The global market for illegal drugs brings in more than $600 billion a year to its dealers, while some 21 million people worldwide are presently victims of trafficking for sex and labor. All three of these illegal markets are expanding by means of clever exploitation of social media.
The majority of online recruitment in active sex trafficking cases last year took place on Facebook, according to the Human Trafficking Institute. Perpetrators took advantage of the platform, using strategies like fake identities or phony job listings to identify and recruit vulnerable users.
“Human traffickers will go after communities that are vulnerable and have real needs,” said Anjana Rajan, Chief Technology Officer of Polaris, a nonprofit that works to combat and prevent sex and labor trafficking in North America.
Those needs are heightened in users who are suffering from traumas, addictions or poverty, she said.
“They’ll pinpoint what those needs are, and pretend to give it to them, whether it’s a job or an apartment, a sense of love or a sense of belonging,” Rajan said.
With COVID-19 driving worldwide economic financial instability and many people confined to their homes, internet usage increased. During the first six months of the pandemic, Facebook saw a significant spike in users, revenue and stock price. Researchers at Polaris observed simultaneous increases in both the labor and sex trafficking markets.
Meanwhile, access to drugs has become simpler than ever with online sales. In a 2019 survey of young people age 16-24 conducted on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat by Volteface, a U.K. based advocacy organization that specializes in drug advocacy and research, 24% of respondents reported seeing illicit drugs for sale on social media, including (in order of prevalence), cannabis, cocaine, MDMA/Ecstasy, and Xanax.
Katya Kowalski, head of strategy for Volteface, told Newsweek that social media has become an increasingly popular medium to reach young people and sell them narcotics.
“Drug dealers will often use specific emojis to mean certain things,” she said. “They will write out a message rather than typing it out, or post a picture of something that’s written out so the algorithm doesn’t pick it up.”
The network-based incentives of Facebook applications push users to connect with mutual friends. Without proper oversight, this allows drug dealers to conveniently find interested customers. It also exposes people unknowingly to dangerous social networks.
With a friendly interface, direct messaging capabilities, and an extremely powerful networking effect, dealers and organizations have taken to platforms like Facebook and Instagram to quickly and conveniently expand their clientele.
“It allows drug dealing to take on a more professional look, and professionalize that network through legitimate business features like selling items and creating a brand identity,” Kowalski said.
This ability to personalize and form “virtual trust” is a powerful tool, providing a significant level of access and familiarity. These tools are similarly leveraged by those involved in the trafficking of sex or labor.
Facebook reaches nearly one-third of the world’s population, millions of whom are young people. The possibilities for exploitation are virtually limitless, and Facebook has struggled to consistently protect users’ security.
Unfortunately, these measures have had varying levels of success. With a limited capacity to monitor its rapidly growing user base, potentially harmful content is not always identified and removed.
While some might see this as a personal issue, mental health epidemics create vulnerable communities that are more easily exploited, Rajan said.
If the feelings of insecurity and loneliness that Instagram is creating are amplifying that vulnerability, then that is a problem,” she said. “That means that you’re now creating a vulnerability that could be exploited by a trafficker.”
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