Human Trafficking and Social Media

The internet has dramatically reshaped how we buy and sell everything –  including each other. Social media has been used by traffickers to recruit victims, to proliferate their trafficking operations, and to control victims through restricting their social media access, impersonating the victim, or spreading lies and rumors online. However, survivors are embracing social media as a way to reach out for help or to build a support network that allows them to engage with each other, build a community, and work as survivor leaders.

Social Media in Recruitment

Online recruitment has existed for as long as there has been widespread access to internet platforms. The National Human Trafficking Hotline has recorded recruitment in all types of sex and labor trafficking on social media platforms including, but not limited to, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Kik, Meetme.com, WhatsApp, and dating sites/apps like Tinder, Grindr, and Plenty of Fish. Traffickers may build an intimate relationship with a victim through social media or advertise fake or deceptive job opportunities. Recruiters of traveling sales crews even post brazen photos of daily cash profits to entice potential victims and agricultural labor recruiters may advertise for U.S. visa contracts via social media.

 

Social Media in Trafficking Operations & Abuse

In 2018, Congress enacted legislation that allowed for civil and criminal prosecution of online marketplaces that knowingly participate in sex trafficking, thus many websites shut down. The sale of sex using apps and social media like Instagram and Facebook is less blatant than on traditional commercial sex websites, but due to the new legislation it is an expanding concern that must be addressed. Traffickers use social media against victims when they isolate them from their support systems by restricting or heavily monitoring social media use. Traffickers also use social media to impersonate victims, spread damaging rumors, distribute intimate images, or stalk a victim’s account activity even after they have left the trafficker.

Social Media for Victims & Survivors

Social media has been on the forefront of identifying victims through photo detection tools like PhotoDNA by Microsoft. But beyond identification, many victims are actively using social media platforms during their exploitation to stay connected to family and friends. Victims also use social media features like geolocation services and private or disappearing messages to safely plan their escapes. Once out, survivors leverage the power of social media to, sometimes for the first time, build connections with other survivors, speak out and share their story, access resources, and engage in survivor leadership on their paths to healing and recovery.

Social Media Recommendations

This report has developed recommendations for social media companies to help identify human trafficking and disrupt trafficking operations and traffickers’ control over victims. The report also discusses how social media companies can fully engage and work with survivors of trafficking to improve safety and access to help on the platforms. Some of the recommendations include developing innovative safety features and high tech solutions to offer assistance for individuals at risk and using targeted ads for anti-trafficking organizations. It is important that social media companies collaborate and consult with trafficking survivors and NGO professionals when developing protocols, policies, or rolling out new features or products.