Scranton, Pa

Woman Makes Up Human Trafficking Story: How Misinformation Exacerbates The Human Trafficking Problem

Posted: May 2, 2022

On March 31, 2022, a woman shared on Facebook that her sister was allegedly approached by human traffickers in a Target parking lot in Swatara Township, Pennsylvania. According to the woman, she wanted to warn others—particularly women—that human trafficking was happening in the Harrisburg area.

Swatara Township police officers immediately began investigating the woman’s claim. Once officers spoke with the woman, she admitted that the incident never happened. According to police, there was no evidence of a human trafficking incident.

Misinformation, false narratives, and misleading information about human trafficking is a pervasive issue on social media. This issue became especially visible in 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when conspiracy theorists took advance of the panic and anxiety people had over being isolated during the stay-at-home orders. Conspiracy theorist group QAnon used hashtags such as “Saveourchildren” or “Savethechildren” to spread misconceptions about sex trafficking and cause mass hysteria across the internet. For example, the group posted exaggerated claims that political leaders and celebrities were involved in a human trafficking ring. QAnon’s extravagant descriptions of sex trafficking, such as Hillary Clinton eating a baby encouraged many to join the “fight” against human trafficking by sharing and posting these myths and misconceptions online. Any effort to end human trafficking that is grounded in false information undermines and ignores the realities of victims’ experiences and exacerbates dangers of this global problem. Additionally, when people spread misinformation about human trafficking, those who are victimized in the sex trade may have difficulty obtaining resources. There is also a risk that victims have difficulties self-identifying as victims of human trafficking.

By identifying and debunking the myths and misconceptions regarding human trafficking, we can redirect efforts to target traffickers and support victims. To combat misinformation circulating the internet, it is imperative to first recognize what posts contain false narratives. The CSE Institute and Rebecca Bender, a survivor-advocate to end human trafficking, collaborated on an online myth-busting campaign to debunk the myths and offer the truths about human trafficking. Bender has also developed and offered a free e-course for individuals interested in learning more about trafficking myths and truths. The #TraffickingTruths e-course dispels common myths, such as “No One I Know Would Buy Sex” and “Trafficking Only Happens Overseas.” Additionally, the e-course has experts help individuals identify misinformation on the internet and offers solutions to reduce trafficking myths online.

When it comes to information on social media, like the woman who falsely claimed on Facebook that her sister was approached by human traffickers, users should read skeptically and validate sources before “sharing.” If a source appears to contain false or misleading information, users should “flag” and “report” it. This is the easiest way to slow the spread of myths. WorldWE, anti-trafficking organization, has also offered statistics and resources about how to identify human trafficking on the internet. Another organization combatting trafficking, Polaris Project, has also offered guidance to systems and industries to prevent and disrupt human trafficking activities taking place on online platforms.

If everyone does their part to identify and debunk human trafficking myths, then individuals, professionals, and victims alike are less likely to view misinformation online. Additionally. professionals and experts would spend less time addressing false information and can focus on supporting victims. allocating resources and attention towards combatting the problem itself.

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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