistance request for this victim instead.
That request landed in an inbox still full of people who wanted Wayfair to be investigated and Samara Duplessis and the other kids in their social media feeds to be rescued.
The highly trained advocates at Polaris, the nonprofit that operates the hotline on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services, had been repeating the same response for weeks: “We’ve actually already heard about this. We understand that law enforcement has already determined that this information is unfounded.”
Even before Pizzagate, they were accustomed to hearing the sensational myths people believed about trafficking, from zip ties on cars to secret messages in the snow. For years, they had been explaining to the public that most victims of sex trafficking are exploited by someone they already know. The charming guy from Instagram, whose threats don’t start until the 10th date. The generous landlord who offers a different way to pay the rent. The heroin-addicted parents who, just this once, let someone pay to touch their teenager.
Now legions of callers were parroting QAnon propaganda, most without even knowing it.
“The majority of people who were swept up in this misinformation really believed that this was a human trafficking ring, and that no one cared,” said hotline director Megan Cutter, who had to call in extra staff for weeks.
Both Polaris and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children passed on everything they were hearing about the Wayfair claims to local police and federal agencies.
Ongoing investigations across the country were put on hold while a viral lie took precedence.
At Homeland Security, that impacted all 30 field offices, said Ramon Padilla, acting division chief for the Center for Countering Human Trafficking.
“That time could be spent trying to identify victims, and doing the stuff that investigators need to do in order to get a prosecution, and ensure that these traffickers go to jail,” Padilla said.
Polaris’s insistence that the Wayfair story was false did little to stop its spread. Neither did a statement from Wayfair, which issued a short paragraph saying there was no truth to the claims and the expensive cabinets in question were industrial grade and accurately priced.
The company hired armed security at several fulfillment centers after an onslaught of threats from people who claimed they were bringing their guns to “free” the kids. Some pointed to Wayfair’s lack of explanation about the pricing of the other products, like the Duplessis pillow, as proof that they were hiding something.
Jane Carpenter, the company’s global head of communications, could have provided a detailed accounting of what went wrong. Manufacturers uploading their own products to Wayfair’s platform don’t always fill out every needed piece of information. The company had long ago created a workaround where the product would default to a high price, like $9,999, until the true price was determined. With millions of items for sale on the site, there were occasionally duplicate products and mismatched prices.
But Carpenter, working from home while figuring out how to navigate her first QAnon crisis, decided Wayfair would stay quiet.
“Our goal was really to try to minimize adding anything else to the story, and try to do whatever we could to not add fuel to the fire” she said.
Online, QAnon devotees were already doing that for her. After Facebook started placing warning labels on Wayfair-related content and Twitter started banning those promoting it, Q followers went even further in co-opting the anti-sex trafficking cause. They started using the name of an international humanitarian organization, Save the Children, as their hashtag. The hashtag became a rallying cry, fit for pastel-colored Instagram posts and homemade posters waved at the roughly 200 “save the children” events that took place in late summer 2020, from Spokane, Wash., to Sarasota, Fla.
The signs were also popular at rallies for Trump, who, when asked about QAnon at a town hall before the election, said, “I know nothing about it. I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard.”
All the while, the calls, texts and online reports to the trafficking hotline kept coming, burying requests like the one from the advocate in Florida.
The woman at the hospital was afraid of being arrested, and she didn’t want to talk to the police.
“You are not going to get in trouble for this,” Howard had assured her. She just wanted to find this trafficking victim a safe place to stay.
She called the hotline two more times that weekend.
By the time Polaris’s advocates connected her with an organization that had a room to spare, the woman who needed her help had fled.
Howard, who had given her a business card, hoped she’d get in touch. But the only call she received was from another hotline advocate, wanting to follow up on the written request that was now two weeks old.
The advocate apologized for the delay, explaining how backed up they were with callers demanding that they “save the children.” She was ready to provide support however she could with this case.
Howard explained to the hotline worker that it was too late. She never heard from the woman who asked for her help again.
While Samara was trying to stop thinking about child traffickers, a woman in Georgia couldn’t think about anything else.
