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Examining The Role Of Social Media In Human Trafficking

What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking, often referred to as modern slavery, is a pervasive global issue, affecting an estimated 50 million individuals. It encompasses a range of definitions, all of which include elements of force, control, and exploitation. This malevolent phenomenon encompasses a spectrum of different forms of control and exploitation, including but not limited to organ harvesting, forced marriage, sexual exploitation, and forced labor. In the UK, the primary issues revolve around sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and forced labor on farms, shops, beauty parlors, etc. 

The extent of this human tragedy remains elusive, exacerbated by an increase in online usage, which fosters anonymity. In the UK alone, it is estimated that over 130,000 people are enslaved (1). However, in 2021, only a fraction of these individuals—12,000—were referred to the authorities. In 2015, the UK government responded to this crisis by introducing the Modern Slavery Act in an attempt to end modern slavery and consolidating existing modern slavery laws, encompassing all forms of exploitation, including human trafficking.

The Role Social Media Plays in Human Trafficking

The rise of social media and other online platforms has not only facilitated the coordination of victims but has also enabled traffickers to lure individuals in with false promises of a better future without physical contact. Traffickers leverage the internet to manipulate victims, exploiting their vulnerabilities through tactics such as webcam surveillance and controlling them via their mobile devices.

The role social media plays in human trafficking has gained a disconcerting dimension in the digital age, characterized by the internet’s ubiquity and social media’s prevalence, as it creates a space where victims can become entrapped without physical contact with their captors. The rise of social media and other online platforms has facilitated the coordination of victims and enabled predators to lure victims in through false promises of a better future without the need for face-to-face interactions. Predators use the internet to control victims, exploiting their vulnerabilities by using webcam surveillance and controlling them through their mobile phones.

In the realm of sex trafficking, the internet morphs into a vast digital hunting ground to find potential victims. The internet facilitates sexual exploitation, allowing it to take place on a larger scale than ever before. Traffickers use the platforms to advertise deceptive job offers, as well as using livestreams and webcams to reduce the need to transport victims to other places. Different online platforms have been used in many different aspects of sex trafficking, from the promotion of victims to online banking and crypto currency, allowing traffickers to transfer money within their group with ease. In one report, a single trafficker was able to exploit one victim to over 100 sex buyers with the use of online promotion (2). Online child sexual abuse proves a large issue, with an estimated 750,000 people looking for children to connect with online at any one time. Furthermore, the UK is the 3rd largest consumer of online child pornography, and the Internet Watch Foundation (a UK charity aiming to remove online child sex abuse) found 132,730 sexual images and videos of children online in 2019 (3). 

Social media can be used to attract victims, with perpetrators often targeting individuals for sexual exploitation through direct messaging platforms and establishing romantic relationships with their victims. They create the sense that they are there for the victim, being 'their shoulder to cry on,’ before enslaving them into their sex trafficking rings. Criminals who engage in human trafficking often post false job advertisements and travel opportunities online to lure unsuspecting individuals into forced labor situations. They may also offer friendship to potential victims as a way to gain their trust (4).

Thanks to the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, large businesses that operate in the UK are required to submit a report on how they address the issue of modern slavery. As a result, the statement set forth by parent company Facebook, Inc. (now known as Meta Platforms, Inc.) outlines their methods to comply with anti-modern slavery laws that apply to all their platforms (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp) (5). This article focuses on the company’s efforts to end modern slavery within their own workforce but also mentions their efforts to stop modern slavery’s use of their social networks. Facebook has worked with over 20 organizations in an attempt to create stronger policies to prohibit the use of their platforms to exploit others. The social media giant aims to actively remove content as well as increase its investments in preventing human exploitation at all stages.

On a more positive note, social media and the internet in general can also be used to help prevent modern slavery, such as through efforts to raise awareness through online campaigns so that potential victims can spot the signs that a person may be attempting to recruit someone into slavery. Charities such as Stop the Traffik have run online campaigns that geo-target those in vulnerable communities, raising awareness of modern slavery (6). Online campaigns such as these help to prevent modern slavery by raising awareness among those who are vulnerable. 

Harnessing the Benefits of AI-Based Solutions

Recently, with the increase in new technologies, AI has become a valuable tool for all industries. The Data Challenge is a yearly competition that seeks the potential for new projects to help communities. 2023’s winner is Project Heyrick, whose use of AI aims to seek out potential issues and prevent victims from getting caught in modern slavery (7). The goal is to identify the estimated 135,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. Using these technological advancements, they have been able to identify potential risk areas and companies, working with the police to stop this crime. The use of AI to combat modern slavery is likely to be able to save a lot of lives, as it works quicker and more effectively than previous technology. 

The Double-edged Effects of Social Media

Social media serves as a double-edged sword in the context of victims of modern slavery, acting as both a catalyst for exploitation and a sanctuary for survivors to share their stories and shed light on the dangers lurking online that ensnare new, unsuspecting individuals every day. Walk Free’s article delves into the intersection of modern slavery and social media, highlighting the dual nature of social media as a tool for both positive and negative purposes (8). The narrative recounts the experience of a survivor who found liberation from modern slavery with the aid of Facebook, facilitating her access to crucial support and ultimately garnering assistance from an international organization through Facebook’s platform. Both Facebook and TikTok have been used by victims to share their stories and promote awareness. 

Modern Slavery and Business Responsibility

During the 2017 G20 Summit, all participating countries signed an agreement stating that businesses are responsible for ensuring that they do not enable modern slavery to take place within their production lines. This is a helpful step towards eradicating modern slavery and forced labor across the world.

In summary, modern slavery can be both enabled and prevented through social media. There are ways in which technology can be used to control the victims of modern slavery; however, new technologies can also be used to prevent more people from becoming trapped in modern slavery. There are an increasing number of policies being created to help stop modern slavery, but it is still a large issue that needs to be tackled. 

Reference List 

(1) Anti-Slavery:Slavery in the Uk

(2) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime:Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2020: Traffickers Use of the Internet

(3) Shiva Foundation:Technology and Human Trafficking: Does technology need to be canceled?

(4) York Centre for Applied Human Rights (October 2023):Response to the call for input by issued by the. UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. Submitted by the York Centre for Applied Human Rights.

(5) Facebook's Anti-Slavery and Human Trafficking Statement

(6) Stop theTraffik:Awareness Campaigns

(7) Civil Service Data Challenge finalists:Project Heyrick

(8) Walk Free: Anti-Social: Modern Slavery On Social Media


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