Samantha Rombaot, the organizer of a Save Our Children rally in Regina on Aug. 22, is quick to answer when asked how she became an anti-child trafficking advocate.
“Well first off, who the hell wouldn’t want to do that? I’m pretty sure the only people that didn’t do that need a gun to their head, if they’re going to be supporting pedophiles.”
Rombaot said she kept seeing trafficking information online and contacted a friend, who put her in touch with another woman to create a Facebook page and organize the rally. A similar rally was held in Saskatoon the following day.
“It's happening everywhere. It could be happening in your suburb area, where somebody is rich and he’s renting out his daughter for the weekend or you're out camping, and half the kids on your campsite, you don’t even notice because you're not paying attention to anything.”
Based on information she's seen online, Rombaot said she's also concerned about kidnappers stealing people to harvest their organs or people who are taken and forced to have babies who are then sex-trafficked.
"There’s a whole bunch of it going on," Rombaot said.
However, many claims circulating on Facebook regarding child trafficking or abuse and the accompanying rise in popularity of the #saveourchildren hashtag are byproducts of a conspiracy theory-fuelled movement called QAnon.
Participants in the Aug. 22 Save Our Children rally gather outside the legislature building in Regina. (Donovan Maess/CTV News)
“There’s no secret child exploitation, trafficking ring that I’m aware of,” said Staff Sgt. Scott Lambie with the Saskatchewan Internet Child Exploitation Unit, which investigates the online distribution of child pornography. People should research claims through legitimate organizations such as the police or news media, he said.
“You never trust what’s on Facebook. Take it with a grain of salt, especially when these conspiracy theories come up.”
QAnon is a convoluted, pro-President Donald Trump conspiracy theory which centres on an alleged anonymous, high-ranking government official known as "Q" who shares information about an anti-Trump "deep state" often tied to satanism and child sex trafficking.
Alec Couros, a social media, technology and media literacy expert at the University of Regina, described it as a group of dis-informationsists spreading lies throughout society to disrupt, create chaos, or decrease people's critical capacity.
Rombaot said she had heard of QAnon but hasn’t looked into it - and Couros said essentially, that's how the conspiracy works.
A comment left on the Save Our Children. Regina, SK March Facebook page explicitly references the QAnon conspiracy theory.
"(Protestors) may not know anything about it. But you mobilize people with things that people can understand. The great majority of the public will not stand for child trafficking or pedophilia … and of course these crimes happen all the time. But what QAnon does is they link it to a larger deep-state conspiracy, saying it’s happening where it isn’t," Couros said.
"That’s not helpful for enforcement, that’s not helpful for people trying to figure it out and it just politicizes this information. If you don’t believe in it, you’re looked at as someone who supports pedophilia or child trafficking.”
While many appear to share alleged incidents of child abuse, safety advice and advocacy to the Save Our Children page started by Rombaot, other users have posted pro-Trump claims.
- An Aug. 21 post by an account which includes no personal information accuses Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden of “GROPING AND PERVERSION” toward children and adults.
- An Aug. 22 post by the other administrator of the page links to a larger Save Our Children group which features an image of President Donald Trump holding a baby in an American flag.
- In an Aug. 25 post, a Toronto woman claims that Facebook supports pedophilia. A Vancouver woman commented: “Funny how the Election in the states is approaching and all of a sudden after the failed impeachment and every other fake ploy launched by the Demoncrats there’s a pandemic and I truly believe the Demoncrats will stop at nothing because Trump is starting to bring out all this child sex trafficking and names are going to be named. To many (sic) coincidences for me.”
Some users on the page also post alarming statistics, such as a widely-shared meme that pegs the number of missing children in Canada at 45,288.
However, child trafficking or abduction by a stranger are exceedingly rare occurrences in Canada.
According to federal government data, of the 40,425 youth reported missing in Canada last year, 74 per cent were runaways and 22 cases, or 0.05 per cent, were connected to human trafficking. Just 16 of the total number of cases involved abduction by a stranger.
Sixty-three per cent of missing children/youth reports were removed within 24 hours, while 93 per cent were removed within a week.
These claims of widespread abductions were echoed in part during the pair of rallies held in Saskatchewan's largest cities. One person held a sign in Regina saying “Pedophile rings are the real pandemic." In Saskatoon a participant's sign read "It's time for pedophiles to go missing the way our children are."
Facebook itself has flagged one of the posts on the Regina Save Our Children page as containing false information - a claim that wearing masks makes children more at risk for child sex trafficking.
Couros said to interpret those messages with a critical mind.
“Unfortunately people read them, they’re sensationalized. It’s proven that sensationalized stories, more extreme, tend to spread faster. So the more vicious the lie, the more likely it is to propagate and spread through social media.
“I think in general every day on Facebook there are a number of people who are taken in by these particular scams, misinformation, disinformation, whatever you might want to call it, who are not using their critical capacity to tell truth from false stories. And then of course these are the same people who spread them on social media. And thus, people in their network will also spread them without really checking them.”
Couros said in extreme cases, misinformation can put lives at risk - such as a man firing a rifle into a Washington, D.C. pizza joint in the wake of fake online news stories about a child sex trafficking ring operating out it.
An adherent of this so-called "Pizzagate" theory went on to help popularize QAnon hoax, according to the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League.
Saskatoon Police Service has in the past also asked people to think before automatically clicking "Share."
In a Facebook post last year police in Saskatoon stressed the importance of reporting through official channels after officers were unable to verify multiple social media posts about suspicious incidents that were alleged to involve attempted abductions.
The Regina Save Our Children page has also seen similar posts, with one person saying they had been followed on the highway by three Ontario-plated Volkswagens. That person said they had contacted police.
Part of what makes the QAnon-inspired claims of trafficking and child exploitation so compelling is that these crimes do in fact occur. The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls found that Saskatoon was among several Canadian cites which were part of human trafficking "triangles."
Rombaot said her personal experiences also played a role in her desire to start the Facebook page. When she was 12, she said older men would contact her over MSN Messenger trying to coerce her into sending nude pictures by threatening her family.
Lambie, the ICE officer, said those who suspect child pornography can report it to local detachments, Cybertip.ca or CrimeStoppers.
He said it’s important for parents to know what their kids are doing online and talk to them about it. And kids need to remember that there is no such thing as an internet friend.
“A friend is somebody you know in person and somebody who is not going to ask you for nude images of yourself. And don’t ever send nudes online. Because once they’re gone, they’re gone, and then they’re in the internet world forever.”
As for the challenge of helping kids globally, Save the Children - a group which aims to protect kids from harm in Canada and around the world and holds the rights to the "Save the Children" name — reached 41 million children in 120 countries last year, according to the group’s 2020 impact report.
“While many people may choose to use our organization’s name as a hashtag to make their point on different issues, we are not affiliated or associated with any of these campaigns," the Canadian arm of the organization said in a statement on its website.
Save the Children offers assistance to kids in 114 countries, according to the organization.
--With Associated Press and CTVNews.ca files. Edited by Josh Lynn