Rosanne Boyland had been up all night, watching YouTube and sending links about Wayfair to her family. At 34, Rosanne didn’t have kids of her own, and because of cervical cancer, she likely never would. But she had nieces to think about, the 4- and 5-year-old girls who loved to paint her fingernails, cover her driveway in sidewalk chalk and call her “RoRo.”
Rosanne texted her sisters Blaire and Lonna about Wayfair again.
“It was not like ‘oh this is so crazy.’ She was really upset,” Blaire remembered. “She wanted to look more into it to try and help put an end to it.”
Blaire knew her sister, like so many people, was having a tough time during the pandemic. Rosanne couldn’t attend the in-person Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that had helped keep her away from opioids the last few years. Now, it seemed like she was replacing her old addiction with a new one.
Although YouTube had begun removing false information about Wayfair and QAnon that July, Rosanne’s family said she was still finding video after video about the furniture site and Jeffrey Epstein, the Clintons and cabals, Pizzagate and pedophiles.
“In a couple-week period, she was fully into QAnon and the celebrities eating children for their adrenochrome. It happened really quick,” Blaire said.
By fall, Rosanne, who’d never voted or shown interest in politics, was touting Trump’s brilliance. By the holidays, she was talking about the election being stolen. She was certain that on Jan. 6, Trump was going to announce the arrest of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and his master plan to save the children.
The Boyland family, who had been Googling “how to get someone free from a cult,” couldn’t convince her not to go to Washington.
Rosanne told Blaire, “If I’m wrong, you guys can do whatever you want to me. I just have this deep down feeling that I’m right. I want it to be proven that I’m right.”
They never got to have that discussion.
As a mob stormed the Capitol’s West Front, Rosanne was in their midst. As they battled the line of police trying to protect the polished brass doors, Rosanne was lying on the terrace, unconscious. She would become one of four rioters to die that day.
An autopsy found she’d overdosed on amphetamines. Her family still questions that conclusion, saying the only amphetamine in her body was the Adderall she’d been prescribed.
Police attempting to reach Rosanne that day were attacked with fists and flagpoles, according to prosecutors pursuing cases against some of the rioters. Video footage shows one man reaching over her body to bash a helmetless officer with a baton.
To her gleeful attackers on the Internet, Rosanne was a meme in the making, a woman with a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, trampled by her own co-conspirators.
To Blaire, Rosanne was still the person who went with her to see Green Day for her first concert, who took the pictures at family parties, who had truly believed she was doing her part to fight something evil.
To those studying QAnon, Rosanne’s story was further proof that conspiracy theories about child sex trafficking were serving as on-ramps to far-right radicalization and disturbing acts of violence.
Outside of the insurrection, there have been at least nine QAnon-inspired crimes in 2020 and 2021 committed by people who believed they were in the midst of saving the children, according to data from a University of Maryland analysis.
A woman driving drunk in Texas repeatedly rammed her car into another vehicle. Cecilia Fulbright, who has not yet entered a plea in the case, told police the driver she struck “was a pedophile and had kidnapped a girl for human trafficking.”
In New Hampshire, a woman who had been talking about QAnon and sex trafficking barricaded herself and her own two children in an upstairs bedroom. Then, police say, Elizabeth Corliss lit the room on fire. She pleaded not guilty to arson and other charges. But court records show that when the family was rescued, her 9-year-old daughter told an EMT, “When the bad guys broke in, my mom set the fire to protect us.”
And in California, a mother struggling with depression began to tell family members that she alone was responsible for the coronavirus, and that her husband was involved in a sex-trafficking ring. One evening in April when her kids - ages 3, 2 and 6 months - were in the bathtub, she drowned them all.
“I killed my children,” Liliana Carrillo told KGET in a television interview from jail. “I hate myself for it, but like I said, I wasn’t about to hand them off to be continuously tortured and abused.”
“I promised,” she said, “to protect them from everything that would come their way.”
As these women await trials, their families are questioning what they consumed on social media - and how it twisted their minds so quickly.
A recent document leak from a Facebook whistleblower showed that before the company cracked down on misinformation, its own algorithms promoted QAnon content and encouraged users to join QAnon groups.
