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Student Blog Series: Impact of Social Media on the Life Cycle of Sex Trafficking

Posted: February 26, 2024

As technology progresses, social media becomes more integral to our daily lives, impacting the way we communicate with one another. We use it to talk with friends and family, to foster new relationships, and even to build business connections. It has completely changed the way we connect with people, making communication amongst individuals from all over the world increasingly accessible. While many have used this change in positive ways, some have taken advantage of this increased connectivity and access, including sex trafficking.

Social media has affected every stage of the sex trafficking process, strengthening the power traffickers can exercise over their victims. Traffickers can use social media to gain a greater understanding of their victims and use that understanding to monopolize on their vulnerabilities more effectively and efficiently. In turn, traffickers reach more potential victims in less time, contributing to the growth of the industry. As certain platforms have expanded access and insight into the lives of individuals, perpetrators are able to constantly observe and monitor their victims through the recruitment stage to successful trafficking and continued control.

While online recruitment has been widespread since the advent of social media, the viable methods have skyrocketed with the rise and prominence of social media use. In fact, in 2020, National Human Trafficking Hotline Data reported a 125% increase in reports of recruitment through Facebook and a 95% increase in reports from Instagram compared to the previous year. Recruitment through social media often begins with initiating contact by liking a person’s photo, commenting on a person’s photos, or directly messaging the person. As people share more on their social media profiles, they unintentionally illustrate specific vulnerabilities through their content, making it is easier for perpetrators to identify those most easily manipulated. Typically, traffickers prey on young teens who display signs of depression, loneliness, insecurity, or vulnerabilities. Traffickers leverage that information using extreme flattery, gifts, financial support, and continuous affirmation of security and care. Some traffickers will recruit victims through “job offer” advertisements for modeling and dancing, while others will contact the potential victim personally, posing as a recruiter or agent. Traffickers will often use these interactions to gain the victim’s trust and create what resembles a trusting relationship. However, this is a tactic called “grooming,” and once the victim has been groomed, traffickers will use this trust to exploit the individual.

This impact of social media extends past the recruiting process and into trafficking operations. Traffickers can use social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook to advertise and exploit their victims. Often traffickers force their victims to advertise themselves on their own social media accounts. These posts often include prices, contact information, and locations, appealing to potential sex buyers. In a Polaris survivor survey, 26% of participants stated that their traffickers advertised them by means of the survivor’s personal social media account. Traffickers may also use these platforms personally to advertise their victim and the services their victims are coerced into providing. In addition to using victims’ social media accounts to promote exploitation, traffickers may also to isolate them and maintain the power dynamic created throughout the entire process. In the Polaris’s survivor survey, 34% of respondents who had accessed social media reported that their trafficker restricted their social media use in some way, while 32% indicated that their traffickers monitored their social media accounts. As traffickers monitor their victims’ social media accounts, they guarantee continuous control over these individuals by limiting contact with outside sources, threatening to expose explicit content, or even posing as them on social media.

This coercion and control does not necessarily end when survivors believe they have escaped their victimization. Through social media, traffickers have the ability to continuously manipulate and control the survivor. Instances have been reported of potential traffickers using social media to stalk and abuse their victims long after they have left the trafficking situation. They may use tagged photos, location services, or friend’s social media accounts to monitor the survivors whereabouts. This allows traffickers to maintain the imbalanced power dynamic that has been created and nurtured throughout the survivors victimization. Consequently, survivors may never feel safe as they remain in fear of future threats and control.

So, what do we do? Increased public awareness can prompt individuals to better monitor their own social media use and halt trafficking threats before recruitment and grooming progress; here are several ways you can spread awareness:

  1. Listen to survivor’s stories: Hearing first-hand accounts of the impact the sex trade can increase awareness for the best ways to help and support sexually exploited persons.
  2. Volunteer: Ask local or national anti-trafficking organizations how you can best support them. The CSE Institute is one of many organizations that conducts research, educates individuals and groups with the skills and knowledge that they need to improve the legal system’s responses to sexual exploitation, and engages with the survivor community. The Institute promotes victim-centered, trauma-informed multidisciplinary collaboration and education and technical assistance to trafficking responders.
  3. Use your voice: Reach out to representatives in your community and ask what they are doing to address these issues.

This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to author Elizabeth Ellick on being chosen!

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University. 

Category: News

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