PHOENIX — Last weekend, an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that online furnishings retailer Wayfair is trafficking children through listings of products with inflated prices and human names erupted on social media.
An Arizona couple helped fuel the rumor by posting on Instagram that they had purchased a $17,000 desk from Wayfair and would share their experience with their followers.
The theory that pillows and cabinets being sold at wayfair.com for thousands of dollars is somehow evidence of a child trafficking scheme has been debunked by independent fact-checking publication Snopes. It gained traction through a July 9 Reddit post on a forum dedicated to discussing conspiracy theories, Snopes notes.
Maddie and Justin Thompson, of Gilbert, are not convinced.
“There is not one person in this world who can tell me this is not true right now,” Maddie Thompson said in a 40-minute livestreamed Instagram video on July 10. “This cannot be stated as false until it is proven false.”
The video appears to have been taken down on July 14. Instagram has not answered a request for comment.
Who are Maddie and Justin Thompson?
Maddie Thompson, a self-described “microblading artist, creator, entrepreneur and social media maven” on her website, is the founder of a beauty products company called Madluvv.
She is among at least a dozen Phoenix-area social media influencers who shared — whether with disbelief or conviction — the conspiracy theory to hundreds of thousands of followers. Social media celebrities such as reality TV star Savannah Faith Chrisley, model Amber Lancaster and singer Maisy Stella have also posted Instagram stories about the topic on their verified accounts.
On her Instagram account, Thompson often shares posts of her children and friends as well as what she calls her “red-piller” views — a phrase she used in her Instagram Live video.
Thompson’s Instagram following has more than doubled, from 17,000 to 44,000 followers according to social media analytics site Social Blade, after she posted her video and dozens of disappearing Instagram stories about the theory.
Justin Thompson, her husband, also has gained Instagram followers and he now has more than 13,000.
Why the Thompsons bought a $17,000 Wayfair desk
Conspiracy theorists point to Wayfair products that are listed for thousands of dollars and identified by human names and connect those to reports of missing children with the same names as evidence that these children are being sold online. They believe that after the transaction is completed, a child — not the furnishing — will be delivered to the buyer.
Justin Thompson explained in the video that he ordered a $17,000 Wayfair desk to prove the human trafficking theory by revealing that the company is not actually delivering these high-priced products to buyers. The Thompsons said in the video that they will dispute the transaction with their credit card company and do not intend to pay $17,337.98 to Wayfair.
After making the purchase, Thompson said in the video that he found the original listing for the desk and called MDD, the manufacturer, to ask why the name, product number and price were changed to be sold on Wayfair’s website. The company agreed to conduct an internal investigation into its relationship with Wayfair, Thompson said. The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY network, reached out to MDD and will update this story if they respond.
He also expressed suspicion about a call he said he received from Wayfair after he placed the order, in which a customer service representative asked whether he wanted to open a free Wayfair Professional account.
Wayfair Professional — like corporate and business membership programs offered by stores such as Office Depot — offers members-only pricing, a personal account manager and deals, according to its application website. The Arizona Republic was unable to reach a Wayfair representative who could explain this program in greater detail.
Justin Thompson also posted a video in which he calls Wayfair customer service and asks a representative why a $13,000 cabinet was removed from the site to be renamed and repriced. The representative hangs up after a nearly five-minute interaction. The video has garnered more than 400,000 views in three days.
Aftermath of the Wayfair trafficking theory
In the ensuing days, Wayfair has removed many of the products from its website. Facebook — which owns Instagram — has added links to articles by Reuters and Lead Stories as “related articles” with a fact-checking sticker at the bottom of the comments for posts about the theory.
A petition at petitions.whitehouse.gov requests a U.S. government investigation into “human trafficking and the correlation in prices of items sold on Wayfair.com and Amazon.com along with the concern of the possible selling of underage children coordinated with the prices set.”
As of July 16, the petition has 1,400 signatures. If it reaches 100,000 signatures by Aug. 11, it will receive an “official update” from the White House within 60 days.
Wayfair denied the trafficking claim and defended its prices — and also claimed a “pricing glitch” on some product pages — in a statement to several media outlets. And despite claims on social media that the company’s CEO, Niraj Shah, stepped down, Wayfair confirmed this too was false.
“Recognizing that the photos and descriptions provided by the supplier did not adequately explain the high price point, we have temporarily removed the products from the site to rename them and to provide a more in-depth description and photos that accurately depict the product to clarify the price point,” Wayfair said in a statement to Business Insider.
The Thompsons and others who believe the claims they’ve read and shared on social media are not satisfied with Wayfair’s response or fact-checking articles. Neither the Thompsons nor Wayfair have responded to requests for comment for this article.
‘Something I never woke up to until quarantine’
The Thompsons seek to educate people on child trafficking, they said, and are “passionate about letting children’s voices be heard.” They were both abused as children, they say at the beginning of their July 10 video.
Maddie Thompson said she learned about child trafficking just in the past few months, since the new coronavirus pandemic began, she said in the video.
“This is a super important situation, something I never woke up to until quarantine,” she said. “I started learning a lot about child trafficking, and it’s becoming more apparent to me that it’s a huge issue that is more of a pandemic than anything else.”
People, especially those with jobs that allow them to work from home at this time, are “looking at the internet a lot” and have more time to consume information, including conspiracy theories, said Diana Daly, an assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of Arizona.
It’s easy for a fringe conspiracy theory such as this one to make its way to the mainstream, Daly said.
“Bad information has no burden of proof to stop its rapid trajectory. That’s why it’s like a virus,” Daly said. “This definitely sounds like people with too much time on their hands on the internet.”
One possible reason the Wayfair theory gained traction so rapidly is that the topic of children “gets people worked up,” Daly said.
For a “microcelebrity” like an Instagram influencer, Daly said, it’s valuable to gain the trust of their followers.
“If you post something a little more (fringe) and you get a lot of followers … you have a self-interested inclination to go with it if you’re willing to go with it,” Daly said.
“As long as (a social media influencer) keeps peddling that information, she’ll gain followers with a willingness to entertain conspiracy thinking with an interest in micro-celebrity.”
What people can do about trafficking
If people want to learn about sex trafficking, Roe-Sepowitz recommends watching a PBS “Frontline” episode she appears in titled “Sex Trafficking in America.”
“We have a real issue in our community,” Roe-Sepowitz said.
People who have posted about child trafficking on social media can “translate their attention” to volunteering for and donating money to credible organizations, she said.
She encourages: “If you see something, say something.” Common indicators of human trafficking, according to Roe-Sepowitz, include a person you might see in public who:
Seems uncomfortable or is experiencing stress, especially if accompanied by someone who seems to have power over them.
Has all of their belongings with them.
If asked, doesn’t know where they are.
To reach the National Human Trafficking hotline 24 hours a day toll-free, call 888-373-7888 or send a text message to 233733. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children can be reached 24 hours a day at 800-843-5678
Follow the reporter on Twitter @kimirobin and Instagram @ReporterKiMi.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona couple’s role in Wayfair human trafficking conspiracy