Reno group protests child sex trafficking

Problem is real, but some activists rely on misinformation

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Protesters from Save Our Children Reno assemble on Virginia Street at the Truckee River bridge on Saturday afternoons. Participants decide on their signs' messages and have different takes on the issue.

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.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Save Our Children Reno protesters led by Scott Szpila march on E. First Street in Reno.

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. ”

A screenshot of a post on the Reno Save Our Children Facebook page.

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.

Facebook blocked this attempt to share a QAnon meme.

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.”

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10 Comments

  1. Sure you’re not part of Qanon, just look at those signs. What a bunch of morons, doing more to hurt the dedicated agents who are actually trying to stop sex trafficking. Shame on these idiots.

    • We’re really not. I can’t speak for everybody in the group, but as far as conspiracy theories go, human trafficking isn’t one of them. It’s very real. It’s a much more prolific scourge than I’d ever imagined. And it sickens me. And our laws need to change in order to more appropriately punish and deter those who would traffick and abuse children in this way. If that makes me an idiot, fine. I’m an idiot. I at least hope you’re contributing something useful and helpful out there in the world, and not just hiding behind a screen calling people names based on your own preconceptions and biases. This is a unifying issue, and we need unity now more than ever. I’m sure we can all agree that sexual predators, especially those who harm children, should be receiving much more harsh punishments than they currently are.

    • If you think we are idiots for standing against pedophilia maybe you can enlighten us with your presence and speak your peace. Enlighten us with your wisdom. Or is it that your afraid we will change the laws and you’ll have to move away from the school you reside next to? There is only one reason people would object to our goal of harsher regulations on sex offenders.

  2. Also, I feel it incumbent upon myself to correct an error in this article:

    The FBI does not and has not labeled Q or Qanon as a domestic terrorist threat. When asked about it, the FBI had this to say:

    “The FBI does not and cannot designate domestic terrorist groups. The FBI can never initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or the exercise of First Amendment rights. When it comes to domestic terrorism, our investigations focus solely on the criminal activity of individuals—regardless of group membership—that appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce the civilian population or influence the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion. It’s important to note that membership in groups which espouse domestic extremist ideology is not illegal in and of itself—no matter how offensive their views might be to the majority of society. Membership in a group is not a sufficient basis for an investigation.”

    When Trump was asked about Q, he had this to say:

    “I’ve heard these are people that love our country,” Trump said. “So I don’t know really anything about it other than they do supposedly like me.” When a reporter brought up how the Q followers believe that he is trying to stop a satanic cult of pedophiles, Trump replied: “Is that supposed to be a bad thing?”

    Celeb magazine said this of the Q movement:

    “The “conspiracy” is often mocked in the media even though Q posts intel such as alluding to Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest before it happened.”

    Liz Cronkin, an advocate for the Q movement had this to say on the matter:

    “At the end of the day, for argument’s sake, how is Q a bad thing? Q encourages people to do their own research and think for themselves,” Crokin said. “Q is exposing some of the biggest traffickers on the planet, so even if Q is fake or doesn’t turn out to be Trump or military intelligence, how is it bad? It’s uniting people to stand up and speak out against child predators. That’s not a bad thing!”

    As I stated before, save our children Nevada is not involved or affiliated with Q or the Qanon movement in any way, but I will say this: I feel that the qanon phenomenon has been disproportionately hyped in mainstream media, and labeled as something inherently dangerous or evil. Neither the POTUS nor the FBI seem to agree with that assessment, and I think that stance deserves at least some acknowledgement.

    • Thanks, but no “correction” is warranted. We — and scores of other news agencies — accurately reported that the FBI named QAnon as a domestic terrorism threat, notwithstanding your unsourced quote, which contains the same boilerplate policy comments the agency spews every time it gets caught poking into domestic activist groups. But we didn’t rely on second-hand sources. The information in the story comes from an intelligence bulletin distributed among intelligence and law enforcement agencies that described “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” as a growing threat in the U.S. Here’s a copy of that very document sent to the FBI Field Office in Phoenix: https://html2-f.scribdassets.com/505qjzia0w74zud2/images/1-4c99e1a587.jpg Unlike QAnon, some social media users and Trump, we trace information back to original sources before we share it.

