Tim Ballard’s misleading anti-trafficking rhetoric slips seamlessly into transphobia and xenophobia while promoting “Sound of Freedom” on Fox News

The purported anti-trafficking activist also denied the film had anything to do with QAnon, despite its star’s embrace of the conspiracy theory

During an appearance Monday on Fox & Friends, purported anti-trafficking activist Tim Ballard engaged in anti-trans and anti-migrant rhetoric while promoting the new film Sound of Freedom, which advertises itself as being based on his life.

The movie claims to expose the scourge of transnational, organized child trafficking rings, and is derived from the work Ballard has done with the anti-trafficking organization he founded, Operation Underground Railroad. In fact, much of OUR’s specific claims about its operations are more smoke than fire and the organization has frequently inflated and distorted the broader issue of human trafficking, which is often exaggerated to justify increased police intervention and surveillance.

Video file

Citation From the July 10, 2023, edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends

“Tell us about the problem and what, as a country, we can do to help this,” Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt asked.

“This is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world, and too often Americans sit back and say this is something far, far away from us, and it is not,” Ballard responded. “Generally speaking, we are the demand for consuming child exploitation material. Often we’re the No. 1 producers. We’re in the top three countries for destination countries.” 

Ballard then illustrated how his anti-trafficking rhetoric seamlessly slips into transphobia and xenophobia, all under the guise of protecting children.

“We are the ones pushing these movements about sexualizing kids and calling it sex education,” he said. “We’re the ones who are wanting, or allowing children who are 13 years old to be able to consent to anything, including body mutilation, which will only lead to consent laws around children being able to consent to have sex with adults.”

“We are the country that allows, in the last two years, 85,000 unaccompanied minors to come to our border and then be let in without any vetting, no background check, and then what do you think is happening in the economy of pedophilia?” he continued. “We are the problem, we are the demand, we are creating this.”

Right-wing media outlets have spent years falsely claiming gender-affirming care for trans youth amounts to “mutilation,” as Ballard repeated. In fact, gender-affirming care is associated with positive mental health outcomes, and by definition increases — rather than subverts — a young person’s bodily autonomy. It is also baseless anti-trans bigotry to assert that gender-affirming care is a Trojan horse to push “consent laws” that would allow adults to abuse children.

Ballard’s mention of 85,000 migrant children is a reference to a false claim that the Biden administration has “lost” those kids, an accusation that has become rampant in right-wing media. It is nearly always deployed in service of a restrictionist immigration policy, again under the guise of promoting children’s safety. Right-wing outlets have also pushed the falsehood that President Joe Biden has opened the southern border, allowing people to enter the country “with no vetting.” 

Ballard’s implication that further militarization of the border would serve to protect migrant children is similarly unsupported. U.S. crackdowns on irregular border crossings appear to have the opposite effect — that is, by criminalizing the act of crossing the border, U.S. authorities create more demand for smugglers, making migrants of all ages at risk of exploitation in underground economies.

Ballard’s argument, at its core, is that gender-affirming care and liberal asylum policies are both bad for children. The solution that seemingly arises from Ballard’s point of view is a reaffirmation of rigid borders — between nations and gender categories — enforced by reactionaries with guns and either backed by the state or operating outside the law, as his character does in the film.

In the Fox & Friends interview, Ballard also denied the film itself had anything to do with the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that a cabal of liberal elites are engaged in a worldwide pedophile ring. 

“There has been criticism in the mainstream media where they suggest there is some sort of a connection to your movie and QAnon,” co-host Steve Doocy said. “Can you explain that?”

“I can't explain it and neither can they,” Ballard responded.

Ballard has refused to distance himself from QAnon in the past, legitimizing an outlandish theory that furniture company Wayfair was involved in child trafficking, for example. More broadly, the anti-trafficking movement that Ballard has helped to create retains significant overlap with QAnon. (OUR ultimately denounced QAnon in a written statement to The Atlantic.)

Sound of Freedom’s star, Jim Caviezel, has fully embraced multiple tenets of QAnon while promoting it on right-wing media. Caviezel claimed that traffickers tortured children to extract adrenochrome from their bodies, an absurd myth long associated with QAnon. He also argued that Ukrainian biolabs were involved, as were “three-letter agencies” such as the CIA and FBI. Like Ballard, Caviezel also invoked the supposed 85,000 missing migrant children. 

Although The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, and Jezebel have highlighted the overlaps between the film’s rollout and QAnon, much of the mainstream entertainment press either failed to make that connection or actively attempted to depoliticize the movie.

Variety’s headline praised Sound of Freedom as “a Solidly Made and Disquieting Thriller About Child Sex Trafficking,” assuring readers, “It's been sold as a ‘conservative’ thriller, but you don't need that mindset to find it compelling.”

‘Sound of Freedom’ Review: Jim Caviezel Anchors a Solidly Made and Disquieting Thriller About Child Sex Trafficking It's been sold as a "conservative" thriller, but you don't need that mindset to find it compelling.

Citation From Variety.com, posted July 2, 2023

Indiewire’s coverage was universally positive, referring to Ballard as “a real-life rescuer of children from traffickers” and foregrounding the film’s opening numbers.

Driven by the outspoken Caviezel’s proven appeal to the faith-based community (“The Passion of the Christ”), this is an elevated example of films finding a passionate (and profitable) audience outside the mainstream film media. “Freedom” isn’t even listed on the website of review aggregator Metacritic, which normally lists all but the most obscure releases.

Deadline similarly obscured the ties between Caviezel and QAnon, opting to refer to the movie as an “independent title that has faith-based elements.” Later in the post, Deadline included the context that Caviezel had promoted the movie on the podcast of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, but failed to note that the star also openly endorsed QAnon in one of those appearances. 

Both Deadline and Indiewire noted that distributor Angel Studios employed an unusual ticket sale gimmick called “pay it forward,” which allows fans to buy tickets for other potential views. Both also noted that churches and other conservative organizations appear to have bought bulk ticket batches, which helped drive the opening sales higher.

The Hollywood Reporter mentioned the film in a post rounding up the week’s box office totals, characterizing it as a “sleeper hit” and a “conservative-leaning film.”

CBS News Pittsburgh’s Daisy Jade called it an “excellent film,” and the station promoted an uncritical interview with Caviezel and Ballard, which included a bizarre orchestral score underneath it, by highlighting the “movie's message and its moving account of heroism and hope.”

Sound of Freedom has also been widely embraced by conservative media figures, from establishment stalwarts such as Elon Musk and Ivanka Trump to fringe figures like QAnon influencer Mel K and neo-Nazi collaborator Jack Posobiec (an early spreader of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, an antecedent to QAnon). 

The movie puts forward a simplistic, comforting narrative that the predation of children can be solved by good guys with guns, without addressing any of the underlying structural conditions that make people vulnerable in the first place. Exploitation of children and migrants is real, but it looks nothing like what Ballard and Caviezel claim. It is instead a decentralized outgrowth of a capitalist economic and political system that seeks cheap labor at all costs, maintained through border enforcement and police power. 

People who have been trafficked are better served by communities that can provide housing, education, and safe, legal employment. Decriminalizing border crossing, removing police from so-called anti-trafficking enforcement, and creating relatively frictionless paths to citizenship would actually provide relief to people who have been exploited. 

That approach runs counter to the movie's larger reactionary project. Ballard’s anti-trans, anti-migrant rhetoric helps to illustrate the film’s underlying ideology and explain why it has found such a wide appeal across the right-wing ecosystem.