Internet can both spread misinformation about and engage in sex trafficking.
ASU's Samantha Calvin says volunteering is best way to help sex abuse victims.
August 18, 2020

ASU instructor adds new course module to address spread of misinformation about sex trafficking online

In 2017, Samantha Calvin created a first-of-its-kind course for Arizona State University’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation. HCR 394: Fundamentals of Human Trafficking set out to teach present and future health care workers how to identify and speak up for victims of sex trafficking.

A lot has changed in just a few short years, not least of which the sudden viral proliferation in trafficking conspiracy theories spreading on the internet. In July, the National Human Trafficking Hotline found itself overwhelmed with reports after rumors began spreading online that the home-goods company Wayfair was actually a front for child sex trafficking.

That report has been debunked, but the repercussions are still reverberating in the lives of those whom the very real issue has touched. In response, Calvin has added a new module to her course, specifically to address the spread of misinformation online.

“I think that it's good for individuals to be able to identify conspiracy theories and fake news in all areas, but especially with regard to trafficking,” Calvin said. “But honestly, more impactfully, after taking this course, students are going to be able to educate their personal networks of friends and family about the issue, too.”

ASU Now asked Calvin to share some of what she has learned about the subject over several years working as a researcher and a mentor for sex trafficking survivors.

headshot of ASU Edson College of Nursing Instructor Samanthat Calvin

Samantha Calvin

Question: When did you notice that conspiracy theories about sex trafficking were gaining traction online, and how has the pandemic exacerbated it?

Answer: People have glommed onto conspiracy theories forever. But lately trafficking conspiracy theories have really started picking up, and the internet is allowing them to spread even faster. Initially, we had a spike in 2016, right around the presidential election with the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. That gained a lot of momentum and then it kind of died off, and then it picked back up again. The Jeffrey EpsteinJeffrey Epstein was an American financier and convicted sex offender. He was arrested in July of 2019 on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking. case also sparked an increase in these kind of conspiracy theories. But I would say I’ve seen the biggest increase — not only in a resurgence of ones from the past, but in the rise of new ones like the Wayfair conspiracy theory — over the last couple of months since the pandemic started. People are spending a lot more time online now, and unfortunately, a lot of it seems like an attempt to use human trafficking as a deflection from the pandemic, but also other issues like Black Lives Matter. And that, to me, does a disservice to both human trafficking as an issue, and to the pandemic and to Black Lives Matter.

Q: How is it harmful when people spread misinformation about sex trafficking or make false reports?

A: I usually tell my students, if you've learned the signs of trafficking and you see something at the 7-Eleven down the street that looks a little off to you, it's OK to report it to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, even if it ends up not being human trafficking, because they’ll be able to determine that. But now, with what we're seeing with things like the Wayfair conspiracy theory in particular, is that so many people — who are probably not very well-informed about the signs of trafficking, and even less so of how to spot it online — are calling into the hotline and overwhelming them, and that delays them being able to get victims the help they need. The other thing is, for someone who's a survivor of trafficking and sees these conspiracy theories spreading and incorrect statements being made about what it looks like to be a victim, I think that does a huge disservice to them and their experience, which may look totally different.

Q: What are some guidelines for being able to tell what's real and what's fake when it comes to reports of sex trafficking being shared online?

A: This is really part of a much bigger conversation in terms of, how do we educate people about how to identify just fake news in general? And I think people can have good intentions with trying to share information about missing children and trafficking online, but too often they quickly share things they see without really considering the source. It seems simple: Don't share things without thinking them through. Look at who actually created it. Does it serve a political interest? Is it too simplistic? Human trafficking is super complicated, so if you're boiling it down to something that's super simple, it's probably not correct. For example, I keep seeing this graphic of human trafficking cases being shared, and it looks kind of like a heat map of the United States, showing where it’s allegedly most prevalent. The problem with that is if you take that map and overlay it with a map showing Domino's pizza locations, it will probably look the same, because what it really reflects is population density. So just using deeper critical thinking skills around some of these things that are being shared and considering who's sharing them and why they're sharing them is extremely important. And if you’re going to share, stick to only sharing things from trustworthy organizations, like Polaris and the National Human Trafficking Hotline, who've been doing this work for a long time.

Q: We know that the internet can be used to spread misinformation about sex trafficking — either intentionally or unintentionally. Unfortunately, it can also be used by traffickers themselves. How are they using it and for what purposes?

A: The internet is probably the best thing ever invented for trafficking. There was a detective who spoke to my class one time, and he said that in today's society, it's safer to drop your kid off in the middle of a public park at night than it is to leave them in their bedroom alone with their phone. There are traffickers who exclusively use Instagram, a very public platform, not just to sell victims but to recruit them. They'll send like a hundred messages a day to different people, which is easy to do on Instagram, that say, ‘Hey, I think you're really beautiful, I want to go on a date, let's meet up.’ And even if 98% of the people don't respond because they know that it's a scam, one or two people who maybe need that self-esteem boost, that reassurance, will respond.

I met a woman on a plane once who told me a story about her 15-year-old daughter. They lived in rural South Dakota, and this guy started talking to her daughter on Facebook. They talked for about a year and he built this relationship with her, and when she was 16, he convinced her to drive out to California so that they could meet, but told her not to tell her mom or anyone else because they wouldn’t approve. So she agreed and she drove out to California and got into what turned out to be a tough situation. But this guy had spent a year online pursuing this relationship because there's so much profit to be made just from one person that they will spend that kind of time to do it. They also use Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook, OkCupid, Bumble, Tinder, you name it. All of those platforms serve them very well, and it's easy to communicate quickly and efficiently with people who are looking for that confidence boost or that attention. And a lot of it happens in very plain sight. Backpage, which had a lot of trafficking incidents, has been shut down for about two years. But as soon as Backpage shut down, there were a hundred other sites that came in to replace it. Even on very public social media platforms, there are things like hashtags used in the trafficking world that indicate sex for sale. Victims also have profiles where they are actively posting and recruiting people for “dates.”

Q: What should you do if you think you’ve identified a legitimate case of sex trafficking online?

A: You can certainly screenshot it and report it to the hotline or to Instagram, or whatever site you see it on. But in some cases, that does more harm than good on the side of the victim. So if you find what appears to be a profile of a trafficker, you can report their profile. But if you report the profile of someone you think is a victim, they could get have their profile taken down, which could result in a loss of income and punishment from their trafficker.

So if you’re really looking for ways to help, there's often a nonprofit or some kind of organization actually doing something on the ground to help survivors and people going through this. Here in the Valley, there’s the Gender Identity Center, StreeLightUSA and the Phoenix Dream Center. So instead of reporting things you find on the internet or posting something that might not be true and thinking that that's going to do any real good for actual survivors and victims, I would say go volunteer at one of these organizations, because that's not only going to be a better way to use your time and energy to help, but it's going to teach you what it actually looks like in your community. So get off of Facebook or Instagram and seek out a helpful way to be productive.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay