QAnon Followers Attack SF's Scott Wiener Over Sex Offender Law

3 min
Senate Bill 145, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in early September, is intended to reform the state’s sex offender registry to be fairer to young LGBT adults. The bill's author, state Sen. Scott Wiener, has received hundreds of death threats from people who believe the bill legalizes pedophilia in California. (Michelle Gachet/KQED)

You might think the claim that California has legalized pedophilia wouldn’t pass the smell test with most people. Not in 2020, when certain Republican politicians have seized on the passage of a law regarding sex offenders as an opportunity to rally QAnon believers, a growing and active group of conspiracy theorists.

First, a little back story.

Think about high school: Not all teen sex is pedophilia. Today, the average American loses their virginity around the age of 17. So California law provides for judicial review of certain cases as a backstop to overzealous prosecutors keen to put someone on a sex offender registry who possibly shouldn’t be there — like an 18 year old caught having consensual sex with a 16 year old.

But the penal code, which dates back to 1944, included only vaginal sex. Senate Bill 145, signed into law last week, extends the backstop to other forms of sex, including that which could happen between homosexual or transgender individuals.

The new law does not legalize statutory rape. It also does not give judges discretion to keep adults off the registry who victimized a child under the age of 14 or adults who engaged in sex with a teenager more than 10 years their junior.

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"It is a righteous bill," said its author, state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco. "It is supported by civil rights organizations and law enforcement and sexual assault survivor organizations. And it’s a bill that will address an inequity that is destroying the lives of LGBTQ people."

The bill was sponsored by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Nonetheless, state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concern the bill could make it easier for someone committing statutory rape to get away with it or face fewer consequences.

State Senate Minority Leader Shannon Grove, who represents parts of the Central Valley and High Desert, posted a series of tweets earlier this month that both politicized the bill and digitally winked at QAnon believers with the hashtag #SaveOurChildren.

Pedophilia is a triggering concept to most people, but for those who believe in QAnon, it lies at the heart of a loose collection of conspiracy theories clustered around the basic premise that President Trump is trying to save the nation from an elite ring of satanic pedophiles, many of whom are in positions of power, like in government.

Tag any post with #SaveTheChildren or #Pedo, and you blow a dog whistle to QAnon followers who are likely to be so appalled by the charge that they fail to investigate the credibility of the assertion. Given that a larger percentage of QAnon believers identify as Republican, tagging a Democrat as a pedophile can prove fruitful for right-leaning politicians and pundits. Grove was hardly the only Republican to take advantage of this fact.

Wiener quickly found himself on the receiving end of a wave of angry tweets, Instagram messages, death threats, doxxing (digital publication of his home address and similar information) and insulting memes.

"Democrats, liberals, anyone who disagrees with them, they proclaim a pedophile," said Wiener, who along with his communications director has been posting some of the worst attacks he's received on Twitter to publicize the fact he's being targeted. These include luridly anti-Semitic memes (warning: this content may be upsetting) designed to stoke a variety of prejudices, along with rage over pedophilia.

"The people who are spreading misinformation, people who are obsessed with fake conspiracy theories, they’re the ones with no boundaries. They don’t care. They’ll say anything about anyone," said Wiener, who estimates he's received more than 500 death threats since he introduced SB 145.

Wiener said one person threatened to decapitate him and send his head to his mother. Wiener said he informed law enforcement and contacted Instagram and Facebook to take down offending posts and accounts, but to little effect. Hate speech policing is a game of whack-a-mole, and in recent weeks, the threats have moved to Reddit.

For that matter, fact-checking misinformation is also a game of whack-a-mole. Those likely to read a correction of the public discourse in Reuters are unlikely to be the same people sharing or otherwise reacting to vitriolic attacks on social media platforms.

"An elected official — it’s sort of part and parcel of the job to be subjected to some form of critique. But severe harassment, threats of violence, death threats — in American society, that’s not something that we should learn to tolerate and accept," said Seth Brysk, a regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, which closely follows all types of hate speech.

Brysk said Wiener would be a target of QAnon even if he weren't a gay, Jewish Democrat running for reelection in San Francisco, although it does figure in to the heinous language and imagery aimed at Wiener online.

The larger problem, Brysk said, is the normalization of violence in political discourse.

Wiener isn't the first California lawmaker to find himself the target of weaponized misinformation. State Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento was attacked by anti-vaxxers who resent his efforts to tighten vaccination mandates in recent years. Pan didn’t back down, and Wiener said he won’t either.