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Sex traffickers are increasingly turning to social media for victim recruitment

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Four people are backlit by three posters. The central one is yellow, pink, white and black and it says, "Stop sex trafficking of children and young people."

Four children are silhouetted in front of posters displayed during a prayer for Justice and Protection against Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People in Quezon City suburban Manila on December 12, 2010, as part of the annual observance of International Day against Human Trafficking (Jay Directo/AFP)

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January was National Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Trafficking involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel someone into labor or commercial sex. Contrary to how it’s often portrayed on TV, most traffickers aren’t strangers, they know their victims. And more and more, the recruitment and exploitation of those victims is happening online.

Alyssa Currier Wheeler, associate legal counsel at the Human Trafficking Institute, says that in recent years there’s been noticeable growth of recruitment on social media. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Alyssa Currier Wheeler: Of the victims that were identified in federal sex trafficking cases from 2000 through 2020, 30% were recruited online — at least 30%. In 2020, that number has clearly increased, it’s up to 41% — at least 41%, who were recruited online, instead of or in addition to, physical recruitment. Court documents only named a specific social media platform in 2020 for 133 victims. I do want to be clear that our data on this is fairly limited. But, of these 133 victims, 59% were recruited on Facebook, 13% on Instagram, and 9% on WeChat. There were a variety of lesser mentioned platforms such as Tagged, MeetMe, Plenty of Fish, a lot of kind of adult sites, or even messaging apps like WhatsApp and Kik.

Kimberly Adams: What does it look like, typically, when someone is being recruited for trafficking online?

Wheeler: What we’re seeing is a trafficker using social media as a means of building an actual relationship with a potential victim — using it to foster trust. And even sometimes a romantic relationship — that’s often used in these cases to facilitate exploitation, because they know that person, they know their vulnerabilities, and they know how to tailor their methods of control to that person. I do want to make a note that these sites can be used by adult sex workers who are consenting and are not in any capacity a trafficking victim, we’re talking specifically about individuals who are either children or who are being coerced in some way into doing this type of commercial sex transaction.

Adams: I have to imagine it’s really hard to flag online recruitment, because it really just looks like conversations.

Wheeler: Yes, I think that it’s almost the same challenge that law enforcement in the general public faces in identifying trafficking in the not-digital world. Coercion is really, really subtle. It does, even in real life, outside of Facebook or or these social media platforms, it often does look like a conversation. And that’s why it can be so hard to identify when someone is being trafficked.

Adams: Do you think those numbers are going up because there’s more online recruitment happening by traffickers? Or that police and prosecutors are paying more attention to this online recruitment?

Wheeler: That’s a great question. In our numbers it’s very difficult to tell, but no case reaches the prosecution phase without an investigation. So, you know that all of the cases that, for example, involve solicitation of a victim on Facebook, the vast majority of those began with an investigation on Facebook, specifically looking for this type of solicitation and this type of crime. So, we can’t know from this data whether it’s just that there’s way more cases now involving recruitment online, or whether that’s stemming from investigations on those platforms, specifically looking for this type of trafficking. But the opportunities that traffickers have — we know this type of recruitment is happening, and we know their access to it is just continuing to grow. So I think if we were not limited to the data from federal cases, we would see just use of the internet in general, whether it’s for recruitment or solicitation, or even for actual sex trafficking, via streaming service, is growing, rather than shrinking.

Adams: When you’re talking to people from high-risk communities or parents with kids about what you find in your research and your work on this, what do you tell them about how to stay safe online?

Wheeler: One thing that we can all do is cut down on our social media time, particularly for children, monitoring your child’s screen time and online presence, having an open dialogue about what red flags are and what trusted sources are, that can help reduce the risk of exposure to potential exploitation.

If you think you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The number to call is 1-888-373-7888.

And that data about sex trafficking Alyssa was citing is in the 2020 Federal Human Trafficking Report, which is limited to federal prosecutions for human trafficking, the vast majority of which were sex trafficking cases.

Alyssa also mentioned that in certain federal sex trafficking cases where a social media platform was mentioned, traffickers used Facebook to recruit and coerce. The company has community standards, including a “Human Exploitation” policy, which prohibits users from posting content that is “geared towards” or “may lead to human exploitation.”

Labor trafficking does occur, though, and its victims are often foreign nationals, people brought to the U.S. with false promises about paid work, or undocumented workers who find themselves uniquely vulnerable to threats and coercion by traffickers.

Reporter Leila Goldstein of WYSO explored both sex and labor trafficking in the Greater Dayton, Ohio, area for her 2021 podcast series, “Trafficked.” Among her findings, sometimes efforts to fight human trafficking, like arresting and prosecuting people for selling sex, can actually make high-risk people more vulnerable to being trafficked.

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