Today, Facebook says it removes all pages, groups and Instagram accounts connected to QAnon. It sends people searching for “save the children” directly to information about the nonprofit of the same name. YouTube and Twitter said they have ousted thousands of users spreading extremist content. Amazing Polly has been banned from YouTube and had her most influential Twitter account shut down. She and other QAnon influencers remain on fringe platforms, but most have far fewer viewers.
And yet, the Wayfair conspiracy theory has continued to find new audiences. It has thrived most in an unexpected place: TikTok, where young content creators have racked up millions of views repeating the trope that unusually high-priced items are related to trafficking. Along with Wayfair, they’ve gone after Walmart, Amazon and Etsy. EBay was accused of being involved in trafficking when someone listed a McDonald’s chicken nugget for $100,000.
“This needs to go viral and something needs to happen here,” the video creator said.
Eventually, the chicken nugget video was banned. TikTok says its moderators proactively identify and remove false content that causes harm, along with blocking hashtags such as #pizzagate.
But before the video disappeared, the nugget theory had spread to Facebook.
A trafficking survivor who goes by the name Jessica Dean on her TikTok account @bloodbathandbeyond, said there is so much misinformation about sex trafficking on TikTok, she spends her nights and weekends making videos to counteract it. No, she tells her 352,000 followers, Walmart is not selling kids via $5,000 shoe listings. The spam texts you’re getting from bots are not traffickers hunting you down. Empty baby car seats on the street are not traps to lure women into trafficking.
Some creators making these TikToks seem genuinely concerned, Dean said. Others seem to be pandering for likes and followers. The impact is the same.
“It’s very easy to scare women in under 60 seconds,” Dean said.
Rosanne’s sisters believe she was scared, too. As the anniversary of her death approaches, Lonna and Blaire still wonder if Rosanne would have given up on QAnon once the predictions about Trump didn’t come true.
They have yet to go through her room, or all her journals, where they know they are likely to discover more evidence of just how radicalized she had become.
But they did notice one sticky note Rosanne wrote not long before going to Washington. It wasn’t about “saving the children.” It was just about one child.
Rosanne had recorded the date her niece lost her first tooth. What mattered most to her family now was that she couldn’t mark the second.
Samara sat in the back seat of her mom’s minivan, watching Detroit pass in a blur. She was on her way to meet new people, something that still made her uneasy a year and a half after thousands of strangers shared her pictures online.
“It never truly leaves your spirit,” Samara said. “Just to know that somebody had the capability to take me from my family. . . . It becomes a lifestyle, making sure I’m always cautious of who is around me.”
Her dad still had security cameras outside his door. Her mom still didn’t want her to go to in-person school, so Samara was taking all of her sophomore-year classes online. She didn’t go to homecoming.
But earlier this year, Samara convinced her parents to let her try modeling. They took her to classes at a Black-owned modeling school, where she learned to walk a runway, hold her posture and build her confidence.
On this November afternoon, she was headed to practice for a fashion show, where at 15, she would be the youngest model on the stage.
Samara got out of the van, and her mother followed. Tammy made sure a coach she trusted was inside.
“Mommy needs to see,” she said.
In her chunky-heeled boots, Samara took her place in line. She smiled at the other models. She hoped they wouldn’t Google her.
Samara imagined that one day, her search results would show her accomplishments in the Air Force, or that she was putting a law degree to good use, making all kinds of people feel like they had someone by their side. For now, they still showed screenshots of a pillow and stories about sex trafficking she still didn’t fully understand.
But she couldn’t be thinking about that. She needed to be ready for her turn. She heard “Five, six, seven, eight,” and on cue, Samara stepped out.
She started walking toward the full-length mirror at the end of the runway.
Her chin was up. Her shoulders were back. Her face was composed.
Here, she wasn’t missing. Or hyperventilating. She wasn’t a trafficking victim. Or a conspiracy theorist’s pawn.
She looked at her reflection in the mirror. For the next few moments at least, her image was hers to control.
About this story: This story is based on interviews with 39 people who were affected by the spread of false information about child sex trafficking.