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What role does social media play in human trafficking?

The Dark Side of Social Media

While social media’s intended purpose may have been to foster the connection between people and businesses, to share ideas, images, interests, and information, the harsh reality is that it has also changed the way in which everything is bought, sold, and advertised, including humans.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are over 25 million victims trapped in modern-day slavery today. 16 Million of these individuals are exploited for labour, around 5 million for sex work, and around 4 million are trapped in state-imposed forced labour. Unsurprisingly, this industry is estimated to make up $150 billion on an annual basis, which makes it the third largest global crime.

Like any business, human trafficking organisations have adapted and evolved with social and digital media development. Human traffickers have leveraged the reach and advertising capabilities that come with social media use in order to reach a larger audience of potential victims. In a 2018 report by Thorn, figures indicate that 45% of individuals who were trafficked met their trafficker in person, and the other 55% met their trafficker online.

It is also important to note that the average age of victims was 15 years old, with one in six being under the age of 12. This is of major concern, given that a report by Cleveland Health reported that 50% of children aged 10-12 are already active on social media, and 33% of children aged 7 to 9 years old are already active online.

How do human traffickers lure their victims?

Human traffickers use a multitude of different tactics to attract and deceive their victims. Some of these include;

Online Relationship Recruitment

Somewhat similar to catfishing, traffickers will often capitalize on social media’s anonymity through the use of fake profiles to build relationships, rapport and a false sense of trust. After this is established, traffickers will often fake a romantic interest in the victim, which more often than not leads to the trafficker eventually purchasing a travel ticket for the victim so that they can meet in person. Traffickers have also been known to make use of applications which share the location of their victims such as Tinder, Grindr and 

Fake Job Recruitment

In countries where unemployment rates are high, this is an opportunity for mass exploitation. Desperate job seekers are lured by illegitimate job opportunities, which are carefully curated and highly targeted through social media filters.

Some traffickers will even reach out to individuals directly through their profiles on platforms such as Instagram or Facebook, claiming to be recruiters for a modelling agency or a representative from a reputable company seeking new employees.

Red flags to be conscious of when a job offer presents itself through social media include;

  • The promise of an above-average salary
  • The promise of immigratory benefits
  • The lack of qualifications or experience
  • The promise of benefits that seem too good to be true
  • A vague or misleading job description

Of course, some of these things can be found in legitimate job descriptions, however, it is important for social media users to be cautious when engaging with offers that seem too good to be true. These are only some of the ways in which traffickers are luring their victims. It is important to stay vigilant online and educate those closest to you.

When it comes to specific platforms where the recruitment is taking place – it is important to note that 65% of all children’s sex trafficking cases in the year 2020 occurred on Facebook, closely followed by Instagram and Snapchat. For adult victims, the most common platforms were WeChat and Instagram. Due to the fact that the majority of trafficking cases are targeted at minors, we have included psome points which can help parents protect their kids when they inevitably join the world of social and digital media.

It is important to note that the average age of victims was 15 years old, with one in six being under the age of 12.

What can parents do to protect their children online?

  1. Educate yourself, and then your child.

The first step required in order to protect your children is for you to understand the digital landscape yourself. This means learning about the full ins and outs of social media. We recommend learning about privacy settings and how to use them effectively, how to create and keep strong passwords safe, what to post and what not to post to avoid putting your identity at risk, and finally how to behave and treat others on these platforms to avoid bringing your future self into a sticky situation.

  1. Communication

This is possibly the most important step in the process because, without it, the rest of your efforts become futile. One needs to cultivate an open, honest and clear channel of communication between you and your child. This will create room for discussions about the rest of the issues, as well as provide a safe space for your child to reach out to you for assistance or advice when they need it.

  1. Be “Friends”

We recommend “friending” and “following” your children on social media. This provides a realistic insight into their social media behaviour. Make sure that you don’t overstep and cause embarrassment for your child by commenting on all their posts as this will most likely result in a backfire whereby they block you from viewing their profiles.

  1. Privacy Settings

Ensure that you have a thorough understanding of the different privacy settings on the different platforms. This is essential as it allows you to prevent their profiles from showing publicly. Make sure to check these settings as often as possible to ensure that they are up-to-date and remain unchanged. We recommend showing your children how they work and having a serious discussion about the importance of this.

  1. Lead By Example

If you’re “friends” or “following” your children on social media, you need to remember that they will instinctively look to you for guidance on how to conduct yourself online. Make sure that you refrain from oversharing and remember to make use of proper social media etiquette.

  1. Social Age Limits

Each social media platform has set age restrictions, be sure to abide by these as they are in place for a reason. The real reason is in fact not to protect children from using social media too young, but rather because these tech giants are actually legally only allowed to actively mine data on individuals older than a certain age. Regardless, we believe that children should only begin using social media at an age when they can take conscious responsibility for their actions.

  1. Rules & Guidelines

Set up fair and clear boundaries with your children. They will need to make use of these platforms at some point in their lives, so rather you guide them and make sure they do so in a safe manner than have it done behind your back. Create usage rules with your children – examples include not using cellphones during mealtimes, or not using screens for the hour before bed.

While the digital age has brought about life-changing technology and opportunity, there are and will always be those who seek to take advantage of the advances for criminal pursuits. The harsh truth is that we cannot trust the social media giants to protect users either, and therefore need to take preventative action ourselves. This begins with education and awareness.

Share this post, and let’s make the internet a safer place for all.