More Harm Than Good: Online Rumors and the Fight Against Modern-Day Enslavement

October 09, 2020 End Slavery Now Spotlight 
Sex Trafficking, Child Labor, Awareness

Facts, Fears, and Falsehoods

During the self-quarantining that began in March of 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many myths and falsehoods related to human trafficking began making the rounds through social media. Many of these rumors were familiar to people in the anti-trafficking movement: for example, rumors about young people being kidnapped rather than lured into danger by online acquaintances or trusted adults. Some of these rumors, however, were new. For example, in the summer of 2020 the online home décor company Wayfair was rumored to be smuggling children inside of expensive, industrial cabinets. Celebrities such as Tom Hanks and Chrissy Teigen were implicated as members of an elite pedophilia ring that stretched from Hollywood, CA to Washington, DC. COVID-19 itself was dismissed as a way to normalize mask-wearing so that it would be harder to identify trafficking victims. 

While many people have been spreading these rumors with the best of intentions, often with the hastag #saveourchildren, these falsehoods harmed anti-trafficking efforts. Anti-trafficking organizations like Polaris saw their email inboxes become flooded with demands to “investigate” and “arrest” people like Hanks and Teigen, and devoted a great deal of time and energy debunking what amounted to urban legends. Both the old and the new rumors were linked to loose networks of online conspiracy groups such as QAnon, who are infamous for spreading false, poorly researched information. 

Many of us have young people in our lives who we care for deeply, and welcome any opportunity to protect them. Spreading information about a supposedly nefarious organization like Wayfair is an easy and convenient way to convince ourselves that we are “making a difference.” Before hitting “Forward” on that email though, take a minute to think through some of the details of these rumors:

  •  Traffickers rarely kidnap people. Survivors of human trafficking much more often report being victims of fraud, manipulation, and deceit. For example: a teenager is lured with promises of a relationship with someone they met on social media, or a fun modeling job in a nearby city. Or they are victimized by a trusted adult like their parents, a teacher, or a member of the clergy.
  • Children who are trafficked to celebrities are usually trafficked by their parents, who allow them to spend unsupervised time with that celebrity in exchange for fame, money, or leverage.
  • Many of the people who insisted Wayfair was serving as a conduit for child trafficking pointed to the high prices of the industrial cabinets sold on the site as evidence that something suspicious was going on. The fact that these were heavy, metal cabinets intended for commercial use was the real reason they cost thousands of dollars and required expedited shipping. There were no sinister motives.
  • One of the girls who was supposedly trafficked via Wayfair posted an online video asserting that she was fine and that nothing of the sort was happening. 

Human trafficking is a serious problem and protecting vulnerable populations, especially young people, should be any society’s highest priority. However, false information hinders that goal. Always think before you hit “send.”

Topics: Sex Trafficking, Child Labor, Awareness

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