Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, Pinterest, Tumblr, Tinder. These are but a few examples among thousands of social media applications that fill smartphones, laptops, and computers across the globe. These apps let the people of the world communicate with friends, share snapshots of life with distant family, declare opinions and receive advice. They are unique platforms for voices to connect and for people to be supported by a community of loved ones and peers.
While this new method of communication allows the world to grow closer through shared experiences, social media brings with it several concerns that were previously non-issues. So much information has suddenly become public, and the consequences of this are often dangerous. Chief among these is the surprisingly prevalent and deeply disturbing issue of human trafficking.
Human trafficking is defined as the the action of illegally transporting people from one country or area to another, typically for the purposes of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation. This is not a new issue nor is it one that is likely to subside in the near future, but the truth is that thousands of active social media accounts have created a place for human trafficking to evolve and become even more dangerous.
Lauren Hersh is the Director of Anti-Trafficking Policy and Advocacy at Sanctuary for Families, a non-profit organization that aims to provide healing and shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. She has written several articles for the Huffington Post, worked as a prosecutor for eight years and handled cases dealing with women and girls who were victims of human trafficking.
Now Hersh travels the country in an attempt to educate people about the dangers of social media and trafficking. Hersh claims that social media has a huge role in cases of trafficking, and says, “I see it a lot. In pretty much every situation of trafficking I’ve seen unfold there’s some element of social media, whether it’s someone being recruited or advertised. I had a situation where girls in a leadership program were recruited through Facebook messages, and then in terms of where people are advertised for sale very often we see it on websites where they are posted.”
On Tuesday, February 28, Hersh gave a talk at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park entitled “Raising Empowered Girls,” during which she addressed the toughest issues that face young women in modern communities. She gave parents methods to prepare their daughters for independence in a world where being approached through social media is not uncommon, and where the threat of sexual violence is frighteningly real.
In the past, traffickers worked by communicating indirectly and following victims in the outside word, perhaps targeting women walking alone down the street or children heading home from school. Now, social media accounts are easily accessible, and traffickers have a whole new world of opportunity to contact victims directly without risk of being witnessed by passersby or caught in public by authorities. All it takes is one message, one picture or phrase sent through Snapchat or in a Facebook chat, and a victim can find themselves caught in a web of deception and fear that is nearly impossible to untangle.
Human trafficking affects all types of people, all ages and genders, but 55 percent of victims are women and girls and 26 percent are children, according to the International Labor Organization. A Washington Times study in 2011 found that more than 80 percent of all human trafficking is adult prostitution or the sexual exploitation of children. Equality Now, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating “a just world for women and girls,” reports that a shocking 98 percent of trafficking victims are girls and women.
Many users of social media are vulnerable to being targeted by traffickers, who lurk on falsified accounts and use private messages or comments to lure victims into exploitation. Trafficking affects every community and every social class, but Hersh notes that “Many people who are exploited in the sex trade are people of color, and many are living below the poverty line. Pure vulnerability is a big factor if you consider everyone that is being approached.”
Children, teenagers, and even adults who put their information into social media accounts are at risk of being approached by traffickers, promising money or even careers if the target replies. Traffickers appeal to the vulnerability of many social media users who feel insecure or lonely and promise to take care of them, give them a glamorous career, and change their lives for the better. Those approached, usually young women, are asked to work for them in exchange. Hersh adds, “Oh, you know, people are told you are beautiful, you look great, hit me up here, I can make you a lot of money, things like that.”
A single response is an opportunity for a trafficker to begin building a relationship with their prospective victim. By offering comfort to unstable young women or to anyone that is being approached, traffickers are able to manipulate victims and promise them protection and care that they are otherwise lacking. These appeals to the emotions of victims are especially dangerous because they establish a personal connection between trafficker and victim that makes it even more difficult for those affected to remove themselves from this dangerous situation.
Equality Now is one of the most prominent organizations dedicated to spreading awareness about the sex trade and focuses on the act, means, and purpose of the process. Women forced into sexual abuse often undergo unsafe abortions if they become pregnant, and are threatened, beaten, or coerced into sexual exploitation. There is also a risk for victims contracting HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted infections. The Polaris Project is another non-profit group that has compiled the largest database on human trafficking in the world. According to this organization, human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world and is now a $150 billion industry. There is no official estimate for the number of victims in the United States, but Polaris estimates that the number is in the hundreds of thousands.
A key piece of United States legislature against human trafficking is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 which established human trafficking and related offenses as federal crimes. The Polaris Project created a petition to call the public to action and make the protection of trafficking victims a priority for the federal government and law enforcement. Thousands of people have already taken action and sent the government a message that victims of trafficking cannot be ignored. Hersh recognizes progress being made in America to combat trafficking, and is hopeful because “I think there are definitely improvements that are happening and I’ve seen in the last number of years that people are becoming more aware and police are recognizing that arresting victims is not the way to do it and that arresting traffickers and buyers is the way to make progress.”
Hersh knows just how dangerous the cycle of trafficking can be, as she has firsthand experience working with victims and experiencing buyers and traffickers during her time as a prosecutor. She explained, “I had to, you know, pull a 12-year-old out of trafficking or go to the hospital and visit a child, a girl, a woman after being abused, raped, or hurt by sexual exploitation. It allowed me to be on the ground in the issue and see that there is nothing victimless about sex trafficking, that these victims are not here by choice but because of lack of choices. There is so much violence related to sexual exploitation and I saw that not only are pimps or traffickers violent but there are increasingly violent buyers as well.”
This violence is exactly why Hersh felt compelled to educate the nation about the threat that traffickers pose, especially to children who are beginning to use social media independently. Now that social media has become such an indispensable tool for traffickers to reach out to victims, Hersh recommends that everyone protect themselves by making sure that all social media accounts are private because the moment that traffickers can personally engage with users there is a risk for victims to be pulled into compromising situations. As technology has improved and society has become more reliant on social media, instances of human trafficking have increased.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline saw a 35 percent increase in reported cases of human trafficking from 2015 to 2016, and the Hotline currently receives over 100 calls each day. Last year, 2,042 people directly contacted the Hotline asking for help or rescue from situations regarding human trafficking. This is a 24 percent increase in the number of calls received in 2015, and through these cases, the Hotline has determined that most victims of sex trafficking are brought into the issue by their intimate partner, while the majority of labor trafficking victims are brought in by a job offer. These offers are exactly what traffickers propose through direct messages and chats that social media has made so accessible.
While human trafficking and sexual exploitation, especially of women and girls, is not a new issue, its connection to social media means that it is shockingly relevant to the daily lives of millions of people living in the modern world. When asked what the best steps to take are to protect oneself from human trafficking through social media, Hersh replied, “I think number one is knowing the issue. While it’s important for adults, it’s critically important for young people to know about sexual exploitation and understand its consequences. Two, be aware that there are people online looking for people to exploit. Three, if somebody contacts you and it makes you feel in any way concerned, trust your instincts and four would be to make sure if you’re seeing things like this online make sure you tell an adult who knows where to direct you to get help. The last piece is to recognize how we all contribute to this, that there is a direct link from social media to exploitation and we all need to be aware.”
If every child was prepared to safely use social media, and every adult recognized the threat of human trafficking and did what they could to put an end to this epidemic, the world would rapidly become a safer place. Every citizen of the world can work to turn social media from a place of fear back into its best mode, as a platform for shared experience and supportive communities.