Republicans called an anti-trafficking activist at Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearing.
Operation Underground Railroad is an anti-child trafficking nonprofit with a history of scandals.
This announcement came after Josh Hawley accused Jackson of being soft on child predators.
A top official from the controversial anti-child trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad will testify on the Republican panel at Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's Supreme Court confirmation hearing Thursday. The nonprofit group gained an international online following in the past decade, but has been the subject of numerous scandals and is currently facing an investigation into its operations.
The official set to testify, Alessandra Serano, is the Chief Legal Officer for Operation Underground Railroad (OUR). The announcement from the Senate Judiciary Committee came after a heated day of questioning on Tuesday in which Republican senator Josh Hawley misleadingly accused Jackson of levying light punishments in child sex abuse cases.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates accused Hawley of using a "QAnon-signaling smear" following his questioning, while the Republican narrative of Jackson going easy on pedophilia has become a rallying cry for QAnon conspiracists. Republicans inviting Serano to testify appears to double down on that line of attack, with experts saying it is likely to further embolden far-right conspiracies.
"QAnon communities online have already sunk their teeth in, generally, to this hyper-focus on Jackson's record of sentencing child pornography cases, and really run with it," Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Research Lab, told Insider.
Bringing OUR into the confirmation hearing will potentially further inflame or at least offer validation for those QAnon conspiracies, Holt said.
OUR faces a number of controversies and is under investigation
OUR has a long history of controversies. Utah's Attorney's Office of Davis County is currently investigating OUR for a number of potential offenses, including misuse of funds, operators possibly being intoxicated on missions and whether its members have "engaged in sexual acts with human trafficking victims," according to a Vice News report published in June 2021, citing a source with knowledge of the investigation.
The organization was founded in Utah in 2013 by Tim Ballard, a former officer for the United States' Department of Homeland Security who in 2019 was appointed by former President Donald Trump to a White House advisory council to end human trafficking. The group lists 30 team members on its website, and is popular across social media with over 900,000 followers on Facebook and nearly 50,000 on Twitter. The most recent annual report on OUR's website says the organization solicited over $50 million in donations in 2020. In 2019, OUR stated it received over $30 million.
Individuals with connections to the group have also had links to QAnon, the web of baseless conspiracy theories that casts Trump as a savior crusading against a global cabal of deep-state human traffickers.
At a "Health and Freedom" conference in June 2021, actor Jim Caviezel shared QAnon conspiracies while promoting a biopic where he played OUR founder Ballard as a hero rescuing children around the world, Vice reported. Caviezel publicly claimed that traffickers were harvesting the chemical adrenochrome from children, a common myth in the conspiracy movement.
Caviezel had attended the conference, which featured speakers like the conspiracy theorist and QAnon influencer Lin Wood, to promote the movie and said Ballard couldn't be there because he was too busy "pulling children out of the darkest recesses of hell," according to Vice.
Although OUR denied having any affiliation with QAnon or other conspiracy theory groups in a statement to Vice, Ballard told The New York Times in August 2020 that some internet conspiracy theories about child trafficking "have allowed people to open their eyes."
OUR did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publishing.
QAnon supporters seize on child abuse questions in Jackson confirmation
The Republican focus on Jackson's sentencing record in child abuse cases and questions regarding trafficking have provided fuel to QAnon supporters. Many high-profile figures in the conspiracy movement have seized on the topic and folded Jackson into their false narratives and myths.
Ron Watkins, a prominent QAnon conspiracist who recently qualified for the ballot to run for an Arizona congressional seat, called Jackson a "pedophile enabler" and said any senator "who votes to confirm her nomination is also a pedophile enabler" to his Telegram audience of over 367,000 users on Wednesday. Several users commented violent remarks about Jackson on the post, as well as referenced George Soros – a frequent figure in QAnon and other anti-Semitic conspiracy movements.
The conspiracy theorist Liz Crokin, who has over 90,000 Telegram followers, has also written multiple posts baselessly accusing Jackson of being lenient towards pedophiles. Along with Watkins and Crokin, Holt said he noticed "some of the more conspiratorial 2020 election truther channels" have also started spreading the baseless theories on Telegram. Although Republicans have not outright accused Jackson of supporting pedophilia or directly mentioned QAnon, Holt said that these questions are an effective enough dog whistle for conspiracy theorists to fill in the gaps.
"The Republicans who keep bringing this up and invoking this don't have to take it all the way," Holt said. "These communities will often do that for them."
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