Social media makes it easy to connect with people all over the world – and by doing so it also presents many opportunities for traffickers to deceive and exploit vulnerable people. Thanks to many awareness-raising campaigns over the years, people in some areas of the world are well aware of the need to be cautious of strangers on the internet. But this message is still of constant importance, as traffickers are still finding new ways to connect with and exploit people using social media.
But as well as giving traffickers ways to target people, social media also equips us with many new tools in the fight against trafficking. And, as we’ll see, these tools have been used by anti-trafficking groups in sometimes dramatic and surprising ways.
How do human traffickers use social media?
The fact that many people are well aware of the dangers of the internet does make it harder for traffickers to gain the trust of their targets. But with the opportunity to connect with so many people, traffickers are able to find those who are in situations where they are vulnerable.
In one case, Hope, a 17-year old girl from the US, made a social media post saying she hated her mother – and immediately received a reply from a woman offering her a place to stay away from home. The woman picked Hope up just 45 minutes later and drove her to a motel. But here it became clear what the woman’s true motives were – Hope was drugged and trafficked for sex across 8 states before finally being rescued three weeks later.
Trafficking through social media is also a problem in areas of the world where messages about internet safety aren’t as common. Indonesia is one of the world’s top Facebook users with 50 million people signed up to the site – and its capital Jakarta is the most active Twitter city in the world according to social media company Semiocast. But according to this article investigating trafficking through social media, people in Indonesia are unaware of the dangers of posting personal information online. Teenagers often post personal photos, addresses and phone numbers online, leaving themselves more open to those who want to exploit them.
Social media in the fight against human trafficking
Crowdsourcing for immediate action
One very direct case of using the internet’s people power to stop trafficking happened in 2010, when a US man named Dan Reetz posted ‘Help me help my friend in D.C’.
The post appealed for information about a former student of his, a Russian woman who was travelling with a female friend. The women had answered an advert that promised legitimate work in Washington, D.C. But when they arrived in the US their contact changed the details – and now told them to travel to New York City, with promises of hostess work at a lounge. Dan Reetz suspected his friend was being trafficked.
Within a few minutes of the post people were offering information and support – they called human trafficking hotlines and the Russian embassy in Washington, researched the lounge where the women were promised work and offered places to stay for the women. Finally someone who saw the post went to meet the women at the bus depot in New York and was able to convince them not to meet their suspicious contact.
Infiltrating Facebook groups
One group in Madagascar is taking on the responsibility for raising awareness. The Zà Association [link] found that the messages about traffickers’ use of social media were not being heard by a wide enough audience in Madagascar. So they took it upon themselves to ‘infiltrate’ 250 Malagasy Facebook groups and distribute messages of awareness about human trafficking.
Campaigning and raising awareness
At STOP THE TRAFFIK we aim to raise awareness about the nature of trafficking so people can safeguard themselves and others from trafficking – and the internet is one of the best ways to get the message out there.
Our Make Fashion Traffik-Free and Traffik-Free Chocolate campaigns have used social media to bring together thousands of people willing to use their consumer power to pressure big companies to stamp out human trafficking in their supply chains. From flooding big companies with tweets, to signing online petitions, to sharing awareness-raising videos and images with their friends, social media has empowered thousands of our supporters to make a difference.
Though the connectedness provided by the internet and social media gives traffickers more ways to reach vulnerable people it also gives more ways to work together to prevent human trafficking. Trafficking is a global crime, and using the internet and social media gives us the opportunity to join together across our global community to stop it.