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Misinformation Going Viral: Myths and Misconceptions about Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation on TikTok

Posted: July 29, 2022

In the age of social media, there is often rampant sharing, posting, and reposting of online content. Specifically, human trafficking and sexual exploitation are often misunderstood issues that are propagated and sensationalized, especially across social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. One video that catches an individual’s attention can be automatically shared with others, reaching millions of other users in the blink of an eye, regardless of whether it is true or not. While media attention can be a helpful tool in the fight against commercial sexual exploitation, awareness is only effective if it is accurate.

Many viral TikTok videos have gained popularity by claiming to tell viewers how they can “protect themselves from sex trafficking” or “make themselves less of a target for sex traffickers.” However, many of the “prevention tips” used in these videos do not come from credible sources. Credible sources are those that are unbiased and support their information with statistics, studies, and research.

Popular videos are often recreated by other users, creating viral trends. These trends circulate rapidly, regardless of their accuracy. For example, in March 2022, a video went viral of a girl claiming that a wrong number text message received by many people was linked to human trafficking and allowed traffickers to track the phone number of anyone who responded to the message. In reality, the text message was not at all connected to human trafficking, but likely a part of a “phishing scam” that targets a user’s password and data. However, the video had already been shared over one hundred thousand times and recreated by countless other users. Millions of users have viewed, shared, and commented on these videos and others like it. This is especially concerning due to the young demographic  that is often the most active on these platforms.

The CSE Institute encourages individuals to look critically at information anywhere on the internet, but especially on social media platforms. Social media users should do their own research, rather than blindly share information that is potentially inaccurate. Look at the creator of the content to determine if it is an individual or organization that has any legitimate knowledge of or background in human trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation. A few great starting places for anyone interested in doing their own research into sexual exploitation include: Polaris Project, Equal Not Exploited, and World Without Exploitation.

Ultimately, we can all learn the most from listening to survivors. Those who have lived through human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation are the true experts, and change comes from listening to their stories and experiences. Taking these steps helps ensure that videos and social media content that are circulated across the internet are both accurate and effective in addressing commercial sexual exploitation.

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.

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