Separating fact from fiction can save victims of trafficking and our democracy

After January 6, 2021, there were many questions that we as a nation needed to ask ourselves. Chief among them: what motivated thousands of ordinary Americans to launch an attack on their own country? Hidden behind the “Auschwitz concentration camp”the sweatshirts they were wearing, the homemade bombs they planted and the gallows they erected, many insurgents asserted that it was human trafficking conspiracy theories who drove them to commit this atrocity.

Misinformation can only spread if it is true enough to be credible and sensational enough to go viral. This is why stories of human trafficking are so easily weaponized – it is very real, widespread and horrifying.

Human trafficking is a $150 billion global criminal industry that exploits 25 million victims for profit worldwide. It is a crime, yes, but it cannot be fully explained in terms of the criminal justice system alone. Fundamentally, human trafficking is what inevitably happens when all other systems designed to uphold human dignity and create fair opportunities break down – when wars break out, when pandemics spread, or when economies put too much money in the hands of too few people. Ultimately, it’s a crime of power.

Victims of trafficking in the United States are disproportionately people of color, women and children, immigrants and members of the LGBTQ+ community. People living in poverty or in foster care and those struggling with addiction, trauma, abuse or unstable housing are also at higher risk of being trafficked. It is these underlying systems that have enabled the transnational organization Patricio to imprison, rape and exploit more than 100 Mexican and Central American farm workers in Waycross, Georgia, and for Robert King, who was convicted for his role in a sex trafficking ring in Danbury, Connecticut, for abuse and manipulate emotionally damaged youth and drug addicts for almost 30 years.

The real work to end human trafficking is very complex. It requires remaking deep-rooted systems and devoting funds to prevention and protection. It also requires providing services – both immediate and long-term – to people who have been trafficked and need help to get back on their personal path.

In this vein, Polaris, a nonpartisan NGO that fights sex and labor trafficking and where I serve as Chief Technology Officer, operates the US National Human Trafficking Hotline under a cooperative agreement with the Department of Health and of Social Services. For more than a decade, we have responded to more than 340,000 signals, identified nearly 74,000 cases and helped over 30,000 victims and survivors. As a result, we have generated the largest human trafficking dataset in North America, allowing us to inform evidence-based policy change.

Anti-trafficking work is also particularly dangerous. As Chief Technology Officer, my job is to protect our organization against a wide range of security threats. Often these threats provide an opportunity for innovation.

In the summer of 2020, QAnon orchestrated the Wayfair conspiracy, accusing the furniture company of selling children to child molesters and shipping them to wardrobes. It had a devastating impact on the real victims and survivors and Crisis helplines clogged with unnecessary well-meaning disinformation calls. We at Polaris feared that this misinformation campaign was a leading indicator of something worse. Malicious actors often use disinformation as a means to achieve a more insidious end goal, such as exploiting political loopholes, undermining trust in democratic institutions, and inciting violent extremism. As the 2020 US presidential election approached, it was likely that these conspiracies could alchemy with other misinformation narratives, so we released a report that proved how disinformation about human trafficking poses a threat to our democracy and national security.

Our data illustrates this magnitude of the phenomenon – 41% of American adults believe that elites, politicians and celebrities are involved in global pedophilia rings. Although this number seems incredibly high, it is not impossible to believe after witnessing Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell and so many other powerful politicians and celebrities exploit vulnerable victims for profit.

More than a year after the insurgency, the syllogism is clear: human trafficking is more present than everthis reality then turns into new conspiracy theoriesthese conspiracies are then militarized by domestic violent extremists until finally, it poses an existential threat to our democracy.

Therefore, if we are to preserve democracy as we know it, one of the many things we must do is end human trafficking. This is an ambitious undertaking and we cannot do it alone; we need the public to move beyond mere awareness of human trafficking and instead gain a deeper understanding of how trafficking actually happens and to whom.

Human trafficking does not happen in a vacuum; it happens when systems meant to protect and support people fail. It happens when communities burdened by long-standing social, political and economic inequalities lack opportunities. It happens when those injustices and broken systems make people vulnerable to exploitation in the first place.

During National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we ask that you join us in going beyond raising awareness about true understanding. The future of the anti-trafficking movement – ​​and our democracy – depends on it.

Anjana rajan is the Chief Technology Officer of Polaris, a national anti-trafficking organization working to end sex and labor trafficking and restore freedom to survivors. Previously, she was a Tech Policy Fellow at the Aspen Institute working to counter domestic violent extremism. Twitter: @Polaris_Project, @anjaninna

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