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Combating human trafficking on social media

Human traffickers are using social media platforms to sell domestic slaves, and their creators must find solutions to stop it.

Slavery was officially abolished worldwide in 1981 after Mauritania became the final nation to prosecute slaveholders and human traffickers. But despite federal legislation on a global scale, human trafficking is still prolific in certain countries and operations are growing increasingly sophisticated. Today, these shady industries have hijacked the business models and commercial opportunities available on social media platforms.

Over the last few decades the internet has blurred the once clear line between the social and commercial worlds, and today they’re one and the same. People can go from surfing their newsfeeds and chatting to friends, to shopping through user tailored ads in a matter of short clicks. And these same principles now apply to nefarious and unlawful networks. It comes down to supply and demand. As long as people are searching for and participating in sex and labour trafficking, it will continue to appear on the number one source for expanding businesses: the internet.

It may shock you to learn that the same social networks we sink hours into on a daily basis are some of the most bustling hubs for human trafficking. In the noughties, victims of trafficking were largely tricked into joining rackets through mock job-advertisements on Craigslist and MySpace, while voluntary individuals in the sex industry could be recruited into schemes under a trafficker’s control on – a notorious website intrinsically designed for concealing and spreading all types of illegal content.

Today, the options for traffickers have only extended. From January 2015 through December 2017 there were 845 recorded cases of human trafficking, including 250 victims found on Facebook, 120 on dating apps like Tinder and Grindr, 78 on Instagram, and almost 500 on online chatrooms or hidden forums. The BBC has reported that majority of the trade’s recent ‘big business’ has been carried out on Instagram, where trafficking posts are promoted via algorithm-boosted hashtags, while sales are negotiated through direct messages.

Image result for human trafficking social media

On Tuesday (Nov 6th) an undercover squad in Guinea, West Africa, bore witness to the sale of a 16-year-old girl for $3800. The UN Special Reporter on Contemporary Forms of Slavery Urmila Bhoola described the case as ‘the quintessential example of modern slavery’, and demanded that tech companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Instagram be held accountable for hosting content ‘promoting an online slave market’.

In response to the criticism, a spokesperson for Insta announced that it ‘removed content across Facebook and Instagram’ and claimed it would continue to ‘prevent the creation of new accounts designed to be used for the online slave market’. Truthfully, this is little more than press fodder to those witnessing the continued prevalence of human trafficking facilitated by social media on a day-to-day basis.

A quick look at the Apple Store description reveals the company’s proclamation that Apple themselves are responsible for everything put on their store, but what does that responsibility actually mean? Idly standing by and waiting for individual reports from victims of human trafficking clearly isn’t good enough, and more preventative measures must be actioned to tackle the issue at source.

The Polaris Project, a non-governmental organisation that works to combat modern-day slavery, has devised a number of innovative ideas that could be actioned by big social media platforms to isolate dangerous individuals while providing would-be victims with the most accessible and discreet means of reporting their captivity.

There’s a strong feeling among the community of survivors and their families that social media platforms should conduct proactive identity and risk checks against national sex offender registries, banned labour recruiters, human trafficking convictions, online buyer boards, and business complaint sites to snuff out big offenders before they act. These basic identity checks could be coupled with algorithms to flag older users who have tendencies to befriend, request to follow, or send messages to underage/young strangers.

After researching the topic my personal feeling is that emphasis should be pitted on developing existing technology behind social platforms to alert authorities to the typical behaviours of human traffickers. For example, Facebook and Insta already has sophisticated AI systems to detect language related to self-harm and suicide, and these same programs could be used to scan for the use of common words, miscellaneous terms (of which there are many), and general hallmarks associated with trafficking.

In short, the people responsible for platforms intended to encourage creativity and self-expression simply cannot rest on their laurels whilst their creations are destroying people’s lives. The human trafficking trade is still prominent in the underbelly of society and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. But the tech companies responsible for the facilitation of these modern businesses are the only people who can snuff it out at its source.

If you’re interested in reading more of The Polaris Project’s recommendations, click here for the full programme.