On a recent Saturday afternoon, a man holding an American flag and speaking through a bullhorn led a procession of children and adults on a short march in downtown Reno. The protestors, nearly all unmasked, held signs condemning pedophilia and chanted “children are not for sale.”
The marchers approached a group of people sitting at tables set up in the roadway at First and Sierra streets. The leader signaled for silence. He assured the diners he didn’t want to disrupt their meals. After the group passed through the pop-up restaurant, one of the patrons said he was puzzled.
“When I saw them coming I thought it was a Black Lives Matter or a political thing,” he said. “But they are protesting pedophilia? Who is for pedophilia? What is that all about?”
The group that stages a demonstration at Virginia Street and the Truckee River each Saturday is called Save Our Children Reno. It’s among scores of similar organizations, some named “Save Our Children” and others called “Save The Children,” that have popped up this summer on social media feeds and street corners around the nation. Save Our Children Reno’s main goals are to raise awareness of child sex trafficking and to lobby for tougher penalties for pedophiles, human traffickers and those involved in child pornography, members said.
Protests scheduled Saturdays through the fall
Sex trafficking is a real and growing problem in the U.S., particularly in Las Vegas, law enforcement sources and activists said. Interviews with Save Our Children Reno members indicate the group has attracted well-meaning and passionate people who care about children. But some of the information disseminated on individual protester’s signs and posted on the group’s social media pages is inaccurate or misleading. That worries anti-trafficking activists, who warn that spreading unsubstantiated information harms the credibility of a movement. In addition, they said, sensationalized information can provoke violence and generate false reports that waste investigators’ time.
“Outrage is fine, that’s a good place to start. But education should be the very next step,” said Angie Henderson, PhD., a professor of sociology at the University of Northern Colorado and co-founder of The Avery Center for Research & Services, a non-profit organization created to provide support and services for adults experiencing commercial sex trafficking in Northern Colorado and across the United States.
“…I think a lot of what happens is when people first find out about sex trafficking, they get enraged, which makes sense. It’s shocking, you’re filled with anger and you want to do something to fix it,” Henderson said.
But she said the trend of spreading misinformation, politicizing the issue and burdening law enforcement with false reports is hurting the anti-trafficking movement. In addition, some groups advocate “rescuing” minors from trafficking situations, a suggestion that can lead to vigilantism. “The more you learn about (human trafficking) the more you realize there are ways to go about addressing this issue besides wanting to go out and grab a baseball bat,” Henderson said.
Anti-pedophile groups spring up in many cities
This summer many citizens have taken their causes to the streets with protests and marches. Anti-trafficking protests have spread across the country during the pandemic, fueled by newly-created web sites and wide interest on social media.
The Save Our Children Reno group was formed in early June, organizers said. In other cities, similar groups have been co-opted by QAnon, an internet wellspring of bizarre conspiracy theories. In May, the FBI declared QAnon a domestic terrorism threat. Four years ago, a man shot up a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. because QAnon propagated a theory that the restaurant was the hub of a child sex trafficking ring connected to Hillary Clinton and other prominent people.
The debunked conspiracy, dubbed “Pizzagate,” is again making the rounds on the web. It percolates onto social media pages when QAnon members hitch a ride on legitimate anti-trafficking sites.
Reno activists say they avoid QAnon ties
At the Save Our Children Reno protests, no reports have surfaced of any overt QAnon presence. Members of the Reno group, at the demonstration and in phone interviews, said the Reno organization has no connection with them. Organizers recently changed the group’s name from “Save The Children” to “Save Our Children” because the former hashtag became associated with QAnon.
“Our organization doesn’t have anything to do with QAnon,” said Scott Szpila of Reno, who is one of several administrators of the group’s Facebook page. He was the man with the bullhorn who led the Saturday march. “We really don’t need that. There’s a lot of conspiracy fact in the QAnon movement, but a lot of absolute hogwash nonsense as well. Associating ourselves with them is definitely something we don’t want to do.”
Save Our Children Reno’s goals are to raise awareness and change laws, Szpila said. He noted that group members have diverse ideologies. “This is a problem that affects everyone and affects anyone, regardless of political affiliation. Some (of our) members like Trump because they see him as someone who is doing things to solve the problem. Others want to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We’re attracting all kinds of individuals, from MAGA (Trump supporters) to those who have marched with Black Lives Matter. But the main thing is they know that child trafficking is an important issue and we need to come together to solve it.”
The issue resonates with people, he said, and new members come aboard regularly. The variety of slogans and signs indicate they bring their individual concerns and biases to the protests.
Misinformation common on Facebook posts
Still, some signs displayed at the Reno protests and official posts on the group’s social media site spread misinformation and repeat debunked conspiracy theories. Disturbing statistics are presented without sources being cited. For example, a Facebook post on the Reno group’s page claims that “22,000 kids go missing a day, 916 per hour.” The statistic is posted with a caveat that: “It doesn’t matter if these numbers are accurate or not. One child is one too many. ”
Anti-trafficking activists, academic researchers and law enforcement sources said accurate numbers matter a great deal. That’s because statistics define the scope of a problem and inform public opinion, laws, polices, government budgets and enforcement actions. They said allowing misinformation to thrive is counterproductive and self-defeating because it detracts from a movement’s credibility, dilutes its message and muddies the facts surrounding an important issue.
