Social Media Platforms Help Promote Human Trafficking
How sex trafficking is bolstered by social media, and what to do about it.
Posted Nov 22, 2019
Social media has been an important tool in creating awareness and sparking activism around sexual assault. Survivors have come forward in droves to tell their stories of assault and harassment through social media platforms, which has undoubtedly resulted in greater public awareness of the pervasiveness of this problem worldwide.
Unfortunately, social media has also opened new avenues for sexual violence against women. Human trafficking is one major example of this. As the United Nations' International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women approaches on November 25, let’s shine a light on the role social media plays in facilitating this violence, and figure out how to stop it.
Traffickers often groom and control their victims through online platforms. Between 2015 and 2018, the National Human Trafficking Hotline documented almost 1,000 cases of potential victims of sex trafficking alone who were recruited through internet platforms, most often Facebook, but also Instagram, Snapchat, Craigslist, online dating sites, and chat rooms. A recent nationally representative survey of more than 1,000 American kids age 13 to 17 found that 70 percent of them used social media multiple times a day.
Predators can easily pose online as someone looking for a date in order to build trust and recruit victims. Traffickers often identify vulnerable young people through their social media presence. For example, posts that may suggest low self-esteem, problems at home, or loneliness can signal to a trafficker that a person may be easily victimized.
Recruiting victims online is generally much less risky than recruiting victims in person. Sometimes when victims are recruited through social media sites, they never even meet their traffickers in person. A 2018 study found that 55 percent of domestic minor sex trafficking survivors who became victims in 2015 or later reported meeting their traffickers for the first time using text, a website, or a mobile app.
The study also found that 58 percent of victims eventually met their traffickers face to face, but 42 percent of those who initially met their traffickers online never met their traffickers in person but were still trafficked. In these cases, the power over the victims tends to be exerted through grooming and manipulation, as well as coercion and threats that equal “sextortion.” According to the FBI, sextortion is a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children began tracking this trend in 2013. The center has seen a dramatic increase in sextortion cases reported. There are numerous cases of women being victimized by traffickers who threaten to post their nude photos online if they do not comply with the traffickers’ demands.
One example is Maya, who was featured in a short documentary film by one of my former students, Strong Survival. Maya was forced into sex trafficking through a modeling scam when she was 12 years old. For their first “modeling outing,” her female trafficker took explicit photos of Maya, which she threatened to release publicly as a way to keep Maya cooperating for years. Sextortion commonly begins with the tactic Maya’s trafficker used; it can also start with secretly recorded explicit videos during video chats or reciprocation requests, such as “I’ll show you if you show me.”
In the commercial sex realm, the internet has created a massively expanded marketplace and a whole new product for human traffickers to sell—remote, interactive sexual acts streamed directly to individual purchasers. As Polaris points out, with a credit card and a couple of clicks, anyone can shop for virtually anything they want, from the comfort and privacy of their own homes. The sale of sexual services via social media sites is usually less obvious than on traditional advertising sites. Sometimes those who aren’t specifically looking for it would never notice the information about pricing, location, or contact information because it is often posted in comments threads.
Traffickers also use social media for deceptive or fraudulent job advertisements. Some traffickers recruit victims through illegitimate job offers for models, nannies, or dancers. Sometimes these deceptions are facilitated through fake business profiles, sham event pages on Facebook, or posts on sites like Craigslist.
Traffickers may also contact potential victims directly, claiming to be a recruiter for a modeling agency or the owner of another kind of legitimate business. The trafficker will also usually spend some time interacting with potential victims to build trust before an “official job offer” is made in order to increase the likelihood that the victim will trust the trafficker and perceive the job to be real. Research has found that migrant workers who have been trafficked into the U.S. for labor often perceive job postings on Facebook to be more valid and trustworthy than those on other sites.
As the use of technology continues to increase, trafficking and sexual violence facilitated by digital platforms will also continue unless we do more to stop it. Facebook must become more vigilant about prohibiting images or posts that depict violence against women. Facebook has a strict policy against nudity and sexually explicit content, but often permits graphic, triggering, and demeaning posts about women.
Australian journalist and feminist activist Clementine Ford called out Facebook for poorly enforcing community standards, pointing out that they regularly remove photos deemed vulgar or sexually explicit while allowing photos that promote domestic abuse. Graphic photos of women who have been beaten by their partners have been posted on social media sites like Facebook, while those of bare-breasted women in travel photos have been rejected. This double standard sends a message about what is acceptable imagery.
Vigilance and skepticism are required when interacting with strangers on social media sites. For more resources, visit:
- NeedHelpNow.ca, an organization dedicated to helping young people who are being exploited online. It focuses on helping stop the spread of sexual pictures or videos. The #ChangeTheStory campaign is about empowering teens to take control of their own narrative and how their story is being told.
- The Polaris Project, which is dedicated to preventing human trafficking. On their website, it has a five-question quiz on social media and relationships, designed to help spread awareness about this problem. It also has links to the major social media sites' safety centers.
- Internet Safety 101, which includes recommendations for parents to prevent children from falling prey to traffickers. This includes setting age-appropriate filters, using monitoring/accountability software, prohibiting access to chat rooms, regularly monitoring use, setting time limits, using safe search engines, utilizing parental controls, and other ideas. They have parental guides to all social media sites on their website.
- CDC Guide to Parental Monitoring, which also provides practical tips on how to effectively monitor their children.
Mellissa Withers is an associate professor of global health at the University of Southern California's Online Master of Public Health program