      • I’m aware of this bulletin. It’s just that it doesn’t mention Q, Qanon, or anything specific for that matter. Just a broad, generalized statement more aimed at countering terror threats from specific individuals. Like you said, a boilerplate policy comment. The FBI would go after any individuals of any ideology or organization that they have reason to consider a domestic terror threat. I just haven’t been able to locate a source in which the FBI made the formal declaration of the qanon group specifically as a domestic terror threat. I just felt I needed to point that out. From the Homeland Security Today website, linked below:

        “FBI Director Christopher Wray explained to Congress on Thursday that Antifa is not an organization but an ideology, that individuals ascribing to QAnon conspiracy theories would only be investigated if they met domestic violent extremism criteria, and that racially motivated violent extremism has been the most violent and most prevalent among the Bureau’s domestic extremism cases.

        Wray told lawmakers at the House Homeland Security Committee hearing on worldwide threats that the greatest threat to the homeland “is not one organization, certainly not one ideology, but rather lone actors, largely self-radicalized online, who pursue soft targets using readily accessible weapons.”

        Their specific mention of racially motivated violent extremism squarely implicates ideologies like we’ve more routinely witnessed at some BLM demonstrations, and with antifa, but not with Qanon followers or demonstrations by and large. They go on to say that individuals would only be investigated if they met domestic violent extremism criteria, but of course, as stated earlier, that’s true for any single individual, regardless of whatever ideology to which they subscribe.

        I understand now that you believe the core notions of the save our children movement to be more or less unfounded nonsense, and it would seem that you wrote the article through the spectacles of that bias, and that’s okay. That’s your prerogative. Have a good day.

        https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/wray-explains-antifa-qanon-boogaloo-and-racially-motivated-violence-at-threats-hearing/

      • Frank, I read your article. You do speak sort of unbiased. But you contracted yourself many times. First you say we strive to be unbiased with politics and stray away from conspiracy theories and individuals bring their personal signs and views but then in the next statement you claim we are all bunched with one mind. You then bring in trump (who is actively pushing to help end trafficking and uses a team with facts. Hence the active accomplishments of saving trafficked people) which shows you wrote this from a trump hating agenda. Which is your right as an American. Huge tip. Be an actual journalist and write news with the goal of letting people see what is really going on and leave your personal feelings out of it. I really hoped this would have been a good article but it’s the same mainstream type article.

  3. Mr. Spliza: you need to get a grip on your organization if your real goal is to prevent trafficking. My daughter joined your group because someone she loves was trafficked and she was overwhelmed at the level of nutters who make up your group with the SOLE purpose of blaming masks for child sex trafficking. You are utterly illegitimate as evidenced by the lack of masking your children exhibit – putting them at risk of death or disability – and the poster. You may have started with good intentions, but you’re a joke now. You are nothing but a front for anti-maskers so shame shame shame.

    • Deidre, thank you for your input. Please realize that this is not MY organization, though. I don’t own it. I don’t hand down edicts. I didn’t create it. This is a movement. This is OUR organization. It belongs to anyone and everyone who wants to add something worthwhile to it. I cannot “get a grip” on this organization because it is not mine to control. It is a concept, an idea, embodied within a multitude of people who have one aspiration. This is primarily about the horror of child sex abuse, not masks, but we will talk about that later. You said that our goal is to prevent trafficking, and that’s ultimately true, but do you have any idea what a gargantuan task that is? How multifaceted it is? The goal at this point is, first and foremost, awareness. People need to realize the scope of what we’re dealing with here, and that child sex trafficking/human trafficking is not in the least a conspiracy theory. It’s not a fringe criminal element, either. It’s extraordinarily prolific. It is a multibillion dollar industry. And it is the most egregious thing I have ever learned of. Please, please understand that.

      The second goal is to change the state laws to reflect the need for much harsher punishments for sexual predators, especially those who prey on children. Some classifications of sex crimes, we believe, are scheduled too leniently and therefore do not get punished as is warranted. Small time crack cocaine peddlers have done more time in prison than most child rapists. Some offenders who have levied crimes against children only have to be scheduled as a tier 1 offender. That’s the lowest tier, the classification of least punishable sex crimes. In most instances in which a felony drug offense is involved, offenders have to check in with their parole officers once a week upon release. Someone sentenced for child pornography, however, only has to check in every 180 days. Just kinda let that sink in for a second. And this isn’t even the half of it. I could go on much more extensively about how our current laws do not levy punishments that match these crimes. Child rape is murder. When a person does this to a child, they murder the person that child would’ve become otherwise. They install a horrific, loathsome, soul-encompassing trauma where there otherwise likely would have been joy, light, love, success, or just a normal life. It is theft and rape and murder all rolled into one abominable act.