Trafficking survivors urge activists to be ethical
Rebecca Bender, a survivor of human trafficking who became a minister and an anti-trafficking activist, founded the Elevate Academy, a non-profit group that works with law enforcement and aftercare programs to provide expert testimony, training and consultation about the issue. Save Our Children Reno offers copies of her “Find Your Lane” guide at its protests. The guide provides advice about how people can become involved in the anti-trafficking movement.
In the guide, she urges activists to be ethical, avoid sensationalism and to “cite reputable sources” when using statistics. “Don’t use a (statistic for which) you can’t cite the original source, “she wrote. Bender recently produced a series of “myth-buster” videos available on her Facebook page because “misinformation and sensationalism is a huge problem right now” within the movement.
Henderson noted that a lot of the information about sex-trafficking shared on the Web contains old data, misinformation or real statistics presented without necessary context about how the information was collected and the methods that were used. She said people often seize upon and share memes or statistics that confirm the users’ biases.
“We rely on a lot of these myths, we feed off them… We have these preconceived notions that often come from fiction, from movies or books… and we look for information that’s going to confirm that bias that we already have.”
– Prof. Angie Henderson, PhD., University of Northern Colorado and co-founder of The Avery Center for Research & Services.
Henderson said if a meme or a social media post containing statistics doesn’t have a study cited as its source, it’s probably not true. She said the search engine Google Scholar is a good place to track down sources for data as well as to discover how the statistics were assembled. “(The research) sounds daunting, but it’s not,” she said.
Anti-mask contingent part of movement
Some social media users also piggyback other issues onto sites about seemingly unrelated topics. Save Our Children sites in Nevada and elsewhere have attracted users who rail against face mask use by children because it will make them hard to identify if they are kidnapped. To support the claim, they often cite outdated information concerning children’s use of masks or debunked theories about the medical dangers of wearing them.
For example, old information from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization has been used to discourage mask-wearing by children. Both the CDC and the WHO now recommend the practice, although with some caveats.
On the Save Our Children Reno Facebook page, visitors can scroll through posts containing factual information interspersed among conspiracy theories, some of which are posted by the site’s administrators. For example, one meme accuses the Getty Museum in Los Angeles of being a “pedophile fortress” with 12 underground floors that once hid thousands of sex slaves. Another meme that urges protests focuses on late billionaire financier Jeffery Epstein. Epstein hired women, including underage girls, as masseurs and then sexually abused them and passed them off to some of his rich contacts.
Some posters have attempted to add QAnon memes
The implication that such elite sex rings are common winds up on a lot of anti-trafficking sites, but isn’t borne out by facts. Law enforcement sources and activists, including Szpila, said minors usually are channeled into sex trafficking by people they know. That may include family members, foster guardians, pedophiles encountered on internet sites, or procurers who befriend runaways and then force them into prostitution. The Reno Police Department lists several unsolved missing children cases, but kidnapping-by-strangers is rare in sex-trafficking cases, the officials and activists said.
In addition, some users of the Save Our Children Reno site have attempted to post QAnon memes and information that has been blocked by Facebook. In August, the social media site blocked 790 QAnon-related groups and restricted another 1,950 other groups for spreading baseless conspiracy theories and celebrating violent behavior.
Szpila, one of the Save Our Children site administrators, said the QAnon links aren’t welcome on the site, but noted that the page has other administrators who post entries and members are free to add comments.
“There is a bit of conspiracy theory that comes into play, either at the center of it or more on the periphery,” he said. “It’s generally because the QAnon thing has blown up so much. And information is at our fingertips now. There is a lot of fact blended in, so it lends some credence to the overall message. It makes people wonder, ‘well, what about the bat-shit crazy stuff. Is that actually true as well?’ If they don’t necessarily believe it, they at least wonder.”
Administrators, users of site have varied opinions
He said putting out misinformation is counterproductive to a movement that seeks to raise awareness of an important problem and advocate for change.
“We don’t want to support things that aren’t based in fact and that can’t be verified or at least that can’t be objectively researched,” he said. “We don’t want to report bad statistics or conspiracy theories or anything like that.”
He said the site has removed comments that implicated individuals in abusive or criminal behavior. “(The page) is not the place for personal attacks and accusations,” he said. “Tell the police. Tell someone who can do something. These (Save Children) pages popping up like crazy. Look at those and you see the same types of things there.” Szpila said the Reno group encourages people to do their own research and then take action. “Become educated, take a course about how to recognize human trafficking, volunteer for organizations, push for stronger state laws, raise awareness,” he said.
The group’s organizers are discussing how the Facebook page should be administered going forward, he said. Although the Saturday protests are energetic – “Get Loud” is a frequent slogan on social media and signs – Szpila said the main goal of the demonstrations is to raise awareness that human trafficking is a big problem and to urge people to take peaceful action.
“We’re loud, but we try not to yell in anybody’s face,” he said. “We’re not here to disrupt the public… The movement speaks for itself.”