Why the child sex trafficking film 'Sound of Freedom' is getting such conflicting reactions
People who laud the film are accused of being QAnon quacks, and those who criticize it are accused of being evil pedophiles. Here's how we got to this ridiculous point.
The Angel Studios film "Sound of Freedom," released over the 4th of July weekend, has been a somewhat surprise box office hit, earning more than $90 million so far and earning a top spot at the box office.
If you follow conservative media, you may have gotten the impression that this film is an incredibly important, eye-opening look into the skeevy world of child sex trafficking and a hero who takes on the bad guys who snatch and enslave children into the sex trade.
If you follow more liberal media, you may have gotten the impression that this film is QAnon propaganda, with a starring actor who spews conspiracy theories about elites trafficking children in order to harvest their blood for youth-maintaining rituals and all manner of unspeakable debauchery.
So how did we get to a place where people who criticize this film are accused of being evil leftist pedophiles, and people who laud it are accused of being QAnon quacks?
As with most things poisoned by conspiracy theories and rank partisanship, the story is a bit muddled. I don't claim to have all of the answers, but I've interviewed Tim Ballard (the founder of Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), the subject of the film and the driving force behind it), I've written about other organizations combatting child sex trafficking and I've done my best to debunk the QAnonsense that has unfortunately become entangled with this very real issue. So I'm familiar with the road that brought us here.
"Sound of Freedom" was still in production when I interviewed Ballard in 2018. At the time, he seemed like a full-blown superhero in my eyes, utilizing his Department of Homeland Security training and expertise to root out the traffickers who buy and sell children for sex—the worst of the worst things humans do to one another. I spent an hour talking with him and cried after I got off the phone. Child sex trafficking is horrific, it's a real issue, the industry is bigger and more lucrative than most people might imagine and in order to combat it, someone has to be willing to go into the belly of the beast.
I learned a lot talking with Ballard, but notably missing from our conversation was anything QAnon-related. He mentioned nothing about pizza parlors or Hillary Clinton eating babies (remember Pizzagate?), nothing about Hollywood actors secretly being arrested for some global sex trafficking ring run by elites, nothing about adrenochrome or any of the other QAnon claims that were already well underway in 2018. The industry he talked about was similar to what other anti-trafficking organizations I've spoken to have described.
But in the years since I spoke to Ballard, I've been dismayed to see him and OUR tacitly courting of QAnoners who have completely wrong ideas about what child sex trafficking looks like. I've watched partisan politics play a bigger and bigger role in Ballard's anti-trafficking messaging (and fundraising) and have been baffled by his and OUR's seeming refusal to denounce any specific QAnon kookery—despite the comment sections of their social media accounts being filled with the stuff.
When fake claims that children were being trafficked through the Wayfair website by people ordering furniture with specific girls' names started circulating, I was hoping Ballard would set the record straight. Instead, he tweeted, "With or without Wayfair, child trafficking is real and happening!!!" totally leaving the door open for people who believed the story, despite it being unequivocally false. He also said, "Children are sold that way...no question about it, children are sold through social media and on websites," but that statement could easily be interpreted as him saying that kids are sold through major online retailers' storefronts rather than simply through online channels. That's false and misleading and plays right into the hands of QAnoners.
All I've ever seen from Ballard and OUR are vague statements like, "We don't support conspiracy theories," which is meaningless, because QAnon folks don't see themselves as conspiracy theorists. When the big #SaveTheChildren push came about in 2020, with its skewed statistics and total misrepresentation of the scope and reality of child sex trafficking, neither Ballard nor OUR corrected the widespread misinformation QAnon followers pushed. Instead, they saw the attention as an opportunity.
“Some of these theories have allowed people to open their eyes,” Ballard told the New York Times. “So now it’s our job to flood the space with real information so the facts can be shared.”
That approach belies a naive-at-best and disingenuous-at-worst understanding of how QAnon-addled minds operate. No matter how much "real information" and "facts" OUR and Ballard share, by not directly correcting and denouncing outlandish claims about child sex trafficking, they allow conspiracy theorists to conflate the real with the fake. The comments under every OUR post reveals how deep and twisted the misinformation goes, but from what I've seen, OUR has allowed those comments go unchallenged.
It may be worth noting that, in 2020, donations to OUR more than doubled, from $22 million to $47.5 million.
The way Ballard and OUR have neglected to set the record straight with their QAnon following has directly led to the extreme reactions to "Sound of Freedom." And frankly, it was totally predictable.
Of course, it doesn't help that the lead actor in the film, Jim Caveizel, appears to have fallen head-first into QAnon quackery himself and that Ballard has fully embraced the right-wing media machine that makes every issue into a partisan, politicized fight between good and evil. I've been watching with interest as Mira Sorvino—who plays the lead character's wife in the film and who has served as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Global Fight against Human Trafficking since 2009—has done damage control, explicitly denouncing QAnon and trying desperately to explain that child trafficking is not a political issue.
"Sound of Freedom" is a fictionalized film based on some real events. However, the ethical nature of the raids OUR has been involved in is certainly up for debate, and OUR's tactics and credibility have been called into question multiple times. Certainly, the Rambo-style rescue narrative with the good guys busting in on the bad guys and saving the children can be, and has been, criticized for both sensationalism and shifting the focus away from victims and their stories.
At the end of the day, "Sound of Freedom" is not a QAnon film. It's also not the best depiction of child sex trafficking, according to many who work in the anti-trafficking field. The vast majority of child trafficking victims are not lured by strangers, but rather trafficked by people they know and trust, such as a family member, friend or romantic partner. And as it's a fictionalized account, there are parts of the film that aren't even true to the real story it's depicting (which OUR clarifies on its website).
People sure do love a dramatic hero story, though
For an excellent, in-depth rundown of the film and its various issues, read this Slate article by Molly Olmstead. And if you are interested in learning more about child sex trafficking and organizations combatting it without the controversy, check out: