Baseless Wayfair child-trafficking theory spreads online

FILE - This April 17, 2018, file photo shows the Wayfair website on a computer in New York. Self-proclaimed internet sleuths are matching up names of Wayfair's products to those of missing children as part of a baseless conspiracy theory that claims the retail giant is using storage cabinets to traffic children. Wayfair responded: There is, of course, no truth to these claims. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)
FILE - This April 17, 2018, file photo shows the Wayfair website on a computer in New York. Self-proclaimed internet sleuths are matching up names of Wayfair's products to those of missing children as part of a baseless conspiracy theory that claims the retail giant is using storage cabinets to traffic children. Wayfair responded: There is, of course, no truth to these claims. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

CHICAGO – The baseless conspiracy theory took off after an anonymous user posed a bizarre question in an internet chatroom: What if retail giant Wayfair is using pricey storage cabinets to traffic children?

Self-proclaimed internet sleuths quickly responded by matching up the names of Wayfair products to those of missing children, producing social media posts that have since overrun Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

The result: A national human trafficking hotline suddenly began taking a number of calls about the imagined Wayfair scheme, stretching its resources. A woman said she posted a video of herself on Facebook to counter false claims that she was missing. One mother's pleas to Facebook and YouTube to remove a video of her young daughter that was being used to suggest she was a Wayfair victim went unanswered for days.

Wayfair was forced to respond to the accusations in a recent statement: “There is, of course, no truth to these claims.”

Yet internet users continue to weave a complex web around Wayfair’s furniture and decor, spun from falsehoods and conjecture. Social media influencers, fringe online communities and even political candidates have also now seized on the conspiracy theory as evidence of an even grander one, known as QAnon, that centers on the baseless belief that President Donald Trump is waging a secret campaign against enemies in the “deep state” and a child sex trafficking ring.

“Conspiracy theorists always managed to spread their theories in the past, but the internet has made this much easier,” said Kathryn Olmsted, a history professor who studies conspiracy theories at University of California, Davis. “If you believe in one, you believe in another. You start collecting them."

Mentions of Wayfair and “trafficking” have exploded on Facebook and Instagram over the past week. And on TikTok, the hashtags #Wayfairconspiracy and #WayfairGate together amassed nearly 4.5 million views even as several strands of the conspiracy theory have been debunked.

Some social media posts pointed to the high cost of the storage cabinets — which sell for about $13,000 each — as suspect. Wayfair, however, said the steel structures were priced correctly for industrial use. A pillow listed for $9,999 also fueled suspicion, but was an error, the company said.