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QAnon supporters are promoting 'Sound of Freedom.' Here's why

Mira Sorvino and Tim Ballard attend the premiere of "Sound of Freedom" on June 28, 2023 in Vineyard, Utah. Ballard is a former federal agent who went on to found controversial anti-human trafficking organization depicted in the film.
Fred Hayes
/
Getty Images for Angel Studios
Mira Sorvino and Tim Ballard attend the premiere of "Sound of Freedom" on June 28, 2023 in Vineyard, Utah. Ballard is a former federal agent who went on to found controversial anti-human trafficking organization depicted in the film.

Sound of Freedom, a Christian thriller about a former federal agent rescuing children from exploitation, is this summer's surprise box office hit. Made for about $15 million, it earned almost as much on its release day as the final installment of Indiana Jones and has raked in more than $85 million since opening earlier this month.

But the movie is also being criticized as a vehicle for conspiracy theories and misleading depictions of human trafficking — landing it in the middle of the country's politically polarized culture wars.

The film, based on a real-life, controversial anti-trafficking activist, is being heavily promoted in conservative media. Former President Donald Trump is hosting a screening on Wednesday at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J .

A big part of its success is an appeal from its star, Jim Caviezel, who comes on screen at the end urging viewers to buy more tickets so other people can see it and help end child trafficking. It's a model distributor Angel Studios calls "pay it forward."

Caviezel, who previously played Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, is also drawing attention to the film in other ways. For years, he's been a prominent promoter of the false, violent QAnon conspiracy theory — specifically, the baseless claim that an international cabal of elites is abusing and killing children to extract a substance called adrenochrome.

These wild claims have become deeply enmeshed with narratives about child trafficking in recent years, from the QAnon predecessor Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which falsely alleged a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., was home to a child sex ring, to false claims that online retailer Wayfair was selling children in the guise of furniture.

In press appearances promoting Sound of Freedom, Caviezel continues to spout QAnon falsehoods. On a recent episode of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon's podcast, Caviezel claimed "the whole adrenochrome empire" is driving demand for trafficked children. "It's an elite drug that they've used for many years," he asserted, falsely claiming it is "10 times more potent than heroin" and "has some mystical qualities as far as making you look younger."

Despite Caviezel's comments, Sound of Freedom itself doesn't contain any references to adrenochrome or other conspiracy theories. It was actually filmed before QAnon conspiracy theories became a widespread phenomenon.

Executives at Angel Studios, the film's distributor, have publicly rejected any association with conspiracies. So have Tim Ballard, the former federal agent Caviezel plays in the movie, and his organization, Operation Underground Railroad. (Angel Studios declined NPR's interview request. Operation Underground Railroad did not respond to NPR's questions.)

But Ballard recently told right-wing podcadster Jordan Peterson that claimed adrenochrome harvesting is real. His statements, and Caviezel's, have an impact on how Sound of Freedom is being received, said Mike Rothschild, author of The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything.

"It's being marketed to QAnon believers, it's being embraced by this community and its leading actor is a huge part of the QAnon community," he said.

Indeed, QAnon adherents have eagerly anticipated its release and greeted the film as a way to bring new believers into the fold. "New to Q? With the 'Sound of Freedom' movie dominating the box office and giving Hollywood seizures, we have a lot of new eyes on us!" read the title of one popular thread on a QAnon website last week.

In addition to the controversies around QAnon, the rescue story told in Sound of Freedom has also become a lightning rod.

Many of the missions Operation Underground Railroad describes are hard to verify or contain significant misrepresentations, according to extensive reporting by Tim Marchman and Anna Merlan of Vice News.

"They're not whole cloth falsehoods, but they reassemble things that are true or close to being true into stories that are just wildly and completely different from what actually happened," Marchman said.

Operation Underground Railroad has denied Vice's findings. (Ballard recently left the group.)

On screen, Sound of Freedom goes even further in fictionalizing Ballard's story, showing him single-handedly taking on a crime syndicate in Colombia.

These popular depictions raise concerns among anti-trafficking experts, who say they offer an incomplete portrait of a real and urgent problem.

"Because trafficking is so varied and does span so many populations, it really tests our brain to not, not distill it down to some sort of 'this is what a common victim of human trafficking looks like,'" said Elizabeth Campbell, co-director of the University of Michigan's Human Trafficking Clinic. "By doing that, I think we make actual victims of human trafficking more invisible and more vulnerable to exploitation."

She said trafficking takes many forms, including forced labor, which is often under-reported, and affects victims of a wide range of ages. Some trafficking involves kidnapping by strangers, as depicted in Sound of Freedom, but often it's committed by people close to the victim who exploit trust, she said.

In a long blog post about the film, Angel Studios acknowledged some elements are fictionalized and said the film takes "creative liberties in depicting the different methods of child trafficking."

Campbell worries the picture of trafficking and how to address it presented by Operation Underground Railroad and, by extension, Sound of Freedom, diverts people's attention, resources and policy proposals away from where they're most needed.

"It becomes easy for people to say, 'Well, if I just spread a message that we need to support law enforcement in freeing these child victims,' they don't have to do the hard work of asking what role they play in the purchasing of goods for forced labor, or they don't have to play the hard role of figuring out how do we reduce poverty and the sort of inherent vulnerability that comes with poverty that leads to this kind of exploitation," she said.

"Those difficult questions are never asked because we're just sort of saying, 'Well, the best thing you can do is support this particular group in this one particular action against these particular bad guys.'"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.