      As far as the masks go, I want to say you are completely wrong about this group and what we think about masks. This movement absolutely does not exist for the “SOLE purpose of blaming masks for child sex trafficking”, as you put it. Literally no one, and by no one I mean precisely NO ONE who participates in this movement believes that masks are the reason behind child trafficking. What is clearly demonstrable, however, is that when someone puts a mask on a child, they are readily unrecognizable as YOUR child. Other minor adjustments to the child’s wardrobe in addition to a facial covering can render them fully unrecognizable. Masks absolutley do provide an incognito advantage to child traffickers and the children that they traffic.

      If you don’t wish to take my word for it, here is a real-life example of this sentiment. Please read it.

      https://www.salon.com/2010/11/10/elizabeth_smart_veil/

      The central tenets of this movement contain nothing specifically against mask mandates or anything they entail or imply. The idea that masks can hide your visibly recognizable identity is just plain, objective, and evident fact. As a parent, I am very concerned about the potential danger this puts my children in, doubly so now that I am aware of how monstrously copious child predators are in society. Thousands of children go missing without a trace in the US every year, many of these babies are used in the production of child pornography. This is just one more hazard to lose your child to. I cannot stand the thought of it. None of us can. THAT is why we are here. THAT is why we gather. THAT is what this is about. It’s not about being entirely for or entirely against masks at this time in history. Let us despatch with that notion entirely. Right now.

      Furthermore, it is not my or any other member of this group’s duty to impose the mask mandate upon participants. The police themselves do not and will not enforce the mask mandate, anyway. Who am I to hold all these people accountable for their decision to wear or not wear a mask? It’s entirely beside the point of what we are attempting to accomplish, at any rate.

      Speaking on the subject of the photograph of the signs that the author of this article chose to represent this article, and subsequently influence public opinion about the movement with, I must say that it simply demonstrates what a unifying issue this is. We have people from all ideologies joining together to rally against child trafficking and pedophilia. Yes, people who support BLM show up at our rallies, and the media definitely makes an attempt аt portraying BLM and SaveOurChildren as being somehow adversarial toward one another, that the movements are not compatible, that BLM is leftist and SaveOurChildren is right wing, but saving children isn’t right wing. It’s human. It appeals to human beings regardless of their political ideologies. The support we’ve seen from people also engaged in BLM demonstrations just goes to showcase how non-partisan this issue is, and what a common goal can provide for people
      Yet, for some reason, SaveOurChildren movements continue to be labeled as incredulous, superfluous, right wing, extremist, completely founded on an elaborate network of insane conspiracy theories and dangerous lies. As I stated before, human trafficking is NOT a conspiracy theory. The unimaginably profuse breadth of the problem is NOT a conspiracy theory. And although there are elements of conspiracy theory among us, the central credo of the movement is categorically legitimate; it’s validity is unable to be countered.

      Now, and tangential as it may be, there is a detailed and reasoned scientific discussion to be had about masks that y’all are clearly not ready to have. And I’m 100% positive that if I suggest that you read some of the peer reviewed, scientific reading material I’d like to suggest for your consideration, I’d be seen as having slipped into that recently decreed “fundamental cognitive problem” that you no doubt refer to as conspiracy theory. Apparantly, in 2020, it is a mental disorder to question what the government and media tell you, but pedophilia is an acceptable sexual preference. Funny, though, I was under the evidently mistaken impression that most of the population of America had already been doing that since, oh I don’t know, forever now. How DARE we, right? It’s unconscionable. Unthinkable, really. I can’t imagine why anyone would ever ask questions about anything, really, especially not of the government or of the information media. I’m not arguing that there aren’t insane conspiracy theories out there, there certainly are, nor am I arguing that in fact MOST of them aren’t insane, unfounded hogwash. I am definitely arguing, though, that we as citizens are often delivered half truths or plain untruths by both our government and our information media. This cannot be denied. It is an unquestionably accurate statement. And this paradigm leads many people to question reality as it is presented to us by these institutions. That’s not a mental disorder. That’s healthy objectivity.

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